Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

The ground sloth

It is a curious thing, an unaccountable thing, the ground sloth of our era.

Of terrestrial conditions in former eras I cannot speak with authority. Nor can any living man, of the gigantic sloths, which moved about the earth in the Americas. I never encountered one. The last of their descendants are hypothesized to have died out in the Antilles just before we were able to make their acquaintance. Nimble they could not have been, unless in slow motion. Some of their distant cousins seem to have made it up the trees to safety, in tropical South America, just as we were coming down from the trees, in Africa. But that only according to the Darwinoids, who weren’t there, either.

Xenarthrans, we may call them. That would be the super-order. Megalonychids are the family to which I’ll now refer: our fellow North Americans. Slow like molasses, we are given to understand, but some of them got as far as Alaska after the continents joined up (on an overlay of several hypotheses). For they were unstoppable, like tanks. Massive thick bones; even thicker bulging joints; and the thickest skin on a mammal, reinforced with unmammal-like bony scales. Big, very big and heavy: ten feet of creeping indifference, weighing perhaps a tonne.

Some (and we are piling hypotheses on hypotheses) lasted to the end of the last Ice Age, but I don’t see how we can blame the Indians for killing them off. Arrows wouldn’t work, nor spears of the conventional design and impulsion. You’d need explosives, or a pile driver.

Herbivores they were, almost certainly; fused, mulching teeth; fermenting hindguts like you wouldn’t believe. Foolish was the man who got behind one. I surmise that, like a certain class of Englishman, they (the Sloths, not the Indians) lived on wet cabbage.

And presidential: Thomas Jefferson famously named an excavated species, and told Lewis and Clark to look out for a live one in the American West. And there is a great plop of fossilized ground-sloth dung in the American Museum of Natural History, with the memorable caption:

“Deposited by Theodore Roosevelt.”

*

But that was not the Sloth I was thinking about, not Jefferson’s Megalonyx (“giant claw,” designed for stripping vegetation in the cabbage patch), nor anything to do with the large but quick and lively Teddy R.

The ground sloth I have in mind this morning is instead the condition of our current North American masses. They are hard to get through to — not because they are so well armoured, but for that related “dietary” reason, living as they do on the moral, aesthetic, intellectual and finally, spiritual equivalent of soggy, overboiled cabbage.

A mysterious Sloth hangs over our continent; over the whole contemporary world for all I can tell. It is the opposite of what I call Idleness, in fact it is working, functioning in a sense, without any perceptible imagination. It does not so much seek as expect to get things (flattery, titillation, good health, wide-screen TVs), in which it can nevertheless find little pleasure.

This Sloth, or slothfulness, persistently chooses the path which may or may not be safest, but is unquestionably the easiest and most boring. It avoids all sports which require participation, all enterprise which requires thought, confining itself to what it calls “no brainers.” It does not even try to justify itself, beyond stating that it is tired. There is a terrible slothful undefeatable yawn, that frightens me more than an armed enemy, who could at least be frightened in return. How to reason with, let alone inspire, a creature who appears in every gesture to be, if not sleeping, then nodding off?

This, I think, is the central challenge of evangelization for the Church in our time: How to awaken people from this ground, or background, condition of Sloth? How, as it were, to administer the Sacraments to a congregation that is apparently comatose? How to feed them anything else, when they seem perfectly satisfied with their watery cabbage pulp?

A Washington friend reminds me of W.H. Auden’s suggestion on this, in his “Aphorisms on Reading.” It does no good to tell them that what they eat is disgusting, it will only confirm them in their prejudices.

Instead, we might try to stir-fry their cabbage, with spice and oil in the alert Chinese manner; or advance in a flourish of sauerkraut. Put it under their noses, see if they will twitch. Tell them stories about steak au poivre.

*

Appropriately, today’s feast is that of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, monk of Mount Coelius, sent from Rome with a party of forty or so, to wake the Anglo-Saxons; first Primate of England, consecrated bishop in the year 601; stir-fry chef to the wet cabbage eaters.

Latest automations

There is a special feature on the new, self-parking Volvo, which recognizes pedestrians. You pay for it separately. That was the explanation of a corporate spokesman, in response to a video that shows a self-parking Volvo in action. It backs up, pauses for rather a long time, then suddenly shoots forward, running down two “journalists” at speed. (Was their gormlessness, standing in front of the car, the clue to their profession?)

You see, gentle reader, it wasn’t the car’s fault. The owner had not purchased the “pedestrian detection functionality package.” It could see other cars, but not people. Note that it did not hit any other cars.

Even that statement is philosophically naïve. A Volvo lacks consciousness, and therefore cannot “see.” But we are losing our own ability to “see” such fine points; let alone reason from them successfully.

In my own generation, Volvos were endowed with personhood by certain consumer classes: university professors, for instance. Today, what we would have called the “Hal” phenomenon has spread, with cybernetics, and the distinction between animate and inanimate has correspondingly blurred. People who believed in ghosts and poltergeists, in a previous generation, now believe in “artificial intelligence.” They begin to fear computers, not in themselves but for their magic powers. Estimates for when computers will take over the world are published and broadcast frequently.

Yet even the post-modern peasant mind is somewhere ahead of a self-parking Volvo. (As was unfortunately the case for the two in the video, whose injuries have not been disclosed.) The good citizens of Parkdale, I observe, often park their cars without hurting anybody; and can detect objects on the road as small as a squirrel. (Elsewhere in the news: hideous four-car pile-up from a driver who spotted one on a highway.)

Cars do crash frequently, however, and account for more casualties than most wars. In the last decade, as a pedestrian, I have myself been hit twice by them: once on a sidewalk, and once crossing a road on a green light. But I attributed these misfortunes not to the cars, but to the drivers, whose ethnicities and gender I will not mention. Moreover, I become aware of the increasing menace from falling drones and helicopters. We are promised flying cars, in the mass market soon, and won’t that be a treat?

Human stupidity has been with us since Eve and Adam, but is now considerably enhanced by machines. Programmable, computer-operated machines represent another huge advance. A glance at the cover of almost any pop-science periodical will give hints to progress beyond that.

Yet, “Who am I to judge?” as Pope Francis said; and as Hillary Clinton added, “What difference does it make?”

For we must all die eventually; and even the more primitive tribes of Amazon and New Guinea have invented ways to die stupidly.

My objection to “technology” — not some Hegelian abstraction from the Phänomenologie des Geistes, but powered machinery — is of a more practical and, if you will, “aesthetic” nature. It is ugly and noisy and I want it to go away.

Nor do I care whether the machines require depleting carbon fuels. To my mind, the less sustainable the better.

Nor am I a Luddite. For I am not against all powered machines; only about 99 percent of them.

But that includes 100 percent of those which are self-parking.

