Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Fight night

For some reason — and not a very good one — I found myself last night watching excerpts from the soi-disant “debate” between Trompe and Klingon. I knew they would annoy me, and they did. Why does one seek annoyance, when it is so plentifully available in the environment already, “for free” as it were? This is the mystery of iniquity.

I knew, however, that I would be asked today, in my travails around the city, which one of the candidates I thought had “won.” The question supposes that one or the other has advanced in the eyes of likely voters. This in turn requires some belly sense of the American electorate (different from the Canadian, but not much). There are people with sensitive bellies — who have some skill in guessing by this instrument what the great unwashed do think — but I pity them. I’d rather not know, and preserve my stomach for steak au poivre.

Very well, I’ll tell you. I thought Trompe spoke most about how America could make more money and spend less; Klingon about how it could make less and spend more. (Neither addressed the question of going to Hell.) This will prejudice much of the public, against Trompe.

On the other hand there are those of wandering attention who look not at the current speaker, but across the split-screen at his or her opponent. These will have noticed Klingon’s characteristically smooth, smug, self-satisfied, gliberal smirk while Trompe was speaking; and vice versa, Trompe’s mad, frenetic, irascible look while she was. This will hurt Klingon.

Trompe will win the election, incidentally. This is because some people like him. (No one likes Klingon.) The pollsters ask the wrong question, to compare “negatives.” Obviously, both candidates are fatally flawed; but Klingon would win if it came down to the less negative “favourability rating.” That tells us nothing, or very little. We could learn more if the pollsters could discover a way to phrase the better question, to elicit the secret crush.

Three-quarters of Americans can be shown (by the same pollsters) to be viscerally opposed to almost everything The Obama stands for. But he is quite popular. He won the last two elections because people liked him more than Romney, or McCain. Public policy had nothing to do with it. Not one in twenty voters has the slightest idea how his government works. In a mass democracy, people discuss “the issues” the way they talk about the weather. It is their elevator music. No one thinks the weather will change because they elect a new TV forecaster — they aren’t that stupid.

Had the Americans more wisely left the choice of their next President to me, I’d have picked that “Ted Cruz” guy from Texas. He could have been their least popular president, ever. But they didn’t; and Cruz himself wasted his time talking about policy, and trying to enunciate a few principles that ought to guide public life, which he had selected from the USA Constitution. People hate that. It is so boring. (And elitist, too.) The Republicants preferred swaggering rogue charm, even if it had to come from New York City.

Since I am supplying news this morning, allow me to correct a mistake that appeared in Mr Cruz’s blog where, owing no doubt to inattention, the former candidate misworded his presidential endorsement. What he meant to say was:

“After many months of careful consideration, of prayer and searching my own conscience, I have decided that on Election Day, I will dress up as the Akond of Swat and cast a write-in ballot for Jorge the Pink Fairy Armadillo.”

(Looks just like Trompe: see here.)

Back to metaphysics

A gentle reader (it was Perfesser Smith!) has kindly pointed to a fatuity in yesterday’s Idlepost, sufficiently egregious to be worth taking back. It was the suggestion that printing has anything to do with modernity. This is the sort of thing only a modernist would say, trapped as he is in the realm of appearances; in his hall of mirrors.

While it is true that a revolution was “in the air” of the fifteenth century, with the usual revolutionary dimensions and fronts, to associate it with the introduction of moveable type is worse than confusing cause with symptom.

Centuries before Gutenberg, Sheng Bi had introduced the same in China, with wood, then porcelain characters; his successors cast them in bronze. No “revolution” followed from this. A wit might observe that the Sung dynasty was now doomed, but this had more to do with Mongols invading. And whatever may be said for the Mongols, they were not great readers, nor theological hair-splitters. (They preferred to split heads.) I would go so far as to say that the Khans were not even preening intellectuals, of the sort that brought down the old metaphysical order of Europe in what we now call the Reformation.

Indeed, it is worth mentioning China for an attitude towards technology much more like ours in the Middle Ages, than like ours since the “dawn of the modern age.” Clocks, gunpowder, printing, what have you: they may have been quicker off the mark than we were (though we are only beginning to understand the range of mediaeval invention). But they took such “advances” in their stride, often greeting new devices as playthings, toys.

So did our pre-moderns.

Take for instance the Cistercian monks of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. They had a blast furnace for pig iron, plus all the techniques for a modern steel mill, though they hadn’t pushed production that far. This was all lost, together with Rievaulx’s extraordinary water-works, when that monstrous criminal, Henry VIII, dissolved the monasteries of England. The archaeologists who exhumed the ruined furnace in the last century were startled and amazed. Being moderns, they began to lament a “lost industrial revolution,” that could have swept Europe many centuries before the one that did.

But it would never have gone that way. The idea of mass production would not have occurred to the monks, because they were Christian. What an “industrial revolution” requires is not technological progress, which is easy enough to arrange once one’s attention is fixed on it. Rather it requires the modern attitude towards human beings: the ability to conceive of them as objects, as “labour,” as beasts of burden, interchangeable and essentially disposable, as the Pharaohs might have considered their pyramid-building workforce. That is what a “steel industry” presupposes: a proletariat.

*

Now back to Perfesser Smith, who, upon obtaining an electronic copy of the volumes to which I alluded yesterday (Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change), was unimpressed.

“I first checked and saw that she makes no more than passing, inconsequential reference to Machiavelli and William of Ockham, and does not appear to use the word nominalism at all.”

Instead he found this revealing statement, by Mrs Eisenstein (a fine lady, who died earlier this year):

“To ask historians to search for elements which entered into the making of an indefinite ‘modernity’ seems somewhat futile. To consider the effects of a definite communications shift which entered into each of the movements under discussion seems more promising.”

What is one to make of this?

Rather than paraphrase, I will quote Smith’s email, for it will repay close reading:

“In other words, being herself a modern, she cannot conceive that concurrent movements in the scientific, religious, and political spheres might share a common metaphysical essence that would account for their nature and near-concurrent historical emergence. Being metaphysically blind, the modern will always regard these realms as essentially heterogeneous, and that they can only share a commonality insofar as they may be affected by the same extrinsic, measurable phenomenon, in this case the printing press, which through changes in dissemination and retention patterns and whatnot, may accelerate the pace of these different movements, but not account for their origin; may account for their intensification, but not their content or direction.

