Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ortega y Gasset & Newspapers

Writing in December 1937 from exile in Paris, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset addressed his essay "With Respect to Pacifism" to the English people, in an attempt to explain to that nation how wrong their foreign policy between the wars was. And this affected him personally because of the attitude many Englishmen were adopting towards the civil war raging in Spain at the time. One of the problems that worried Ortega most was that the Englishmen he read and spoke to thought they knew everything they needed to know about Spain from the newspapers, without knowing much about Spanish history:

The quantity of news that one people is constantly receiving about what it is happening with another people is enormous. How will it be easy to persuade an Englishman that he is not informed about the historical phenomenon that is the Spanish Civil War or another similar crisis? He knows that the English newspapers spend huge sums of money to maintain correspondents in all countries. He knows that, even though there are not a few correspondents who carry out their duty in an impassioned and partisan way, there are many others whose impartiality cannot be questioned and whose grace in relating exact facts cannot easily be beat. All this is true, and because it is true, it turns out to be very dangerous.

What's dangerous is the resulting mix of ignorance and influence. Ortega specifically cites Albert Einstein as an example of the type of European intellectual who, while he may be a genius in his own field, feels that he has a right to speak about other fields, even if he possesses none of the necessary background knowledge. How could anyone, even a man as smart as Einstein, dare to judge an event as messy as the Spanish civil war when he knows nothing about Spain's history?

Ortega cites in a footnote one more frightening example of a journalist for The Times of London reporting all the current events up to the minute, but then constructing an entire analysis on the premise that all Spaniards were descended from the Moors!

What Ortega's complaint about newspapers shows is that without a knowledge history one cannot even properly understand the newspaper. The dispassionate study of history is the only thing that can cast the proper light in which to understand current events. The danger of newspapers, then, is that by feeding the masses lots of information about current events, they give them the illusion of understanding those events.

Or, as Nietzsche might have said, without a knowledge of history, all newspapers do is load us down with "indigestible knowledge-stones."

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Goethe & Newspapers

Earlier in Dichtung und Wahrheit Goethe warns of the danger of withdrawing from political life. Goethe’s own life and his own characters show that Goethe wrestled with the question of how to balance the responsibilities of an active life and the need to withdraw into solitude.

Yet, in the fourth part of Dichtung und Wahrheit (published after his death), Goethe recommends reading newspapers as a way for ordinary citizens to become involved in politics, even if they do not hold office. He suggests that newspapers serve two important functions. First, they allow citizens to view current events as one would watch a play at the theater; they can enter into the partisan spirit of events, but “in an innocent way.” For Goethe, newspapers can play a role similar to that of catharsis in Aristotle’s Poetics. Second, reading newspapers helps citizens learn how to make moral judgments, so that they will praise what is good and condemn what is bad.

But, do newspapers really encourage prudence and catharsis? Perhaps they did in Goethe’s day. Reading newspapers was once a much more genteel and leisurely activity than it is now. In the mid-nineteenth century Schopenhauer every day (after playing the flute and walking his poodle) would leave his apartment to stroll to a nearby café to peruse the foreign dailies in order to collect more evidence for his pessimistic worldview. Schopenhauer taking a break while reading the paper projects an image of thought and not mere gossip-mongering.

Today, though, it is much harder to agree with Goethe’s positive assessment of newspapers. In the internet age, it is difficult to appreciate just how influential newspapers became in the decades after his death in 1832. But, back in the day when newspapers competed for readers in every major city in America and Europe, a breaking news story was like a video going viral today; newspapers were the catalyst for mass enthusiasms. Becoming too involved with newspapers, then, would seem to represent exactly the danger that Goethe was warning against earlier in Dichtung und Wahrheit. The partisan spirit would not be innocent, but would lead to rash reactions, and there would be little catharsis but much anxiety from attending to current events. Indeed, newspapers then and today often contain shoddy fact-checking, shallow analysis, and pure sensationalism, which, instead of cleansing the reader’s emotions, make the reader keep returning for updates. Newspapers can inflame the partisan spirit, as Goethe said, but they hardly produce catharsis or prudence. This partisan spirit becomes a passion as base as any other.

To avoid arousing the partisan spirit and to develop an aesthetic experience of politics, the simple solution is to stop reading newspapers so much and to start reading good histories. If writing history is an art, much of the art consists of telling a story about a specific crisis. In English, the word "crisis" can be used to indicate any important moment, usually involving stress for the actors involved. This definition, though, does not fully describe what a crisis is. The original Greek meaning of the word--"judgment"--gives a better idea of how reading history can lead to catharsis. A crisis is an important moment because it gives us the necessary opportunity to pass judgment on the character of a person; how the person deals with this moment in his life reveals more about his character than other moments because life is lived more intensely at certain moments than at others. Witnessing the intensity of a crisis through the eyes of a sympathetic historian can produce catharsis in the reader, who participates in the character's actions. History draws the reader deeper into the action, while news stories are content to leave the reader at a superficial level. And it is the depths of history which can teach us about politics better than any newspaper story.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Of Men, Angels, and the Incarnation

Several years ago, while studying in Rome, I had the opportunity to attend several events with Bl. Pope John Paul II.  On one occasion several large choirs were in attendance, and filled the first quarter or so of the audience hall.  Each of these choirs was just a tad smaller than the block allotted to it.  Somehow the organization Regnum Christi ended up with the tickets to these few extra seats, and one of my classmates, a Regnum Christi member, acquired half a dozen shortly before the audience began.  They were spread out all over the hall, one here, a couple there.  And so I ended up seated, along with another classmate, in the midst of an Italian men's choir singing for the pope.  I am sure that, as a blond American, I stuck out, but at least my black coat more or less blended with the choir's uniforms; my female classmate, with Irish-American red hair, no doubt seemed even more out of place.  Our neighbors, who did not speak more than a word or two of English, were good-natured about our presence and shared their music.  We had a grand time.

I was reminded of that experience when reading the sermon of St. Bernard which I posted a couple weeks ago.  In it he contends:
The angels, we know, sinned through malice, not through ignorance and frailty; wherefore, as they were unwilling to repent, they must of necessity perish, for the love of the Father and the honour of the King demand judgment. For this cause He created men from the beginning, that they might fill those lost places, and repair the ruins of the heavenly Jerusalem.
I find this an arresting notion. If Bernard is correct, we will stand alongside the heavenly hosts as we share the beatific vision.  In the justice of God, we will merit this, of course; He will make sure that we are worthy of our new places, by His grace.  But I cannot help but chuckle, and then tremble, at the idea that I might be placed alongside archangels and cherubim, dropped there as randomly as I arrived in the midst of my Italian choir.  If this is the future that awaits us, by virtue of Christ' incarnation, we indeed have cause to celebrate Christmas!

But is Bernard correct?  This idea of mankind replacing the fallen angels is not one we often hear, in Scripture or in preaching.  I am no theologian, but I know a few, and they confirm that Bernard's suggestion, if not doctrine of the Church, is at least well-attested.

In Book 22 of The City of God, Augustine argues that God willed that
...from this mortal race, deservedly and justly condemned, He would by His grace collect, as now He does, a people so numerous, that He thus fills up and repairs the blank made by the fallen angels, and that thus that beloved and heavenly city is not defrauded of the full number of its citizens.
Is mankind merely a place-holder?  This sounds rather unlike our loving and personal God. Augustine further notes, however, that the heavenly Jerusalem "perhaps may even rejoice in a still more overflowing population."  Thus, humanity both fills the places left by fallen angels, as well as adding to the numbers of the heavenly choirs.

Writing nearly 700 years later, Anselm follows Augustine's thinking.  In Cur Deus Homo, he  contends,
Intelligent nature... was foreseen by [God] in a certain reasonable and complete number....  It was proper that God should design to make up for the number of angels that fell, from human nature which He created without sin.
Like Augustine, Anselm suggests that redeemed humanity may exceed the numbers of the fallen angels, according to the perfect design of God:
If that [perfect] number [of heavenly beings] were not found in all the angels together, then both the loss and the original deficiency must be made up from men, and more men will be chosen than there were fallen angels. And so we shall say that men were made not only to restore the diminished number, but also to complete the imperfect number.
He goes on to explain:
Human nature was either made to consummate this perfection [of the original creation], or... it was superfluous, which we should not dare affirm of the nature of the smallest reptile. Wherefore, then, it was made for itself, and not merely to restore the number of beings possessing another nature. From which it is plain that, even had no angel fallen, men would yet have had their place in the celestial kingdom.
In other words, the choir of heavenly angels, like the Italian choir I encountered so many years ago, is not quite as big as its allotted space, leaving open seats whether the full choir is present or not.

