Essays in Idleness


Apocalyptic Egypt

It turns out I have written another column over at The Catholic Thing; & as it happens the first thing I have written on the Middle East for a long time.

So much has happened, especially in Egypt over the last half year. But nothing new has happened. The Muslim Brotherhood continue to consolidate their power, & by now President Morsi, who quickly gathered to himself as much power as President Mubarak had, has more. His constitutional coup, confirmed by low-turnout quick referendum, provides a wonderful illustration of how democracy is used to legitimate tyranny, all neatly ordered in a short sprint of time. Too, how it can be used to befuddle Western statesmen, who will grant a pass to anything that is arguably “freely elected.”

The Western media, which showed no understanding of what was happening in Egypt during the “Arab Spring,” have learnt nothing since. They continue to take protests against Islamism seriously, from Egypt’s very tiny secularized middle class. The threat to Morsi comes almost entirely from the other side: from the even more ruthless men of the even more fanatic Salafist party — who are delighted with any kind of street demonstrations, & as happy to exploit them as was the Muslim Brotherhood to exploit the “democracy rallies” against Mubarak. The idea that these convulsions have anything to do with the new “social media” is particularly obtuse. Cellphones are certainly used in tactical communications, but the planning of public demonstrations is in no way spontaneous, & they could easily enough have been directed by more traditional means. Western journalists, & the U.S. State Department for that matter, are simply unable to grasp that “technology” has no will of its own.

In my column for the Thing, I focus on the gathering fate of Coptic Christians. Throughout the Middle East, as Islamists come to power, or merely into a position to terrorize, ancient Christian communities are put to flight. They don’t leave casually; they leave because their homes & businesses & churches are firebombed, & their walls are decorated with slogans to communicate, “You’re next!” Most of Iraq’s million-&-a-half Christians are now gone; Syria’s Christians have started their exodus in anticipation of Assad’s fall. With the advance of Islamism throughout the Muslim world (including Bosnia & Albania), it becomes open season on them everywhere.

The Western media are not interested in this story; & the West more generally doesn’t want to know. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is almost alone among Western politicians in trying to call attention to this international crisis, as well as the consequences to European countries where these poor benighted refugees are trying to pile in.

I fear that the fate of the Copts will be worse, than that of others who got a head start on them, & behind whom the doors now close. There are just too many Copts for the West to assimilate, given shrinking immigration quotas everywhere: something in the order of 10 million Christians, in a country of 80 million Muslims, actually hungry for Shariah & becoming unhinged by the Islamist propaganda.

For here is another huge fact, that we in the West are incapable of acknowledging. “Islamism” — a fanatic, violent, ideological & very modern cult of a religion in which “church & state” were never separated — is not being forced down the throats of the unwilling. By now, great masses are crying for it. Among the ruling classes, it has filled the void left by the failed nationalism & socialism of a previous generation, but it is larger than that. It has struck broader & deeper because of its religious affiliation. And it is far from having been played out: all the evidence is of a transformative crisis within Islam itself. Westerners naively hope for some “Reformation” or “Enlightenment” moment within Islam. They do not realize that this is it. The Christian world was transformed in one way; the Islamic in quite another by its collision with modernity. I do believe it will finally burn out, but can only do so in a cataclysmic way.

But back to the Coptic Christians of Egypt. They have no place to go; & they are being demonized. Wherever the slightest altercation occurs between a Muslim & a Christian in rural Egypt, a massacre of Christians is quite likely to follow. The Copts are among the poorest of Egypt, but also among the richest: resentment for the latter, & avarice for their wealth, provides meat to the demagogues in a culture already accustomed to blaming “the other” for every domestic failure.

And of course, the Egyptian economy, such as it was, has been disintegrating since the Arab Spring began. It is a country without oil money to fall back on; & now without tourism, or any other way to earn the foreign currency it needs to import basic foodstuffs, as well as fuel & the luxuries to which its elites have become accustomed; a country whose limited stock of arable land is already dangerously over-burdened; which is approaching ecological catastrophe on several fronts. The Nile Valley, since the Aswan dam, no longer benefits from the replenishment of soil; the great river now only washes it away. (That, & not global warming, accounts for the accelerating recession of the Mediterranean coast: the Nile Delta is gradually dissolving.)

Someone must be blamed, & since Nasser, there have been no Jews left to kill. This leaves the Koran-denying Copts for the historical role of scapegoat. Lord have mercy on them.

Just an idea

There are 63 states, provinces, & territories scattered across the 4,600,000,000 or so acres of our American estate, which is to say, north of the Rio Grande. (I have excluded the larger bodies of fresh water, but included adjoining islands. Greenland, however, I leave to the Danes.) These in turn are gathered under two federal governments, as the consequence of unfortunate misunderstandings, 2.37 centuries ago, which resulted in a breakaway federal government.

There are approximately 3,400 counties, county-like municipal aggregations, or census county equivalents, across this area. They are hard to count. The Yukon, for instance, is just one big, seriously underpopulated, “census division.” Delaware has only three counties, but these are divided into county-sized “hundreds.” And across the American West, county lines were drawn at a time when everywhere was like the Yukon, minus Whitehorse; for even the native Indians were not so numerous.

Gentle reader may have his own aesthetic preferences, but I flinch at provincial, state, & county lines that were drawn with a ruler; to say nothing of that long monotonous mark along the 49th parallel. The lot lines followed, as smaller polygons within these, & the human enterprise was thus shaped by the ruler, as opposed to hoof, hand & eye. One may fly over Saskatchewan, for instance, counting the quarter sections from the wingtip of the aeroplane against the second hand on a watch, to determine one’s ground speed. For that matter, one can do it in a bus. This will get me a beating from Kate McMillan, perhaps, but I think it is sinful to ignore the natural contours in the land, even where they are subtle. For did you know that even Saskatchewan contains irregularities? That rivers & creeks craze the flattest Prairie?

The roads followed, straight. Here in Upper Canada, in a human landscape constructed by hurried surveyors generations after the Thirteen Colonies had been sorted & countified, one cannot help but say Aves for the late road builders. They pushed the line roads through the most discouraging obstacles, as if to vindicate the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Then died before they could add a few diagonals, for fun. Even the Romans would alter the trajectory of a road, to avoid a cliff or a swamp. Not our guys.

Along the Atlantic, where settlement came earlier, & followed European models by habit, the counties are much smaller, & rather more “organic.” Within the first thirteen United States, Vermont, southern Quebec, & the Canadian Maritimes, the county units are almost invariably smaller than the old counties in England, or the shire equivalents under the Continent’s ancient regimes. I think the reason is that the European units evolved over centuries of human habitation. Whereas here, cutting through the great primaeval forests, distances seemed greater than they were. But also our first settlers, coming from lower strata in the European pecking order, were accustomed to greater coziness.

Jefferson wanted the surveyors to parcel the American West into townships six nautical miles square. (He miscalculated the nautical mile, incidentally.)  Eight statute miles square (i.e. 64 square miles) seems to have been the ideal of the Loyalist surveyors taking possession of Upper Canada, pulling their mental strings through the wilderness of “killer trees” — & their killer roots, & the killer stones, that the pioneers then danced with.

Out on one branch of my family tree, I have “Late Loyalists” who spent 20 years manually clearing an acreage of wood to make farm near Zanesville, Ohio; only then to discover they had no freehold, just a lease. Simple people, & easy marks, they had not understood the fine print that progressive city folk like to insinuate into contracts. The bank having taken back the land they’d cleared, they started up again — near Sudbury, Ontario, on lots generously donated by Her Majesty. Readers who have never seen exposed igneous rock on Precambrian Shield will be unable to appreciate how optimistic they were. Or how thick.

Man being the measure of all things — hence the “fathom,” halved to the “yard”; the feet & inches, the pounds & ounces we find throughout pre-modern cultures, East & West — let us observe that the centre of a typical North American township is in reasonable walking distance from its boundary; that of a county within horse-riding distance, allowing plenty of time for business & return on the same day. So that, now we have discovered horses, I would say a county is probably small enough.

It has something like a natural size, usually in the doubling range of 16 to 32 miles square (256 to 1024 square miles) — bigger when there is wasteland to distribute, much much smaller in the case of tightly packed urban “boroughs.” The unit or its equivalent is traceable through many settled cultures, & probably for this reason: that it is big enough to fit dozens, even hundreds of parishes, yet, no part of it is unreachable from any other part, by pre-mechanical means. And therefore it can be fully imagined by its inhabitants, & identified with, at the autochthonic level, anchored deep below the winds of nationalist & chauvinist abstraction. It is “a country,” as our ancestors often called it.


I have been presenting all this in purely “secular” terms. A County is of course the domain of an Earl or Count; technically to be distinguished from the Duchy of a Duke, the Marquisate of a Marquis, &c — these latter of superior importance on account of their Lords, but still in the same range of sizes.

In the episcopal polity we have dioceses, subdivided into parishes. The dioceses & parishes of North America today are a fine mess, having been laid down usually before the natural patterns of settlement were established; & when rejigged, by bureaucratic committee. In later Mediaeval England, the dioceses & counties roughly corresponded, putting a magnificent Cathedral at the heart of each. There were 27 dioceses & thus 27 cathedrals (which is to overlook grand abbeys & other major churches) on the eve of the Reformation, by my count. In France there were 136, but France was four times the area, & back then, five times the population of little England. Looking over the rest of 15th-century Europe, we get some notion of natural scales, once society has settled. I think I can recommend the county/diocese as a “natural unit of governance”: the scale on which to build our new, Church-obedient, “nation states.”