“But if we define the difference between the pre-modern and the modern as that between a worldview oriented by a sense of transcendent reality and one where the notion of the transcendent has been eliminated, then, once we demonstrate how that transition occurred, the origin and direction of all these new movements can be accounted for.

“The Reformers severed all ties between the natural and supernatural (so the latter was only now accessible to “faith alone,” while the former was left to manage its own sinful affairs), scientists severed those between phenomena and substance (so reducing explanation to description), and politics those between power and authority (so reducing right to might).

“In general, appearance has been severed from the reality it was once understood to be an appearance of, and in such a way that appearance itself is now considered the only reality.

“In the pre-modern worldwiew, the essence of appearance lay in its being the means, the path, to an end, reality. In the modern worldview, appearance being itself the reality, its essence lies in being the means to more elaborations of appearance. In turn, the essence of these elaborations is as means to more intense elaborations, and so on. Appearance feeds on itself without any other intended end.

“Technique and systematization are the processes by which the essence of the modern worldview finds expression, and they cannot be stopped of their own accord. Nor can it be argued to the modern that these processes are inimical to him and his interests, because he can understand himself and his interests only through this worldview: his worldview.”

*

Or if I may be so bold, to condense this into a sound bite: The overthrow of Realism by Nominalism lies at the root of modernity; the replacement of a profound metaphysic with one that is invincibly jejune. Printing, at most, only served as a weapon.

Mea culpable, mea maxima culpable. It should have occurred to me by now that something inanimate, such as a machine, cannot change anything. Only souls can do that.

On discipline

“Brilliant! … And completely wrong!”

It is for this line that I am, apparently, remembered by a seminary class I taught two years ago. I encouraged my impressive young charges to speculate boldly on matters Shakespearean. I also encouraged them to rubbish each other’s speculations. “Creative destruction,” I suppose Schumpeter would call this, as he did the equivalent in the capitalist economy. But I prefer that kind of thing be confined to friendly, truth-seeking, intellectual debate.

For centuries, brilliant scholars have been proposing intricate textual theories to explain away the composition of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, and the works of the earliest Church generations. Which is fine, but they ought to be shot down.

The Reformation itself began with brilliant new theories, in the intellectual blaze that followed the Late Mediaeval introduction of moveable type. That is a topic for many other days; a subtle topic, for as Elizabeth Eisenstein and others have shown, the printing revolution was hardly confined to making rare books suddenly widely available. It was also a revolution in tone and attitude towards the great sources of Western intellectual tradition: a new spirit of sceptical inquiry — for better, though more often for worse.

I mentioned in last Idlepost, a certain Clement. He was bishop at Rome, according to ancient authorities (Irenaeus long before Eusebius), in the generation after Peter and Paul. The history is murky, as we might expect, but this much is clear from the Tradition. Clement, first among the “Apostolic Fathers” — high Christian writings temporally just outside the canon of the New Testament itself — comes down to us in two carefully-preserved texts, an epistle and a homily. We cannot be sure of the authorship of that latter, though deadly sure of how it begins:

“Brothers, we must think about Jesus Christ as we think about God, as about the judge of the living and the dead. …”

There can be no credible conflict over the authorship of “First Clement,” however, written (in Greek) from Rome as a letter to the local church at Corinth, and telling the Corinthians to shape up. Nor can the text be much disputed, though some passages might be puzzled over. It is dead clear in the main. And those acquainted with the Hellenistic world, and the genre which Clement has Christianized, will be unsurprised by its construction. It is unmistakably a product of that age when (Acts 17) Paul has stood before the Areopagus and addressed the men of Athens on, “The Unknown God.”

We Christians are as Greek as we are Hebrew. Gentle reader should note that his New Testament is translated from Greek; that from our beginnings, Greek and cognate Latin are the languages in which we think. That from the start, we were indeed thinking, and in the rational categories that came by grace through Athens and Alexandria; as from a Judaism that had itself been Hellenized, even within its native Palestine. Live with it — for that is what happened.

A lot of time has been wasted by busybodied fools arguing that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare; that someone other than Homer wrote Homer. (“Another poet of that generation who happened to have the same name.”) The time would be better spent reading such authors. The same is true, generally, of the Church Fathers: better to read them in their breadth, and not with a view to pursuing small vexatious points — inevitably to factional ends.

Moreover, as the history of sceptical inquiry has abundantly shown, clever theories become quickly dated; and the main lines of ancient tradition (inside Church and out) tend to be confirmed by archaeological discoveries. The ability to distinguish contemporary attested fact from parable, or later accretion of legend, is among our natural endowments. Intellectual fashions come and go, or may recur, like style in women’s clothing; the basics remain.

Hence, I will affirm of Clement, that he wrote very early; that he wrote with a consciousness of real authority; that he wrote to correct. He is also in the lists as Pope, in succession to Peter, and if he leaves the impression that Rome may correct Corinth, it is an authority to which Corinth finally subscribes, for Clement’s Epistle is to be found within Corinthian liturgy by about AD 170 (along with Clement’s name) generations after he wrote it. Live with it, O scholars!

And live with it, even though the evidence formidably suggests a universal Church, headquartered at Rome, and governed by a living Pope, in the first decades after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Our Lord.

But more than that: this Epistle of Clement is already dealing with a crisis in that Church. For the Corinthians to whom it is addressed, are like us.

They call themselves Christian, but are loath to accept Church authority. They are by habit mentally distracted, by every passing meme. They have replaced the bishop and elders sent to them with men more to their own free-spirited taste. They despise hierarchy, and “elitism.” The Eucharist to them is “a thing” like other things; the focus of their prayer was lost with their obedience.

Saint Paul had already chastised them for their “libertarian values,” for their effeminacy of mind and sexual immorality including (goodness me!) open homosexuality; for their reversion to nasty pagan customs in marriage, to the detriment alike of women and men. And a few other things. (It is noteworthy that the post-modern attempt to parse Paul’s condemnation of sexual perversions — to argue that he must have been referring to something other than that to which he was obviously referring — requires forms of insolence and special pleading that he also condemned.)