More than a century after Bernard, this idea was again raised by Thomas Aquinas, although he demurs of any concrete knowledge:
Concerning the number of all the predestined, some say that so many men will be saved as angels fell; some, so many as there were angels left; others, as many as the number of angels created by God. It is, however, better to say that, "to God alone is known the number for whom is reserved eternal happiness."
 In any event, the Church clearly teaches that, whatever our precise relationship with them, we shall spend eternity in the company of the angels and saints around the throne of God.  Thus does God become a little Child, that we might share in the everlasting life of God.

Today's image by Gustave Doré of Dante, Beatrice and the Heavenly Host of Angels, from Canto 31 of Paradiso, is brought to you via Artsy Craftsy.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why the Immaculate Conception Is the Patronal Feast of the United States

A very short lesson regarding tomorrow's solemnity.

AMERICA [1792/1846]: Yes, the love of God is that ridiculously superabundant.

CRITICS: No, it's not quite that wildly awesome.

ROME [1854]: Actually, it is.

Monday, November 28, 2011

On the Advent of Our Lord - Part II

Continued from Part I of St. Bernard's sermon.

Behold, you have heard Who He is that comes; consider now whence and to whom He comes. He comes from the heart of God the Father to the womb of a virgin mother; He comes from the highest heaven to this low earth, that we whose conversation is now on earth may have Him for our most desirable companion. For where can it be well with us without Him, and where ill if He be present? "What have I in heaven, and besides Thee what do I desire upon earth? Thou art the God of my heart and the God that is my portion for ever" and "though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil" if only "thou art with me."

But here I see that our Lord descends not only to earth, but even to hell; not as one bound, but as free among the dead; as light that shines in the darkness, "and the darkness did not comprehend it." Wherefore His soul was not left in hell, nor did His holy body on earth see corruption. For Christ "that descended is the same also that ascended... that he might fill all things"; "who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed by the devil." And elsewhere we read, He "hath exalted as a giant to run his way... His going forth is from the highest heavens, and his circuit even to the end thereof." Well might St. Paul cry out: "Seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God." In vain would the Apostle labor to raise our hearts upwards if he did not teach us that the Author of our salvation is sitting in heaven.

But what follows? The matter here is indeed abundant in the extreme; but our limited time does not admit of a lengthened development. By considering Who He is that comes, we see His supreme and ineffable majesty, and by contemplating whence He comes, we behold the great high way clearly laid out to us. The Prophet Isaias says: "Behold, the name of the Lord cometh from afar." By reflecting whither He comes, we see His inestimable and inconceivable condescension in His descending from highest heavens to abide with us in this miserable prison-house. Who can doubt that there was some grand cause powerful enough to move so sovereign a Majesty to come "from afar," and condescend to enter a place so unworthy of Him as this world of ours. The cause was in truth great. It was His immense mercy, His multiplied compassion, His abundant charity.

For what end must we believe that He came? This question is the next in order to be examined; nor will the search demand much labor, for the end and purpose of His coming is proclaimed by His words and His works. To seek after the one sheep of the hundred that had strayed He hastened from the mountains. For our sake He came down from heaven, that His mercies and His wonders might be openly proclaimed to the children of men. O wonderful condescension of God in this search! O wonderful dignity of man who is thus sought ! If he should wish to glory in this dignity, it would not be imputed to him as folly. Not that he need think anything of himself, but let him rejoice that He Who made him should set so high a value on him. For all the riches and glory of the world, all that is desirable therein, is far below this glory nay, can bear no comparison with it. "Lord, what is man that thou should magnify him? and why settest thou thy heart upon him?"

I still further desire to know why He should come to us, and not we rather go to Him, for the need was on our side, and it is not usual for the rich to go to the poor, though otherwise willing to assist them. It was indeed our place to go forward to Him, but there stood a twofold impediment in the way; for our eyes were heavy, and He "dwelt in light inaccessible." We lay as paralytics on our beds, and could not raise ourselves to the Divine elevation. Wherefore this most benign Savior and Physician of souls descended to us from His lofty throne, and tempered His brightness to the weakness of our sight. He clothed Himself with His most glorious and spotless body as with the shade of a lantern, thus attempering to us His splendour. This is that bright and shining cloud upon which the Lord was to descend upon Egypt, as the Prophet Isaiah foretold.

It is now fitting that we should consider the time of our Lord's coming.

He came, as you know, not in the beginning, nor in the midst of time, but in the end of it. This was no unsuitable choice, but a truly wise dispensation of His infinite wisdom, that He might afford help when He saw it was most needed. Truly, "it was evening, and the day was far spent"; the sun of justice had wellnigh set, and but a faint ray of his light and heat remained on earth. The light of Divine knowledge was very small, and as iniquity abounded, the fervor of charity had grown cold. No angel appeared, no prophet spoke. The angelic vision and the prophetic spirit alike had passed away, both hopelessly baffled by the exceeding obduracy and obstinacy of mankind. Then it was that the Son of God said: "Behold, I come." And "while all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, the almighty word leaped down from heaven from thy royal throne." Of this coming the Apostle speaks: "When the fullness of time was come, God sent his Son." The plenitude and affluence of things temporal had brought on the oblivion and penury of things eternal. Fitly, therefore, did the Eternal God come when things of time were reigning supreme. To pass over other points, such was the temporal peace at the birth of Christ that by the edict of one man the whole world was enrolled.

You have now heard Who He is that comes, whence, whither, and to whom He comes; the cause, likewise, and the time of His coming are known to you. One point is yet to be considered namely, the way by which He came. This must be diligently examined, that we may, as is fitting, go forth to meet Him. As He once came visibly in the body to work our salvation in the midst of the earth, so does He come daily invisibly and in spirit to work the salvation of each individual soul; as it is written: "The Spirit before our face, Christ the Lord." And that we might know this spiritual advent to be hidden, it is said: "Under his shadow we shall live among the Gentiles." Wherefore, if the infirm cannot go far to meet this great Physician, it is at least becoming they should endeavor to raise their heads and lift themselves a little to greet their Savior. For this, O man, you are not required to cross the sea, to penetrate the clouds, to scale the mountain-tops. No lofty way is set before you. Turn within thyself to meet thy God, for the Word is nigh in thy mouth and in thy heart. Meet Him by compunction of heart and by confession of mouth, or, at least, go forth from the corruption of a sinful conscience, for it is not becoming that the Author of purity should enter there.

It is delightful to contemplate the manner of His visible coming, for His "ways are beautiful, and all his paths are peace." "Behold," says the Spouse of the Canticles, "he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills." You see Him coming, O beautiful one, but His previous lying down you could not see, for you said: "Shew me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou liest." He lay feeding His angels in His endless eternity with the vision of His glorious, unchanging beauty. But know, O beautiful one, that that vision is become wonderful to thee; it is high, and thou canst not reach it. Nevertheless, behold He hath gone forth from His holy place, and He that had lain feeding His angels hath undertaken to heal us. We shall see Him coming as our food, Whom we were not able to behold while He was feeding His angels in His repose. "Behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills." The mountains and hills we may consider to be the Patriarchs and the Prophets, and we may see His leaping and skipping in the book of His genealogy. "Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob," etc. From the mountains came forth the root of Jesse, as you will find from the Prophet Isaias: "There shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root, and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him." The same prophet speaks yet more plainly: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, which is interpreted, God with us." He Who is first styled a flower is afterwards called Emmanuel, and in the rod is named the virgin. But we must reserve for another day further consideration of this sublime mystery, as there is ample material for another sermon, especially as today's has been rather long.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

On the Advent of Our Lord and Its Six Circumstances

I sometimes get frustrated with our celebration of Advent and Christmas.  Not only do I register the usual complaints about commercialism and how busy we all become, but I would also like to gripe about the fact that Christmas is too often about the music (folksy carols or classical choirs, take your pick), family, gift-giving, and the cuteness of baby Jesus.  All of those things are good, but they pale in comparison to the Incarnation, from which they derive their goodness.  So this year I asked a patristic scholar for some good homilies to read.  Here is the first, broken into two parts, since St. Bernard of Clarivaux himself admits that it is "rather long."