Parishes corresponded to villages, with their surrounding fields & commons; or to neighbourhoods within the towns: the scale at which everyone once knew everyone else by name. The idea of a parish would be very hard to improve upon, as the basic unit of self-government below the county & above the family level; which indeed it was in that older & more civilized Christendom. It is the only scale at which direct democracy is even possible; for as the Greeks knew, beyond a certain maximum number, integral social relations break down. Five thousand inhabitants was their ideal for a completely autonomous city state; but as Christians discovered, this is too large. Think dozens to hundreds for a parish, or one thousand at the outside urban extreme. Think what will fit into a single parish church.

The natural size of a parish I learnt from walking around England, & across Europe (often along the footpaths & rights-of-way, that descend from the Middle Ages, & are likely as not to take you from one parish church directly to another). The parish will be one, two, three miles across; four or five in a remote area. In a city, of course, densely populated, it will be much smaller: a couple of dozen parishes or “wards” within a single square mile, inside the boundaries of old city walls. Modern cities are contorted by car-borne urban sprawl, apartment & office towers. But nobody really likes these things, which all depend on central planning, & are unsustainable without complex infrastructure; in time they will all go away. And meanwhile, they can be stripped for useful materials: huge inventories of steel & glass, re-usable brick & so forth.

France had some 60,000 parishes, as I mentioned in an earlier post (average population around 400) — & thus 60,000 parish churches — up to the time of the French Revolution. No two of these parishes were governed quite the same; each had its unique customs & traditions. Overnight, during the French Revolution, the timeless boundaries were amended (so many went back to the Romans), in order to create 36,000 new de-Christianized “communes” — identically governed by dictation from Paris. That evil continues to the present day, in the heritage of French secularity — founded, unambiguously, on slaughter.

England still has more than 11,000 parishes, little reduced from the Catholic era, but rendered likewise powerless under the heel of the Nanny State, & its procrustean bureaucracies. These, in turn, continue to be legitimated through a schedule of “general elections,” in which people vote for disembodied heads that they have seen talking on their televisions.

In North America, our bureaucracies are constantly at play with the municipal units. Occasionally one is subdivided, for unusual reasons, but mergers into “regions” are the norm. This is done to guarantee that the citizen remains deferent to the state. Constant disruption prevents him from creating anything resembling a settled local community in which he might have a voice, or join in the recovery of civil society.  “Crowd control” it is called at major public venues; but the principle of treating humans as herd animals in a stockyard — of assigning numbers to them, & calling them up by number to be audited by the tax officials & so forth — has been at the root of all progressive thinking & legislation. It was hatched by the butchers of the Directoire.

Our task, as I understand it, is to reverse this process: to make our world human again, in the least violent way possible. I specify this last on arbitrary, Christian principles. Were I a pagan I might give different advice. Verily, it would be prudent to make sure that our allies have been Christianized before putting them into action, & those of splenic temperament pacified through their Rosaries, & frequent attendance at Mass. For as I have found, it is a challenge to maintain the necessary serenity, while contending with devils in human flesh, & the machinery of their Progress.


It strikes me that a way backward might begin with a map. Or rather, more than a map: a kind of Doomsday Survey of the whole American estate. We could, for instance, gradually assemble the materials, geographical & historical, from every location, with which to comprehend the entire landscape; & from which to produce what might even be considered an “ecologically sensitive” redivision into natural counties & parishes, attractively & imaginatively named. We might even use such tools as the Internet & GPS, so long as they remain up & working, to help us in envisioning & re-envisioning what America might be, were she humane. It could be made into a large cooperative project, on the analogy of Wikipedia, once the principles of the thing were laid down.

What I have in mind is a set of general indications, of the sort any geographer should understand: drawing boundaries by the lie of the land, following the natural contours along the high ground to distinguish riparian districts, while bearing constantly in mind the pattern of existing settlement, & where possible distributing arable land with something resembling equity between the counties within any geographical region. And for each new, or redrawn old county & its parishes, an archive could be assembled, of what is known about its past, its genealogies, its roads & buildings, its natural history, its drainage & soils; even such information as can be found about what lies under hideous sprawl, with hints on how it could be scraped, cleansed, & restored to farmland.

Large parts of the continent remain almost uninhabited, because almost uninhabitable, & could be apportioned in “districts” of fairly large size, governed from any existing frontier population centre. Should population grow, such districts would later be subdivided, with new counties hived off from them. Meanwhile, in the absence of the Nanny State (having crashed under the weight of its own extravagance & tyranny), our aboriginal peoples & those of adventurous spirit would be welcome to roam, entirely at their own risk, away from the pressures of settled life.


I am suggesting all this as a project, only; as a place to start. I could go into much greater detail, but won’t for today. Nothing too terribly ambitious: just a voluntary, cooperative project, by which we might gain a better understanding of how things are & came to be, & what would be better. A “virtual” world, to be sure, but founded upon an actual landscape, & posited directly against what is now there. And again, it would (provided of course it had been printed out in enough copies) be of practical use when the existing economy collapses, the infrastructure goes down, Nanny State has little left to parasite upon, & her agents become fairly easy to defend ourselves against. For county by county & parish by parish it would be full of instructions on what to do next, & how to do it, as a means of survival. It would amount to a vade mecum for a functional Mediaeval civilization, to be built on the ruins of “Canada,” & “USA,” with the greatest possible life-saving speed.

And it would illustrate the principle of subsidiarity. For all the powers of Washington & Ottawa & the other capitals would be transferred immediately to the parishes. All they could not handle, referred upward to the county level by their actual request. Any question requiring adjudication between parish & parish, likewise raised to the county level. And as for the universal issues of criminal law, & common defence — well, those could be referred upward, too, to what we might call the “Holy American Empire.”

At the twilight’s last

Reading the pundits, on the second Obama Inauguration — that imitation Coronation, performed out of church at fixed intervals — one might think that half of America was attracted, & half repulsed. That impression would be wrong. The pundits’ minds are supersaturate with politics. They do not understand their fellow men, whose minds are not. At most, I should think, one in ten was attracted, one in ten repulsed. These are the people who “engage” with politics. The rest looked upon the Inauguration, if they looked at all, as on a Superbowl, or a blockbuster Hollywood movie.

Emperor Obama invited the United Statists once again to “come together, right now, over me.” … He invited them to join him in advancing the great unifying causes: gay rights, climate change, the need to defend every penny of Entitlements. … “He say, I know you, you know me, one thing I can tell you is you got to be free.” … But America was discussing his wife’s new hairdo. (Thumbs down.) Some were remarking on how his daughters had grown, since his last Coronation. (True.) There were various opinions on Beyoncé’s rendition of the national anthem. (Mostly positive.) A few asked who James Taylor was. (An outpatient from the late ‘sixties.) And everybody loves a parade. (Well, almost everybody.)

“Got to be a joker, he just do what he please.”

It is amusing how representative democracy works. There is not a policy on Obama’s sleigh that enjoys widespread popular support, if polls are to be believed. Opposition to things like gay marriage, tax-funded greening, open-spigot welfare, Obamacare — & now arbitrary gun control & “immigration reform” — has been overwhelming. Even among Democrats in Congress, it is hard to buy majorities for any of those things. But Americans voted to get it all, & get it hard.

Why? Because they liked Obama better than they liked Romney. In fact, after one billion dollars of media effort (plus ten-billion-worth that was free), the Democrat machine was able to convince Americans that they didn’t like Romney at all. He murders people, & his running mate pushed his own grandma off the cliff in her wheelchair. That’s the sort of message that goes to the heart of The People. Whereas, public policy leaves them yawning. Axelrod & the boys got this: they know voters are stupid, & they proved it.

As to the pundits: many were appalled by an inauguration stump speech, which vowed to continue overthrowing every value enshrined in the U.S. Constitution; which promised to eliminate the last vestiges of Reaganism, & of Clintonism, too; which heralded perpetual expansion of centralized government under bureaucratic czars, to snuff the last embers of civil society. And many pundits were delighted by all this. But the majority were somewhere in the middle.

I disagree with those radical rightists who say America won’t be America any more. It isn’t America any more. Those who think the old Norman Rockwell can still be restored are, as the progressives say, “living in the past.” Likewise, “American exceptionalism” is not going, but gone, for the last few things that made America exceptional are passing into extinction.

Even American military might is superannuated. A correspondent in Texas observed, after consulting a little history, that FDR — out of his Yankee chauvinism, his Wilsonian idealism — did everything in his power to undermine & sabotage the British Empire. This destructive enterprise was at the heart of all his disagreements with Churchill. And Obama has carried the enterprise further, to bringing the American Empire down.

He is in that sense the American Gorbachov: after him, the deluge. The very premisses upon which U.S. power was projected to the ends of the earth, have been withdrawn; & the means to do so must necessarily follow. Should some future administration wish to re-assert “hegemony” within the old American sphere of influence — the Arab world, the Far East, the Americas, western Europe — they will find that it isn’t an option any more. They will be like Putin, trying to restore the Russian Empire. It is gone, & cannot be rebuilt on the backs of drunkards & punks & the frightened.