Apostle to Rome

It is embarrassing to review the condition of the Church in previous centuries. There is always something gone badly wrong, some “face-grabber” that makes any loyal Catholic wince behind his fingers. Just yesterday, in commemoration of Gregory VII, we were reminded of the mess in the later eleventh century. Or maybe it was just me, the history buff, consulting the Cambridge Mediaeval History to obtain a few clues on the saint-du-jour, as my travels had kept me away from the 1070s for a long time. Quickly stuffed my head with lay investiture scandals. I thought the 1970s were bad, but noooo.

Often, it doesn’t look as if the good guys can win, ever. Hildebrand, as he was called before his election in 1073 — a monk of Cluny — could see that the world was upside down. Very worldly princes were installing their agents in very spiritual offices for very material purposes, and the papacy was powerless to stop them. She was becoming a rather unholy Church. And when, as Pope, this bewildered monk started doing something about it, while courageously explaining how the world would look, rightside up, he was run out of Rome. He died at Salerno, 25 May 1085, about as beaten as a Pope could be. Yet within a generation, all sides, including the worst, were coming to accept, at least in principle, what this Cluniac had preached and published: that the Holy See is “set in the midst, between God and man, below God, but above men.”

Similarly, today, the Feast of Saint Philip Neri, is set against a dingy background. Five centuries later, and once again we find Rome in a mess. The mores of Roman society in the early sixteenth century were in some respects not different from what they are now: vulgarly self-serving, avaricious, godless, prurient, lubricious, and frequently malicious. But it’s worse when the factors are more intelligent: today’s dummies are probably less bad.

Two unprecedented Catholic movements arose in those days, so opposite that they define one another: the Jesuits of Ignatius Loyola, and the Oratorians of Philip Neri. The two men knew each other; indeed Philip did spiritual yeoman’s work in his early “apostolic” days, supplying the Jesuits with excellent converts, their hearts now on fire. Both embodied genuine reform — return to basics — but it can be embodied in many ways, and the variety is itself manifestation of the otherworldly breadth of Christ’s call. Each of these spiritual enterprises, strange novelties when they first appeared, are in retrospect inevitable expressions of Holy Church.

Saint Philip (1515–95), styled “Apostle of Rome,” set about his task with zero ecclesiastical ambition. He came from high society in Florence, had all the connexions he could want on his mother’s side; had been extremely well educated by the Dominicans at San Marco, there.

He’d been apprenticed in trade to a formidably rich but childless uncle, at San Germano near Naples, who was impressed with the lad’s smarts, his energy and shrewdness, and was eager to make him his heir. Philip had it made, in a world that respected money and pretty things perhaps more than we can imagine today. And he could always go to church on Sundays.

God works in mysterious ways. San Germano was near Monte Cassino: the young Philip was at first enchanted, in what I take for an “aesthetic” way, by the sight of her Benedictine monks, and the thought of their library. He’d visit their little mountain chapel, in a cleft of rock above the harbour at Gaeta; that’s where he was whenever he went missing. Outwardly disciplined and cautious, though hardly shy, he was nevertheless, within, a footloose pilgrim character, born for the open road.

Suddenly God put him on the road to Rome. He had some sort of vision, then; other visions, and demonic temptations, throughout his life, yet he glided through. Later, praying in the catacombs at Rome, a vision with miraculous physiological effects — an aneurism, or whatever it was, that left him with (quite literally) an enlarged heart, as from a Love that was exploding. Medical science can never explain such things, and neither can I.

He became a full-blown “religious nutjob” — with Catholic qualifications, my highest term of praise. Yet he had no specific calling, except, not yet twenty, for that road to Rome. His uncle let him go, with regret; he was off along it, like Peter and Paul before him.

For seventeen years he wandered the streets of that city. He was not starving, he could always have found money if he needed it, except, he’d cut himself off from his father’s generosity, and when shown a paper with his pedigree, he tore it up. His charm was such that at any moment he could have made his sandcastle, anyway. Rich old ladies adored him, aristocrats vied for his services as tutor to their less-than-illustrious offspring, for he was an inspiring teacher in almost any subject.

He had a room somewhere, donated by an admirer: the rope bed, the table, a couple of chairs, the rope to hang his clothes over. He lived on water, bread, and a few herbs; preferring to sleep on the floor.

Where, I suspect, books were piling up. I love him for this foible: he couldn’t help collecting books. Fancy-free in every other respect, he could be weighed down with thick volumes. (At his death, he left a considerable personal library, full of classics, by no means strictly religious.) Scholars were amazed at his knowledge of theology.

The idea of becoming a priest did not seem to cross his mind. At age thirty-six he was more or less forced into it, told to regularize his “institution” of secular priests, living voluntarily together.

Long before, he had gathered around him an impressive circle of young men, mostly well-born and of high culture, attracted to him as a beacon; and to his works, which included selflessly and recklessly caring for the old and ill, the crippled and hapless, the abandoned of all sorts. The combination of this with the literary and musical evenings; with his love of art, and writing of poetry in Latin and Italian; with his rollicking humour, and good-natured practical jokes — put him quite out of the ordinary.

And the “religiosity,” directed to the Mass, in mystically close attention. In the “seven churches” of Rome, in the catacombs, in any church around the corner, there he was, praying everywhere. Saints tend to be obsessive in this way.

Philip Neri was irresistible, lovable, in an extreme degree. He had the gift of bringing out the best in people; in almost everyone he met. He had the gift of standing foursquare in the world, and simultaneously beyond this world, without conflict. He was what he was — unique even in Catholic history — and in his own personal being, a kind of holy contagion.

He began to change the manners throughout the city of Rome, bottom to top and top to bottom — and yet without any formal remit or authority. He was truly an Apostle, but of a peculiarly modern kind: winning nominal Catholics back to Catholicism.

To me, Saint Philip, beloved friend and guide, is the exemplar of a saying of Jesus that puzzles most modern Bible readers: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This scratches our ears as droll indeed, for the burden seems to us impossibly heavy. But only because we are carrying other things. Put them down, and follow Christ, instead.

I am not going to tell the rest of this story, gentle reader may find it easily enough. My priest, Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory, in Parkdale here, has written a wonderful book on the topic: The Embodied Mysticism of St Philip Neri. It will appear one of these days from Angelico Press.

Place your orders now.

De-metrification

This morning’s effusion is in honour of my hero, Marshal Foch, whom gentle reader may recognize in his famous telegram to Marshal Joffre, during the First Battle of the Marne:

“My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking.”

His commendably cheerful view of warfare is otherwise encapsulated in his collection of aphorisms, Precepts and Judgements, brightly translated by Hilaire Belloc (1920). I recommend it to all genuine (i.e. “traditional”) Catholics, and other sincere Christians, not only for its spiritual content — which is indirect — but as an expression of “attitude,” and for some hints on tactics and strategy, easily applicable to what we face now.

Against what, one may ask, should one direct one’s fire?

“Against the obstacles which may delay the march of one’s infantry.”

We start by taking out the enemy’s biggest guns. That is not where we finish. This is the opposite to the counsel now received from our more prominent fairies. They propose to work around the guns in plain sight, and look away from those partially hidden. While I agree that we should minimize casualties, especially on our own side, victory does not come without risk, and risk takes casualties. It is the Catholic tradition to take them cheerfully.

