Essays in Idleness


Father Ratzinger of the Vatican

Awoke this morning, a little late from being up very late, with a fine Lenten feeling of desolation. His Holiness chose to resign with effect on a Thursday; the last day of a calendar month. He chose eight o’clock in the evening because this had been the end of his usual working day. From that moment the sedes vacans comes back into view, the empty place between papal reigns & in this case a Lent within Lent. Once again, I do not dispute Pope Benedict’s decision. I accept his authority in principle, but more fundamentally I trust it.

Nor, really, do I resent the malice & ignorance of much of the world’s media, in covering the event as they have done, & as they are likely to do today, & throughout the Conclave, & when they will express their practised surprise & disgust at the “backwardness of the Church” when the new Pope is chosen. They are what they are, & that must also be accepted.

As a “pundit” of some kind, or let us say “Essayist” now for it sounds more distinguished, I often feel like a kid pointing a battery torch to the heavens & declaring, “Let there be Light!” This was especially so on this Friday morning, the last of the pontificate of my greatest living Catholic hero; one who had the curious habit of speaking & writing only on topics he knew something about, & trying never to strike a pose. A man whose actions consistently displayed serenity, whether refusing to retaliate in kind to low attacks, or acting promptly & boldly when circumstances required such courage.

This has been evident even in the last fortnight, through which he has been making administrative decisions that could so easily have been shirked, & left to his successor; while leaving to his successor what will require consecutive action over much longer stretches of time. He has shown the best, the very best, of the German & Bavarian qualities mixed into his Catholic formation. His successor is bound to find that, whatever they contain, the files will be in good & conscientious order. This is a moral virtue, & remains so however it is parodied or satirized: the cultivation of mind & habits capable of making crisp distinctions, & doing what is necessary without sloth, & without pride.

He has been condemned by the world for many petty things, & many imaginary. He has been condemned even for not being someone else; for knowing himself & knowing his limitations, & making them his strengths.

This is something I’ve found again & again when the media have condemned some outrageous thing he is supposed to have said; or quoted with exulting approval something even more outrageous. I go to the text & find that he said no such thing. Nor, upon thinking it through, may I condemn him for failing to anticipate the media reaction. For one may successfully locate & disarm a thousand bombs in a thickly-laid minefield. There is no foreseeing number one thousand & one.

I expect, over time, we will learn much more of the history of his papacy — the actual history as opposed to the “first draught.” If there has been one most exemplary virtue, allied with a profound insight into the management of human affairs, it has been a function of Pope Benedict’s humility. It is the virtue of understanding how much can be achieved when one has no wish to take the credit. So many good things are attempted by politicians, for instance, that go badly wrong because of this moral oversight. They will “do the right thing,” but demand to be seen doing it. And that little demand alone unravels all the good. To serve is to serve, interests beyond one’s own; one cannot serve the “two gods” of conflicting interests. His Holiness has been, to my view, a most exhilarating example of a man without guile, of a man who long ago tamed the natural propensity towards self-service.

Fortunately he has left some books behind him; quite a few, & everywhere in them more than is apparent to a first reading. I returned, in recent weeks, to reading some of his Wednesday “talks” or homilies on the holy men & women of Catholic history. At first I thought them as brief & casual as any scheduled weekly “sermon” he must “do,” as part of a busy & distracting schedule; as “throwaway” by comparison to his major, longer tracts; as learned & dogmatically sound but nevertheless, passing chatter. They are not. Themes have been carried from week to week, & subtle yet very important points recalled successively from many angles. Returning to them, I found something like an “autobiography of the Church” had been taught: one in which the key events are not the outward ones of history. The major historical events are placed for orientation only in the background. It is the inward history that is being told, a most remarkable narrative in which we are looking at events through what I can only describe as “the medium of holiness.” Not, as it were, “through the eyes of the Saints,” as simple hagiography; Benedict is instead trying to trace through them the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit. It is not “intellectualism” he has offered. An extraordinary learning is required for it, but put entirely at the service of an act of meditation.

So he is not really going away, & quite apart from the Gethsemane of prayer into which he enters, & the unearthly Life that follows, we are not finished with him yet. He has taught what he will continue teaching: not, for the most part, through formal encyclicals & proclamations but in a kindly, & slightly aloof manner, from out of the chastity in Love — as Father Ratzinger of the Vatican.

The Lenten adviser

Sardines must of course be originally from the ancient Kingdom of Sardinia. They are little fellows, small herrings, that come in perhaps two dozen choice species, among more than three hundred that swim the open seas. “Sardines” are smaller & “pilchards” are larger; often different stages of exactly the same fish — all from the clupeiod family. Which is to say, herrings: a symbol of Lent. Brislings & sprats are from a more northern sub-family, but not inedible for that. The little sardines & their allies travel the world’s oceans, in their schools; & when they have tired of that, they swim into large nets, & are lifted, high. And then they continue their journeys, now at their ease in little tin boxes. There are kindly people who live by the seashore, & help arrange our little fishy friends, all cosily according to their size. They may fit two, or five, or even fifteen or more of them in each berth.