Part I

TO-DAY we celebrate the beginning of Advent.

The name of this great annual commemoration is sufficiently familiar to us ; its meaning may not be so well known.

When the unhappy children of Eve had abandoned the pursuit of things true and salutary, they gave themselves up to the search for those that are fleeting and perishable. To whom shall we liken the men of this generation, or to what shall we compare them, seeing they are unable to tear them selves from earthly and carnal consolations, or disentangle their minds from such trammels? They resemble the shipwrecked who are in danger of being overwhelmed by the waters, and who may be seen catching eagerly at whatever they first grasp, how frail soever it may be. And if anyone strive to rescue them, they are wont to seize and drag him down with them, so that not infrequently the rescuer is involved with them in one common destruction. Thus the children of the world perish miserably while following after transitory things and neglecting those which are solid and enduring, cleaving to which, they might save their souls. Of truth, not of vanity, it is said: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."

Do you, therefore, to whom as to little ones God has revealed things hidden from the wise and prudent, turn your thoughts with earnestness to those that are truly desirable, and diligently meditate on this coming of our Lord. Consider Who He is that comes, whence He comes, to whom He comes, for what end He comes, when He comes, and in what manner He comes. This is undoubtedly a most useful and praiseworthy curiosity, for the Church would not so devoutly celebrate the season of Advent if there were not some great mystery hidden therein.

Wherefore, in the first place, let us with the Apostle consider in astonishment and admiration how great He is Who comes. According to the testimony of Gabriel, He is the Son of the Most High, and consequently a coequal with Him. Nor is it lawful to think that the Son of God is other than coequal with His Father. He is coequal in majesty ; He is coequal in dignity. Who will deny that the sons of princes are princes, and the sons of kings kings?

But how is it that of the Three Persons Whom we believe, and confess, and adore in the Most High Trinity, it was not the Father, nor the Holy Ghost, but the Son that became Man? I imagine this was not without cause. But "who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counsellor?" Not without some most deep counsel of the Blessed Trinity was it decreed that the Son should become Incarnate. If we consider the cause of our exile, we may perchance be able to comprehend in some degree how fitting it was that our deliverance should be chiefly accomplished by the Son.

Lucifer, who rose brightly as the morning star, because he attempted to usurp a similitude with the Most High, and "it was thought robbery in him to equal himself with God," an equality which was the Son's by right, was cast down from heaven and ruined; for the Father was zealous for the glory of the Son, and seemed by this act to say: "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." And instantly "I saw Satan as lightning falling from heaven."

Dust and ashes, why art thou proud? If God spared not pride in His angels, how much less will He tolerate it in thee, innate corruption? Satan had committed no overt act, he had but consented to a thought of pride, yet in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, he was irreparably rejected because, as the Evangelist says, "he stood not in the truth."

Fly pride, my brethren, I most earnestly beseech you. "Pride is the beginning of all sin," and how quickly did it darken and overshadow with eternal obscurity Lucifer, the most bright and beautiful of the heavenly spirits, and, from not only an angel, but the first of angels, transform him into a hideous devil! Wherefore, envying man's happiness, he brought forth in him the evil which he had conceived in himself by persuading man that if he should eat of the forbidden tree he would become as God, having a knowledge of good and evil. Wretch! what dost thou promise, when thou knowest that the Son of God has the key of knowledge yea, and is Himself the "key of David, that shutteth and no man openeth"; that "in him are hidden all the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God"? Wouldst thou, then, wickedly steal them away to give them to men?

You see, my brethren, how true is the sentence of our Lord, "The devil is a liar and the father of lies." He was a liar in saying, "I will be like unto the Most High"; and he was the father of lies when he breathed his spirit of falsity into man. "You will be as gods." And wilt thou, man, "seeing the thief, run with him"? You have heard, my brethren, what has been read this night from Isaiah. The Prophet says to the Lord, "Thy princes are faithless, companions of thieves" or, as another version has it, "disobedient companions of thieves." In truth, Adam and Eve were disobedient companions of thieves, for, by the counsel of the serpent, or, rather, of the devil in the serpent, they tried to seize upon what belonged by birth right to the Son of God. Nor did the Father overlook the injury, for the Father loveth the Son. He immediately took revenge on that same man, and let His hand fall heavily on us all, "for in Adam all have sinned" and in his sentence of condemnation we have shared.

What, then, did the Son do, seeing His Father so zealous for His glory, and for His sake sparing none of His creatures? "Behold," He says, "on My account My Father has ruined His creatures: the first of the angels aspired to My throne of sovereignty, and had followers who believed in him; and instantly My Father's zeal was heavily revenged on him, striking him and all his adherents with an incurable plague, with a dire chastisement. Man, too, attempted to steal from Me the knowledge which belongs to Me alone, and neither doth My Father show him mercy, nor doth His eye spare him. He had made two noble orders sharing His reason, capable of participating in His beatitude, angels and men; but behold, on My account He hath ruined a multitude of His angels and the entire race of men. Therefore, that they may know that I love My Father, He shall receive back through Me what in a certain way He seems to have lost through Me. It is on my account this storm has arisen; take me and cast me into the sea. All are envious of Me; behold I come, and will exhibit Myself to them in such a guise as that whosoever shall wish may become like to Me; whatsoever I shall do they may imitate, so that their envy shall be made good and profitable to them."

The angels, we know, sinned through malice, not through ignorance and frailty; wherefore, as they were unwilling to repent, they must of necessity perish, for the love of the Father and the honour of the King demand judgment. For this cause He created men from the beginning, that they might fill those lost places, and repair the ruins of the heavenly Jerusalem. For He knew "the pride of Moab, that he is exceedingly proud" and that his pride would never seek the remedy of repentance, nor, consequently, of pardon. After man's fall, however, He created no other creature in his place, thus intimating that man should yet be redeemed, and that he who had been supplanted by another's malice might still by another's charity be redeemed.

Be it so, dear Lord, I beseech Thee. Be pleased to deliver me, for I am weak. Like Joseph of old, I was stolen away from my country, and here with out any fault was cast into a dungeon. Yet I am not wholly innocent, but innocent compared with him who seduced me. He deceived me with a lie: let the truth come, that falsehood may be discovered, and that I may know the truth, and that the truth may make me free. But to gain the freedom I must renounce the falsehood when discovered, and adhere to the known truth; otherwise the temptation would not be human, nor the sin a human sin, but diabolical obstinacy. To persevere in evil is the act of the devil, and those who persevere in evil after his example deservedly perish with him.

Part II.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Three Films I'm Looking forward to Seeing

On 9 December John la Carre's 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy comes to the big screen in the US. I recently re-read the novel in preparation. This has got to be one of the most classic spy novels of all time.

(Those reading this post on Facebook, click here to see the trailer.)

Then on 21 December The Adventures of Tintin hits the US. If you are not familiar with these comic books by Hergé, you should be. They are beautifully drawn, with compelling plot lines, often inspired by historical events such as South America's Chaco War, the Japanese invasion of China, and the Anschluss. Sadly, the film draws on some of the non-historical strips, but it should be good fun anyway.

(Facebook users, click here.)

And finally, next spring, opening on 9 March, we have John Carter, a film adaptation of The Princess of Mars (1917), by famed pulp fiction writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (best known for creating Tarzan). I intend to read this one before watching the film.

(Facebookers, click here.)

And if that's not enough cinematic anticipation for you, don't forget that The Hobbit and the Red Dawn remake are coming in 2012, and there are rumors of a District 10.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Goethe's Father and Aestheticism

As a brief addendum to my most recent post, this passage from Book II of Goethe's autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit, shows that Goethe was well aware of the danger of withdrawing from politics and choosing to live an apolitical, "aesthetic" life because of the example of his own father:
In a city like Frankfurt, where the inhabitants are divided among three religions into three unequal groups, where only a few men, even from among the ruling classes, can join the regiment, there must be many a prosperous and educated man who retreats into himself and constructs for himself his own closed-off existence with his studies and hobbies...Now, my father was one those men who had retreated, who never form a partnership among each other. They assume a position as isolated from each other as from the whole [of society], and even more so because in their isolation they develop idiosyncratic qualities that set them off even more starkly from each other. My father had acquired on his journeys and in the free world a conception of a more elegant and more liberal way of life than was perhaps usual among his fellow citizens. He certainly had predecessors and companions [in this regard].
Goethe then proceeds to describe a number of men from his childhood in Frankfurt who, in one way or another, lived a quieter, more "aesthetic" life. They were men of means who enjoyed poetry and who often collected antiques, paintings, and plants, to the point that their houses must have been small museums. Goethe's father, for example, had a room filled with pictures of Italy and had very strong views concerning poetry (he hated Klopstock).