At the present day, our centre is giving way, and our right is retreating.

This is marvellous, as Marshal Foch would observe. It means we can attack in any direction.

*

According to information put before me this morning, only three countries have yet to embrace the metric system: Burma, Liberia, and the United States. However, the information presented (by a metric enthusiast) was out of date. Burma began metrificating in 2013, and Liberia secretly metrificated without anyone noticing. Truth to tell, the sick USA bureaucracy has been trying to metrificate for a long time, their problem being that the people won’t have it. And sometimes, in the USA, that counts.

It might also be observed, that every country in the world now has a decimal currency. This became a political necessity from the moment the world went off the gold standard, for paper money is, shall we say, more flexible. A decimal system helps to conceal the pain of inflation, as a paper currency gradually relaxes to the value of the paper it is printed on (and then to the electrons in which it is digitized). Of course, we aren’t thinking about this with interest rates approaching or passing into negative levels. But we will resume thinking about it when they climb to only a few percent.

People notice when something once available for a farthing goes over a penny, then over tuppence, thruppence, a sixpence, a shilling, a florin, a crown, a pound. These are benchmarks, but decimalize that currency, and it is all smooth sailing to Hell. The Chinese imperial bureaucracy discovered this when they invented paper money in the T’ang Dynasty. They were pioneers of decimalization. So much for the argument that it is “modern.”

For there is no such thing as a “modern” sin. You can’t invent one, however hard you try. It has all been tried before.

Note, that had God wanted us to metrificate, He would have given us ten fingers. Instead He gave us eight, plus thumbs: the same principle as an abacus. (Requires no electricity and is faster than entering the numbers on a keyboard.)

The metric system is sinful in the same way as any decimation, but right across the board. It removes all the benchmarks. Common speech recalls them in antiquated terms: we still do not say, “give him 2.54 centimetres and he will take 1.609 kilometres,” although my subeditors would sometimes make such changes to my copy, in the bad old days, out of their zeal to dehumanize. (Later, they couldn’t care.)

To my mind, it was interesting that long-established and much adored English measures could be easily translated into any other language, ancient or modern; and vice versa. This is because, before metrification, the “concept” of the inch or dactyl; of the palm, foot, cubit, yard, fathom; of the ounce and pound — were truly universal. God made us with feet and arms, hands, fingers, and heads — not only in England. And measures of area and volume developed just where these units intersected — a “pound,” for instance, being the cube of a hand’s breadth, in the weight of water. (And condensed into a stone, “just right,” for, say, tossing at a commie.)

Local discrepancies there were, all over the world, even from one town to another, and yet an English foot was in approximate range of a Paris foot, of an ancient Roman or Greek foot, of an Egyptian or Babylonian foot, of a Chinese or Japanese foot, et cetera. To the human mind, uncontaminated by the lust for false precision or spurious accuracy, it was all roughly the same.

Yet the fact of variety so scandalized the progressive, bloodthirsty savages of the French Revolution, that they leapt upon the latest decimal system which the Enlightenment pointy-heads had devised. To a figure like the number-crunching Condorcet, or his economist friend Turgot, it was as obvious that a soi-disant “rational” system of weights and measures should be imposed, as that soi-disant “equality” be visited upon every living human. (“Procrustean” is our word for this.) To their credit, John Adams spoke eloquently on what was wrong with Condorcet and Turgot; and Thomas Jefferson was father of the noble American resistance to metrification.

*

Clearly, an immediate obstacle to the advance of our infantry is the metric system. It is a big gun, and we must take it out. My scheme was inspired in Nippon, where workmen casually interpret the metre as three feet, and now measure tatami thus, “three feet by six.” Also in northern Europe, where they still call half a kilogramme a pfund. And by the jewellers of Amsterdam and Geneva who count five carats to the gramme. These are all good starting points for de-metrificatory subversion.

But what we need to subvert the metric system more profoundly is a scheme that can be readily adopted anywhere, which uses the universally-established metric system itself to calibrate precisely comparable physical magnitudes, to which all the classical measurement systems can then be adjusted.

The trick, paradoxically enough, is to make it easy to transfer any measurement to metric, thus stealthily meeting bureaucratic packaging requirements; but awkward to transfer back. I grant that this is counter-intuitive, but swear that it will work. The reason is that once people are able to think again in human terms, most will do so. The few who don’t will be left puzzling when they try to communicate their ridiculous trails of decimals back to the neat, hard fractions — the halvings and thirdings — which humans have always used to estimate scale and visualize transactions.

Mathematical nature is with us, here. As computer freaks know, 1000 looks clean, but is an impractical number. A more convenient “k” is instead 1024, quickly obtained by doublings. A million should be 1024 squared, and so forth. Let our trading libra, or mina, or pound, or pfund, or tael, be 512 grammes precisely. Let it consist of sixteen ounces, each of 32 grammes precisely. Let each gramme be divided into 5 stealthy carats, and thus precisely 15 grains (the carat, or “carob bean,” being equal to 3 “barleycorn” grains by ancient custom).

From our new standard “barleycorn” grain (or the alternative “wheatgrain” of 20 to a gramme, or “ratti-seed” of 8 to a gramme for India, et cetera) we may reconstruct all the classical systems, each easily converted into metric units, and thus co-existent with each other. The pennyweight of 24 grains, for instance, becomes 1.6 grammes precisely; the old drachm or drachma or franc or thruppence of 72 grains becomes 4.8 precisely; the shilling or sol will be 19.2; the crown of five shillings, 96; the “troy pound” of four crowns, 384 grammes — which is to say, exactly 12 of our newly-calibrated ounces. The mark, or half a commodity-trading pound, becomes precisely 256 grammes, or 8 of our old-and-new ounces. Et cetera.

(We may also use a 20-ounce pound or pint for specialized purposes. Pints of ale come to mind.)

Crucial proportions are thus restored, not only for measurement in silver and gold, but according with custom in all other commodities. I would not insist on the Western heritage, outside the West. On call, I am ready with a restored and improved system for pies, annas, rupees, and mohurs, that will integrate nicely with our Charlemagnian system of denarii, solidi, librae (thus renewing what the British East India Company did so patiently in 1833). Too, I have prepared a system for dollars, pesos, or thalers, which restores proper halves, quarters, pieces-of-eight, and then twelfths of those pieces, yielding 96 large coppers or “granos” to replace these irritating “cents” — each equal once again to the ha’penny or obol, and thus worth 1 grain of gold, or 12 of silver by mediaeval convention. (But I won’t fall for bimetallism; no, not me.)

Suddenly we have words for everything, and may find them in the common speech and literature of every language, and convert one unit to another by simple and comprehensible fractions. And, we may once again use our precious-metal coins for weights on our exquisite balances again (that need only gravity), with comparisons dis-abstracted.

*

I do hope gentle reader is paying attention.