There is a famous painting by Goya — a real masterpiece, every brush stroke of genius — depicting “The Burial of the Sardine,” El entierro de la sardina. You may have difficulty finding the sardine in the composition, because he is very small. The painting is a mischievous work for, as ever with Goya, he is commenting on the human condition, & we are a mischievous race; especially compared with the innocent sardines. The people are shown masked, & frenzied. From the dark, grinning mascot on the banner they carry, a malign quality infuses the parade. It is a mob, & their intention must be sacrilegious.

My own understanding of the ceremony, however, is different from this. It varies, or varied, in different parts of Spain, attached in some places to the beginning of Lent, & in others to the end.  There is a great procession; the mourners weep & wail. The deceased sardine is carried in his little casket, under a large doll, called the pellele. Inland, he may be buried; but by the sea he is cremated, then carried out by the fishermen in a solemn fleet — his ashes scattered upon the waves. (I love the Spaniards; but of course they are all mad.)

In Aubrey somewhere, there is reference to an English culinary custom: the “herring on horseback,” by which, on Easter Sunday, the fish rides away. Through Europe, many similar Mediaeval customs survived until the other day; festivals often not of the Church, but of the people. Yet by proximity to Lent, they seemed less likely to be “pagan survivals” — as the idiots are constantly explaining to us — than rather imaginative & charming ways to express the idea that one is very sick of fish. I am told that, by the year 1960, when the Quiet Revolution came noisily to the Province of Quebec, the people were so sick of fish that they vowed never to look at another one again, until the end of time. This is given as the reason that per capita fish consumption in that province remains, to this day, lower than in Central Asia.

Up here in the High Doganate, we are well disposed to fish, & would not have them slighted. I rather look forward to Lent, for this reason, & for several like it. For I am, too, genuinely partial to bean dishes, on rice or some other grain — the staple of most of the world’s poor, who cannot afford meat, & are inclined to find luxury even in a little dab of fishpaste. God has blessed these humble with the tropical spices, & with the genius they have used to concoct a million ways to vary this frugal yet perfectly balanced, nutritious cuisine.

But let me not stray from the little fishes. Sardines may even be purchased fresh, from fishmongers in the Greater Parkdale Area. Grilled, they are exquisite; & the fattiest may be deep fried, with batters. But Edouard de Pomiane gave the best ten-minute approach. Run cold water over them, immediately on coming home, to wash away the salt. Pull off the heads, & the intestines will follow. Dry them. Fry, without dipping in flour, in a pan of smoking oil or very hot butter. Do not salt. Serve with curls of butter & a half lemon.

In the spring there were, & still are in many creeks emptying into Lake Ontario, smelt runs that turn the waters silver. Among my happiest childhood moments, in Georgetown, Ont., was helping old Mrs Pattenden gut & jar the harvest her old husband had brought home: great baskets full, by Saint Peter! A beloved old lady, salt of the earth, wearing a baseball cap over her white hair wild; & a thick hand-knitted cardigan, becoming waterproofed by fish oil. She had an errant daughter who once ran away, quite literally with the milkman. And so Mr & Mrs Pattenden did just what gentle reader would expect. They took in their abandoned son-in-law, & his two abandoned hockey-playing boys, to their very small brick cottage. (The boys, my contemporaries, slept in the rafters.) The yard of this cottage was a “victory garden”; its strawberries the finest in the world. They made a paradise on their small town lot, indifferent to the opinions of their middle-class neighbours, & in defiance of all the municipal by-laws. All gone under the asphalt, now.

The Lake Ontario fisheries are still in business, incidentally, under elaborate, multiple layers of regulation. (The need for ever greater regulation being paradoxically “proved” by the consistently catastrophic effects of all past regulation, to the present day.) One may buy their harvest of whitefish, trout, perch, in the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. Around here it doesn’t sell, thanks to the success of depraved scaremongering about mercury levels, which started in the 1960s, & has since entered into our provincial folklore. In fact, the mercury levels were not lethally high, & have since been reduced to a tiny fraction of the danger levels for the human metabolism. And so the “environmentally aware” eat freshwater fish from afar, caught or farmed in places where the waters are grievously polluted, & the fish are refrigerated & shipped at huge expenditure in fossil fuels. And meanwhile, the environmental regulation is controlled by the sport fishing interests, whose ability to pose as “friends of the earth” is unsurpassed; while the “First Nations” win court decisions to let them flout all rules. A massive bureaucratic machinery, with enormous investments in hatchery infrastructure, stocks the Great Lakes with Pacific salmon & other exotic species for the sportsmen, carefully monitoring the commercial fishermen, to be sure they don’t touch any of it. This status quo is reinforced by the lobbying efforts of the many vested interests established & enriched by the political process: the charter boat operators, tackle shops, marinas, & shills for the tourist industry. On the plus side, the American bureaucrats have driven their own commercial fisheries into extinction; so that what little remains of the industry is now our proud Canadian monopoly.