One of the oddest things I find, in surveying the pundits through Real Clear Politics & the like, is general agreement that American society is now characterized by decadence. This is often lamented on the Right with gnashing of teeth; on the Left it is casually admitted; but the “perception” is shared. Confirmation comes by every statistical indicator. At bottom, the birthrate is now plunging to European levels. There is even some general understanding that the Nanny State is unsustainable; that the Ponzi scheme, by which each new generation paid benefits for the last, collapses as each new generation shrinks proportionally — the quicker as the young are increasingly unemployed, & becoming basically unemployable. The only thing that varies is willingness to confront this hard reality, & its unambiguously moral causation: little on the Right, & almost none on the Left.

Yes, “fracking” & cheap domestic carbon energy may give a statistical appearance of recovery, a dead cat bounce. Such hopes are cited by the well-intentioned progressives of the Right, from an outlook as materialist as the progressives of the Left. It is the current variation on “technology will save us.” Look around you. Technology cannot save anything. (Even the digital links go dead after a few years.)

I myself loved the old “exceptionalist” America, for all its theological flaws; for all its strange trinity of “We the People,” & “In God We Trust,” & “E Pluribus Unum.” Moreover, I know how I feel about the destruction of my own Dominion of Canada. I am not being cute or insincere in expressing my heartbreak, to see that old United States of America likewise die, leaving a desiccated shell. As an old Loyalist, it was my country, too: the same language, the same fundamental attitudes shared by Loyalist & Patriot alike. The same pioneering spirit; the same self-reliance. The same egalitarianism, of an older kind: the kind that looked your neighbour in the eye; that looked your woman in the eye; that looked your children in the eyes. There was so much noble in that old America, replaced now in this “new era” with bullshit & sleaze.

But everything in this world must go, into that trash heap of history. “O dark dark dark, they all go into the dark, the vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant.” And shining in that dark is Christ, whose Kingdom is not of this world. And nobility, too, is not of this world; is unkillable, & will take new forms. And consider: the last fond hope of the Enlightenment has now gone under the hill. That leaves us nothing to rebuild, but Christendom.

To be human

“Humanism” is a funny old term. It is used today to denote the extraordinarily high regard in which politicized Atheists hold themselves. It conveys the evolutionary notion, that some pigs are more equal than others. In particular, those who deviate from the scientistic doctrines of Movement Atheism, & resist jackboot orders to remove themselves from public sight, constitute a lower life form, & must be eradicated in the name of Progress.

Perhaps I overstate their views. Having read key passages in Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, &c, I don’t think so. To be fair, let me recall that I’ve read several Atheist debunkers of Dawkins in particular, who complain of the viciousness & ignorance of his position, & how it makes them feel ashamed to be Atheists.

Too, on this other hand, I can supply a much longer list of “nice, tolerant Atheists” which includes, among living & dead off the top of my head: J.G. Ballard, Theodore Dalrymple, Carol Ann Duffy, Terry Eagleton, Oriana Fallaci, Seamus Heaney, Clive James, Philip Larkin, Stanislaw Lem, Iris Murdoch, Thomas Pynchon, Italo Svevo, Fernando Pessoa, Georg Cristoph Lichtenberg, Lucian, & Aristophanes.

This list could be made much longer, while sticking to my own preferences alone; but I would make two general observations about it:

First, in each & every case I’ve considered, Atheism has undermined the expression of profundities of which I thought the author capable, & cut across the grain of a formidable talent. And since this remark will be misunderstood, let me make clear: I am not referring to passages evocative of grimness or desolation when confronting human fate. (The religion of the Cross is not “happyface.”) I mean the absence of a spiritual lyricism that could have raised such passages. This is why there are no Atheists of the highest literary or philosophical order: the Atheism itself precludes, introducing a smallness of interpretation when the great questions of life are suddenly at stake. Yet in the best, there is a certain gritty stoicism.

Second, I expect each will appear on the Index of the Bright Inquisition, along with the Bible, Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, & all other literature that indulges imagination too freely. For the more creative sort of Atheists were no more safe than believing Christians, under previous aggressively Atheist regimes. You lick their boots, or you are a dead man.

The odd thing is, the title “Humanist” was appropriated from a religious vocabulary. Before being put directly at the service of Satan, during his Enlightenment, it referred to an explicitly Catholic intellectual movement of the later Middle Ages, in opposition to Scholasticism.

My own view of the original Humanism — starting from Petrarch in the standard academic way — is ambiguous. The term is applied to many who never applied it to themselves, which makes it dicey from the start. Sometimes it is little more than fashion. Yet one may easily discern a Humanist movement, beginning from urban Italy, crossing over the Alps, & settling into those Netherlandish parts through the 15th & earlier 16th centuries. It is also easy to blame it for the re-intrusion of an unthinkingly worldly pagan sensuousness into art, music, philosophy, &c. But at its more serene, it is pedagogical by disposition, classicizing, reactionary in its aspiration to recover skills & standards from a lost past; & thus attractively inimical to Progress.

Its ultimate exponents — men like Juan Luis Vives, Desidarius Erasmus, Saint Thomas More — were among the most eloquent opponents of the Reformation. Fine & good, & More is of course my greatest political hero. These, & others like them were men (& women: one thinks of the saintly & learned Catherine of Aragon, for instance) of uncompromising faith. Their own projects of “reform,” within the Catholic Church, were desirable: to improve standards of education for men & women alike; to increase religious observance; to bring churchmen back to a recollection of their vows, & the public at large to moral sobriety; to challenge heresy & apostasy. There was among them, & among so many of their predecessors, a very Christian & elevated view of the nature of Man, & therefore of our possibilities: a belief that much better could be got out of us.

To my mind, they went wrong in opposition to Scholasticism, too wantonly satirizing not the thing itself, but the decayed version of the thing on offer towards the end of the Middle Ages. They implicitly confused the thing itself with what amounted to a cheap imitation. This mistake would be corrected by such as John Poinsot (“John of Saint Thomas”), who might be considered a Humanist of a later Catholic generation. After an erratic course through that self-styled “Age of Reason,” the fine heritage of Scholasticism, with its Aristotelian foundations, has been largely recovered through the great “renaissance” of Thomism that accelerated in the later 19th century, & continues within the Church to our day. One might say it has been cleaned up, dusted off, & is ready to be put back in action.

But all this gets beyond the purpose I had in mind for today’s lay sermon. For I wanted to comment on what might be called the “ur-Humanism”: that form of the humane that was written into the human condition, by God. And further, to invite gentle reader to speculate on what a recovery of true Humanism might entail, especially in the sciences.

Consider this, from a news report:

“Australian archeologists have studied the burial site of a paralyzed young man who lived in northern Vietnam between 3,700 to 4,500 years ago. He lived into his early thirties thanks to round-the-clock, high-quality personal care including regular bathing, toileting, massaging, & turning to avoid pressure sores.”

The article is almost as thrilling for its explanation of how the archaeologists could infer these facts, as for the facts themselves, & the light they cast on a “primitive hunter-gatherer culture.” I have seen many similar reports, from the world of empirical archaeology & anthropology, & have flagged this one only because it is current & available & the moral is spelt out. Again & again we are reminded, of what we have in common with our most primitive human ancestors; of what “humanity” means.

Humans may be considered as one animal “evolving” by random mutation through natural selection along with all the others. This is the cosmology of our contemporary, self-styled “Humanists.” It is an atheological imposition upon the evidence that no theologian could match. It imposes throwaway “survival of the fittest” explanations upon nature’s rich store of cooperative behaviour. It is casually adapted to explain away mounting contradictory evidence, & to distract from the huge bald fact of incredibly complex, genetically specified design — in every example of every known creature. The speed with which this grinding, Victorian “just so” story is retold, before each new discovery has even been unpacked, reveals the incuriosity of its exponents. They exhibit the very gross credulity & bigotry which they falsely impute to Mediaeval Man. And all for the sake of spitting in the face of the Divine.

But there is an alternative to this intellectual zombieism; an alternative within empirical science itself. It is to look at the evidence without preconceptions. Moreover, to look at the evidence broadly, in the older Aristotelian spirit, with a view to cataloguing it on its own terms. Nature herself is helping to compel this, for at the front line of biology today we begin to read the genetic codes. The family trees used to illustrate Darwinism, & make it appear plausible to the schoolchildren of the past, are being merrily blown out of the water. They are replaced by new ones that leave us scratching our heads. More deeply, we find nothing to meet the criteria for random drift; & the desperate further speculations about “selfish genes” & the like will not save an account of reality that is, at its best, wilfully obtuse.

Nature herself is forcing us back — to the close observation & categorization of creatures in a scala naturae, or “ladder of life,” or “Great Chain of Being” — & upon the teleological wisdom that follows from this frankly Aristotelian enterprise. Nature does not reward ideologues; she favours rather the industrious inquirer, who remains humble & reticent on the theoretical side. She punishes those who ignore the obvious, humiliates those who jump to conclusions. Indeed: this is one of the things I love about Nature.

It could be said that the original Humanists set about replacing a basically Aristotelian with a basically Platonic approach to science. That was enough of a mistake. Our contemporary, self-styled “Humanists” — or, “post-Humanists” — kick both kinds of epistemology away. They sport a “Humanism” that denies humanity itself, & a knowledge that denies the possibility of knowledge. We may well protest the nihilist tyranny in such a view; but through the grace of our benevolent Creator, Nature will eradicate it in due course.