*

A foot has 12 inches (finger-joints), to be Roman about it; or 16 dactyls (finger-breadths), to be Greek or Asiatic. Let us restore this so that a dactyl is 2 centimetres precisely, an inch thus 8/3rds, and a foot right on 32 centimetres — which happens to be within a few hairs of the old Paris foot, which was a standard across Europe until the metrificators wrecked it.

Now, let us take 5760 of these feet to make a mile, and we are very close to the nautical mile, still used in navigation, for it corresponds to the surviving ancient division of our home planet, by increments of 360 Babylonian degrees, of 60 miles each, then 60ths of those; as too, the 24 hours, then 60th minutes, then 60th seconds, at which that world turns (a mile takes the sun four seconds). For hexagesimals are so beautiful, and so apt, to the wheels-in-wheels turning, nonny, nonny. … O, how the wheel becomes it!

Everything now falls into place, large and small. And better, that old-and-new mile may now be divided for the nice determination of sequential lengths, and areas, into eight easily-divisible 720-foot furlongs; or into 96 of 60-foot chains; or 60 of 96-foot chains; or 960 fathoms, or 1920 yards, or 3840 cubits, as you please — all ticked by the sun (at least along the equator).

Repeat after me: “three inches equals four dactyls equals eight centimetres,” strictly. With this aphorism in mind, gentle reader may quickly summon a pint of water (or ale!) before his thirsty imagination. For this is the cube root of our pound of water, a fairly common substance on the surface of this planet (measured distilled at sea level), roughly equal in weight to so many other liquids. That cube is, as the arithmetical reader must immediately see, precisely 512 cubic centimetres (or 64 cubic dactyls, or 27 cubic inches). And there you have also your 512 grammes.

*

As Pope Gregory XIII took the initiative in fixing our solar calendar, let Pope Francis or his successor take it in fixing our weights and measures — so to bring them, too, back to observed realities. This is a fine Catholic tradition, of service not only to Catholics but all men, and for a modest fee, and suitable lodgings in Rome, I will be happy to advise.

Pentecost

Were you a mediaeval villein, you would be getting a week off, now. There are so many ways in which the life of a mediaeval villein was better than that of a twenty-first century wage slave.

It seems odd to get a holiday because the Paschaltide is over, but there you go. In the Middle Ages, when work was for men, there were lots of holidays. Today, when men are for work, there are only a few. The wheels of industry keep turning. And the days are long, too. Imagine, having to work seven or eight hours continuously, with only a short break for lunch. But I have friends who must do this, and spend another three “commuting,” and they do it five days a week. Can you believe it?

A lot of things are worse now than they used to be, and people are right to fear change.

“All change is for the worse, including change for the better.” I think Frederick William Faber said that, but the Internet isn’t helping me.

In a similar spirit, the commendable Deacon Scheer pointed to an interpretive error in one of my recent Idleposts, on “Victoria Day.” It is not we who honour a sovereign with such a birthday gesture, he explained, on behalf of Elizabeth, on behalf of our national birth-mother, Victoria. Rather, she favours us:

“From time out of mind,” he wrote, “in lands near and far, the sovereign (virtually all sovereigns, in fact) granted the people a holiday from the subsistence-farming that nearly every society was, until we learned to eat chemicals instead of food. As passports were once permission to leave, not authority to enter, so the holiday marked today was in its origin a national ‘hall pass from the principal’ to be off larking about. And it also was an occasion of thanksgiving for the stability that a living governor permitted, as contrasted with wars of succession. (For governors, even despots, are preferred to anarchy. See Declaration of Independence: ‘Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.’)”

I stand corrected.

*

I am not sure precisely when the Church originated, in historical time, and I’m not sure I need to understand it. But it was some time over the last few weeks. Those who date it from the Last Supper (i.e. the first Mass) are unanswerable, but so are those who date it from the Ascension and the Pentecost. At this moment we stand bereft of Christ, who has returned to Heaven; but not without the promise we have seen fulfilled. The Holy Spirit has descended upon us, and will be with us until Christ comes again. Then, as now, we are living in the End Time.

If I might re-phrase Winston Churchill, as I am wont to do, “Now this is not the beginning. Let alone the end of the beginning. But it is, perhaps, the beginning of the end.”

Thus reversed, we may perhaps glimpse our paradoxical situation. We look to a future, a very distant future, where there is … nothing. For time began and in the end time ends. In earthly terms, those who live for the future live for Death. It is an odd way to live, yet as we were reminded from Ireland yesterday, this is only one of the ways in which men of the West now embrace sterility and futility; that “Culture of Death.”

To be dead, and to leave no successors, and no record except the evaporating one, of having indulged one’s earthly desires, with, or more commonly without, much pleasure. The other beasts of Earth do as much. But they seem to enjoy it more, and have more foresight, with respect to progeny.

Our current idea of Life has become strictly bounded by time. Some gnostic idea of an afterlife is still entertained (as likely by nominal Catholics as by the nominal “Nones” as the statisticians now call them), but it is iron-cast in temporal terms. No serious effort is directed to looking beyond time as, among the beasts of this world, only humans can do. In the future, we will all be dead, as Lord Keynes said. (And true enough, he died, leaving us debt-ridden by his “progressive” economic prescriptions.)

Futurity is not like that at all. What is beyond time, is beyond time. It was previously, is now, and will continue to be — beyond time. And we are in time, only for this moment.

A moment bounded by the timeless on every side. And a moment within which we discern the rushing of the Spirit, the babble of tongues, the displacement of persons, the direction to ends beyond human understanding. And with this comes a simple instruction, understood at least by some:

Go and tell the world that nothing changes.

Aer lingus

It would seem that the Lemming Party has swept Ireland this morning. From early returns the referendum count appears two-to-one in favour of “gay marriage.” In Dublin, it’s much higher than that; perhaps I am not surprised.

Upon calling up the Irish Independent to check for results first thing, what did I get? My laptop screen filled with a demand that I participate in a referendum on my “smartphone.” None of the questions made sense to me. For I do not own a smartphone, and have no intention of acquiring one. Or it may be more correct to say, as people do of their dogs today, “I am not a smartphone guardian.” Unless we are beyond that now. Many of my friends are married to their smartphones, in a manner of speaking: the two are never apart. Though really it is more like civil unions. (An old-fashioned person, I am against “sexting” with your smartphone.) To my mind, they are living in sin. Should they be allowed to marry their smartphones? I think not, but can’t come up with a media-plausible argument. Should smartphones be allowed to marry each other? I vote no.

My position on leprechauns is not for publication.

Cue now my Chief Irish Correspondent, a veterinarian somewhere in the west of that country (I shan’t be more precise than that), who mentions in email that he is girding himself for the tide of “gay” gloating, this morning. He adds that he must hide all his Bibles. I didn’t know what else to suggest. Fill spray guns with holy water?

Some days ago, I read a piece by my colleague Austin Ruse (beloved by me for the phrase, “The ugly claws and bared teeth of the pelvic Left”), over at Crisis “magazine.” He said he would not be surprised if the Irish voted “no” to “gay marriage” after saying “yes” to all the pollsters. This because people tell other people what they think the others want to hear. But I thought, I won’t be surprised if Ruse is surprised, after all. This because, we’re beyond that now.