But that was just an aside. The real purpose of this Essay is to celebrate the little fish in little tins, from wherever they may hail; the joys of Lent. Why, for dinner just now we opened a tin of the most delicious sardines from Messrs Hyacinthe Parmentier in France, in olive oil with peppers; mixing this with peas into a bowl of white rice. These people know their little fishes. May I further recommend their grilled sardines, delivered “dry” in their beautiful yellow tins. (With sardines, I have found it a general rule, that the prettier & more tastefully typographed the tin, the better the fish inside it.) But that is not to overlook La Quiberonnaise, a brand from Brittany I have tasted but once, & found extraordinary. The French do almost everything better.

And the tinning of sardines was itself a French invention. It was a happy combination of three things: the landing of the exquisite Clupea pilchardus Walbaum by Nantais fishermen; the tradition of preserving them in sealed clay jars called oules, after frying in their fabulous Breton butters, & olive oils imported from Provence; & the introduction of François Appert’s canning process, inspired by Napoleon’s prize to find new methods of food preservation to serve his troops in the field. (The adored Elizabeth David explained all this in an article for the Spectator, half a century ago.)

Joseph Colin, a confectioner of Nantes, brought these three together. The process he developed was by no means simple. Sardines being among the most perishable of fish, the canning must be done immediately ashore, by a series of very quick processes — the sorting by size; the beheading & gutting; the rinsing; the plunging in mild brine; the rinsing again; the drying in warm air; the sudden frying; the draining, & packing, & covering with an olive oil specially married to the qualities of the fish, so they may mature happily together; the sterilizing — each stage timed to the minute or second, adjusted to the size of the fish.

Different but parallel methods have been developed for other species of sardine, in other locations; but anywhere it must be a careful art. The Europeans have understood this, but alas on this side of the Atlantic our canners are not so discerning. Our idea of art is economy of scale. We choose the cheapest available raw materials, & use industrial methods that eliminate the requirement for human skill, or any other scope for the dignity of labour. For quality we substitute a fanatic obsession with hygiene, enforced by our bureaucratic apes. Love & pride in craft is systematically replaced with impudent salesmanship. That is why North American sardines are, today — unless I am blind to some exception — the same rubbish they have always been. (But of course, the big European concerns have copied “American standards,” to compete with our knock-down prices.)

This is why, in turn, it makes no sense to buy a tin of sardines, or almost anything else, from a North American supermarket, which offers myriad interchangeably artificial brands, each “product” reduced to a bulk commodity, & democratically pitched at the lowest common denominator to people themselves considered interchangeable. (Capitalism’s answer to the promise of Communism.) Buy what you need, instead, from the small family & ethnic groceries — or more precisely, from those shopkeepers who know their goods. This will always cost you more, in money & possibly unwanted human contact. But should the prices seem too high, there is a simple remedy. It is to eat less.

The French make the best, & have brands of sardines at stratospheric prices, which I will not mention. These are sardines for the connoisseurs; the truly monied who will pay whatever is asked for the correct or fashionable “vintage.” I am willing to settle for mere excellence.

Beyond France, let me mention the Pinhais company in Portugal, their “Nuri” brand; but look also for the names Idamar, & Gonsalves. From Spain, Ortiz, & Arroyabe, are the grand family fish-tinning firms, knowledgeably working the Cantabrian Sea; but their specialties are more tuna & anchovies. (Ortiz “Ventresca” belly meat of albacore, packed in olive oil, is so delicate & tender, so sublime, that I would avoid it in Lent, except on Sundays. It may be eaten in the Spanish style: which is, straight from the tin, with a good wine beside it; a Corvo, though Sicilian, would be the right idea; perhaps even a dry sherry.) Matiz Gallego are I think the Spanish sardine specialists.

From Italy, Angelo Parodi, & also Bertozzi, I can recommend from direct experience (the latter also for their tinned squid, & octopus in ink). John West, from Scotland, could be mentioned, with hesitation, for brisling. I have heard good things about sardines from Freemantle in Western Australia, but never had the chance to try them. I have tasted quite fabulous iwashi (“sardines” in Japanese), packed in shoyu & teriyaki marinades; & niboshi (sun-dried sardines) in a stock with kelp; but I can no longer recall the best tinned brands of Japan; or Taiwan. Red China I will not mention, except to say I read “Product of China” on any package in the same way I’d read a skull & crossbones.

As a general direction, let me add that sardines packed in tomato & mustard sauces are invariably refuse; they need these strong distractions to conceal the taste of the fish. “Vegetable oil” should also be avoided; it should be olive oil, or water. Marketing claims such as “wild sardines” & “organic” should be treated with contempt. All sardines continue to be harvested wild; & the “organic” can refer only to the sauce ingredients.

On the other hand, try herbed & spiced varieties, which can be marvellous. The flavour combinations depend on prolonged steeping within the tin, & cannot be reproduced by last-minute additions. In the case of chilli partisans (& I am often one) do not look for heat in the tin. The sweeter, milder chillies make the more subtle flavouring agents, & more heat is better added at the end.


Now, I was taught in the newspaper business that one does not end a culinary article without supplying some kind of recipe suggestion; so let me mention Stargazey Pie. It is a speciality of my paternal grandmother’s native county of Devon. The heads of the sardines, or better larger pilchards, are left on for this, & the tails, too, but the rest of the fish boned & stripped for eating. A shortcrust pastry is applied, thin to the bottom, thick across the top. The filling will be a mash of boiled potatoes, with any available herring flesh, cream, eggs, chopped onion, perhaps a splash of white wine.