But, as devoted as these men were to their own private hobbies, they did not abandon the public sphere. One wrote didactic novels in an attempt to foster morality among the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, and another wrote a book advocating toleration for Calvinists as well as Lutherans in Frankfurt. One man gave alms regularly and encourage the poor to reform their lives. A doctor transformed his large home into a state-of-the-art medical school. Goethe characterized all these men as having withdrawn from public life, but they were by no means hermits. What made them unusual for their time and place was that they were wealthy yet did not enter into politics or assume a public office.

The example of these apolitical, yet publicly-minded men leaves open the question of what kind of life a publicly-minded man should lead, a question that concerned Goethe throughout his life. Goethe's ideal in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre was the active (tätig) man. But, what kind of activity was ideal? Should the active man vie for public honors, or should he simply carry out his profession well? Should he perhaps establish a private association intended to benefit the public, such as providing medical care to the poor? As Goethe recognizes, it is impossible in our age for many of those who enjoy some modicum of financial security to enter into politics. Yet what Goethe here criticizes in Dichtung und Wahrheit would actually seem better than the alternative: it is better to find some small way to increase the common weal rather than to indulge in what Goethe calls the bourgeois tendency to become engaged in politics simply by giving an opinion on every distant world event.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Festal Fortnight!

Here in the Linderman household, it is almost time for the Festal Fortnight. That is what I have tentatively decided to call this string of autumnal holidays we have coming up.

These holidays are an odd mix of pagan and Christian, historical and political. Some people might say the mix is coincidental, eclectic or even dangerous. In my mind, two things make these holidays cohere.

First, the pagan can be subsumed into the Christian. This is not simply religious or cultural plagiarism. Rather, in Christianity, grace builds on nature. And it is quite natural to reflect on the reality of death in early November, as the world around us dies. Likewise, it is natural to reflect on the reality of spirits (both good and bad) among us, as the shadows lengthen and an air of mystery begins to settle. I am quite happy to give Christian answers to pagan questions, so to speak.

Secondly, I believe history is divinely ordained (if not always in ways we can perceive). Thus, to say that several holidays "coincidentally" fall near one another is simply to say that the hand of God has brought them together, rather than the hand of man. I lose no sleep on this point either.

31 October: All Hallow's Eve/Samhain.Halloween is no doubt the best known of this string of holidays. Scholars argue that the Christian feast of All Saints Day has its roots in - or at least owes its timing to - the earlier Celtic festival of Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest. This holiday has become woefully commercialized, but when you place it in its larger autumnal context, I think some of its richness begins to return.

1 November: All Saint's Day/Calan Gaeaf. Calan Gaef is the first day of winter in Wales, which seems a fitting day to think about those who have died (and are now in glory). However, the holiday has a rather dark hue - involving hags, evil spirits in the form of a black sow and a headless woman, and predictions of death - so we'll be celebrating this day along fairly traditional Christian lines, perhaps with mass and the Liturgy of the Hours.

2 November: All Soul's Day. Time permitting, my wife and I will visit the local cemetery to pray for the dead. I have done this for several of the past few years, and I can say that it is a slightly odd experience, simply strolling among graves of people you do not know, who are of no particular significance to you. It brings home the reality of Death as a general phenomenon, apart from the particular ways it affects us. Praying for strangers can also remind us that we too may be the beneficiaries of strangers' prayers. We should probably return the favor.

5 November: Bonfire Day. Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Day are the motif running through V for Vendetta, the comic book made into a movie (which my wife and I first watched last year). Admittedly, this has traditionally been an anti-papist day, but I'm sure there's some way we can baptize it.

6 November: Gustav Adolfsdagen. In honor of the great 17th century king and general, this is a national holiday in Sweden, a country from which some of my ancestors came. (See the recurring connection with the dead!) I have not celebrated this holiday before, but I am intrigued by its pastry, Gustav Adolfsbakelse, for which, alas, I have not yet found a recipe.

11 November: Armistice Day/Veteran's Day/Feast of St. Martin. It is fitting that the First World War ended on the feast of one of the patrons of soldiers. Some might say that wars should begin on such days, but I think not. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux explains, ‎"The true Israelite is a man of peace, even when he goes forth to battle." St. Martin's Day is traditionally marked by carrying candles and lanterns, which seems a fitting seasonal defense against the creeping darkness, and also a fitting memorialization of the millions of war dead. That toys are traditionally given to children on St. Martin's Day in some Germanic countries might seem at odds with the somber remembrance of the war's end and the shortening days of the year. Not that we'll be giving toys in our home, but I think this too is fitting: such toys are a reminder that the harvest has been gathered and (God willing) we are abundantly stocked for the months ahead. Giving toys to children is also a useful reminder of the healing and rebirth that must follow a war: if only sorrow remains, the fallen have died in vain.

Some places serve goose on St. Martin's Day, on account of how the saint hid, while trying to avoid the episcopate, but had his position given away by geese. A goose might be a bit much for us, but I am intrigued by this recipe for Martinshörnchen, the traditional hoof-shaped pastries. Damassine is the traditional St. Martin's Day liqueur in Switzerland. In the US, ravioli was once a kind of Veteran's Day tradition, since President Wilson fed it to 2,000 returning soldiers who dined at the White House. (Though, frankly, I've never heard of this custom, so I'm not so sure how widespread it ever became.)

And if you've not already used up all the firewood on the 5th, bonfires are traditional on St. Martin's Eve.

13 November [this year]: Remembrance Sunday. Observed on the Sunday nearest 11 November, this is a kind of second Armistice Day, but with the particular purpose of praying for the fallen. It may be sheer coincidence, but it seems fitting that we pray for the souls lost in the 20th century's first great bloodbath mere days after All Soul's Day.

Today's image of the Vigil of All Saints at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington comes via the Dominican Province of St. Joseph.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Politicism and Aestheticism

In histories of German literature, there is an idea one hears quite a bit, which attempts to explain the sudden flourishing of German literature beginning in the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, dating roughly from the publication of the first three books of Klopstock's Messias in 1748 to the revolutions of 1848. According to this theory the writers of the Sturm und Drang and the Romantics, in particular, devoted themselves to literature because they had no other outlet for their energies, as the ascendant German bourgeoisie was still excluded from political life. This theory has at least three important effects. First, it establishes aesthetics and politics as completely inimical to each other, rather than simply in tension with each other. Second, this theory implies that all aesthetics is really just aestheticism and leads to political quietism. Lastly, and most importantly, it precludes the possibility that politics can degenerate into what, for lack of a better term, can be called "politicism," where the daily struggle of party politics becomes the good citizen's only concern.

This interpretation of German literature probably originated with Heinrich Heine, the self-named "last Romantic poet." Heine was certainly not a man without a strong aesthetic sensibility, as any reading of his Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs)will prove. Yet even early in his career Heine began to make controversial political statements, with his opinions leaning toward socialism (he became acquainted with the young Karl Marx in Paris). His radical opinions and his penchant for ridiculing his enemies meant that he had to endure censorship in Germany nearly his entire life. While Heine appears to have already formed his revolutionary political views by the time he left university, part of his disenchantment with the apolitical nature of German literary culture, and above all with Goethe, may stem from his disappointing visit to Goethe. After publishing his first poems as a law student, Heine sent a copy of the book to Goethe, and two years later made something of a pilgrimage through the Harz Mountains to Goethe. In Weimar, though, the great poet gave Heine a cool reception, and Heine, rather uncharacteristically (since he loved to talk about himself), never spoke of the incident again. But among the writers of the Vormärz, Goethe came to be regarded as the epitome of a conservative German aestheticism that refused to sully itself with politics and rejected all reform movements out of hand.