Beyond hypocrisy, in a manner of speaking. People now think what they think others want them to think. And, “democracy” provides them with a way to prove this.

We have, as it were, “progressed” beyond the point when people would tell pollsters one thing, and then do another. They’re not hypocrites like that any more. They aren’t hiding anything. Verily, nothing left to hide. Not in Ireland. Nor, anywhere.

From Dublin, the new spirit is running across the island. I picture, in the far west, those magnificent cliffs.

There was an article in the Irish Examiner on lemmings, recently. It was a defence of lemmings. Apparently they are not as stupid as Walt Disney made out, in some 1958 wildlife documentary, entitled White Wilderness, that won an Oscar and many other prizes. His director needed footage of lemmings leaping, en masse, off a cliff into the sea. But it was hard to find, because lemmings don’t actually do that. At least, not voluntarily.

But this was a big budget film. The makers contrived to have some hundreds of lemmings trapped in a cliffless location, near Hudson Bay, then flown to a cliff in a sea-less location, near Calgary. Technicians constructed a turntable to fling them off the cliff, past their carefully placed cameras.

So now gentle reader has learnt something about lemmings, and something about the media. And perhaps, too, something about the Irish, captured by the media, en masse, and delivered to the metaphorical cliffs. Then asked a simple modern polling question:

“Why go to Hell in a handcart, when you can fly?”

Against bombing

There is a paper somewhere (darned if I can find it) from the British Society of Antiquaries (I think) that surveys the district around the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük. This is a pair of Neolithic mounds which rise above the plain of Konya, south-east of the city that now goes by that name — the ancient Iconium, in Anatolia, now part of “Turkey.” Excavations that began in the late 1950s established that it was, about nine thousand years ago, a metropolis by Neolithic standards: perhaps one, perhaps two thousand households on either side of a long-dried riverbed. It was a city before there were cities, or rather, well before we have evidence of any other town that size.

It is a fascinating layout. As I am reminded from wikipaediations, there were no streets or other open public spaces. All the elements of much later urbanity were present, but materially “internalized.” The whole town was a honeycomb maze, and entrances to houses were down ladders from the roofs. In hundreds of excavated rooms, the remains were found of very smooth plaster walls, and sharply squared timbers. In the larger rooms, the most extraordinary murals, figurines, and other works of art. In the smaller rooms, quite sophisticated domestic arrangements including well-appointed and ventilated kitchens, and raised platforms on which the inhabitants apparently sat and slept. Their dead were buried, with ceremony, beneath where they had lived.

The go-to archaeologist is currently Ian Hodder of Cambridge, a pioneer of “post-processualism,” which is the usual mess of post-modern, neo-Marxist theoretical blather, and multicultural “subjectivity,” with big corporate sponsorships and glitz publicity. This makes old-fashioned “processual” facts hard to extract, but patience is sometimes rewarded.

In my view, which dominates these Idleposts, this “proto-city” was not necessarily significant in its time (which ranged over perhaps eighteen centuries). Its significance to us is that we found it, and that it helped explode many preconceived ideas about life in the Stone Age. There are innumerable large and small “tells” or mounds through the Middle East, which the Daesh will not think of blowing up, until they are properly excavated. The truth is that our knowledge of human “prehistory” is extremely sketchy, and often proved wrong; and that vast quantities of archaeological material still lie where they settled, for later generations to retrieve.

And, hooo, I have just found an abstract of that district survey on the Internet, which proves I had not imagined the whole thing. It began in 1995, over a ground six or seven miles square, to the north-east of Çatalhöyük. There were topographical maps and satellite photos and yet, simply by walking about for a couple of months, decently-trained (i.e. old-fashioned) British archaeologists were able to spot eight new tells. In the next couple of seasons, expanding the area of survey, and now using satellite imagery expertly from a ground-based perspective, some seventy-four new sites were located, with samples showing many of them to be multi-period. And so forth, through 2002.

Satellites are helpful, and low-level aerial photography exploiting angles and shadowing is more helpful still, but what makes the difference is feet on the ground. These latter include human brains, which are mounted atop each pair of walking stalks (minus those blown off by landmines). These process information in a way no computer is now, or will ever be able to do: questions of judgement which in their nature cannot be reduced to algorithms.

And this, in turn, is my argument against bombing, as a strategy to deal with the Daesh and other baddies — who, nevertheless, need killin’, at various locations through the same Middle East. It applies not only to massive or saturation bombing campaigns, in which non-combatants are exterminated by the hundreds, and thousands, and hundreds of thousands, but also and particularly to the drone attacks which the high-tech-idolizing idiots around the White House now favour. These latter depend on the sort of algorithms that have resulted in the annihilation of many wedding parties, and other defenceless people who happen by ill-luck to fit the current programming criteria. It is a monstrous, an unambiguously evil way to conduct war, which is nevertheless attractive in the post-modern West because, for the perpetrators, it is sanitized and casualty-free — and thus compatible with the smug self-satisfaction of our liberal and progressive elites.

That each drone attack provides an effective recruitment post for the Daesh — now operating within the morally-vacated spaces of our North American high schools and universities, as in our prisons — is something that passes bat-like over those gloaming, “enlightened” heads.

*

Indeed, by way of afterthought, I am inclined to draw a parallel between the “progressive” Church of Nice, which does spiritual warfare on the analogy of drones and algorithms; and the “traditional” Church of Nasty, which does it on the analogy of quaint mediaeval mano-a-mano, and therefore acknowledges the existence of pain in individuals, as opposed to classes. But this analogy will require a few minutes of contemplation.

Palmyra

The little things are what I first notice in the news. This morning, for instance, that the U.S. government is fast-tracking the shipment of anti-tank missiles to the government of (some of) Iraq. This, we can only suppose, so that Baghdad’s shrinking army may try to destroy some of the U.S.-supplied tanks and other heavy equipment, as well as the light equipment, that their soldiers abandoned to the Daesh in their hasty retreat from Ramadi; as well as all the equipment lost during their many previous hasty retreats. But will the same soldiers run before firing them, this time? I should think so.

There are also bigger things, such as the Syrian army’s surrender of Palmyra to the same Daesh. Some journalists speculate that these Sunni Islamic psychotics may blow up the archaeological remains of this ancient “Venice of the sands.” As they have done the same with all other pre-Islamic, and non-Sunni monuments that have fallen into their hands, I will admit the possibility. They will also, once again, massacre the defenceless, &c.

Total, I’d say, is the stupidity, incompetence, and all-round dysfunctionality of President Obama, his executive, and his State Department. Whether in responding to events in “Iraq and Syria,” or Libya, or Yemen, or in Baltimore for that matter, or to a train accident, or to anything, we can depend on all administrative spokesmen to utter mendacious absurdities including easily demonstrated lies, then follow up with action that is dramatically counter-productive. And yet they continue to enjoy the unflinching support of their clientele, both in the progressive elites, and the electoral underclasses.