Clement is following up. Both he and Paul assumed much good in the Corinthians, too: in their hospitality, for instance; their openness to strangers. There is even a hint that the ease of their women and youth — a kind of emancipation — was, to begin with, a good thing. But not good, once it came to entail a loss of respect; an incapacity alike for reverence and for repentance; a dissolution into that spirit of factiousness, of party strife, that Paul (like a divine Tocqueville) had already discerned.

In the finest Hellenistic rhetoric, Clement celebrates the contrary spirit of homonoia (the Roman concordia, our “concord”) among the statesmen, the poets and philosophers, the preachers and teachers of the old pagan polis. No hick, we find him quoting e.g. Sophocles and Euripides, for an audience to which he refuses to condescend. He embeds the new Christian kerygma in the old Greek paideia. He evokes physis — the Greek word for nature, and a natural order (which is nearly opposite the idea of “naturalism” which we substitute for it today).

Clement demands that the errant Corinthians restore their appointed elders to office; that they acknowledge the natural hierarchy within the Church; that the teachings of the Apostles be obeyed; that order and harmony within the Church universal be re-established among them. For we are “all in this together.” He excoriates the arrogance, amounting to madness, now come into vogue among them; the loss of humility which presages that loss of order. Better to offend the presumptuous, he tells them, than to offend against God.

But what I find most remarkable is Clement’s praise (in section 37) for the Roman Army. He admires their discipline, their submission to command, according to rank. He uses the old Greek saw about the parts of the body: that the feet can do nothing without the head, nor the head without the feet. Each part is necessary in its station, and the real consequence of a revolution for “equality” is, and can only be, death to the whole.

Or as I like to put this: “A place for everyone, and everyone in his place.”

Let the strong care for the weak; and both be grateful. Let the wealthy personally care for the poor; and the poor be thankful. Let the wise show their wisdom in good deeds. Let us carefully consider the materials from which we are made, that we redound to the glory of our Creator.

Discipline and training thus goes much deeper than the sergeant barking on the parade ground. For every part of us must stand, courageously, in battle. We must “be prepared,” must be ready-aye-ready against the temptations and punishments of this world. This the Corinthians are not.

We must not have soldiers who will fold — the way we have been folding.

For we are all Corinthians now.

The addict

Articles such as the one Andrew Sullivan has written (here) are true enough, and might have some passing effect upon the reader. “Yes, I am addicted to the Internet,” he may think to himself, for a moment before clicking the next links. (There are several within the article itself.) Or, he may be more spooked, and resolve the next morning to drink his first cup of coffee — or the first half of his first cup — before checking his Smartphone. He may find the mental quiet disturbing; he may even find it exhilarating. Then the alarm will sound, the panic kick in, from the back of his head. “What if something has happened?” He must take action. The horror of standing without crutches is intense. He must return to his click-bait before he crashes; before the silence becomes a cause of pain. The familiar screen flashes back before him, the sound in the ear-buds strikes up.

God has, in His design of the human metabolism, provided for this two-stage reaction. The first alone is the source of good proposal; the second is habit long-formed, and a war. It is technically possible to override the habit, but harder the longer it has prevailed. There was a flicker, not only of reason but nostalgia; a memory retrieved of a time before the addiction was acquired. If there was such a memory.

For children today, provided almost from birth with their hand-held devices, defeat is assured. They have, in a sense, been spiritually aborted, though thankfully not physically slain. They will have no childhoods; there will not be time. For the race is on, even before daycare, to get them plugged in, and turned on. (They must be consumerized, sexualized, politicized, made docile.)

Everywhere I see these little ones. From their strollers, they look up at mommy. She is on her Smartphone. It is not that they are unloved; but there is something else more important. They must learn to think tactically. Perhaps, when they get their own Smartphones, they can call her, on theirs?

It is this second stage in which there can be a moral confrontation. We must decide who is to be the boss of us. A demon has been installed as the pilot, by our own neglect and unacknowledged will. This is no simple matter of asking him to step aside; of shutting down the autopilot and taking back the controls. For demons, normally polite and soothing, become cheeky in situations like this. It will be a long and exhausting wrestle with the demon. (Why today? Why not leave this till tomorrow?)

Somewhere in that Sullivan piece, which contains perversities, but fewer than in most of his writings, we find his truest observation. For Sullivan was or is a remarkably gifted, nominally Catholic man. He has seen the looks in their faces: of the people locked into their screens. He has looked at himself, through others. (“Out of the eyes of babes.”) What is that look?

I have seen it myself all over, while walking and riding about the city; and moreover, I have seen it increase, dramatically, over the last few years. I would not call it a “zombie look,” for it conveys a certain alertness. (It is not like heroin: quite another drug.) The face is deadly serious. It is a look rather of anxiety, floating on a lake of melancholy. It is the “breaking news” look. The subject is deeply concerned. He could be in uptown Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. He “needs to know” what is happening downtown. Except, nothing is happening there. Rather, somewhere else in virtual space, his own fate is being decided. He must keep up with the latest developments. His attention is entirely fixed, on a place beyond his comprehension or control. Though his case is hopeless, he must decide his next move. His Facebook “likes” depend on it.

Clement of Rome writes about a state like this, in his (“first”) letter to the Corinthians: the “New Yorkers” of the generation next after Saint Paul’s. The state, I mean, of being without discipline, without self-control, and mentally “elsewhere.” Perhaps I will return to this tomorrow. But first I must get away from this machine.

Unfinished conversations

John Bentley Mays (1941–2016) was last spoken with, around the corner here in Parkdale, a few weeks ago. He was on his way to a rather highbrow, Saturday-morning Bible-study group, that he could not persuade me to join. (I am a notorious non-joiner.) A distinctive large presence in dark clothing (see here), he was among Canada’s cultural heavies. As art critic for a generation in the establishment Globe & Mail, then guru of “architecture and urbanism,” I’d known and sometimes followed him since the days when he would sometimes drop into the Idler Pub (1986–2002). He did not write in my Idler magazine (upstairs from the pub) however, for we agreed in the most amicable way that he did not belong there. As a character in the pub he was extremely welcome: someone for me to disagree with about … pretty much everything.