Owner-sensitive media

One wonders if God is any more interested than the rest of us in hapless moaning. There’s a lot of it about. In the course of “researching” this article — i.e. glancing over a few Internet links — I have just acquired my fill of quasi-highbrow European journalists, bemoaning fate. It seems the Internet has eaten their lunch. All this hype “they” — often the same writers — were feeding us twenty years ago, about the marvellous future emanating from Silicon Valley, is now being unselfconsciously revised. I never expect them to remember what they used to say. For years I have marvelled at the ability of the smug progressive types to “get on the right side of history,” not only prospectively, but retroactively.

At last the full horror of their situation is sinking in, as their quasi-highbrow rags burn away. It is impossible to sustain any kind of serious-looking publication in this “new economy.” Papers like El Pais in Spain — the voice of The Future only ten years ago — discover that their stock is now worth so little that their hated bankers casually soak it up, then start writing the op-eds. The paper recently disemployed one-third of its workforce, hitting editorial staff disproportionately. Many names renowned in Spanish progressive journalism went out with the bathwater. This helps make space for the new, owner-sensitive points of view.

In France, the winds of change blow in the opposite ideological direction. The French secularizing state has long had its fingers in every journalistic pie, through shameless subsidies, & courts promptly responsive to executive displeasure, & a culture in which all the important people in government & media are closely affiliated through old school ties. Now that the government is socialist again, & the newspapers are no longer worth much, the one dissonant, mildly anti-statist voice is getting choked. The chief editor of Le Figaro was disposed of, after the paper’s military-industrial proprietors were advised that his liveliness could jeopardize their every government contract.

Unsurprisingly, it is a conservative, once deadly serious business newspaper — Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung — that most clearly discerns the trend, & its cause. “Freedom of the press” depended, quite entirely, on the profitability of the press. A paper losing money can only beg, & must listen politely to the whims of its donors. The FAZ correspondent Frank Schirrmacher observes the growing acceptance of the idea that commercial interests should not merely sponsor, but supply their own news. We may thus look forward to a near future when, “Apple reports on working conditions in China, & Coca-Cola on the benefits of globalization.”

This is an old story, for me. When I published the Idler magazine, the advertisers left me alone. For though the Idler soon had more paid circulation than other papers in which they did advertise, & rather finer “demographics,” we lacked the correct “market placement.” It was nothing personal: we simply didn’t provide a medium in which, they thought, rank consumerism would show well. A couple of times very rich men offered to “save us” from our constantly impending financial doom, on the one modest condition that we overhaul the magazine, to reflect their views & tastes more faithfully. The choice was finally between extinction & prostitution. Being the curmudgeonly sort, I picked extinction; most publishers would swing the other way.

That was then, this is now. In 1984, when we started up, it was still possible for such a rag to limp along, on subscription revenue alone, with the occasional toss-in from a small-scale “angel.” We continued limping for nearly ten years. Given current economic & technological realities, even that feat would be inconceivable; for the most vulgarly commercial papers cannot be made to pay. And the number of profitable Internet media operations, around the whole world, is very close to zero. It is not a case of “adapt or die.” This is now a both/and proposition.

My brilliant elder son reports to me from the frontiers of the cybernetic economy. Yes, he gathers, industry might return to North America from the cheap labour countries, thanks to technology that eliminates labour almost completely. That is to say, industry may return, but not jobs — except for a tiny, specialized elite of techies, themselves obviated every few years.

The path from free lunch to no lunch has been short in all ages, but greed interferes with our capacity to learn. I mentioned pain & failure as the great teachers in my last post; & would tack on hunger except, it motivates more than teaches. My guess is that, being hungry & having no prospect of employment, the “market correction” may motivate people to grow their own food.

Let me recommend that to young aspiring journalists, who wish to surf ahead of the wave. Small farmlots may seem a muddy way to earn a living, but consider: you can eat what you can’t sell. You might also want to acquire some formidable assault weapons, in light of “the lessons of history.” But do yourself a favour & buy nothing high-tech. For while they may look convincing, these state-of-the-art automatics spray state-of-the-art ammunition, & the fools buying them don’t realize how quickly it will run out.

The pursuit of ignorance

The desire to leap to a conclusion, on the basis of some passing observation, which may not even be accurate, appears to be shared by all human beings. It is shared, too, with other members of that Animal Kingdom, of which we are the indisputable Monarch. It can be seen most clearly in the behaviour of the more intelligent birds & beasts, who obviously draw inferences, or draw obvious inferences, from what they can sense. For instance, smoke means fire means get out of there. For instance, food source lying undefended, get it while you can. For instance, tiny impossible-looking gap but I can fly through it without adjusting my cruising speed, for I am a swallow & swallows can just do that.

The art of hunting, before the invention of firearms & other dirty game-changing tricks, consisted mostly of the art of entrapment. As clever humans, we could outwit the lesser animals, & con them into taking our bait. They could infer step one; we could contrive step two.

In politics, the clever human uses similar tactics, at a slightly more sophisticated level — rhetorical “bait & switch” — to sucker voters into supporting schemes that could not possibly be in their own best interests; & thereby obtain the “food” of power.

Yet it is not power that corrupts, contra Lord Acton. The humans are corrupt to start with, & power is one of the things we want. The desire for it is not equally distributed, as nothing seems to be equally distributed in our kind. Some seem born almost indifferent to power; others think of little else, no matter what the environment or their circumstances. At an entry level, such as office politics, we may observe power hunger in action: persons of mediocre intelligence & skill nevertheless getting ahead by doing things others might think of, but would be too shy to try. Or in rare cases, too decent to consider.

The higher levels simply develop from the lower. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, were not corrupted by power. Not even slightly. They were what they were from the start. Power introduces temptations not available on the humbler scales of human activity, which is a good reason for preventing our corrupt fellow humans from getting too much of it. It may go to the head of a person who has never had much power before, but then, it is going to the head of a person who had that kind of head, & never made the effort to get it cured.

Similarly, it is not money that corrupts, per se. Observe the behaviour of the winners of lotteries, who are often, if not usually, destroyed by their sudden prizes. Money gave them the ability to buy what they always wanted. The problem was with what they always wanted.

The attribution of catastrophe to some inanimate “corrupting agency,” such as power or money, like the attribution of a stubbed toe to the malice of a bedpost, is itself an example of the point from which I began. We, even learned & thoughtful types like Lord Acton, are too easily satisfied by the proximate cause. And having taken that bait, we proceed ever more gravely through easily posited levels of abstraction to the worship of our various false gods. In Acton’s case, as for many other old-fashioned liberals, that god was Liberty. It blinded him even to the distinction between “power” & “authority.” He found himself explaining — brilliantly, but to my mind essentially falsely — all historical process in terms of the struggle for, & advance of, Liberty. (Thank God he was Catholic, or nothing would have restrained him.)

Not that such an account of history yields entirely useless results. Any light shined from an oblique angle may uncover truths invisible from other angles; & Karl Marx, too, found a few things out that weren’t entirely untrue, from his scopic device of dialectical materialism, & his obsession with class warfare. Even Darwin made a few serviceable observations, & not even Freud struck out.

There is a use for heretics, in the larger economy of salvation, perhaps. Still, we should beware the man of one idea, & be the more on our guard against what presents itself as pursuit of knowledge, but is a flight in the opposite direction. And always (to be Catholic again) one should start by turning one’s suspicion on oneself, & removing the timber from one’s own eye, before addressing one’s neighbour’s opacificities. (Christ didn’t say don’t do it; He said try it on yourself first. “Judge not that ye be not judged,” applies on another plain of Damnation.)

This takes us to the matter of wisdom. It involves (as my hero Aristotle knew) that “mysterious” quality of common sense: of seeing things in the round; of observing the tendency of facts “in the main” & not in partial selection; of avoiding dependency on the single filter. We must keep returning to our topic from new angles, & building from them a comprehensive view.

It is no accident that, as they grow older, & until they lose their wits, the sane become more “conservative” in this way; in the sense of, less apt to jump to conclusions. Pain is the great teacher in this respect; or more broadly, pain & failure. And the exception proves the rule: for those who have found success by chance, without meeting obstacles sufficient to “humiliate” them, tend almost invariably to be stupid jerks.


A member of the Commentariat has instructed us, up here in the High Doganate, to think faster about what should be done, since the present generation of politicians are multiplying our problems quickly, & enlarging them, past the possibility of retrieval. Yet all our Departments report back the same: that speed will only encourage them to Error.

I am reminded of a big fat irascible American who once worked with me in Asia, on the descending arc from an earlier career in advanced physics. Let us call him “Harold” for that was his name; a good man, with a lively sense of his own corruption, when he wasn’t indulging it. Like most people, he had a few prejudices, & one of them was against “Brits” — a category into which he would subtly insinuate me, by parody of my rather fluffy accent.

He had once worked with “the little snobs” on the Manhattan Project. And what he disliked most about them, he confessed, was their basically unAmerican patience. While the Americans were all queueing to use the latest super-advanced computer (the ENIAC, a room-filling device with the computational ability of a latter-day desk calculator), these Brits persisted in doing all their calculations by hand. It was time-consuming work to program the computer to find a result that could then be delivered at electronic speed; but laziness was not the Brits’ motive. At least one of them was familiar with the even more advanced British Colossus computer, which had been used to break German codes. They could generally understand the use of computers.