With one exception. I note that a State Department spokesman is quoted thus, on Palmyra this morning:

“You’d have to be delusional not to take something like this and say, What went wrong? How do you fix it? And how do we correct course from here?”

This frank acknowledgement that Obama’s policies have been “delusional” is a welcome first step. There are foreign ministries across Europe that could benefit from a like candour. For some reason, our foreign department in Ottawa — so far as it is staffed by Stephen Harper’s political hacks — more or less understands the situation. They know, for instance, that Israel is our friend, and that Iran is our enemy. I can’t really account for this. Expect Harper to be voted out later this year.

All the above by way of supplementing what I wrote Tuesday under the title, “Ramadi.” I should have mentioned it then.

While there are urgent measures all Western governments should be taking, by way of armed ground intervention in the Middle East, the next best response would be to do nothing. For doing nothing would be a radical improvement on what they are doing now. The United States has become, through layered delusions, the leading supplier of hideously powerful (and expensive) weapons to the Sunni Islamist Internationale; and through negotiations with Iran, the chief inspiration for the current regional arms race. Too, the administration has been consistently unhelpful, to the point of sabotage, when regional allies (especially Israel, Egypt, Jordan) have tried to cover for its mistakes.

“Nothing” beats catastrophic error, every time. It can even provide a positive: an opportunity for the politicians to stare at their mess, and ask for advice, ideally from people whose track record isn’t consistently zero, as everyone Obama and company now consult. In this case, perhaps a chance to recall some of the demonized “neocons” from the previous administration — men who could actually read Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.

But here we run up against one of the “problems of democracy” to which I sometimes allude. In nine of ten cases, overall, “nothing” is the best thing a government can do, and in the tenth case, the best alternative to doing what is counter-productive. But the dynamic of democracy (with its drumbeat media) is such, that nothing is the one thing no government can do.

Making war better

Gentle reader may have noticed that I said nothing yesterday — nothing at all — about “just war theory,” nor provided so much as a passing and whimsical Catholic justification of a foreign policy that would necessarily involve killing people (Islamist terrorists, to fine the point).

By a happy coincidence, George Weigel was supplying this missing dimension at the same moment, at National Review (here). He gives fifty years to a frankly pacifist “Catholic” view of war, which he traces to the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes — in which the pregnant phrase “mente omnino nova” proposes new thinking on an old but arguably “evolving” topic.

As Weigel hints (and I will caricature), it invites contrary interpretations. Either it is taken to mean that conditions of war in this world have changed so much since the Middle Ages, through the introduction of “total war,” that we’d better review how the old Augustinian realism applies to it. Or, the phrase might suggest that the old Augustinian realism was itself wrong at start, and that a different “attitude” was necessary all along.

Liberals in the Church take the latter for granted: that what we always needed was a hip, psychologizing, and morally exhibitionist approach to evil on a massive scale. The bad guys should be told to stop being mean and hurting us; good guys should be reminded that they have faults, too. The world needs to be taught that “peace is better than war,” … as if the world didn’t already know that.

While I do not wish to psychologize the Fathers of Vatican II, I suspect it was the former they meant to assert, and that a purposeful mistranslation of the phrase has advanced misunderstanding. This because, I do not believe these Fathers were men of sub-normal intelligence. War we will have always with us. And evil, ditto, so long as the world wags: there are times when it threatens to get out of hand, and must be stopped.

Decent men, not only Catholics, have known this for a very long time. When your Hitler annexes half of your Poland you see that appeasement has run its course. Similarly in other situations: the very idea of law, both natural and positive, is to draw a few lines. We may debate where they are, who has crossed them and why, but only in the nicer cases.

To my Augustinian and realist mind, “total war” did in fact present an intellectual challenge. I was uncomfortable with annihilating non-combatants by the hundred thousand, on the “eye for an eye” principle; as too, about drafting millions to feed the front lines. A certain amount of “collateral damage” I am usually willing to accept, but not intentional massacre. And those weren’t the only head-scratchers.

Let us consider nuclear weapons for a paragraph. I don’t like to see them dropped on cities; I think that is very bad form. (But then, the “conventional” fire-storming of Tokyo killed more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined; and it was a situation in which “showmanship” counted.) I might, however, advocate their use in excavating well-fortified bunkers. Had one been available on the 20th of July 1944, for instance — and had Lieut.-Col. Stauffenberg kindly tipped us off — I would not have hesitated to drop it on the Wolfsschanze. And this, even if it meant irradiating a beautiful section of the Masurian woods.

I believe this a Catholic position. No weapon can be condemned categorically; the question is how we propose to use it. There were caves in Afghanistan into which I would have pumped poison gas, without compunction. I can think of some good places to lay mines. And I would remind “liberal Catholics” that winning the war is an important part of “just war theory.” Indeed, I find their attitude to war downright puritan.

We should look for the most economical means to a good end (destruction of an identified evil), consistent with irreproachably good behaviour; not for a way to let evil win. Sun Tzu is the more Catholic military strategist, in my humble but possibly Sinophile opinion; Clausewitz less so (though he is often misrepresented as advocating what he is merely describing).

Now, it happens that for Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and a few other places, the American military has been developing and using weapons rather more accurate than those we employed in the World Wars. The kind of focus that was practicable in the better sort of mediaeval battles is gradually becoming so again. We should, for instance, have directed more praise to the admirable way in which the Rumsfeld Pentagon went about e.g. their Iraqi blitz, minimizing casualties even at the expense of assuming greater risks.

Like everything else, war requires craftsmanship, and the long Catholic commitment to art should be reflected in our critique of it. Let us work harder on making it attractive.

Ramadi

“If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

This is a principle the Daesh (“IS,” “ISIS,” &c) understand, but we in the West have forgotten. Now, I should think there is a dispute between us on what “doing right” might consist of. Eliminating all the Christians, Yazidis, Shia and other non-Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere, is not on our agenda; but it is on theirs. Our interest is restricted to eliminating the Daesh, with the complicating factor that we must also contain the Ayatollahs of Iran (ideally by removing them), and eliminating their proxies: Hezbollah, and for realpolitikal purposes, Hamas.

This is pure speculation on my part, but it seems that international, fanatic Sunni Islam is consolidating under the leadership of the Daesh on one side; and that international, fanatic Shia Islam has already consolidated under the patronage of Iran’s ayatollahs. One’s first instinct is let the two at each other, on the analogy of Hitler and Stalin. That this leaves too many million defenceless hostages to fate, may perhaps be seen. Beyond this, we soon discover that we have become hostages to fate ourselves, as our own enemies link (Russia and China come into this eventually), and the world descends into unimaginably destructive war.

It is useless to complain that the black-flag hordes who took Ramadi, while “Western-trained” Iraqi troops ran away (leaving yet another fortune in U.S.-supplied weapons) — are barbaric savages. It has been said before, and a time comes when something must be done about them. Bombing, it should be evident by now, cannot be the full answer. Nor does it make much sense, as in Yemen, to wink as the Saudi air force goes to work, with its comparative indifference to what we sometimes call “collateral damage.”