A sincere Catholic (convert from mild Anglicanism), of the kind I’d call “liberal/liberal” (that is, a mixture of old and new liberalisms), he tried hard to reason soundly; as a journalist, to follow the leads and twirl them together; to be consistent and sane. This isn’t easy today, as gentle readers have been pointing out, and Mays’s case was made harder by the tendency to morbid depression on which he wrote a memoir, In the Jaws of the Black Dogs (1999). A loner as a child in America’s deep South, he lost his father to alcohol and perhaps murder at age seven, his mother to cancer when he was eleven, and nearly himself to suicide, early and often.

The book is a compelling, unpleasant read, valuable because it tells us three things. First, that such depressions do not yield to shrink fixes, and will not otherwise “go away.” Second, that there is no “template,” for each sufferer is his own constellation of symptoms which no outsider is privileged to explore. And thus, third, the depression can be controlled and mastered, only if one grasps these things. One must, as it were, leash one’s own black dogs, and it will be neither easy nor painless. While perhaps overwritten, the book is admirable for containing no victim’s plaint, no false appeal for applause, and absolutely no pop psychology.

As a young man in Ireland, South Africa, and Canada, he said he was a “fascist.” His personal circumstances contributed to his demand for “authority figures.” As an older man, I think he overcompensated, in his embrace of a self-consciously post-modern, aesthetic anarchy. In architecture, he was a champion of Gehry and Libeskind, and beyond them, he longed for the kind of urban development that would shriek, break neighbourhoods, and épater le bourgeois. He wanted new buildings in conflict, rivalry, “dialogue” with the old. Though he played into cultural fashions, which invariably promote the subversive — I accused him of being a handbag once — he was more genuinely subversive than might first appear. And also, quite possibly, more genuinely Christian, in ways I stubbornly under-appreciate.

Back in Idler days, we had an argument going about “beauty.” I was in favour, he was against. He did not think beauty should be an aspiration in art, and where he acknowledged it was present, he was displeased by it. It was a curmudgeonly argument, but it intrigued me, because I think he had found some ironical Platonic way to contribute to the understanding of beauty itself; that it has nothing to do with “search and find.”

That was thirty years ago. We never got back to it. I was hoping that we would; I still hope to understand his position. But now he has dropped dead — “literally,” on a sidewalk, a few blocks away. I will miss him, for he was kindly and charming, at least to me. As death often reminds, we must learn to wait more patiently, for we live in a world where the conversations are never finished. There are no “closures” here.

God buy him!

Addendum on wrong places

Just yesterday I mentioned wrong places in which one might repose one’s hope — places in which, I would say, the long sleep of the just will prove unobtainable. Several of my correspondents seem to have missed my point, and one asked for a complete list — which, thanks to free enterprise, will be impossible to provide. Let me however give two examples that I find much in the news.

The first is the belief, among Republicans in USA, that this Trump gentleman (or I might almost say, fellow) is “getting better.” He is acting a little more presidential, and thus scoring fewer “own goals” now that he is in the championship final. Perhaps he is, though I think even I could word a few things more empathetically, were I playing this game of running for high office.

But the same correspondents are so appalled by this Clinton lady (or I might almost say, woman) that they desperately hope he will behave more like a presidential candidate, and less like a three-year-old with some powerful resentments. And it is in the nature of people — Republicants and Democritters alike — to believe what they want to believe. They are full of illusions, as a consequence of this, and the belief that a fat, loud-mouthed billionaire of seventy can change his colours without a massive and embarrassing religious conversion — or at least a coronary — is, shall we say, optimistic.

I realize this argument won’t work against his “warts and all” supporters. God help us when he takes to Twitter in the Oval Office.

Another point I have already made, perhaps too many times, but it does bear repetition. It is the notion that the world would fill with Catholics if we’d only make the moral requirements a little looser. This, too, shows little appreciation for the human psychology. On that level, people do not turn to a religion — the Christian one in particular — in the hope that they will now be allowed to behave like barbaric atheist neo-pagans. For that option is already available, outside Holy Church. Too, there are other “Christian clubs” with all the consumer variety that free enterprise can supply. Yet it is from the sense of being dirty that one seeks a shower; and from the sense of sin that one seeks to be washed in the blood of the Lamb. That is, to be as vulgar as possible, where conversions begin: in the terrible perception that one is “alone” within bad company. It is, if you will, our “unique selling point” — the Truth. Unchanging and unchangeable.

If you think people want to become Catholics because it is “cool,” think again.

Blessings in disguise

To the evil man, everything is evil. To the good man, everything is good. For bad men, good fortune is bad; for good men, bad fortune is good.

Saint Paul may be consulted in Romans 8, or I Corinthians 2, but centuries before him, Plato was onto this. “Virtuous men possess beatitude despite pain and misfortune, while vicious men are miserable because of the condition of their souls, no matter how much wealth, sensual pleasure, or fame they enjoy.” (I think that was Augustine’s précis. The whole argument may be found in the Gorgias.)

Polus thinks Socrates is talking nonsense. The whole world knows that pain hurts, that money can buy stuff, that pleasure feels good. And, without being so invidious as to name them, he notes that many evil men seem happy. But as Socrates shows (I cannot improve on him), this happiness is glib. To say nothing of unsustainable.

It would be fair to say, that Socrates is one of my heroes; my fellow opponent of “democracy.” I like the way he addresses Polus, who’d like to put things to a vote. Socrates will accept this, in principle, but specifies there must be only one voter: Polus.

Let gentle reader vote, on divorce and remarriage.

“If thou have an evyll wife, take pacience, and thanke God; for all is for the best, well taken.” (I quote the preacher John Colet, friend of Thomas More and Erasmus.) It is something to bear in mind if one thinks that replacing one spouse with another will make things any better. Why try to improve on what can’t be improved?

Boethius, too, is very good on “blessings in disguise.” That is why those mediaevals adored him: because he could put it so well.