This interpretation of German literature before Heine is certainly not indefensible. The frustration felt by the rising generations at being unable to take on political responsibility comes through in certain authors, such as in Friedrich Hölderlin's Hyperion. The young, idealistic title character joins in a Greek rebellion against the Turks (a couple decades before Byron). But, more importantly, Hyperion falls in love and explores his emotions in the letters he writes to his German friend Bellarmin. After suffering defeat in battle and the death of his lover, Diotima, Hyperion returns to Greece to live as a hermit contemplating the beauty of nature while nurturing his sorrow over Diotima's untimely death. The conclusion of the novel indeed leaves the impression that Hölderlin saw devotion to the aesthetic as mere consolation for failure in politics and love.

The frustration seething in the writers of the Sturm und Drang took even more dramatic form than the early Romanticism of Hyperion. For instance, in Friedrich Schiller's Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love), the protagonist Ferdinand, as the result of a court intrigue, decides to kill himself and his love, Luise. Here, not even aesthetics can save the young idealist and make life tolerable after failure in affairs both public and private. Indeed, even though he later became the symbol of German political passivity, Goethe first came to the public's attention as an enfant terrible, whose Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) ends once again with the protagonist's suicide after he has been thwarted in his ambitions by a court society prejudiced against the middle class, and by an unhappy love affair. This epistolary novel was so shocking to contemporaries in part because it inspired a wave of copy-cat suicides who dressed as Werther before discharging pistols into their (already empty) brains. Werther is perhaps the most famous expression of political frustration that came out of the Sturm und Drang and is still the epitome of Liebestod in German literature before Wagner's operas.

But, the later Schiller and especially the later Goethe show the limits of the idea that German literature before the Vormärz was simply a means for the ascendant bourgeoisie to sublimate its political aspirations into safer activities. While Schiller is sometimes remembered, especially in the English-speaking world, primarily for his "Letter on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind," he also taught history at the University of Jena. He was deeply interested in the political history of the Netherlands whose republicanism he admired, as well as the Thirty Years' War. His most famous plays, such as Wilhelm Tell, Wallenstein, and Maria Stuart, are all classical in aesthetics, but take their inspiration from politics and history.

Goethe's case is more complicated than Schiller's because he took a sharper turn towards aesthetics. Goethe came from a family of lawyers (his maternal grandfather was something like the chief justice of the city of Frankfurt) and even became a lawyer himself, first as an intern at the supreme court of the Holy Roman Empire in Wetzlar, and then as a private attorney in Frankfurt for a couple years before entering the service of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. Once in Weimar, he became one of the Duke's chief advisers and filled many administrative posts. However, Goethe was never completely happy as a man of action. In 1786, without asking permission first, he left Weimar and Carlsbad and traveled to Italy, touring most of the peninsula as well as Sicily for a couple years. It was in Italy that he matured as a writer and a man, rejecting the excesses of his Sturm und Drang phase and re-founding his aesthetics on the classicism of his day.

Nevertheless, upon his return to Weimar, while he was relieved of certain administrative duties, the Duke still entrusted him with the direction of the court theater and of the University of Jena. Moreover, in his later classically-inspired works, Goethe does not present complete withdrawal from the world as his ideal. In Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the prototype of the Bildungsroman) the hero rejects the aesthetic life of a wandering actor for a more settled life of responsibility. Even the life of quiet contemplation, which is presented sympathetically in the famous diary of the schöne Seele ("beautiful soul"), is ultimately rejected as an evasion of responsibility. Even in Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities), Goethe introduces Eduard as a man who has chosen to retire to his country estate, a decision, however, that would lead to the end of his marriage. Despite his clearly conflicted feelings about the desirability of living in society--Goethe became known for treating strangers (such as Heine) very coldly in an attempt to protect his privacy--as well as his later avoidance of political questions, it can be said that Goethe recognized that it was good to live among others and to assume responsibility in life. As much as he devoted himself to aesthetics, the charge against him that he was uninterested in politics is false.

The Weimarer Klassik of Schiller and Goethe represents not a flight from reality into aestheticism but rather an attempt to unite life, including politics, with aesthetics. Schiller and Goethe advocated a politically involved life, but also insisted on keeping involvement in politics within certain bounds. In the French Revolution and in their own experiences they saw how a certain type of passion for politics and social change could harm the common good and blind the individual soul. Before accusing Schiller and Goethe of aestheticism, then, one must first eschew politicism.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pennsylvania Dutch Shoo-Fly Pie

If you have not already picked up the lessons of this little excursion through American cooking and American identity, let me spell it out: our cooking, like our nation, is a mix of deep-held family traditions, often stretching back to the "old country," and eclectic innovation, usually involving taking other people's best ideas and then tinkering with them.  The results can be confusing and incoherent, but also quirky and delightful.

This final recipe neatly embodies that lesson.  I was once invited an an Oslava, thrown by some Slovak-Americans.  They asked everyone to bring an item of food made from an old family recipe.  So I sent my grandmother a note and asked her if she had a recipe that would fit the bill.  In response, she sent me a recipe for Shoo-Fly Pie, and reminded me that my great-grandfather (and countless generations before him) had been Pennsylvania Dutch, a people who enjoy shoo-fly.  This all made good sense to me, since I knew about our family's roots in Pennsylvania, and I had first seen shoo-fly pie in Lancaster County, PA.

Having made the recipe a time or two, I sent my grandmother a note, thanking her for this family recipe.  I do not recall the precise words of her reply, but she as much as said that she simply found the recipe in a cook book.  At this point, the story breaks down.  I am not sure if this was a family cookbook, and so the recipe had come from Great-Great Aunt Mathilda or some such, or if Grandma was simply trying to guess what our family might have baked a few generations before, and then found any old shoo-fly recipe.  (My father says his mother never made it when he was a child.)

In spite of this historical confusion, several facts remain: (1) My family were Pennsylvania Dutch for about two centuries, (2) this recipe comes from my grandmother, and (3) I have become quite a fan of shoo-fly pie, and make it any chance I get.

Alas, this pie is not for everyone.  It is pretty hearty, filling stuff.  I don't know if those old Pennsylvania farmers actually ate it, but I can certainly imagine they did.

Pennsylvania Dutch Shoo-Fly Pie

1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. plus 1 Tbsp molasses
1 egg
1/2 c. butter, melted
1/2 tsp. baking soda dissolved in 1/2 c. hot coffee
3/4 c. flour (I usually use a combination of white and whole wheat)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg

2/3 c. flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. butter (unmelted)

Mix first three ingredients, then add all the rest from the filling list. Pour into 9" pie crust. Cut the butter into flour and sugar for the crumb topping, and sprinkle on top. Bake at 375 for 40 minutes or until set.  Consider serving with whipped cream.

Today's image comes from Kitchen Kettle Village.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Scandinavian Vegetable Soup - A Revival?

Some of my mother's family was Swedish.  As a thoroughgoing fan of genealogical diversity, I relish this Scandinavian connection.  Perhaps that is part of the reason why some years ago I took to the Scandinavian soup recipe that is the third installment of this four-part adventure in American cooking.

In the name of full disclosure, I must confess that this recipe did not come through a long family.  Instead, it came through that stalwart aid of American gastronomy: a cookbook.  Specifically, this recipe came from Mr. Food Cooks Like Mama, a book I think my brother received for his high school graduation.  I have no idea if anyone in Scandinavia actually eats anything like this - I don't remember seeing it during my short visit there, though I was mostly living on bread and cheese at that point - nor do I have a shred of proof that any of my ancestors ever made anything of the sort.  Still, it is a possibility my over-active imagination is willing to entertain.  And the version we make is a tasty meal, particularly when the weather gets cooler.

Scandinavian Vegetable Soup

1/2 c. butter or vegetable oil (or some combination thereof - I usually go half and half)
1 Tbsp wet garlic
2 c. chopped cabbage, or half a head, or whatever you have laying around
1 chopped onion
1 c. chopped celery, or as much as you have (because what else can you put it in before it gets floppy?)
1 c. frozen peas
2 c. thin-sliced carrots 
2 cans creamed corn
3 c. milk
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. thyme
2 c. cubed cheese (you can shred it, but why bother, when it's just going to melt?)

In a very large pot, saute garlic, cabbage, onion, celery, peas and carrots in butter/oil until tender (usually 10-15 minutes).  Add corn, milk, pepper, and thyme.  Simmer for 15 minutes.  Add cheese, stirring until melted.  Serve.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Whole Grain Coffee Cake - a Paternal Tale

For as long as I can remember, my father has been making breakfast on Saturdays: muffins, biscuits, cornbread, pancakes, waffles...  The custom of special Saturday breakfasts is one I have brought into my own family as well (though I've added cheese grits to the line-up).