Note that, in the case of Iraq generally, and Ramadi as of this morning, the “proxy” on whom we depend is now our even-worse enemy, Iran.

Removing bad guys is a task that requires a variety of co-ordinated military methods. This naturally includes feet on the ground — the more against a millipedal opponent. To restrict efforts to the aerial (plus the occasional high-profile commando hit-job) is fey. To announce in advance that one’s efforts will be thus restricted is to intend failure.

Some years ago, as hack newspaper pundit, I supported allied intervention in Afghanistan, then Iraq. I would have supported it in Iran, too, had the offer been on the table. I’ve confessed before my regret that I did not spell my position out more candidly: in particular, my opposition to almost everything that came after the initial, rather impressive, invasions — except insofar as the plans involved keeping an allied military presence in theatre (a few discreet action-ready bases here and there). I was appalled by the ridiculous and profligate “nation-building” exercises under President Bush, and more by the “cut and run” that followed under Obama. All we needed were governments unambiguously on our side, and the means to sustain them.

My preference for Western intervention stands. For in the world as it actually works (apart from “theory”), peace requires order. There was, to my mind, a “sweet point,” soon after the American-led conquest of Iraq, when this object had been obtained. It had only to be maintained, thereafter. That is to say, not only had the Taliban been neutralized in Afghanistan, and Saddam’s Ba’ath in Iraq, but every other government in the region, including Iran’s and Gaddafi’s Libya, had become suddenly quite respectful of, and co-operative with, the United States of America.

Bush Dubya had, I think to start with, the right idea. One says, “If you do this, we will do that.” And then, if one is not obeyed, one does that, unfailingly. (Obama’s threats are pointless, because no one believes them.) This was easier when we had at least de facto governments in all capitals except Mogadishu. The instruction was: that they would suppress their terrorists, and conduct a government responsive to occasional Western requests. Or, we would do it for them. In superpowering terms, this was a modest instruction.

That it nevertheless smells of old-fashioned Imperialism, I allow. But gentle reader knows that I am old-fashioned. (You may call me a “neocon,” too; I have a thick skin.) Through the history of the world, civilized cultures have had to deal with uncivilized outliers at their frontiers, and it is best done quietly and ruthlessly. This is because every alternative is worse.

Publicity is not required. Indeed, it should be avoided, as much as possible. For people who live in bourgeois safety, far from the realities of conflict at those frontiers, have not the stomach for what is necessary. I don’t think most people could bear to watch open-heart surgery, either. Vietnam was lost, thanks to publicity, and ditto Afghanistan and Iraq. Even under the rah-rah conditions of press cheerleading through the World Wars, the problem of “too much information” frequently presented itself.

Let the histories be written, as accurately as possible, and with full access to the official records — after, and not during, the events. (That was the British way, and it worked.)

I had a little conversation once with the late admired American jurisprude, Robert Bork, just as the Bush administration was setting up logistically to “do Iraq.” He had been reading the New York Times, and was deeply pessimistic. He had no doubt that the U.S. military could perform its task, but could also see that the U.S. media were setting up, to “do another Vietnam.” He feared Bush did not realize how brief would be the American popular commitment to any foreign war; that, “He’d better get it over quickly.”

So let me blame Bush, for having made the presidency of Obama possible. We are in a position now where we have no stomach for the fight, nor any reasonable way to avoid it. We are not dealing with people we can negotiate with. Moreover, given our retreat, and the nature of the enemy since emerging, not even plausible threats will work. We will need once again Western leaders who — like Bush and Blair — make their threats stick.

All this must be admitted, too, as we look again at a regional situation that seriously threatens the peace of the whole world, in coming at least mentally to terms with it. For the stability we briefly created has been lost.

I do not see any practical alternative to doing the job ourselves. Our proxies in most regional states are useless. Either we do the job, or it is not done.

Fudge

Look, it is Victoria Day again, up here in the off-white North. Or it might be: you can’t know with these three-day weekends, which day is supposed to count. Our political masters shift everything to the Monday, the way the “spirit of Vatican II” shifts to the nearest Sunday — or elsewhere, as the case may be. That way, no one will take their obligations seriously. But in secular terms, today is definitely the bank holiday, and that’s what really counts.

Fire-works and fire-crackers we still get: a fine demonstration of loyalty to the Crown, on the surface, though I wonder inwardly if the multiculturalists out there are consciously celebrating Her Late Majesty, whose birthday was actually May 24th. I like to imagine her tiny person, enhanced with hoop-skirt and calash, sitting as upon the marble throne within the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, Bengal. We have a Victoria Memorial Square here in the Greater Parkdale Area, but it converges, incongruously, on a monument to our heroes from the War of 1812, some of whose remains are buried nearby. Her Late Majesty was not even born then.

Whereas, Curzon’s magnificently odd memorial, in what is now misspelt “Kolkata,” remains a tourist magnet after all these years. Note, it is a twentieth-century monument, and as so few others were built that solid, our distant descendants will dig it up and take it for typical of our times. Just as they will find the landfill to which we consign all the used packaging from around here, and conclude from its location that the Greater Parkdale Area was in Michigan.

One crore, five lakhs of silver rupees: that’s what it cost to build that absurd parody of the Taj Mahal, on what was once Hooghly swamp, and at a time when the capital of British India was anyway being transferred to Delhi. Paid for largely by the voluntary subscriptions of Her Late Majesty’s long-mourning admirers, among the princes and peoples of the great Subcontinent. I cannot think of a more worthy cause.

Back here in Canada, I associate the day with fudge-making. My mommy and I used to make it together in a house along Edith Street in Georgetown, Ontario — from a recipe I surely still have filed away, and ought to have looked up. Let me say my mother’s recipes were infallible. One had only to follow her instructions exactly. But this is something I have ever been loathe to do. That is because I am a “creative” person. I like to experiment.

Yesterday, for instance, I tried to recall the principles of fudge-making, after a lapse of one half-century or so. As people love to collect recipes, here is how mine progressed:

*

Into a stove pot of convenient size, spill:

— All the cocoa powder that won’t fit in your storage tin.
— All the coconut milk powder, ditto.
— A few spoon-twirls of buckwheat honey.
— Enough water to compound the above into a thickish paste.

Keep adding water till you think, “Enough!” Heat to boiling while stirring merrily. Then stop stirring, and turn the heat down slightly. Wait until it looks right, and feels hot enough when you stick your finger in. (A candy thermometer would be useful, but hey.)

Then take it off the stove and add:

— As much bourbon whiskey as you will part with.
— A slurp of the rum in which a vanilla pod was steeping.
— Soft butter (lots).
— Your last four prunes, all chopped up.
— Generous pinch of kosher salt.
— No hashish at all.

Beat this, savagely, until the shine comes off. Beat it more, gratuitously. … Aha, just recollected, should have used a wooden spoon.

Pour into oblong baking dish greased with coconut oil. (A square one would be better.) You may lick the pot while you’re waiting for it to cool.