The whole pilchards are stuffed with herbs, samphire, apple. They are inserted so that their tails rise at the centre of the pie, through the top crust, & their heads likewise through the crust, around the edges. Or vice versa: tails at the circumference, heads in the middle. In either case the heads must emerge from the oven, gazing up towards the stars in wonderment.

According to the global village explainers, the reason they were so arranged is that the excess oils, in the heads especially, drip down, adding flavour to the pie. This is nonsense, however. Tests have been conducted to prove it makes no difference at all. The real reason the heads & tails are arranged in that unusual way is something that the post-modern man cannot quite remember. It is for the sheer blooming joy of it.

Aristotle’s revenge

I was discussing a project for a Philosophical Dictionary with Saint Thomas Aquinas last night (in a dream), & he made a typically acute remark. “It will have to be bilingual, to include Greek words.” Sometimes I have difficulty remembering dreams. In this one, there seemed to be a dispute going, on distinctions between téchne, phrónesis, sophía (Greek words for different kinds of intuitive knowledge). I do wish I could remember how it went. There was a remark made to the effect that one must fully understand the meaning in the terms, before arranging them in some kind of Heideggerian scheme; for having been understood, they will be happy to arrange themselves, in the Aristotelian manner. (Words, as the pagan Greeks knew, are holy.) I was also told, though not I think by the Angelic Doctor, that, “The schematic approach is words first, meanings second. It is the method of Humpty Dumpty.”

That we should have dreams in which we are visited by philosophers, up here in the High Doganate, is not surprising. Since abandoning an accidental career as a newspaper pundit, last July, I have been entering into my “second childhood.” The time spent crawling through places like the Internet, trying to keep up with current events, has gone back into the sort of reading I pursued as a young man, in books. Long ago, I resolved on a course of self-education, that consisted of studying everything that went into, & came out of, Aristotle. (That’s a lot; I didn’t get very far.) I was lucky to win quite a few years of poverty, free of serious material obligations, when I was in my teens & twenties; before I found myself married & it was time to “get real.” Few will understand as poignantly as I do today, why priests, philosophers, judges, lighthouse keepers, poets & artists, should never marry. And why the women who marry them are cursed.

Rather than break the flow of whimsical association, allow me to confront gentle reader with this:

“Believe that man’s happiness lies not in the magnitude of his possessions but in the proper condition of his soul. Even the body is not called blessed because it is magnificently clothed, but because it is healthy & in good condition, even if it lacks this decoration. In the same way only the cultivated soul is to be called happy; & only the man who is such, not the man who is magnificently decorated with external goods, but is himself of no value. We do not call a bad horse valuable because it has a golden bit & costly harness; we reserve our praise for the horse that is in perfect condition.”

It is a passage from Aristotle that washed up on papyrus, in the last century, from the Egyptian sands. We know it is a passage from Aristotle because a slightly different version survived separately, long enough to be included in a Byzantine anthology. I have myself lifted it from a book by Werner Jaeger, the great modern classical scholar who, for the purpose of showing how Aristotle expounds old saws in his new apodictic, went on to quote:

“Just as a man would be a ridiculous figure if he were intellectually & morally inferior to his slaves, in the same way we must believe a man miserable if his possessions are more valuable than himself. … Satiety begets wantonness, says the proverb. Vulgarity linked with power & possessions brings forth folly.”

Not bad, one might observe, as a description of what we suffer from today. (Count the figure as a politician or manager, & the slaves as his clever flunkeys.) Jaeger held Aristotle up as the one major ancient philosopher who has never enjoyed a modern vogue, except in the confined world of Thomism & Neo-Scholasticism. And yet he has never been forgotten, for all modern philosophy can be read as a desperate & hopeless attempt to uncreate Aristotle, or render him irrelevant.

His works in biology, for instance, are dismissed as laughably dated. With a child’s low-power microscope, we may see where many of his observations & inferences went wrong. But Aristotle did not have a child’s low-power microscope. Which makes what he was able to discern with his unaided human eyes the more astounding.

He “invented” the basic taxonomic order, slightly adjusted by Carl Linnaeus & now further adjusted through comparison of DNA, on which all botany & zoology still rests. And it was not easy: read the De Partibus, where he carefully explains why simple repetitive dichotomizing won’t work, in the construction of this Scala Naturae; why other short cuts will not help in comprehending exact but complex relations between creatures; & why — to put some edge in this — scientists then as now write nonsense unfailingly, when they fail to twig such logic as: “there are no species of that which is not.” (That is, the absence of a trait cannot define, & only positive determinables can be further differentiated.)