Among my father's repertoire of breakfast foods is coffee cake.  He has been baking it since my earliest days, and maybe even earlier.  And, I must say, coffee cake is one of my favorites.  So when I came home from college at the end of one semester, I was deeply disappointed to discover that coffee cake had been declared a forbidden food.  Apparently it was deemed too high in cholesterol, something the doctor was trying to bring down in my father.  Unsatisfied with this change of events, I set out to craft a new, cholesterol-friendly version.  I do not know if I succeeded - I am certainly no nutritionist - but I did end up with a recipe I rather liked.

What was my source?  Well, my father had two recipes, one for regular old coffee cake and one for "cowboy coffee cake."  Now I have poked around the internet a little, but I have yet to find out what connection cowboy coffee cake has to cowboys.  Perhaps none.  I may have asked my father about this at some point, but if I did he didn't know the answer.  Not that this bothered me too much.  I guess I assumed it was an old cowboy recipe, and at one time there were plenty of cowboys on the Plains and out West.

Anyhow, my new recipe more or less merged both of my father's and added generous amounts of whole grains and substituted some of the white sugar for brown.  As I said, I'm not sure it's healthier, but it's certainly tasty!

Whole Grain Coffee Cake

1 1/2 c. white flour
2 T ground flax seed*
3/4 c. white sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3/4 c. brown sugar, divided
3/4 c. whole wheat flour
1/4 c. wheat bran*
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp soda
2/3 c. vegetable oil (or apple sauce)
1 c. sour milk (if no sour milk is on hand, add 1 tsp vinegar to 1 c. milk)
2 eggs
butter or margarine, as needed for crumbs

*These ingredients, while quite good, are not essential to the recipe; whole wheat flour may be substituted.

Mix 3/4 c. white flour, flax seed, white sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Set aside 1/3 c. for crumbs.  To the main mixture, add 1/4 c. brown sugar and remaining ingredients (including remaining 3/4 c. white flour).  Pour batter into two greased 8" x 1 1/2" round pans.  Mix remaining 1/2 c. of brown sugar with crumb mixture and cut in butter/margarine as needed (approx. 3 Tbsp) for a crumbly consistency and sprinkle over the top.  Bake at 375 for 25 minutes. 

Once again, our picture is not original.  This one comes from

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Red Beans & Rice - an American Odyssey

This is not a recipe blog.  However, I spent a goodly while in Britain over the past few months, as this blog bears out.  I wrote about my favorite British regiments, observed Empire Day, did some hypothetical casting for a movie about Brits, celebrated an English saint and reflected upon a British philosopher of history.  A raging Anglophile I may be, but all this talk of Britain got me a little concerned.  Am I not American?  Is everything simply better over there?  Does America have nothing I want to celebrate?

As these questions rolled around in my mind, I was struck by one particularly American aspect of my life: food.  Many of the foods I make on a regular basis are staples of "traditional" American menus.  A fair number actually have their roots in other countries or cultures, though they have been adopted with typically American assimilation.  Likewise, most of these recipes came to me through a mix of family, cook books and good old tinkering.  Perhaps the same results could have come about in another place, but these foods and their stories strike me as quintessentially American.  And so I plan to share a few.

Today's recipe has a slightly odd genesis.  I began making beans and rice because it was cheap, filling and kept well.  I just threw together some ingredients.  If there was any inspiration, it was probably my father's Ham & Beans recipe.  But this was certainly a different creation, a vaguely Southwestern dish for the hungry bachelor.  But after I got married, I discovered that my wife - whose mother is from Mississippi and whose father is from Louisiana - expected "beans and rice" to be New Orleans-style red beans and rice.  With the guidance of her poking and a few pointers from my mother-in-law, my bachelor recipe evolved into something of which I am rather proud.  It looks more Southern than Southwestern now, but I think it retains hints of its origins (in both my homeland and my hungry bachelor phase).  Enjoy!

Red Beans & Rice

3 cups dry beans (I often use one each of kidney, small red and pinto beans, but sometimes I use black too)
2 cans diced tomatoes (I usually use one "Mexican style" and one with green chilis)
14 oz kielbasa sausage, sliced
1 large onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 Tbsp minced garlic
2 Tbsp ketchup
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp vinegar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper

Soak beans overnight or quick soak (ie, bring to rolling boil, turn off and let soak for 1 hr).  Begin simmering beans with tomatoes and lots of water.  Saute sausage, onion, green pepper and garlic in vegetable oil.  Add sausage mixture and remaining ingredients to beans.  Cook until beans are tender (2-3 hrs, usually).  Serve over rice.

Unfortunately, no, today's picture is not of my own making.  It comes from Simply Recipes.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rising Expectations and Narcissism

The Atlantic recently published a collection of letters from readers, mostly in their twenties and early thirties, documenting their reactions to the widespread unemployment among recent college graduates. (H/T: First Things.) The letters evince a stark division between the soon-to-retire Baby Boomers and the so-called "Millennials" who now find themselves without work or struggling to advance upward from entry-level jobs.

The young and old, of course, will always view life through different lenses, and when it comes to the process of forging one's way in life their perspectives can differ dramatically. But, in recent years, this difference in perspective seems to have grown into a complete blindness toward the others' position. Here is the extreme version of the disagreement:

The younger, college-educated generation looks up to the older generation, and sees that its parents have reached stable positions in society. They may not be rich, but they certainly have made enough money to raise a family and to purchase a comfortable home. And that is all the younger generation wants: a chance to earn a decent living, do interesting work, and start a family. That's the American Dream. Yet now, after earning a college degree and perhaps even a professional degree, they find themselves unemployed and in serious debt. Even if they do eventually find work, it will be some kind of soul-less office work and most of their paychecks for the foreseeable future will go toward paying down their student loans and covering rent and the utilities. Life is bleak.

The older generation, on the other hand, can remember working its way up through the ranks in its younger days and can't understand what all the whining is about. They remember stagflation, when the interest rates for a mortgage were astronomically high, and the OPEC oil embargo, when it was difficult just to fill the car with gas. They haven't always felt fulfilled by their jobs but they sucked it up and through their hard work they got where they are today. Moreover, once they had some money, they spent it on their children. No generation ever had it easier growing up.

Although there will always be tension between parents and their children and there will be rivalry for jobs in every economy, the older generation does deserve a lot of the blame, and the younger generation should be up in arms.

Why? Because the older generation spoiled us with all its talk of self-esteem. One correspondent seems to be aware of the problem of rising expectations but curiously, and implausibly, denies that he had any expectations of succeeding in life:
Some say that we should not expect things to be handed to us, and that we should just stop whining. That may be the case for some, but what about those of us who never expected anything? There are thousands of us who worked hard and did everything that we were supposed to do. We were told, "If you push yourself and work harder than everyone else, you will succeed."

The problem of rising expectations arises precisely in the kind of situation that this writer describes, when children are given definite ideas what it can hope to receive from their parents when they reach their majority. In the case of America, the parents of the last generation were encouraged by "parenting experts" and professional pedagogues to make their children believe in themselves, no matter what. This boosting of the younger generation's self-esteem is not entirely new, of course; it is part and parcel of what Christopher Lasch called America's "culture of narcissism." A brief perusal of the letters shows that many members of the younger generation are struggling with the issue of narcissism. One admits that he belongs to a "me-first generation." An older writer blames Generation Y for its self-centeredness. One Millennial, though, turns the table and condemns the Baby Boomers for their own selfishness and hypocrisy in telling the rising generation to suck it up. But all the writers agree that the central battle in this generational warfare is whether the younger generation is too spoiled or whether the older generation is unable to empathize with their children's plight.

And the consequence of feeding youngsters' self-esteem is fairly predictable: rising expectations accompanied by a sense of entitlement. And when those expectations are not met, the younger generation reacts with anger towards its parents. After years of being given awards for trying--though not always achieving--in school, many Millennials are being confronted with failure for the first time at the time in their lives when it matters most, when they are starting their careers and forging the relationships that will (hopefully) last the rest of their lives. They are visited by a "sense of inner emptiness" when they no longer receive the attention that was practically their birthright.

The emphasis on self-esteem in education and the consequent inability to deal with disappointment in life lead to the conclusion that America today is being devastated by what a recent book has labeled The Narcissism Epidemic. (Disclaimer: I have not read the book and cannot speak to the details.) But, if the younger generation really is suffering from a narcissism epidemic, the worst approach to the problem would be to cast all the blame on the older generation, thus absolving itself of all responsibility for its problem.