Now, some people are not that good. Take me, for instance. They may not be entirely evil, but they sure haven’t risen to the condition where they might e.g. joyfully accept martyrdom. And when a frypan falls on my toes, I cuss. I may have readers who are almost as bad as I am.

But I should think any well-catechized Catholic, or thoughtful Protestant for that matter, or sublime Greekie, should be capable of taking the point: that in the fullest view of Heaven, it’s “all good.” We need to aspire to fuller views of Heaven. It beats trying to fix what cannot be fixed.

It was a peculiarity of the teaching of Our Lord that He demanded Perfection. On the other hand, He was willing to provide the requisite Grace.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” He says. That was in Saint Matthew. In Saint Luke it gets even edgier: “Blessed are the poor,” full stop. And the hungry, too. Notice that he does not call them victims. He merely warned the rich that, while everything is possible with God, it is hard to fit through the eye of a needle. (Camels can’t do it; can you?)

The function of His Church was not to meet “the people” half way. It was certainly not to accommodate the world. Rather, vice versa: the early Church faced a Roman society in many respects like our own decadent society. Lots of abortions. Really kinky sex (read Suetonius and Cassius Dio). A whole Empire full of faithless unbelievers, to take this from the Christian point of view. Fifty or a hundred million of them. (And that was just looking in one direction.)

Were I Paul with my first converts — a couple of rather batty women — I think the idea of trimming my sails to the prevailing breeze might occur to me. But he looked to Europe, and the task before him. The confrontation was head on.

And he knew something I am still learning. That all the world’s problems can be solved by one man. It is a simple matter of putting one’s hopes in the right place. As opposed to, say, one of the wrong places, whence nothing good can come. Do what you should, and “let God take care of it.”

Of course, “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.”

Stop preaching compromise, resume teaching Hope. This is my free advice to Rome. We do not have a world to come to terms with; we have, as ever, a world to convert.

Buenos Aires directive

Were it not that my eyes had strayed into the Internet at large, I could have guessed from my own email that Pope Francis has “done it again.” The convulsion this week is his letter to Argentine bishops (the authenticity of which took some time to confirm), declaring that their “Buenos Aires directive” correctly interprets his views on Communion for the divorced and remarried, conveyed in Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia, and that “no other interpretation is possible.” They say the pope says they can now give Communion in unspecified cases where, objectively, the communicants remain in a state of mortal sin. The pope says that they understand him correctly.

For those who read such things, Canons 915 and 916 spell out the old rules with admirable clarity — not only on the controversial issue, but also on who is responsible for what. Read them, and gentle reader will discover the issue is not who can approach the altar to take Communion. Rather, it is to whom the priest may licitly give it. From what I (and at least one canon lawyer) can see, the pope’s affirmation of the Argentine directive slurs this vital point.

It is important because, in the Catholic dispensation, “conscience” may be a jade. One may sincerely believe one is doing something in good conscience. That is subjective. But what one is doing is right or wrong, regardless of one’s strongly held opinion. That is objective, and the priest is bound to follow criteria not of his own making. He has all the latitude in the world to consider what might reduce mortal to venial, in the cure of souls. He has, or had, no discretion to permit the re-elevation of that venial to a mortal sin, by letting his penitent take Communion. Except now, according to the pope, he has.

I am scandalized but not shocked by the pope’s letter. By now, I am not the only Catholic who has become accustomed to Bergoglio’s capricious playing at the edges of received Catholic doctrine and practice — which he is by his papal vows bound to uphold. There are by now many hundred examples of this mischievous playing at the edges. But in this case he has irretrievably gone over. He has put faithful Catholics, including all priests, in an impossible position, where they must choose between what this latest pope says, and what the Church has taught since time out of mind.

The way he has done so is also appalling. Rather than formally changing the wording of canon law, to make any “reform” explicit and comprehensible (and potentially reversible), he has gone around it. Some will argue that this is a good thing, for he has thereby limited the scale of the convulsion. It is a bad thing, because it creates a precedent for going around every other canon, without grave, formal restraints. He blemishes, thus, not one facet of Catholic law; he mars the whole thing.

Meanwhile, in recent days, he has delivered himself of an emotional harangue, condemning all those who through the “terrorism” of “gossip,” cause disunity within the Church. His wanton abuse of both words is noted. But more. To do something profoundly divisive — to tamper with fundamental principles on which that unity rests, while pronouncing anathemas on those who would defend them — is a tactic I associate with the lowest sort of politician.

What can we do about this? So far as I can see, nothing, except pray for the conversion of the pope; and pray that the next one will not also be such as we deserve.

On the need to remain cheerful

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make humourless. Or drive mad, which is the same thing. (These are not nice gods, as should be apparent.)

Verily, I have noticed in my walks around Parkdale, that a sure indication of mental disequilibrium is what Father Zed likes to call, “the spittle-flecked nutties.” With, or more often without, the plausible presence of cellphone and ear buds, the customer is ranting — usually about some wrong that he imagines to have been done to him. It is his whole life; he’s out there ranting every day. His cuss words may leave an impression of incoherence, but the nature of his complaint will be clear enough. It will take only a few seconds to “discern,” as they say in Rome.

I am thinking of quite specific neighbours, from the half-way houses and other domiciles in the immediate vicinity of the High Doganate, doing their spittle-flecked nutties as they pace the streets. None are accessible to irony, nor any of the Greek rhetorical figures. All are cheerless. (One thinks: “Poor soul, already in Hell.”) Each is fixed exclusively upon an obsession which, in his own disordered mind, makes sense. He reasons from his nasty premiss, logically.

Chesterton said ingeniously, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

I mention him less for the quote, than for the body of his life and works, which deal with the question of sanity in a comprehensive way. By word, and by jolly example, he set himself quixotically against the delusions of the modern world, in all their encyclopaedic range. While he was, in his maturity, identifiably Roman Catholic, much of his matter was in no direct way denominational, or even explicitly Christian. Rather it was “merely sane” (and consistently entertaining). He offered readers a guide out of the madhouse. He left it to others to write the guides into those unhappy public institutions which dominate our cities today. He does get to the point of Christ, but only at intervals.