He was the first to realize that, for instance, whales & dolphins are mammals (a fact not recovered for nearly 2,000 years). He distinguished the cartilaginous from the bony fishes, with the spectrum of associated physiological contrasts. He began the study of embryonic growth, noticing such things as the little speck of blood that appears on day four in the white of a chicken egg, correctly guessing that it is a tiny beating heart. He explains the four stomachs of ruminant animals. His detailed description of the behaviour of bees remains up-to-date. And so on & on. Read the Historia Animalium, with some knowledge of modern biology & its development, & one will find that Aristotle was not only “ahead of his times,” but ahead of subsequent times, being surpassed in many cases not until the 19th century. And not in one or two points, but in hundreds of points.

Yet his primacy in biological science is more significant than that. He did not merely pioneer the system of classification. At a much deeper level he discerned & imposed something so fundamental as to be hard to describe: the paradigm beneath the paradigms, as it were. To Aristotle we owe our very conception of “organic” development & relations. And he was able to conceive this by means of an unambiguously & shamelessly “teleological” way of thinking, banned from anti-Aristotelian modern science. He looked at every phenomenon with regard to its purpose within larger purposes, & by such means actually created the possibility of extended empirical research.

This point needs stressing. It remains extremely relevant.

Those ignorant of the history of science may not realize that Empedocles was the original proposer of Darwin’s fastidiously non-teleological “theory of natural selection.” He didn’t just anticipate it vaguely; he appears to have had the whole thing down. Nature throws up freaks at random, but only those well-adapted to their environments can survive. Which is how we get “species”: by survival of the fittest. Darwin claims, in 1858 AD, what Empedocles hypothesized twenty-three centuries earlier — unknowingly, for Darwin had not much of a classical education, & sneered at classical learning. (“No one can more truly despise the old stereotyped stupid classical education than I do,” as he wrote his cousin, William Darwin Fox.)

This Empedoclean hypothesis was, very thoroughly, demolished by Aristotle in his Physics (Book II). He does this not from any fluffy, alternative theoretical position, but from his direct & very broad experience of nature (vastly greater than Darwin’s, incidentally). Empedocles does not appreciate the permanence of types in nature, for animals breed true to type; does not grasp the rarity of “monstrous growths,” & how maladaptive they are; does not see the intricacy of design that is required to make a creature functional. By his very failure to apply teleological reasoning, Empedocles has drifted out of science & into an unsustainable fantasy. (There is more: but gentle reader must go to Aristotle.)


Sometimes one says something stupid, & on reflection, one wills to take it back. Let me identify with Empedocles in this respect. It often happens while overstating a position. In the hope of clarifying one’s own view, one supplies one’s own reductio ad absurdum. I did this myself just the other day, in replying to a Comment in my own website. I answered a remark I found too aggressively wrong-headed with a remark that made the opposite mistake.

The issue was the place of God in empirical science. By way of striking the decisive rhetorical pose, I said He has “nothing to do with empirical science” — meaning, more modestly, naught to do with it directly. God should be in the hearts & minds of biologists, I suggested, but as toilers in the empirical vineyards they seek only proximate & not final causation; the immediate “how” & not the ultimate “why” of creatures. But I was overlooking the transitional “wherefore.”

What I wrote was correct in a certain narrow sense; but so narrow, as to be misleading. It would have been  more correct to say that biology, as a separate science from theology, does not work from theological doctrines, having doctrines of its own. But even that assertion would get me in a mess.

Modern science more generally omits God as a theological distraction; but this cannot be a problem with God. Might it instead be a problem with modern science? I could perhaps have belaboured the point about “hearts & minds” — for as I have noticed on several planes, the omission of God from just such sciences as biology may very well blind us to empirical fact, then help to corrupt us in technical applications. We do not “avoid metaphysics” by this device, but rather grab the stick from the wrong end, assume a metaphysics that is untenable, then use it to poke out our own eyes.

“Metaphysics” is a dark & scary word, especially to those raised on Hollywood & hamburgers. It was not invented by Aristotle; his treatises entitled Metaphysics were so labelled by an editor in a later century, to distinguish them from those labelled Physics, which came right before. These titles are attributed to Andronicus of Rhodes (floruit 60 BC), who was scholarch (head) of the Peripatetic School, & therefore unlikely to have been dim-witted, or incapable of an intended irony. But it appears to be older, as a term synonymous with what Aristotle himself calls “first philosophy.” From the beginning, I should think, the ambiguity in the term was intended: that this treatise (with or without the notoriously sketchy Book XII, or Λ, “lambda” by the Greek alphabetical counting) does not merely fall after the Physics, in Andronicus’ edition of the collected works, but goes “beyond the Physics” in a fuller sense. There is thus nothing “afterthought” or throwaway about it.

I mention this because our very reading of Aristotle is cluttered by so much modern argle-bargle about texts, imputed authorship, & chronology. The works that have survived were put in good logical order by Andronicus & preceding ancient editors, & transcribed with care. The approach of Thomas Aquinas & other scholastics to them — to read them & make sense of them as they stand, then argue with them “in situ” — was all along the wise & commonsensical strategy. Better that than spend your academic life chasing hypothetical hares. More basically: read Aristotle for what he can teach us, & not for what we can teach him. For the man is dead. There is nothing we can teach him.

(We have the same garbage in Biblical studies: endless coursing after hypothetical hares, to avoid actually reading & coming to terms with what the books say, & will continue to say when all the coursing is done.)