*

Perhaps I should mention that this essay in fudge-making was a total failure: worse than some of my Idleposts. Tastes interesting, but not what I expected. The texture is all wrong: soft, but not like icing. More a syrupy goo with lumps of a more gritty nature. I think I created a chemical concoction of sufficient complexity that only God could sort it out. My mommy, for her part, would have been appalled.

And would have recalled one of her adages, which, as the others, applies to life more generally. “Fudge is easy to make, dear,” she would say. “But it is even easier to mess up.”

Time’s arrow, time’s cycle

One of the things I love about the old missals — like the Saint Andrew one I swear by, my copy dutifully revised to 1962 so that it matches the current Extraordinary Form of the Mass — is the brief introductions for the Sundays and other Feasts. They “set the stage” for the liturgy, like a theatre programme, and provide preparatory hints. Together with the parallel translations of every single liturgical passage, they leave persons who whine that they can’t understand the Mass in Latin with no excuse at all.

Today, for instance, upon this Sunday after Ascension, I am provided, before the Mass even starts, with nine Bible readings on the witness of the Holy Spirit, including six from the Book of Acts. Then on brotherly charity, “to confine ourselves to a few essential texts,” twenty biblical passages are suggested, “including the splendid chapter 13 of I Corinthians,” and a cross-reference to the liturgy for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost. And then, seven more excerpts from Acts are suggested, which undergird the day’s Mass, and add depth and comprehension to both the Epistle (which is from I Peter) and the Gospel (from Saint John).

While being exposed to Protestant or post-Protestant environments, in my childhood, I often heard that Catholics never read the Bible, and I suppose there is some truth in it: that unobservant Catholics often don’t. Though I should think unobservant Protestants also tend to be unobservant.

No need to pick on them, however, to make the essential point: that in “traditional” (i.e. genuine) Catholic worship, the Mass serves as a kind of moving eye, through the whole scriptural heritage, casting light into its parts through the turning seasons. This does not exclude the consecutive reading of scripture, from Genesis through Apocalypse, on the usual chronological terms, following the arrow of time.

Instead, it adds a specifically divine, extra-temporal dimension to that reading, through the use of time in a grand circuit: beginning where we end, and ending at the beginning, and unfolding from any point at all.

The Lord who calls us is not confined to this arrow of time, calling us as much from past and future as from the present moment. And there are moments when we can see that His creation is not strictly linear, either. It is full of anticipations that cannot be explained otherwise than by prevision or foresight. Too, it is full of musical repetitions, often in a new key.

We, little humans, though endowed with minds that work most comfortably, and must work logically, in a linear way, are sometimes vividly aware of an extra-temporal dimension, upon which the present moment also depends. (Not everything that exists can be charted, and for that matter the consecutive time dimension is itself quite invisible, and unplumbable.) We are not without the ability to grasp some non-linear things, including that which is not illogical, but non-logical, because (for example) metaphorical.

For logic I have great respect, but wisdom works on non-logical principles, perhaps supra-logical, and I have even greater respect for wisdom.

A chicken, as I discovered in childhood, can be made to follow a line of feedgrain with its chicken-snout, wherever it leads: even to disaster. My finches and finchesses at breakfast this morning — on the balconata of the High Doganate — show themselves more philosophical and prudent. I left a line of seed along the ledge to an open window, with me on the inside, typing away. They were happy to follow it, almost to the edge of the open window. But then, after mutual consultations, they flew off.

Now, I’m not saying that finches are more Catholic than chickens; only better endowed with good sense. But these are “purple” (i.e. raspberry-splashed) finches, and when the males gather, they do rather resemble Roman Cardinals in conclave.

Losing the appearances

Some science writer on ye Internet performed, yesterday, the dirty trick of pulling out an old Scientific American (here). It was from 2005, and featured fifty technological “breakthroughs,” organized into seventeen “trends,” which the editors imagined to be harbingers of the future in which we now sit, a decade later. She was curious to know how these predictions had “panned out.” I’ve given the link, so gentle reader may see for himself just how badly the magazine batted: in baseball terms, pretty close to seventeen consecutive strike-outs.

In defence of Scientific American, let me say it has not always been a tranch of worthless, unreliable, often mendacious pulp. When young I subscribed to it, and old copies from the ’sixties and ’seventies were still available to me through the parental attic, until a few years ago. It did not then indulge in this sort of eye-popper journalism, as I know from having returned to its pages several times. Articles from half a century ago, written usually by genuine experts working in each field (and not by “popular science writers”), from their direct experience, do not seem so pathetically “dated” — so cravenly reflective of passing fads — as those you will find in any current number.

An important exception should be noted. The front article — in the position where a short story or other fictional item would be placed in the traditional magazine format — was even then, almost invariably, a spray of liberal-sociological hogwash. But after passing over that, one would generally find, decades later, two or three articles of enduring interest, routinely presenting historical background that does not date. In the 1980s, the publishers realized that there was no longer an intelligent general audience for science, and that the editorial focus would have to be redirected to caressing half-educated, smartass twits. That is now a highly competitive market.

Yet the real issue goes much deeper, and back much farther in time. Pierre Duhem, the French physicist, major contributor to thermodynamics and physical chemistry, historian of science, and inquirer into scientific methods (1861–1916), expounded it in his attacks on the Cartesian method, exemplified in the works of the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell.

In Duhem’s critique, Maxwell’s approach to science was recklessly bold and unsystematic. He depended almost entirely on mathematical “models,” entirely abstracted from the phenomena he described. Worst, he made no effort to connect his observations and discoveries to the received body of knowledge inherited from the past. In a word, he was “post-modern.”

What we see today, in for instance the garbage science of “climate change,” and in the sort of techie futurism that pop science supplies, is the effect of more than a century of impacting what we might call “Maxwell’s silver hammer” on everything empirical science encounters. And as Duhem shows, it is older still, for it goes back to Descartes’ dramatic breach with the organic continuities. (A large part of Duhem’s life work, actively suppressed by the French academy of his day, and still characteristically neglected, consisted in demonstrating that the origins of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution lay overlooked, well back in the Middle Ages.)

Science today claims to know things it does not and cannot know; claims not to know things it does most certainly know; and there is no health in it. It lives in a future that does not now and will never exist: a “postulated future.” It depends upon levels of gullibility only possible to maintain through over-specialization and half-education. And because of this, it has become dangerous, even demonic. (One of my correspondents calls this “the age of deferred consequences.”)

Yet the growth of classical science remains not only possible, but actual in the background. This is because the more accomplished scientists, regardless of what they think of themselves, are in fact closet Aristotelians. That is to say, they adhere to a body of knowledge that is founded on broad but careful observation, kept constantly in a self-consistent, holistic view. They are building an edifice which is not detached from the larger considerations; which is not mindlessly free of context. For there is a continuum through physics and metaphysics that fully deserves the title of “natural philosophy.” Man is capable of it, and should not reduce himself to an impulsive child, playing whimsically with lethal toys.