But no, the little snobs did things by hand so they could “get the feel of the problem,” & detect critical points where an assumption might be wrong. Harold said, by the time he left the project, the very sight of them would fill him with disgust, & the sound of their “nasal rat-like voices” gave him migraines.

I loved Harold, for he was an honest man — larger than life & twice as crass. Time & again, he added, these insufferable be-tweeded Oxonian creatures “saved the bacon” of their American colleagues. They kept finding overlooked flaws. And in the end, he thought Truman would never have had something impressive to drop on Hiroshima, had the Brits not been there slowing things down.

Not that H-bombs or A-bombs or any other letter-bombs are, necessarily, a good thing. Gentle reader knows what I think of Progress. So I would not have him jump to that conclusion; nor to the opposite, more intuitive one, that nuclear weapons are the work of the devil. We use them, up here in the High Doganate, only to illustrate a point.

James M. Buchanan

Were I to characterize my current thinking on the economic order in a single word, I would choose, “bewildered.” I agree with the popes (a whole series of them) that socialism stinks, even in its mildest, most “democratic” forms. I also agree with them that capitalism is a good thing “up to a point,” but that a “capitalist ideology” by which society is entirely commercialized, so that we honour only what makes a profit, & devalue work & production in & of itself, also stinks — albeit less, because the capitalists don’t usually mind if you pursue quixotic noble schemes on your own dollar. They may find these schemes distasteful, but will generally leave off after short expressions of contempt.

Let me briefly advocate bewilderment as an analytical tool, among the more useful in the idler’s repertoire. I am tempted to elevate its status by referring to it as “Socratic bewilderment,” & then allying it with “Socratic irony.” That is, I think a good place to start, when you don’t have the answer, is to say (to yourself, principally), “I don’t know.” It’s amazing what can be learnt after making that assertion.

I don’t know how to proceed on the great economic issues. My tendencies are increasingly “distributist” — i.e. the widest possible distribution of private property, & the fine Catholic principle of subsidiarity in government, within a civilizational order that formally recognizes moral & spiritual truths — but no clew how to get there beyond, “Let’s everyone become traditionalist Catholics.” Meanwhile, no clew either how to disentangle the cat’s cradle of tyranny & deceit that would be necessary to understand what we have in reality, & thus, how to take it apart without using scissors.

Let me meanwhile note the death last week of the economist, James M. Buchanan, who tried very hard to understand that cat’s cradle better. We identify him with “public choice theory,” the basic notion of which was ingenious. Why don’t we use the same methods as economists do, in analyzing behaviour in a marketplace, to analyze behaviour in politics? We all know, or rather, assume without thinking, that each economic agent serves his own self-interest in the marketplace. And we are taught to assume that politicians & bureaucrats are there to serve the public good whenever we detect “market failure.” But what if politicians & bureaucrats also have interests? And what if the selfish motives of the marketplace also applied to them? Might that cast light on their own, supposedly benevolent, behaviour?

This was by no means a new insight, but by the early 1960s it had been forgotten long enough to appear quite new. While Buchanan & his colleagues were soft-spoken gentlemen, the edginess of their proposal caught some attention. Economic thinkers in the “Austrian school” had long argued that politicians & bureaucrats have insufficient information to make decisions that will be genuinely in the public interest, & that is why they (“almost”) invariably make a hash of things. But perhaps that was too gentle a way of sizing them up.

In the earlier 20th century, Vilfredo Pareto had already been there. A pioneer of number-crunching, he is famed today chiefly for his “Pareto curve,” & allied statistical “discoveries.” But in later life, surrounded by his cats, French mistress, &c, he drifted from economics into sociology. Unlike most economists, he became curious as to why his theoretical predictions of aggregate self-interested human behaviour never worked out in practice. He began to suspect that humans behave irrationally. He became obsessed with how they manipulate power to get the strange things they want, actually in defiance of “market forces.” He thought libertarianism would mitigate the effects of the tiny elites who always seem to corner the power; & in his final act of idiocy, thought that Benito Mussolini was a libertarian.

He meant well, of course. Don’t they all.

Buchanan must have been the world’s greatest expert on that political quid pro quo called “logrolling.” This was Davy Crockett’s old (1835) term for the process by which legislators trade votes so that, at the simplest level, “I’ll vote to fund your bridge to nowhere, if you’ll vote to fund my wind farm.” One might almost call this the essence of representative democracy: the system by which two or more wrongs may be combined to create an illusory right. But the principle of mutual backscratching — most familiar to me in literature & the arts — applies at all levels of society. The funny thing: it is not irrational, & will only so appear to e.g. economists postulating a human condition into which stuff like sin has not been factored.

Buchanan was also the author of a very nice distinction between politics & policy. “Politics” is the art of logrolling to determine the rules of the game; whereas, “policy” is how you play the game to win once the rules have stabilized. With this delicious insight he went on to found the sub-discipline of “constitutional economics.”

I don’t know enough about Buchanan to keep this post going much longer; but from the little I do know, a good & interesting man, & I’m sorry he’s dead, though at the age of ninety-three you must expect things like that to happen.

The Baptism of Christ

Back in the day when I was a Londoner, & becoming a Christian — to which I referred two posts ago — it was my habit to haunt, in addition to libraries, also museums & galleries. These were the happiest days of my life, the chastest & the poorest in material terms, & London was my Athens as a young man. There was free admission to all these institutions (even where a ticket was required, it was free), & I was living off the fat of the land. I mentioned Bible reading in that penultimate “Ask” post, & my mesmerization by the Gospel of John. There was another mesmerization, at the time.

At the National Gallery in London there is a famous picture, by Piero della Francesca, entitled The Baptism of Christ. It has extraordinary redemptive value, or so it then seemed to me. I would, at that time, go into the National Gallery almost daily, park myself in front of that painting, & stare at it, sometimes for more than an hour. The museum guards became aware of me, & worried about my strange behaviour. Several times I was told to move on.

Piero’s Baptism was the central panel of a triptych for the Camaladolese Abbey at Sansepolcro in Tuscany, his birthplace. It is unfortunate that with time & money (& the occasional act of rapine) these objects are pulled apart & scattered. In this case not only does one long to see the side panels, but also the original frame, & the triptych’s setting in the chapel sanctuary. There was apparently a roundel atop the frame of the central panel, representing God the Father, serving as common point of reference to integrate all three panels; there may have been other relevant “decorations.” But we will take what we have with gratitude, as we do with all Classics: any piece of them we can get our eyes upon.

This painting, tempera on wood, I will not bother to describe, for it is reproduced all over the Internet, often large & sharp. But I have never seen a reproduction, in pixels or on paper, that captures the atmosphere of the thing; its unearthliness, & paradoxically also its solidity.

Piero was a brilliant mathematician, & the internal geometry of the painting is complex, enfolding a symbolism richer still — all set in motion by the gesture of John Baptist. The trunk of the foreground tree demarcates a golden section within the picture, but this is only the beginning of the proportional relations. All seem to play a part, in combination with the colouring, to set the painting into what I can describe only as “a spiritual motion.”

The whole is greater than its parts, & the modern academic practice of drawing rectangles, diagonals, arcs, circles, & squiggles over the composition to demonstrate the relations detracts from this whole. We have up here in the High Doganate a learned work by J.V. Field, Pierro della Francesca: A Mathematician’s Art, which though interesting in itself has added precisely nothing to our appreciation of any of Piero’s paintings. It is as if the better one “understands” them, the less one understands. This could be a reason why, perhaps, Piero’s Quattrocento contemporaries may have appreciated them less than we can; because they “knew too much.” They would have understood topical references to a movement then afoot, to reunite Western & Eastern Christendom. That accounts for figures in Byzantine dress towards the rear of the composition, obscured by the novice undressing on the right, & may point to other allusions.

The angels represented on the left — touching or holding hands, each dressed in a distinct manner — & with their peculiar expressions of wonderment — often held my attention. But every part of the composition leads one back to what we have dead centre: Christ. Somehow the painting has captured what theologians have struggled to convey: his “consubstantiality”; his manliness & his God-liness inseverably combined. Perhaps one reason for my fascination was my need to take this in gradually, for it is lost in any simple formula, necessary as that credal formula may be. It is part of the “impossibility” I was writing about, in that previous post.

The landscape itself is arguably Tuscan, & I’ve read that Sansepolcro itself is to be found, on the hill high on the left. Perhaps so. But every effort has been made, starting from the abstract presentation of the Jordan River, & the way it is taken to end at Christ’s feet; in the angels; & then through the “song” in the receding placement of the trees, to make the landscape itself in a sense “consubstantial.” It combines heavenly & earthly. Christ’s standing posture & His centrality make him dominant, but also serve to put the heavenly behind him. He is the gate: “only through Christ” do we come to the heaven; only through Baptism do we come into the Life that must pass through the eye of the needle.