In my modest & frequently embarrassing, but extended attempts to read philosophy, I have often been reduced to abject confusion at the “interface” between ancient & modern terms, & the anachronistic habits of modern scholars, who present ancient philosophers broken out into modern packages; shrink-wrapped, as it were.

Take “epistemology” for instance, one branch of “modern metaphysics,” if not meta-meta, or perhaps even a file folder on its own. We all know (we do all know, don’t we?) that this word denotes the analysis of consciousness & knowledge itself; of how we can know, believe, or justify anything. Though founded on a Greek stem, it is quite certainly not an ancient term, but instead invented by some Victorian Scotsman, a good Tory fellow writing for Blackwood’s magazine, James Frederick Ferrier. In a fine, clear, noble style, he tries to get behind mere psychology, to where the Ouroboros of Reason eats its own tail. And finally fails, as all such Cartesianism.

Whole books — & not a few of them — have been written to examine e.g. “Plato’s epistemology,” including rather a fine one we retain, up here in the High Doganate: a scintillating running commentary on the Theatatus & Sophist by F.M. Cornford entitled, Plato’s Theory of Knowledge, from which I long ago learnt much that may or may not be true. But thinking of other such works, which seem to grow glibber & glibber as they multiply in our drive-in universities, it occurs to me our current view of Plato may be skewed in fundamental ways, rather as our view of cattle is skewed when they are ground into burger meat & slabbed on styrofoam, with perhaps a little horsemeat cut in.

To Plato, & ditto to Aristotle & successors in the Western philosophical tradition, before modernity, knowledge is essentially innate. So is sin & ignorance, the Christians may have added, & one is free to disagree with anything, but when it comes to interpreting the older philosophers, & trying to extract an “epistemology” from them, we should ask: “What part of ‘innate’ do you not understand?”

Other parts of e.g. Plato are hived off, into ribs, shanks, briskets, sirloin, & so forth — “Plato’s ethics,” “Plato’s metaphysics,” whatever — which is all very well for the culinary purposes of our post-secondary cafeterias. But the pieces can’t be used to reconstruct the cow which, in the original, lives & moos & has its own being in a certain animate unity. The “parts” are, so to say, interdependent, so that for instance, we cannot grasp what Plato conveys as innate without also grasping some of his cosmology, then wrestling with extremely sophisticated literary devices by which he presents appropriate Greek myths, more as parable than as fact or fiction.

“We murder to dissect,” & let me add that the project of modern empirical science, as modern “humane” scholarship, is a great meat-packing factory. It is arbitrary in the sense that the French cuts are made differently from the British or American cuts (to say nothing of halal dicing), but in no case can the animal survive them. Only (alas?) in plain practical religion is any attempt made to get at animate wholes again, & employ the intuitive together with the analytical reason on things that move.

Now, metaphysics, or “first philosophy,” has itself been sliced & diced, so that what the word might mean depends on which recent philosopher one is consulting. By some it is now rejected tout court, by others reduced to one of its playthings. The notion of a broad enquiry, into what our innate reason can make of an overall picture emerging from the specialized sciences, & what it can give back to them in panoramic view, has rather receded into a pipe dream.

A pity, because sans the attempt at that view, we are left mentally shrunken & atomized: Catholics as much as other people. Our only intellectual nutrition comes from shrivelled dogmas, although they at least contain some hard protein. Add water & the dogmas come gloriously to life; subtract it & our faith in both religion & science becomes as parched as the dried lizards I see, pressed against the bottle glass in the Chinese apothecary.

Which is not to say that Metaphysical Philosophy “mediates” between religion & science. Not quite. The relations are more living & mysterious than that, & the borders, including the frontier between Nature & Supernature, cannot be drawn with surveyor’s precision. Not, at least, by anyone who was ever, or will ever be, born. There are hills in the plains, & plateaux in the mountains.

In my humble & yet earnest view, the old “science” of metaphysics falls out as much into “ethics” & “aesthetics” as onto the ground beneath verifiable “scientific fact.” And as I am hardly the first to observe, the philosophical tradition from, say, Plato through Aristotle through Augustine through Thomas Aquinas through modern attempts to revive philosophia perennis — is flagrantly teleological. That is to say, nothing is examined without interest in its purpose & “fittingness” to its place within a larger view. As well as to its beauty, in itself.

Let me go so far as to assert — rather boldly since I could myself be reduced to mincemeat by the rotating blades of our modern industrial logic-choppers — that without the (perfectly innate) teleological habits of a “first philosophy,” we are right up a tree; not only with respect to religion & philosophy, but also to empirical science. I would describe the contemporary, self-styled “secular humanist” man as up it with a false metaphysics, rather as Alasdair MacIntyre does, & a host of other trending-Catholic philosophers who, typically, began swimming the Tiber when they realized there is only desert on the other side.

This false metaphysics (which might alternatively be described, falsely, as “no metaphysics at all”), by fanatically excluding the teleological, blinds or skews our understanding of phenomena at the most basic level, where they do in fact display anticipation in the obvious ways: as the acorn anticipates the oak; as inward genetic change anticipates outward adaptive change. It is, as Aristotle knew from his own grand conception of non-contradiction, bad news when our “theory” must ignore our “observations.”