Is there any solution? Unfortunately, this is the type of dilemma that a narcissist cannot find his way out of without a willingness to forgive others and to change his life. But, that is precisely what narcissism makes so hard.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Herodotus, Thucydides and The Idea of History

Earlier this year I read R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History. The book is quite insightful, a "must read" for any philosopher of history. On the whole, I quite enjoyed it.

However, one passage hit me hard, like watching one friend knife another friend. You see, Collingwood insists that Thucydides is not really a historian. Herodotus gets the honor, but not Thucydides.

Ever since I first read Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War I have been a fan. Not a historian? No, Collingwood explains, Thucydides is really a philosopher. Historians, Collingwood says, recreate the thoughts of past men. That is their task. It is a fundamentally particular task, dealing with men individually. Philosophers, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with the general, those things which are true of all men. Herodotus is often criticized for repeating legends and hear-say, and he deserves the criticism. However, his approach is fundamentally particular, asking here about the Persians and there about the Egyptians; though he makes connections across cultures, he is also willing to accept them with their differences.

Thucydides has a rather different approach, though the difference is not always obvious. In his introduction, Thucydides notes that when he had no report of a given speech, he has filled in the gap with what must have been said. In other words, if we know the speech was preceded by A, and followed by C, the speaker must have said something along the lines of B - it's the obvious way to get from one to the other. Thucydides' method is broadly sound; after all, we infer things all the time, in history and in life. However, this method reveals a disregard for the messy details of life, and leans on broad statements about men generally. Why do men go to war? Thucydides asks. Only three reasons: fear, greed or honor. This is profound insight into the human person, but it is not history. History is more concrete than that.

Must history simply involve disconnected facts? Can it never approach the general? The philosophic historian - and by that I do not mean one that belongs to the discipline of philosophy, but one that desires the deepest truths - must constantly hold together the tension between the particularities of history and the desire for general knowledge. To stray too far from this tension produces something other than good history. The unthinking particularist becomes a kind of antiquarian, collecting factoids and minutia, content never to connect them to one another. This person has no concept of or desire for knowledge of mankind as a whole or justice as a virtue. The more thoughtful man who becomes a particularist is likely a kind of agnostic, someone who recognizes that history cannot produce complete knowledge of general things, but concludes that there is no reason to try to hold together the tension. He is typically a bitter soul, someone who longs for general knowledge but does not believe it possible. The unthinking generalist becomes a Whig historian in the most pejorative sense of the term, shoehorning the complications of the past into broad categories that are inadequate to describe it. The thinking generalist is ultimately a philosopher, someone who realizes that history is always bound up with the particular and lays it aside in favor of another vocation.

History, then, is a curious thing, with one foot in the mud of earth and another on the clouds of heaven. It's not for everyone, but I'm rather happy with that tension.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to read some Herodotus.

Today's image of R. G. Collingwood comes from Ovi Magazine.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Irish Catholicism

I recently came across a series of blog posts written by a priest who lives and works in England but whose family hails from Ireland. Occasioned by a visit to his family across the Irish Sea, the series is a set of personal reflections on the roots of the sexual abuse scandal in Ireland and the wider crisis afflicting the Church there (or being inflicted by the Church on herself). The series starts with 500 (and continues with parts b, c, d, e, f, g, and h).

The series consists mostly of anecdotes rather than systematic inquiry, but it does touch on some of the history of the Church in Ireland and its effect on modern Irish religiosity. Interestingly enough, many of the anecdotes reflect stories I've heard from my own family.

Besides any personal interest it has for me, this series should also be of interest to American readers because of the great influence that the Irish have had on the Church in America. That influence is obviously waning as fewer Irish immigrate and more Hispanics cross the Rio Grande, but it endures nonetheless, especially in cities in the North. From stories about strict, ruler-wielding nuns and priests with no sense for liturgy to grandmothers mumbling the rosary during Mass and eccentric old men attending the wakes of complete strangers, Irish immigrants are often silently assigned the role of the bogeyman in a history of the American Church. Equally characteristic of the Irish, however, was their fierce determination to stay true to the faith in the midst of largely hostile Protestants and even to build up this country's network of parochial schools from nothing. For good and for bad, the Irish legacy cannot be ignored.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

How I'll Be Voting

A few years ago I wrote about a raft of policy positions; with another presidential race around the corner, it is time to think seriously about the criteria by which I will be judging candidates. Here are the issues I will be looking at. But first, the red herrings.

The Right to Life. I am firmly committed to the rights and dignity of every human being and I am profoundly opposed to the legalization of the murder of unborn children. With such strong convictions, you might expect this to be a major issue for me this election cycle; after all, for many people of similar convictions, this is the litmus test. But the problem I have come to see is that few pro-life candidates are in a position to do much. As things stand, the question of abortion is primarily a matter for the judiciary, not the legislature or the executive. Moreover, cynics would say that the Republican Party uses the pro-life issue to get votes, but drags its feet on actually ending abortion, lest it lose this powerful source of votes. I wouldn't go that far, but I certainly concede that merely saying one is pro-life, or even voting the right way on certain bills, will effect little change. If I see a true pro-life campaigner - and I haven't yet - I'll take note, but otherwise this issue is low on my radar.

Foreign Policy & Defense. A robust foreign policy is close to my heart for a variety of reasons, but it will not be a major issue for me this cycle. Why? Even in lean and unpopular years, the Department of Defense will likely remain well-funded. This does not mean that certain items which ought to be funded always will be, but at the general level - and when are elections really about specifics? - Congress and the American people will not stand for the total evisceration of the DoD. In some ways the more important questions involve funding of intelligence (especially counterintelligence), public diplomacy and other matters which are unlikely to make their way into the debate. But the other reason I'm not paying much attention to foreign policy positions is that they change. Presidential campaigns are run almost entirely on domestic issues; foreign policy positions are little more than fluff, and are usually overtaken by events. George W. Bush campaigned against Clinton-style nation-building projects. Then September 11th happened and the calculus changed. Barack Obama was perceived as the candidate to get us out of foreign wars; while there has been draw-down in Iraq, one is hard pressed to believe that a Republican would have wielded the military in a significantly different way. While his Cairo speech got him off to a good start engaging the Muslim world, that project was eventually swamped by unfolding events and long-standing realities on the ground.

So if those issues will receive only limited attention, where will I be looking?

Debt. This issue has been in the news of late; I think as a country we are finally beginning to understand the overwhelming size of our government's debt and the dangers it poses to our economic well-being. More than high or low taxes or spending, I want to see balanced budgets. A balanced budget amendment - as a serious measure, and not just a symbolic campaign - may be in order. Bringing the debt under control will ultimately require reform of entitlements and DoD's procurement process (which eats up massive portions of the defense budget with little gain), though for now I simply want to see a commitment to solvency.

Tax Code. America's tax code is mammoth. A last count it was roughly ten times the length of the Bible, and still growing. Aside from keeping accountants employed, this labyrinthine code does our country no good. It erodes transparency, wastes resources and imposes a daunting barrier to opening a new business. Reforming the tax code will be a huge undertaking, but it needs to be done. If cutting down the current version is too much, perhaps we could simply borrow Estonia's or Georgia's. Georgia has only half a dozen taxes, with a code shorter than an undergraduate paper. The result has been strong economic growth and a dramatic drop in corruption, often eclipsing developed countries of Western Europe on both counts. And this from a post-Soviet republic starting from a very poor position. Estonia's story is quite similar.

Immigration. I have written about immigration once or twice before. There are three basic issues here that must be addressed, more or less together: (1) Our borders must be secured and illegal immigration brought under control. Sovereign countries have a right to decide who does and does not enter, and to exercise that right for the good of their economy and security. (2) The immigration process must be reformed. High-tech companies are constantly having to lobby for more H-1B visas and less red tape, as they are having trouble bringing in skilled workers from overseas. Likewise, the difficulty of legally entering the US as an unskilled guest worker is a constant encouragement to illegal immigration. (3) There are millions of illegal aliens living in the US, somewhere on the order of 10 or 12 million. Their presence cannot be ignored in the process of comprehensive immigration reform.