There is much more to contemplate in this astonishing work of art. Piero was such a painter, that it is almost useless to consider his career — to place any of his paintings in a chronological sequence & think of what came before & after. His development as artist was of a different kind. There is little or no perceptible stylistic evolution, & he arrives & departs from history in one piece. Blanks are likewise drawn in his relations with other masters. This renders conventional art-historical analysis quite pointless. I have often suspected that “art history” serves Progress more than it can ever serve Art; that it is like a museum guard who tells you to keep moving.

Warmth in winter

And another thing: my fortnightly column for the Catholic Thing, electronic organ of the Faith & Reason Institute, in Washington, DC. It is on the joys, & also the moral imperatives, of book burning:

“Fires are welcome in our northern winter, up here in the Canadas, & dry softwood logs are the fuel of first resort. Books, by comparison, need a lot of page-turning attention to keep them alight, at least when roasted individually. This is why I recommend the books-plus-logs approach to an open fire. I might mention chestnuts, but this is to consider the matter in too superficial a way. …”


One of my little disappointments, on joining the Catholic Church, was to discover that the Index Librorum Prohibitorum had been discontinued. The last (20th) edition was published in 1948. Pope Paul VI formally abolished the Index in 1966, let me happily suppose because any further revision would have been too unwieldy. Granted, the Index was a passing thing, having been started only in 1559, & I generally oppose these modern innovations. But it did give readers some assurance that the Church knew what she was about.

It was always a little lax, however, compared to the licensing & censorship arrangements in the Protestant countries. This had partly to do with the Catholic practice of allowing authors of banned works to argue in their defence. They could often get around the prohibition with a few minor textual changes. For instance, books advocating the heliocentric cosmology were at first banned (as they also were in the Protestant north), but allowed if instead of “a fact” the heliocentric theory were described as “an hypothesis.” Moreover, you could get a dispensation from your priest to read almost anything; the books were all available in the towns. It wasn’t like England, for instance, where prohibited (mostly Catholic) books had to be printed abroad, & there were frightful penalties for smuggling them into the country.

The first couple of editions of the Index, in the 16th century, occasioned lively public debate among Catholic intellectuals, & the list was quickly much reduced. The discussion in itself was useful, of what should be condemned, & why. I should like to see something similar revived: a forum in which learned Catholics could dispute not merely which books should be avoided by Catholic readers, but more importantly, why they are pernicious.

Meanwhile, it strikes me some money could be made with a new line of “Idleness” products. A woodstove specially adapted for book burning might be a start, & I invite the Commentariat to suggest other attractive products with which we might begin to make our fortune.

Ask & it will be answered

“Il ne dépend pas de nous de croire en Dieu, mais seulement de ne pas accorder notre amour à de faux dieux.” This is among my favourite pensées of Simone Weil: “It is not up to us to believe in God, only not to grant our love to false gods.”

Gentle reader is invited to keep thinking about that.

To my mind, we cannot think our way to God, we have not the brains for that. Therefore I will readily concede that the existence of God cannot be “proved,” empirically or even philosophically; only inferred. And an inference, even one that seems dead obvious, may be wrong. I will allow no man precedence when it comes to scepticism of human intellectual capacity. We are idiots, the lot of us, & our chief intellectual capacity consists in seeing what we want to see. It is a quality well expressed by the concept of “original sin”; & those who think they are sinless are not so much blind, as prey to ridiculous illusions.

“The future” was among the false gods Simone Weil had often in mind. She had passed through her youthful period of political radicalism, & walked away. There is no shortage of false gods. We are constantly adapting old & inventing new ones, & it is the limit of the natural human endowment to see that they are false, phantasms, disruptions of our peace. The best that we can do is to reject them; to refuse worship to self-created abstractions.

Whereas, belief in God is quite impossible. There is no logical path to Him: “you can’t get there from here.” His absence from the Creation is total. There could not be any such path, in the nature of things, for we may say with some confidence that the entire universe consists of things that are not God. His very impossibility saves us from confusion with a god who is false. At no point in history could any human being have “found God,” by any effort or science of his own. It wouldn’t have been possible even to create Him: for He is too absurd, too “other.” False gods at least answer to our more immediate desires.

Let me quote another, seemingly paradoxical aphorism from Simone Weil to enlarge upon this point:

“There are four evidences of divine mercy here below: the favours of God to beings capable of contemplation (these states exist & form part of their experience as creatures); the radiance of these beings & their compassion, which is the divine compassion in them; the beauty of the world. The fourth evidence is the complete absence of mercy here below.”

Glibness or cleverness will stand in the way of understanding this passage. The fourth proposition does not contradict the first three.

This, if you will, is why I became a Christian; not in spite of being an atheist, but because I was one. It was the complete absence & impossibility of God that impressed me. Perhaps I flatter myself in memory, but I do not recall being an “agnostic,” or ever having time for agnostics. It struck me as a foolish position, not self-contradictory but beyond self-contradictory. If something were possible, but unlikely, one might take an agnostic position, waiting for further evidence to come in. But when something is impossible, you don’t wait. Unless you are extremely feeble minded.


I became acquainted, quite young, with the conception of the “Big Bang.” (Verily, I was something of a “science child.”) Though I did not know it at first, owing to lies & misrepresentations in books of popular science, the “discoverer” of it was the Belgian priest & monk, astronomer & physicist, Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître. He called it, “the hypothesis of the infinitesimal Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of the Creation,” a much better label (than Fred Hoyle’s). Contrary to what is still given out, by way of pop science, he also anticipated Hubble’s Constant — by two years on Edwin Hubble; & was from several other accomplishments almost certainly the most under-appreciated scientific mind of the 20th century.

Father Lemaître was mocked at first, including by Albert Einstein. (Though not by Arthur Eddington, who had had him as a pupil & been tremendously impressed by the clarity of his thought, & his mastery of mathematics.) His hypothesis included the seemingly batty idea of cosmic rays, emanating from the origin of the universe; & strange to say, that was the point that brought Einstein around, in a celebrated moment when it all made sense to him & he began to applaud wildly.

It took many more years for the physics establishment at large to cope with what many suspected was a theological invasion of empirical science. What made it even harder to assimilate: the notion that our universe actually had a beginning at a singular point of space-time, & an expansion rate that can be reasonably estimated. It is that finitude they found most distressing, & to this day they are looking for ways to wormhole out of it, into multiverses & the like, of purest speculation, impelled by a kind of ungodly claustrophobia.

I, as a budding adolescent in the later ‘sixties, had no problem with it, however. A “cosmic egg” is not God. Curiously, this is a point upon which Father Lemaître was also quite insistent, so that when Pope Pius XII referred to his “theory” as a validation of the Catholic faith, Father Lemaître corrected him quite sharply. No, it is a scientific hypothesis, on which no theological inference can be banked, for something more might be discovered & it could all be kicked away. Pin Nature on God, & not God on Nature.

This is all mentioned to dispel the notion that science can lead us to God. It cannot. And in my own case, neither my early embrace of Father Lemaître’s cosmology, nor my early rejection of the Darwinian explanation of the phenomena of evolution, had anything to do with my becoming a Christian.

Here is something that had to do with it. It is a passage from the Upanishads, which I can no longer trace, but find still in memory: “He is not a male. He is not a female. He is not a neuter. He neither is, nor is not. When he is sought he will take the form in which he is sought; & again he will not come in such a form. It is indeed difficult to describe the Name of the Lord.”

This did not convince me of anything, but was a mental preparation for accepting Christ, & Trinitarianism. Perhaps it only could be for me. Let me flag particularly: “again he will not come in such a form.”

The impossibility of getting to God, by any empirical or philosophical method, is what still convinced me. It struck me as odd, however, that almost every man or woman I tremendously admired — scattered over centuries — had got there anyway. My claim to be smarter & wiser than any of them began to pall. Conversely, the discovery that my atheism was shared by very few I admired, & mostly by the stupid & obnoxious, weighed upon my cocky self-confidence. Was it just possible I had missed something?

There was another source of weight, more purely psychological. Let us call this “a sense of sin.” It was growing on me, with the realization that, “objectively,” I had done a few things that were “bad,” as demonstrated by the fact that I instinctively concealed them. And too, felt inescapable shame, & remorse — not only for what I had done selfishly to the harm of others, but for the harm I had done more mysteriously to myself. Gravity, “pesanteur,” weight.

It would take too much space, & be awkward to reconstruct, my reading of that period. I have anyway written elsewhere about my Christian conversion; of an event on the Hungerford Bridge in London.  I am writing this evening only about intellectual preparation, not about “religious experience,” although the two will be joined. That preparation came down to: “We cannot reach God. But perhaps it is possible that God can reach us.”

One book is worth mentioning in this connexion, however: the Bible. At the time immediately before my conversion, I was reading it with great attention. I was already familiar with “the Bible as literature,” for I was by my early twenties more literary than scientific. And if you don’t know your Bible, English literature can make little sense, nor any other European literature. But to read something “as literature” is quite another thing from reading it as if your life depended on it. “Attention” is Simone Weil’s term. (She associates prayer with complete attention.)

In particular I became mesmerized by the Gospel of John, in which it seemed all strands came together. Either Christ was a complete fraud, or he was the Son of God. There really is no third option, for a conspiracy of all apostles & all other earliest Christians gets too far beyond the plausible. There were two possible answers, “yea” or “nay.” And more & more I felt, no place to hide.