Nature herself is taken for blind, when she is foreseeing; taken for mundane when she is miraculous by disposition; taken for drab, & thus insufficiently loved. By false reasoning, we dismiss as “theoretically impossible” what is happening constantly before our eyes, in an unambiguously testable & thus empirical way; so obvious that we are constantly sneaking the teleology back in, unconsciously or under the table, through our use of normal language. We forget ourselves, & start using words not as the cuckold’s jargon, but for what they actually mean. For no one can “do science” without constantly asking, What does this thing do? What is it for? What other purposes might it have? How does it coordinate with these other things? Et cetera.

That is in fact the foundation of Western science. The very assumption that things will make sense, if we persist in our inquiries, is at its root teleological. Yet the modern scientist, or scienticist, shrugs all this off, to repeat with smug assurance: “There is no such thing as Purpose in Nature.” He is lying, to himself if not to me. Animate nature is ridden with purpose throughout. And the cosmic joke gets bigger & bigger: for in the domain of necessity, in physics & chemistry, nature also turns out to be purposeful, & as is increasingly evident, downright anthropic in an extremely uncool, Aristotelian way.

“Nature does nothing in vain, nothing superfluous.” … “Nature like a good householder throws nothing away that could be made useful.” … “Nature behaves as if it foresaw the future.”

These aphorisms, taken respectively from De Caelo, from De Generatione Animalium, & from De Partibus Animalium, are in themselves the little doctrinal suggestions that dwell in the foundations of all Western science; & as may be seen, each is flagrantly teleological.

Curiously, it is the Aristotelian theology (within the Metaphysics) that is most out of date. In that strange Book XII — the “Lambda of God,” as I like to call it — the Master of Those Who Know is himself put to chasing his own tail in astronomical speculations, none of which remain useful once we have disposed of the old geocentric cosmology. It is only in passing, there & elsewhere in his works, that Aristotle uses “God” in a more colloquial sense — as something casually acknowledged because self-evident — & presents the Prime Mover or Original Cause as an inevitable Thought, not dependent upon any subsidiary scheme of celestial mechanics. (The notion of an “unmoved mover” of the outermost heaven is much older than Aristotle, incidentally. Homer attributes it to Zeus early in Book VIII of the Iliad.) And the funny thing is, when he speaks of God in this intuitive & unqualified way, Aristotle stays right on the money.

I think there is something to be said from this. To leave God out of biology is to be wrong, about biology. Ditto all other empirical sciences. But to make God a mechanical force is to be wrong, about God.

Bystander syndrome

A woman named Wong Shuk Yee was struck by a car on Wednesday, somewhere in the northwest suburbs of Calgary. The driver of this car did not stop. The woman’s body became an obstacle to traffic, & two more cars had to swerve to avoid her. Neither stopped. A fourth car struck her again, dragging her (still living) body a short distance before it became detached; & that driver, too, sped on.

Another woman, named Tonja Beach — mother of four — was drinking her morning coffee at a kitchen table by a window to this scene. She heard the thumps, then looked out. She, alone, ran to the stricken woman’s aid. She found Wong Shuk Yee still alive, & conscious, but with ghastly injuries that could not be survived. She held the woman’s hand to comfort her, as she lay dying.

While she was doing so, innumerable other cars passed, without stopping, including several turning into a nearby daycare to drop off kids. At the transit loop across the street, the driver of a waiting bus remained in her seat. Those waiting at the loop continued waiting. Someone must have called 9-1-1, for the police arrived, & the agencies of the state then began standard procedures, to eliminate this road anomaly. A media reporter was duly assigned to ask Tonja Beach how she felt, & to explain to the woman that psychologists refer to such events — which are now quite common — as “bystander syndrome.” (This is one of the “fun facts” you pick up in a place like journalism school.)

The term describes our modern, non-participatory democracy quite well. Everyone is equal, & everyone has rights. We might call them “the rights of the bystander.” One might say that the most fundamental of these rights, on which all others can now be constructed, is the right to assume that “someone else is taking care of it.”

In this case, all but one of the bystanders did nothing. In the case of the Vancouver hockey riot, all the bystanders joined it, but one — one kid who stood up to the crowd to declare “this is wrong” & was then physically attacked by the rioters he had tried to address. We forget that the evil we witness so often in passive form, may also take active forms.

I do not drive a car, I walk wherever I can, though sometimes I am reduced to public transport. As a pedestrian, over the last decade, I have been twice hit by a car, both times while crossing a street with a green light. In only one of these cases was I knocked flat to the asphalt. It was a glancing blow, & I do not think the driver (her attention focused on making an illegal left turn) ever noticed me.