Education. We have tried to make our schools accountable through No Child Left Behind and various state-wide testing and incentive programs. The effort has generally been judged a failure due to (a) bureaucratic bungling, (b) cheating and (c) an unwillingness to hold feet to the fire. But, frankly, the greatest obstacle to school reform have been the unions (as the recent documentary, Waiting for Superman, points out). There is little doubt that a confrontation with the NEA and other major unions will have to be fought before we have real school reform. Any candidate who vows to smash the NEA certainly has my attention. Less dramatically, I'll be looking for candidates who advocate school choice, with open enrollment, more charter schools and vouchers.

Marriage. I find may aspects of the culture wars off-putting. However, recent events have begun to convince me that so-called gay marriage may be the key moral question of our day. I am not opposed to equal taxes or hospital visitation rights for same-sex partners - be they sexual partners, of the sort who get all the media attention, or simply life-long bachelor roommates. What I find disconcerting, rather, is the attempt to use the government to re-define marriage, apart from any benefits it might carry. Some argue that the distinction between state-sanctioned marriage and church-sanctioned marriage will always exist, and churches are welcome to define marriage however they like. In the first place, I do not trust that churches will be allowed to define marriage for themselves. We have already seen in the Diocese of Washington attempts by the civil government to impose its definition. Moreover, I pose the following scenario to you: what if Congress passed laws for the "ordaining" of certain "ministers" to "consecrate the Eucharist". Clearly, a violation of the prerogatives of churches and an affront to most Christians. Some might argue that it is primarily the buzz words here that make this proposition outrageous. But I would argue that this is because words carry meaning. Ministers are different from officials or counselors; that's why we have different terms for them. I can accept same-sex unions, but not same-sex "marriages". This is not, as some have argued, a matter of natural rights, since (a) no one has a right to a vocation (cf. CCC 1578) and (b) same-sex attraction is contrary to nature. Within the American context, same-sex unions may be a civil right, an outgrowth of our social contract, but as such they are subject to debate and should be recognized as conferred by the will of the polity, and not by right. I'll be looking for a candidate who can articulate some of that.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Christ, Present in the Scriptures and in the City

This video received plenty of play in Catholic circles a couple months ago. So why share it again? What struck me then, as now, is just how Franciscan it is. It warms my heart to know that, shortly after their return to England after a hiatus of half a millennium, the Capuchin friars were immediately back at it, being very Catholic, and a little goofy, and in the thick of human life. There are times and places for high liturgy and for complex theology and for hermits. But those things are for other orders. This is the Franciscans doing what they do best. If you have not seen this video, or if maybe even if you have, give it a look.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Four Films Worth Mentioning

On a recent flight back to the US from Albion I watched four (count 'em - FOUR!) films. All were fairly decent, and worthy of a mention. If they have anything in common, it was that all four did something slightly different than expected.

I expected District 9 to be a standard aliens v. humans film (ala Independence Day), with standard battle scenes and some political overtones relating to apartheid and private military contractors. Instead, it is much more of a drama, centered on a small number of characters. There are some fun action moments, but that is hardly what the film is about.

Sticking with aliens, I next watched Battle Los Angeles. Small, intimate stories must be in: this movie followed a single small unit of Marines through the battle. Although there were occasional allusions to the larger conflict, really all we as viewers care about is the fate of roughly a dozen men and women. Humanity as a whole is not really a factor. The other surprising thing here was that when there were not aliens in the frame, much of this looked like a war about Iraq today. In that sense it is much more of a war movie, and less of what you might traditionally think of as sci fi. (Oh, yes, the aliens also have crew-served weapons.)

Aakrosh (2010, not to be confused with the 1980 and 1998 films of the same title) is a fairly standard story: two cops from the central government visit a small town where the locals are kept in the thrall of corrupt leaders due to fear and ignorance. Outsider cops have to win the trust of locals and solve the murder mystery before all the witnesses end up dead. The unusual thing here is that it is set in India, and most of the film is in Hindi. (Yes, there are also a couple musical numbers - could it be Bollywood without them? - but they're integrated fairly well.) In fact, I learned afterward that the film is a scene-by-scene recreation of Mississippi Burning.

I finished the flight with The Adjustment Bureau. If you are expecting Dark City or The Matrix, you are likely to be disappointed. The plot is simply too predictable, the weirdness not nearly compelling enough. Curiously, if all you ask for is a romantic drama with a few moments of comedy, and you don't mind a strange sci-fi type resolution, it works considerably better.

I doubt any of these films will go down in the annals of cinematic history as canonical works. If you never saw them you'd do all right. But all four have points of interest in terms of genre and expectations and what they do (or don't do) with that.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Men Who Opposed Hitler

Rebecca Haynes has recently produced a volume I am keen to read: In the Shadow of Hitler: Personalities of the Right in Central and Eastern Europe. As the title suggests, we often forget that Hitler was not the only politician of the Right in the interwar period. Some of the men Haynes considers were Nazi-sympathizers, but others were rivals or even bitter enemies of the National Socialists.

Today is the anniversary of the July 20 Conspiracy (about which I have written before). The conspiracy was an attempt to kill Hitler in 1944 and remove the Nazis from power. Its center of gravity lay in the Germany army, but extended to other segments of German government and society as well. By and large, these were men of the Right, men who believed in tradition and in German greatness. They opposed Communism and had no desire to see anything like a Soviet state established in the Fatherland. Some of them were anti-Semitic; many were not.

Today I'd like to briefly mention two men who opposed the Nazis, and did so from the right wing of the political spectrum. Neither was a among the most important members of the plot against Hitler, nor is either one a well-known figure, even among history buffs. But perhaps that makes them all the more typical (if we can use the term for such extraordinary men) of those who opposed the Nazis. The first is Friedrich Gustav Jaeger. Born in Württemberg in 1895, his father was a doctor. With the outbreak of World War I he quickly completed his secondary studies (with honors) and joined the German army, seeing service in both Flanders and Italy, and being decorated numerous times. After the war he studied agriculture and joined the National Socialist German Workers Party - the Nazis.

But then an interesting thing happened. Although Jaeger was a member of the Freikorps Oberland and later re-joined the army in 1934, he refused to participate in the Kapp Putsch and left the Nazi Party, becoming a fierce critic before World War II.

During the war Jaeger fought in Poland, France and Russia, receiving Germany's highest military honor. All the while, however, he was making contact with anti-Nazi elements of the German army. It was only with reluctance, however, that he agreed to the plan to try to assassinate Hitler: Jaeger's Christian faith caused him to prefer a trial before a proper court.

On the day of the attempted assassination, Jaeger had a variety of tasks, commanding reserve troops, arresting key Nazis and seizing a radio station. All this fell apart as the conspiracy was discovered, and Jaeger was eventually executed for his role on 21 August.

Ernst Rüdiger Starhemberg was born in Eferding, Austria in 1899. A prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he served in the army during World War I, seeing action in Italy. Like Jaeger, he joined the Freikorps Oberland. Though the Austrian monarchy was abolished at the end of the war, he was keen to enter Austrian politics, joining the local branch of the Heimatschutz (an organization dedicated to protecting Austria's borders, but also its culture). He was intrigued by both Mussolini and Hitler, but gave up on the Nazis after the failed Beer Hall Putsch.

Starhemberg briefly served as Austrian Interior Minister in 1930 and became Deputy Leader of the conservative Christian Social Party in 1932. He then became Vice Chancellor in the right-wing government of Engelbert Dollfuß. Say what you will against Dollfuß - and there is probably much that can be said - he was no Nazi, as evidenced by the fact that they assassinated him in a failed bid to seize Austria. Starhemberg briefly served as acting Chancellor until a new government could be formed.

When the Nazis finally succeeded in annexing Austria, members of the Heimatschutz and various political parties with which Starhemberg had been associated were sent to concentration camps. He fled to Switzerland and eventually fought with the British and Free French air forces. Starhemberg was not a member of the July 20 Conspiracy. He abandoned the war effort when the Soviets joined the Allied side - what was the point of defeating Nazism if it were only followed by Soviet domination? - and moved to Argentina, staying until the year of Juan Peron's coup, and then returning to Austria.

Were these men heroes? The case for Jaeger is probably stronger than for Starhemberg. Both men certainly have associations that cause some raised eyebrows. But if they were not unqualified heroes, they were not villains either. They were men trying to make the best of difficult situations, men subject to all the human weaknesses. But in extraordinary circumstances, these men and other conservatives like them not only resisted the allure of Nazism, but opposed it. That is worth remembering.