The first time I asked, “Christ, if you exist, why don’t you just show me,” the tone was quite facetious. But it was a question I found myself repeating, in different ways. Example: “Christ, if you are there, why this hide & seek nonsense? Why do you play games? Why do you toy with people?” Gentle reader will note, it was becoming a conversation; but one consciously between a young man, very alone, & a Messiah, very absent.

The conversation ended, or was rather transformed, as I have written before. It was by the steps ascending that pedestrian bridge (alongside a railway), from the South Embankment. I think I must have asked, so many times, “Christ, if you exist, why don’t you just show me?” that I had finally managed to ask it sincerely. And in that moment I became aware of the presence of some extraordinary light, or flame, or radiance, that I knew to be a Person; to be Infinite Love. And of a voice that spoke one unmistakable sentence:

“I will cross this bridge with you.”

At the other side, as I turned to steps descending to North Embankment, this Person was gone. But as if in the air above & before me, I became aware of another presence, or Person, briefly but so vividly. I can recall trying to reason: “And that is the Holy Spirit, whom I have known all my life; known without knowing. Who stood over me when I was in the cradle.”

All of which may be dismissed by any reader. An aberration; perhaps I was mad. But if so a temporary insanity, for nothing like it ever happened again.


Science, according to Simone Weil, offers three kinds of interest: technical applications; a game of chess with prizes; & a road to God. It would, she believed, find a source of inspiration higher than itself, or perish.

I still do not think it can possibly offer a road to God. I do however think it can be inspired, & that it will perish without this inspiration; that in light of God, we can see things, even make connexions between things, & seize upon remarkable evidence, to which by our own light we would be blind. It may even offer analogies, useful to poetry & art, philosophy & theology. But in & of itself it is nothing, a zero.

On a religious view, the scientist is examining the Creation, & thus a reflection of God’s glory. On a materialist view, he is examining hunks of dirt. But the phenomena of Nature are the same, either way, & science is only an accounting of them — more catalogue than theory.

God is not His reflection. He will not be found there, in that “Maya” (if you will), any more than a human person will be found inside a mirror, or shadow of himself. This is not where you turn to ask a question, or get an answer. For that, you must turn (as it were) away from the universe, & ask your question directly. Or so I have come to think.

Fellow passenger

Anyone who has tried to ride on the wing of an aeroplane — & I have entirely avoided the experience — will empathize with the scrub python who attempted this feat on a flight from Cairns, Queensland, to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. An account is provided by the Sydney Morning Herald, under the inevitable headline, “Qantas python’s flying circus.”

The scrub python, or by his more elegant Latin name, Morelia amethistina, is a handsome beast, the pearly sheen of whose scales would provide a temptation to vanity in any creature. Specimens grow up to twenty feet, longer in rare cases, & they are quite svelte compared with other pythons. (People who find shed skins think many snakes must have been much bigger, for the scale folds stretch in the course of moulting, producing a turned out “sock” often doubled in length.)

These “amethyst pythons” (as I prefer to think of them) are found both sides of the Torres Strait, through eastern Indonesia, & to the outermost islands of the Bismarck Archipelago. There are no subspecies, so if gentle reader will not suspect me of Darwinism, I’ll venture they often cadge a lift. They are not venomous, constricting their prey in the python way; often dropping upon them, but sometimes just waiting quietly & invisibly by a riverbank for when dinner comes to drink. They eat rats & rodents of all sorts, & are partial to fruitbats when they can catch them, & other small animals including baby wallabies, which is probably bad for their P.R.

The one in question, whose sex was not specified, selected what seemed a plausible perch up the landing gear to the flap assembly while the plane was on the ground. But he or she was soon airborne, in a very high wind at a very low temperature against a nastily vibrating smooth metal surface. Some people, including several ladies of my acquaintance, dislike snakes generally, but as one might guess all the passengers watching the drama from inside the cabin were rooting for the snake, as he clung on. And it was a good fight, for he held through the shakedown of landing, & was seen still moving when the plane came to port. But he’s an ex-snake now.

They are not philosophical animals, the snakes, & this one didn’t know when he was beaten. But he did know that he wanted to live, & through all the technology of flight, found that place in the human heart where we could understand him.

Your problems solved

As quite a few American & foreign pundits have begun to grasp, the U.S. electorate has been voting consistently for two things, through many election cycles. First, they want a very large, comprehensive, & intrusive Nanny State. And second, they don’t want to pay for it. From the polls, which show strong opposition to raising the debt ceiling, we further learn that they don’t want their guvmint to borrow the money, either.

Readers of this website will appreciate that these are normal positions in any large, centrally bureaucratized, democratic polity, & the USA is hardly the only country poised atop some “fiscal cliff.” And let me add that the average U.S. citizen is no more stupid than the average Canadian citizen. Indeed, from what I can see up here, that would be impossible.

Northern Europeans pay much higher taxes; Swedes for instance about double what Americans pay, the French & Germans not much less than the Swedes. The British, who have by northern European standards a low tax regime, pay something like half again more than United Statists, & Canadians also pay more, by maybe a third. And we are all closer to balancing our budgets.

From this point of view, Obama & the Democrats are wimps. They say they want to balance the federal budget, fair enough. We know they oppose any significant cuts in spending, so we can forget about that. They are raising taxes, but not by nearly enough. If they were serious, however, they could balance that budget by higher taxes alone.

Start by simply doubling the latest tax rate on “the rich,” to around 100 percent. That won’t make much difference to the deficit, so double it, too, on all the other income brackets. Now, we are getting somewhere. Keep doubling across the board until revenues & expenditures level out. It’s that easy. Soon, everyone can be paying 100 percent, & by the principle of graduated income tax, the rich paying, say, 10 or 20 or 50 times what they earn. Given demographic trends, the rates would have to keep rising at an accelerating pace towards infinity, but hey, it’s just numbers.

The alternative, we now learn, is to mint trillion-dollar coins. This has been proposed with mock seriousness (but now increasing gravity) by several economic sages of what we might call the neo-Weimar school. There is a loophole in the coining regulations that will allow the U.S. Treasury to do this. Simply mint another one each time the debt ceiling approaches, & there will be no need to ask Congress to raise that ceiling again.

What puzzles me is the Republican response from Congress. They may have retained control in the House of Representatives, thanks to careful gerrymandering of districts, but really, everyone knows they lost the election, & that a solid majority of Americans (increased since November according to polls) believe Obama “understands” them, & is looking out for their best interests. For comparison, well over three-quarters of Americans abominate the Congress, & condemn it for being insufficiently cooperative with the Obama administration.

So why not give Obama & company whatever they want?

The Republicans hesitate in view of the likely destruction of the United States of America, to which they continue to cling, as to their guns & their Bibles, with an understandable sentimental attachment. And perhaps they feel the injustice, that many tens of millions who do not like the guvmint & are opposed to 9 dollars in 10 of its spending, if not more, should be compelled to pay for what they think is evil. But again, hey: they lost the election, & the majority in a democracy have always carried rape rights on the minority.

Why are the Republicans dithering, when there is work to be done? Why don’t Boehner & McConnell lead a little delegation over to the White House to offer a surrender? “You tell us how you propose to fix the problems, & we, by abstaining on every Congressional vote, will let it all pass through.”

Of course, poor President Obama would then have to fight with the Congressional Democrats who, when push comes to shove, actually agree with their Republican colleagues on most substantive issues. But a civil war between the White House & the rest of the Democratic Party would be, from a Republican standpoint, so much more fun than one in which the Republicans themselves step up to take the beating. It might even expose some part of the great American Obamanoid majority to aspects of the fiscal problem they had previously overlooked.

Meanwhile, let me propose that all you Yankee Rednecks move up here to Canada. You know, we could take over this place.


Good friends of mine are in Italy at the moment, pinging back words & pictures. They sensibly decided to winter in Venice, where thanks to Internet they can work as well as anywhere else, & explore day to day. Hotels are useful in transit, & for three weeks en route they used them around Florence, “visiting every church, seeing every fresco & all the pictures” they could; but better to take an apartment & settle in. They will “do Rome” in the homeward arc, come the spring. Sometimes I almost wish that I would allow photographs on this site. (But you know me. Backward.) The lady, once our art director at the Idler magazine, since married to an Idler writer, is already chittering away in Italian. Everything sounds better in Italian. In the latest message — magnificent photos — they have just arrived in Venice:

“I almost wept when I got off the train. There was part of the Grand Canal looking modestly beautiful. You can see a million pictures of a place, & even see it in a movie, but it is always just itself when you arrive.”

Verily. As a traveller reading obsessively ahead, as a journalist cramming background for an “assignment,” I found this again & again. Everything written is as straw, compared with what is revealed on arrival. In ten minutes, in ten seconds, all is transformed by the reality of the place itself; & none of the preparation was ever adequate. I remember Venice in the winter, under my own circumstances of almost forty years ago. I could not stay long, alas. Of a morning I rose to witness the city under a light fall of snow. This turned quickly to slush, but the enchantment will not leave me, until I develop Alzheimers or whatever. How could one ever become bored with Venice, & all her history in centuries compounded. And even for that history, the beginning of understanding was to touch that stone, & comprehend the incredible fact of stone & water.