A number of my readers have written to me recently, mentioning that the world has gone mad. I suspect they have been slow to notice.

True, more of life every day is determined by the rulings of the “spittle-flecked nutties” — increasingly in positions of power. A friend sent me this morning, for instance, an official poster from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, instructing all faculty and students, whether familiar with each other or not, to begin every conversation with her/his/their/zir/hir name, and preferred pronouns. (See here.) The humour, while real, is entirely unintentional; the instruction is deadly serious. Note that it makes sense, given the delusional premiss, that one’s sex is something that one chooses. That premiss is insane, and what follows from it becomes necessarily more and more strange, until it passes from laughable to frightening.

Or as I’m writing this, another email arrives, with links, and subject line: “What are they smoking in Indiana?” And another — this from Ottawa — about a proposal from the consortium of Canadian universities to expel from membership all that ignore their latest, bat-feathered, “diversity” guidelines, thus depriving them of all public funding and degree recognition. (See immediately above.)

Madness of this sort is contagious, as the history of the world attests; but as Our Lord advised, we must stay aloof from it. That is to say, do not allow yourself to be pulled into the vortex of evil, while it spins. (“Resist ye not evil.”) Item: do not let the spittle-flecked nutties turn you into a spittle-flecked nutty.

Sanity is precious. Someone has to laugh. The Saints and the Martyrs are all of them agreed, that we are not the playthings of the gods. We are in better hands, and should remain cheerful — come what may.

Creative misanthropy

Are you “deplorable” gentle reader? I know I am. The estimate that half of Republican voters are deplorable strikes me as low. I would think nearer 75 percent would be more reasonable. I would put the deplorables at around 80 percent for the Democratic Party. In both cases, about 20 percent are excused by the usual Pareto distribution: too spacey to know what they are doing, and thus “not deplorable” on a technicality.

But then, as that logician, Bill Clinton would point out: it depends what we mean by “deplorable.” I tend to fall back on the dictionary definition, founded upon plorare (something like “wail, bewail, lament”), prefixed with the Latin (or Gaelic) preposition for “down,” in the sense of “going down” — to the bottom, into the dregs. One might imagine a stream or spillway, with six inches of muddy water, flowing over several feet of immovable sediment.

“You know, just to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic  — you name it.” By Mrs Clinton’s account, if one continues reading, the other half are merely losers, with whom she could potentially empathize.

A quick Internet check reveals that there is now a word, “generalistic.” The comparatives are, “more generalistic,” and, “most generalistic.” I would think it is a recent coinage, and I would add, most deplorable.

Is she — could we say? — “judgemental”? That is not for me to judge.

But I would think so. Speaking only for myself, I love bandying about numbers and proportions, especially those I have invented for the purposes of argument in a public bar. (“As studies have shown, 73.7 percent of statistics are made up on the spot.”) The economist Hayek once complimented the economist Keynes for being “always willing to guess at a figure.” There was some sarcasm in his observation, however. (Hayek was notoriously prim with statistics.)

A less judgemental view would post an estimate of 100 percent for deplorables in all parties, where the survey has omitted Our Lord — who, anyway, never voted. (Should we not follow His example?) But humanly, I don’t think it would be wise to consider everyone as equally deplorable, in view of our need to put some people in gaol. (Mrs Clinton, for instance.)

Wise, wiser, wisest: to my mind, it would perhaps be better, in the Natted States Merica as elsewhere, to let more things pass. It is probably true that most people are racially prejudiced (minorities are the worst), misogynist (especially the women), and “phobic” or fearful of pretty much everything. I know I am; and moreover, extremely unsystematic.

I try to take people one at a time. This is hard enough: in the mass, I find they are just too much for me.

Church bulletin

Today, for those of the Roman persuasion, is our memorial of the Holy Name of Mary, within the octave of the feast of her Nativity. Once it was celebrated on the Octave itself, in accord with the original Jewish custom of naming a child on the eighth day from birth. As most Catholic venerations, it begins in the long murky pre-pre-modern past. The custom among religious of taking or bestowing the name “Mary,” among other given names, is itself of great antiquity. From what I understand (and I am neither liturgist nor Church historian), we might look to the Council of Ephesus in the fifth century, which met (at the Church of Mary) in that ancient Greek city, now Islamized as Selçuk within post-modern Turkey. That was the council where Our Lady was boldly proclaimed the Theotokos — the “Mother of God” — in defiance of Nestorians and others who would call her only the “mother of Jesus,” in light of their impoverished Christologies.

But these Idleposts are short, or meant to be short, and we will fast-forward to anno 1683, and stand in imagination with the Polish king, Jan Sobieski, at the Gates of Vienna. In one of the most significant battles of history, he defeated the Infidel Turk, who had been for centuries constantly extending his conquests through eastern and central Europe. Had Sobieski’s badly outnumbered and outgunned “coalition of the willing” (i.e. the French wouldn’t help) failed on that occasion, all the rich, upper Germanies could have been overrun, and the Ottoman Sultan would have had his hands on the resources to sustain his westward push, farther. And, more millions of Christians would have been slaughtered, enslaved, or converted.

Sobieski’s improbable triumph — which turned the tide towards Christian reconquest of the Hungarian plains, and much of the Balkans — was accomplished on the 11th of September, 1683 (with mop-up extending well into the 12th). It was done explicitly in the Name of Mary. All Europe knew that at the time; though over the last few centuries our memories have been failing.

For the first anniversary, Pope Innocent XI extended this ancient feast or memorial — then associated mostly with the Spanish Habsburg realms — to the universal Church, in thanksgiving for the Victory of Our Lady. The “Name of Mary” remained in our calendars until the unspeakable Annibale Bugnini had it erased, as part of the liturgical “reforms” (or more accurately, “deforms”), after Vatican II.

But Saint John Paul II restored it in 2002 — coincidentally, the year after another memorable event, done on the anniversary of the great battle. Perhaps gentle reader remembers that news: which involved office towers in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and a field in rural Pennsylvania. For you see: while we had forgotten the Gates of Vienna, the Musulmans had not.