The Commentariat have been discussing words: which ones we put in “scare quotes” & why. “Renaissance” & “Enlightenment” came up for a fresh flogging. Let me carry the beating into this post, for which perhaps a new category is needed: “Philosophical Dictionary.” There is great confusion in the use of labels, & one must define terms as one goes along, to make any sense. This word “Renaissance,” with a capital “R,” & often preceded by the definite article, is a term that demands some brief, decisive expostulation.

We have, up here in the High Doganate, a copy of The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, by the beloved American scholar, Charles Homer Haskins (1870–1937). It is, for the bibliomaniacal reader, the Meridian reprint of 1957. I bought it second-hand when I was in high school, & though scruffy then & scruffier now, it is precious beyond words. To this day I would recommend it to anyone as a point of departure. No later book of which I am aware does so good a job of providing a sympathetic overview, or handbook to the period. And while truly, as noted above, no book can replace the experience of being there, all my attempts to return to the 12th century have so far failed.

Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages, a rather poetical account of the north-west of Europe two & three centuries later, was my other adolescent portal into the Mediaeval world; the world from which such beautiful things came down to us as Venice, & Chartres. “Poetical” in both better & worse sense; but Huizinga does something beyond what most historians even attempt. From the bells ringing through the opening pages, he tells the reader that he is now a long way from home.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This famous opening of L.P. Hartley’s (recommended) novel, The Go Between, refers to a past at the turn of the 20th century, viewed from the position of 1953. That was the year of my birth, & in looking back upon my own childhood, now equally displaced in time, I, too, am remembering a foreign country, when they did things differently, even here in my father’s Methodist Ontario, or in my mother’s Calvinist Cape Breton. One must take that in, as one perhaps cannot help doing with advancing age. Two generations can be a long time; & by extension, twenty or thirty or forty generations require a formidable leap of the imagination. One cannot learn enough about so displaced a time, to avoid anachronism entirely; even if one is reading a history in the place where it occurred.

Part of my motive, for travelling in space, through as much of rural India as I could in the 1970s — when India was another country from what she is today — was to acquaint myself with physical conditions in, if you will, “a representative pre-Modern society.” That is to say, an India then still largely free of the gadgets & baubles of “modern life”; a land where the village was still the centre of being, & not yet a statistical insignificance, a bureaucratic anomaly, & an impediment to Progress.

In retrospect, I am very glad to have seen & touched pieces of an India not yet hustled out of herself, & to have felt my own Post-Modern cynicism & glibness being stripped away. For otherwise I might never have grasped some huge things. For instance, the sheer joy in the lives of people who were by any Western standard quite ridiculously “poor.” The intensity of their pleasure in God’s green earth. Their freedom from aesthetic & other neuroses.

The joy, for instance, taken by men & women alike in small children; & the happiness of women who were by contemporary Western edict grievously oppressed. Too, the contentment to be found in caste & station, among people who had not yet been taught to resent their circumstances, in the Marxist way; who had not yet learned to crave the phantasms of materialism. People who received the humblest gifts of life with a gratitude so simple & direct as to be inexplicable in any modern language.

One might almost say I went to India (or returned there, for it was part of my childhood) in order to visit the Middle Ages: to walk along ancient footpaths, & ride in bullock carts, mile on mile under the sun & under the stars through countryside without electrification. To be rained on, & feel my feet sink into the mud; to sweat & to shiver & to live, intensely.

India had her ages of spiritual & intellectual transformation, her own Renaissances now buried in deep time; her own succeeding catastrophes. They provide useful comparisons with our European history, & to the Italy to which we now return — the “superpower” through so many past centuries, & centre of our Christendom along with the Church’s first daughter, France.


There was indeed a Renaissance in the 12th century, as Haskins from the outset declares:

“This century, the very century of Saint Bernard & his mule, was in many respects an age of fresh & vigorous life. The epoch of the Crusades, of the rise of towns, & of the earliest bureaucratic states of the West, it saw the culmination of Romanesque art & the beginnings of Gothic; the emergence of the vernacular literatures; the revival of the Latin classics & of Latin poetry & Roman law; the recovery of Greek science, with its Arabic additions, & of much of Greek philosophy; & the origin of the first European universities. The 12th century left its signature on higher education, on the scholastic philosophy, on European systems of law, on architecture & sculpture, on the liturgical drama, on Latin & vernacular poetry. The theme is too broad for a single volume, …” & therefore he will attempt only a sketch of what we might call the “scientific” developments.

Much that we associate with our own modernity, traces to that Renaissance of the 12th century, if not back to the Ottonian Renaissance before it, or to the Carolingian Renaissance before that. Then looking forward, one may descry distinct “Renaissances” within the Duecento, Trecento, Quattrocento: not mere periods of time, but organic movements, with centres of activity: heart, body, limbs. Seen for what they were, they do not, as our “Whig interpretation of history” assumes, anticipate any later age. Each instead offers a treasury in itself, including maps to roads not taken. Each added to the accumulation of knowledge, & to the catalogue of artistic possibilities; & from each, much is lost. “Progress” lays claim to the accumulations, but only by appropriating them — this little pygmy on the shoulders of giants, who thinks he is so tall.

Consider this English word, “Renaissance.” It means rebirth, recovery, revival, renewal, restoration. There is no futurism in any of those words. The Renaissance of the Quattrocento, which we call “The Renaissance,” looked backward, not forward. It was proud of recovering what was thought to have been lost from earlier ages; to be restoring ancient clarities & standards. The same could be said of every other Renaissance.

Giotto, to use a ragamuffin prop from the old Whiggish bag of deceits, is habitually presented as “ahead of his time.” He, from his own master Cimabue, introduced “innovations” to the art of painting, including a technique of perspective that “looks forward to The Renaissance.” This is utter nonsense. Giotto was looking forward to no such thing. To view his paintings as if he were, is to stare right through them; to see only tricks. He was himself an embodiment of the Renaissance of the later Trecento. He is innocent of any Quattrocento intention. The Arena Chapel does not lead to anything. It is a place in itself; of pilgrimage.

The future does not exist. This is a plain statement of fact the Moderns began to lose their hold on, & we Post-Moderns have lost it altogether. Only the past exists. Giotto, like every other fully sane human being, was looking not to the future but to the past. So far as he may have been guilty of “innovations,” they were innovations upon the past. As Cardinal Newman said, of the spiritual journey, we “walk to heaven backward,” advancing not towards the future but in recession from error, towards truth. People trying to escape the monstrous fantasies of our progressive futurists should try very hard to get that.

When a man refers to “The Renaissance,” ask him which Renaissance he means.

The habit of dating our modernity from 1492 — from the discovery of America & all that — is an ignorant habit, though from its constant repetition, hard to throw off. It is like dating anything from the Moon Landing: a memorable but meaningless technological accomplishment. Or, dating “The Renaissance” from the technique of perspective. These are habits of the excruciating technological mind, which one might almost say is trained to miss the point. The Genoese, Cristoforo Colombo, is unambiguously a figure of the Middle Ages. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, were likewise men fully formed & functioning in the pre-Reformation environment of Catholic Christendom. Copernicus, too, was a Mediaeval man. Impressive they were, but they were not Modern. It is an act of theft to claim them for some later age; to drag them across the boundary into our Brave New World.

That boundary in time lies beyond them. Choose, if you need a fixed date for filing purposes, 31 October 1517 as one scrap of the frontier — that Hallowe’en when Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenburg; but most of it comes a generation later. It is the Reformation, & not the last Mediaeval Renaissance, that separates us from the Middle Ages; separates Catholic & Protestant alike, from every kind of Catholic who lived before. Everything that defines us as “Modern” descends rather from the destruction of the unity of Western Christendom.

That this Reformation had many Mediaeval antecedents should go without saying. Yet the Lollards & other Mediaeval heretics, to whom Reformation heretics looked back, were themselves not looking forward. They could see no Zwingli, no Luther, no Calvin from where they were standing. Those, in their turn, conceived their reforms for all Christendom; none quite intended to found an Ism on himself.  In that sense they, too, were Mediaeval men.

Indeed, no one can see the full consequences of his acts, for that is beyond the possibilities of human knowledge. Every figure, from every age, was living in a present that is murky to us, & becomes completely opaque when we read into his works the slightest reference to an unforeseeable future. We, who often think we can see into the future, are in every moment we attempt that, insane.

No “Renaissance” can offer so violent a division, as the Reformation achieved. We self-flattering Moderns seize upon “The Renaissance” as harbinger of our modernity, from the purest vanity. Nothing so beautiful is conceivable to us. It is out of our reach; it is of another age. We should like to think that our beginnings may be found in some fine perfume or mist. In fact we start in a monstrous breach of the order in which the flower of Mediaeval Humanism was nurtured; with a poisoning of that soil. Our modernity began in the statecraft of Henry VIII; in cold-blooded murder. In worse than murder: for it involved a declaration of the Right of Man to play God — the precise opposite of the humanist spirit in Erasmus & More & Vives, each a bold defender of Catholic Christendom.

And we have lived, since, not in a civilization characterized by rinascimenti & rebirths, but in one characterized by violent turmoil, amid corpses piled ever higher.

Which is not to say that the longing has been, or ever can be suppressed, for Creation, for creative Renaissance; or that it has not continued to burst, by freshets through our asphalt pavements. New life, & new Creation, follows through those cracks; then is again paved over. But eventually all asphalt must dissolve.

Let us therefore abjure Progress. Let us therefore seek Renaissance again.