Several readers of my Saturday post were puzzled by my mention of the Gates in question. My post for today is merely informational. I would drive you all to Mass, but, I don’t have a car.

Fifteen years

A generation or more is necessary to see any large event in some historical perspective. That the fall of the Berlin Wall was a “large event” we could see immediately, but not what it portended. The political world would be transformed, but the New World Order that George Bush Senior foresaw was a mirage. Ditto with events since 9/11.

Several thousand were killed on that day in 2001 — the anniversary of the Ottoman defeat at the Gates of Vienna. This was a comparatively small number, by modern standards. The rich symbolism of this Islamist operation was lost on the West, which no longer cares for history or legend. A brilliant assault of “asymmetric warfare,” it fulfilled all of its objectives. The torch has since been passed from the more moderate al-Qaeda to the more fanatic Daesh, and will be passed again in due course. Osama bin-Laden personally lost face by being hunted down and killed like a rat, but his vision of a restored Islamic Caliphate survives him. It inspires still the young in heart and mind.

The immediate intention was to humiliate the “Great Satan”; to awaken the sleeping giant and make him blindly thrash; to goad him into self-destructive behaviour as he struck against an enemy he could neither locate nor understand. Beyond this: to expose him as a paper tiger, tilting a balance of power, and transferring initiative from the mightily-armed “Crusader” to the nimble “Jihadi.” Within the Muslim world: to show that only the radical Salafist faction could get results, could change the direction of history and, as it were, “make Arabia great again.”

As I suggested above, we are still too close to this event to grasp its full significance; but after fifteen years we in the West are in a much worse position than we were on the 10th of September, 2001. We showed, as the Islamists predicted, that we did not have the stamina to prevail, even against weak adversaries; that America and allies could only fight “Vietnams.” Our will is shaken, and to Salafist delight, we have by now expressed contrition for fourteen centuries of Christian defence against Islamic aggression. We bow respectfully, as our culture is insulted, and as versions of Shariah are imposed. In disregard of our own security, we have thrown our borders open to massive Muslim immigration. We follow, at every junction, the course of sentimentality, and adapt to the certainty of defeat. After each hit we call for grief counsellors.

It is instructive that, in the present circumstances, with Christians reduced to desperation through much of the Near East, we import Muslim refugees almost exclusively. The Christians flee to the protection of the Kurds; not to refugee camps in which they would risk massacre. Western governments take only from those camps; or in Europe, the flotillas launched from Turkey and Libya. The Islamists gloat at this demographic achievement; the Daesh now recruit from the disaffected young in the new Muslim ghettoes of Europe, radicalized in Saudi-built-and-financed mosques. Few directly engage in suicidal acts of terrorism; but those who do are lionized as heroes. Lesser, safer acts, such as rape of European women, and desecration of churches and synagogues, have become commonplace. We are, and we know that we are, as incapable of assimilating these migrants as the Romans were of assimilating the Vandals and Huns through their increasingly porous frontiers.

Crucially, in the mindless fantasy of “multiculturalism,” we refuse to recognize the contradictions between Islamic and Christian teaching, and look the other way, muttering fatuities about “the religion of peace” after each psychopathic explosion. This is just what Osama predicted: the harder the blows, the more docile we would become, and the more complacent in the face of the ancient Islamic demand for submission.

The genius of Osama bin-Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, was to know that the de-Christianizing West would respond in this way. Their propaganda spelt out, from the beginning, the argument for their methods. They called us chestless wonders; they said we would fold under any sustained pressure; that we had lost the confidence of our Christian identity. We are an aging society now, vitiated by abortions, needing immigrants to pay our pensions; a people addicted to drugs, from opiates to iPhones; lapsed in creature comforts, and spineless in the face of adversity.

Not all of us, of course. I am sometimes impressed by the number of remnant faithful to the old Christian religion, and its “Western ideals.” In moments of crisis, as we saw for some weeks after the Twin Towers came down, the rest of the population stirs. Yet by Christmas of 2001 they were snoring again, and again the liberal reflexes were twitching. Not al-Qaeda but “Bush” was already being blamed for disturbing the peace.

Bush made one fatal mistake. He “overmisestimated” his countrymen’s ability to stay what he knew must be a long and difficult course. His “flypaper” strategy — as I called it at the time — was to engage the Islamists in their native East; to let them go fight in places like Kandahar and Fallujah, where they would be irresistibly attracted to, and annihilated by, vastly superior American military discipline, logistics, and firepower. It was working too well: Americans began to feel safe again, resented the foreign bloodshed and expense, and so called the boys home. Now the flypaper hangs over the West.

Beyond this, the Bush strategy was to repair a disintegrating international state system. National governments must take sovereign responsibility; must patrol within their own borders. Regimes which exported violence would be confronted. Either they would end the sanctuary they had granted to terrorists, or a U.S.-led coalition of the willing would do it for them. He cited long-established international law, which entitles the victims of raids to “hot pursuit” across international borders. By invading Afghanistan and Iraq successfully, Bush could compel other regimes, such as those governing Libya, Syria, and Iran, to behave themselves. That, too, was working: until Obama suddenly evacuated Iraq, vindicating indeed those who had called the USA a paper tiger. And, flew to Cairo to deliver an obsequious apology from America to the whole Muslim world.

There had been, shortly after 9/11, a curious exchange in a Washington corridor between President Bush and the freshman New York senator, Hillary Clinton. Playing to the morning-after gallery as a hawk, she needled him. He was quite rude. He wished to assure the former First Lady that he would not be replying to the hit on New York City as her husband had done, to previous al-Qaeda provocations. He would not be merely firing a cruise missile up some Afghan camel’s derrière.

Bush delivered on his threats. He thereby earned the respect of his country’s worst enemies, who had become accustomed to American vacillation. But he became over-extended, as he began to fill the Mesopotamian bog with unrecoverable billions, in a lunatic scheme to turn Iraq into a “model democracy.” This was well-meaning American naiveté at its self-defeating worst: for what had once worked in Germany and Japan had no chance anywhere in the Middle East.

Notwithstanding, within two years, despite serial misjudgements, the USA held all the cards. America still enjoyed an unchallengeable and unprecedented “hyperpower” status. Within two more, Bush himself had started to drop them, for domestic political ends. But the Iraq “surge” demonstrated that he was not retreating. He was willing to expend his own diminishing political capital in the American national interest.

It takes some stomach, to stand one’s ground against a ruthless and implacable foe. Bush wrongly believed the West still had it. He paid for that naiveté, too. Tiring quickly of the inconvenience of battle, the public were easily persuaded to disavow Bush as captain, and make him their scapegoat instead. Osama bin-Laden, and not George W. Bush, had been proved more astute.

In my youth, I was amazed to watch the United States of America let itself be defeated by little North Vietnam — having, it seemed to me, agreed to fight blindfold, with hands tied behind back, and feet chained together. It was a failure of resolution, from which I hoped much had been learnt: you don’t fight a war by a ponderous extension of your domestic bureaucracy. You certainly don’t fight a war you don’t intend to win. Osama told the Muslim world it would happen again, and in retrospect, he was right. But Vietnam was made into a mere holding action within the larger Cold War. The consequences of defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan are much greater.

America was our champion, but the West as a whole has proved itself unequal to the barbaric will. Frankly, I cannot imagine a recovery that does not involve the restoration of our Christian identity, and the renewal of our Christian mission at home and abroad. As “nothing in particular” we are already buried up to the waist in the trash heap of history.

But of course: alternative futures are not precluded, just because I can’t imagine them. Maybe we’ll be saved by flying saucers.

More on beetles

My title this morning is another typical Warren conceit. Really this squib is not about beetles; really it is about something else. But this headnote is entirely between us, gentle reader. Meanwhile, please join me in pretending that we are discussing beetles.

After yesterday’s effusion, it occurred to me to consult my primary literary source on these little animals. It is a short book by Dr Jan Bechyně, published in 1961 (in the “Open Air Guides” series of Messrs Thames and Hudson). It is entitled, Beetles. By “primary” I mean, it first fell into my hands as a child, at a time when I knew even less about beetles than I do today. Originally in German, it is a good example of what is possible when a true expert in a field — in this case, beetle entomology — is commissioned to present the most concise possible outline of what he knows (short of specialist techniques), for people who know nothing, but are presumed to be intelligent.

The author does not try to be entertaining or cute, in the way pop-science picture books try so very hard, today. At no point does he patronize the reader, or try to spare him the effort of acquiring the conceptual framework and necessary jargon of the coleopterist. He simply explains the meaning of each new and terrifying word, as he comes to it; then leaves one to stare until the penny drops. On the other hand, there are six colour plates giving top views of several dozen fine beetles, next discreet size scales, with Latin names and page references to a systematic key, where one will find further line-drawn illustrations in black-&-white. Precise paintings on these plates: of extraordinary beauty, crisply reproduced. That key fills two-thirds of the 158 small pages, and could be your field guide, wherever in this world you might travel.

The child, or adult for that matter, who is enthralled by beetles, will be delighted by the book. It will be, to him, a pearl beyond price; on every page, he will find a revelation. No effort is made to proselytize, however. If you don’t like beetles, you won’t find the book interesting at all, and so, … off you go, bye-bye!

This, I think, is the right attitude to teaching. Give them the goods, straight. And if they are a little slow, as even the most interested students often are, help them over the intellectual mounds. A little unGermanic humour might be permissible, and a friendly atmosphere; a certain approachability together with that subtle hint of discipline from teacher that suggests, “Cross me and you are a dead man.” Or let us mention enthusiasm, which can be contagious. Too, we have this “grammar of beetle zoology” to fall back upon, as a kind of map when we are getting lost.

I will mention here Mr Henry, an American biology teacher I once had in a wonderfully backward British private school, in Asia. (The Patana School, Bangkok, in its underfunded days.) Except that he couldn’t control a class, he was a pillar of authority. He would begin each lesson by drawing an elaborate diagram on the chalkboard; he was a superb draughtsman. By the end of that, only three or four boys would still be paying attention. He would then ignore the nattering at the back of the classroom, and tell us what the diagram showed. At the end of term the front-row elitists would be savagely competing for his highest mark; the other dozen or so would flunk. Their parents would then demand Mr Henry’s removal.

Niloy, Subash, Amitav, and I: we loved this man. And that was the ground for our love of each other. Our rivalries made us inseparable friends; and taught us mutual respect. We became, I suppose, a claque. With Mr Henry we went on exhilarating field trips. If only we could have shaken off the others. We could, I suppose, have contrived to drown them, but did not, thanks to our embrace of a strict moral principle: the sanctity of human life. As for the beetles, we were prepared to dissect them. (It can be done with a magnifying glass, other clever preparations, a very sharp scalpel and a steady hand.)

Ah, “human exceptionalism.” It saves us from so many awful crimes. Yet as I’ve noticed (here for instance) it is going out of vogue.

The author of the piece I linked is affiliated (still, I think) with the “Discovery Institute,” notorious among the sleepy science educators of America as sponsors of research into “intelligent design” — among other scientific interests. He and all others of his ilk are constantly smeared. They are accused of denying “evolution” (which they don’t), of subscribing to “young earth creationism” (which they don’t), of substituting religious for scientific explanations (which they don’t), and so forth. Worst of all, they recognize universal ethical principles which are, shall we say, humanocentric. Most (but by no means all) are Christians. Some are Jews. A few self-describe as “agnostic” or “atheist.” In common, they believe that the received “paradigm” for scientific study, especially in biology, is inadequate and obtuse. This makes them targets for academic persecution.

With Bechyně’s Beetles in my hand I declare, that, half a century ago, Mr Henry was already one of those. Like them, he taught that Darwinian selection is all very well, so far as it goes, but that it does not take us very far; that “the origin of species” is a mystery indeed, to the bottom of which we may never plumb, though we can dip deeper and deeper. And that, those who believe “design” isn’t “intelligent” have never properly observed a beetle.

“Which only a human is capable of doing,” Mr Henry explained. (And proved, with comic zeal.) Though it is evident that many humans do not care.

Let us flunk them.