In the other I remained standing. It was dusk, & the driver must not at first have seen me, coming as she did around a slight curve in the road. Had she not hit the brakes hard, I would have been killed. In the event, nothing more than my handprints were left on the shiny front hood of her exquisite luxury sedan. I did not at first realize that one leg had been twisted in such a way that I would be limping for the next two years. I was too angry to notice. I continued to stand in the way of the now stopped car, glaring at the driver. She — a person I took to be a “professional woman” from her dress, the car, & the expression on her face — shouted obscenities to the effect that I’d intentionally stepped into her way. I pointed to the stoplight, as Zeus with thunderbolt, as she rolled up her windows. It had not yet changed from green in my direction, red in hers. Her face changed from self-righteous indignation to that slightly frightened, “victim” look. (“Men are so violent!”) Then, finding me no longer in her way, she suddenly tore off, now round the corner, accelerating up a fairly empty University Avenue. In the euphoria of my anger, I neglected to take her licence number.

This, incidentally, was a moral error on my part. As Socrates explains, rather warmly to the smart Callicles, in the Gorgias, it is better to suffer wrong than to perpetrate wrong. But having done wrong, it is better to be punished than to escape punishment. And this is universally true. By failing to record the licence number (though I had a notebook & pencil on my person) I had let this woman escape punishment. By doing so, I had wronged her. It was my moral duty to see that this woman received the punishment she deserved, for her own sake, & for my own sake as a just man. “Forgiveness,” in the heart, is quite another thing; & injustice is an impediment to that forgiveness.

I have also been twice hit by a bicycle on the sidewalk; knocked over once, & the other time, gently but intentionally nudged by the wheel from behind by the impatient bicyclist — helmeted, visored, & spandexed — after I ignored his cute vocalized “Beep beep!” instruction to get out of his way. That changed immediately to, “Sorry man! Sorry man!” after I spread him out on the sidewalk, & hovered over his prone person shouting, “Quick, give me a reason not to kill you.” Then walked away contented, for justice had been served.

In three of these cases there were plenty of bystanders. In none did any of them intervene. In the two where I ended sprawled on the pavement, & the one where the bicyclist did, I was aware however vaguely of the crowds of people — my fellow pedestrians — simply standing out of the way, then moving along. Given the neighbourhoods, I would guess they all had important shopping to do.

I have extended these anecdotes to make a point. It would be easy to moralize against the effect of cars — these big metal boxes that insulate the people inside from unwanted human contact. And I would be happy to moralize in that way. But the cars, in this matter, are a red herring. The “issue” here is not technological but civilizational. Too, the glib psychologizing about “bystander syndrome,” & the fake empathy in the prying, “How did you feel?” — are themselves symptomatic.

There is one more excuse I should like to kick away. Tonja Beach made it, on behalf of all the parents delivering their kids to daycare, still on her mind many hours later. “You’d think that everyone taking their kids to daycare,” she told the news reporter, “that any one of them would have stopped. I can understand maybe they didn’t want their kids to see that.” (Two guesses on whether this woman is a Christian believer.)

I daresay their kids did “see that.” It is a myth that all children are born blind, deaf, & incapable of thinking. They saw a woman gravely injured, lying helpless in the road, & they saw their parents drive by, & no doubt heard them try to change the subject. For such parents are on a schedule; they cannot let an incident like this, or childish questions about it, slow them down. They may have “clients” waiting. They have colleagues who notice when they are late. They have big salary on the line. Money talks, after all; & they need that money to pay for stuff like daycare, & “a good home.”

Each of these little children has been taught, in a fairly traumatic way, a very important lesson about their parents, who dump them in daycare to get on with their busy lives, as professional people with “priorities.” And I daresay it is a lesson that will have consequences in each of their little lives, however their experience is assimilated. And there will be further consequences when the sensitive child begins reacting to the evil with which he has been contaminated, as at some point he may. His parents will perhaps seek psychological counselling for their “problem child,” & get him dosed with pacifying drugs. That will teach him the final lesson about what his parents are.

But then, let us be charitable. Perhaps the parents in their turn had been raised by similar, morally worthless parents, in this post-Christian society that has come to consider morality itself to be a form of “oppression.”

It is a myth that people have no conscience. Our Maker implanted that in each of us. We all know that voice perfectly well, even those who deny it. It is the voice to which we reply: “There was nothing I could do.” And we still hear the voice, & we reply, more impatiently, more self-righteously: “The woman was a goner. There was nothing I could do for her. I’m not a doctor, I don’t have a medical degree. And besides, if I got involved, I’d be exposing myself to legal consequences. I might get called as a witness. I might get sued for touching her. People are crazy these days, you don’t need to take risks like that.”

This has been the basic “liberal” act, through all ages: as much among the Pharisees as among our modern adepts of “secular humanism.” It is to refute the True, with the Plausible. It is to answer the hard moral argument with the soft tendentious argument; with mild heckling; with pseudo-moral posturing; with a display of insolence if it comes to that; & finally, with “statistics.” It is to be glib, by reflex, persisting into habit. And yet all these responses are founded in an uncompromising & absolutely necessary act of faith: that there is no God who will come in Judgement.

Czeslaw Milosz called this “the true opium of the people.” He defined it as, “a belief in nothingness after death; the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged.”

Reason & the well-bred girl

It is very difficult to discuss intellectual history, & therefore ideas, owing to a sublimated version of the idea of progress. While superfically even the crassest enthusiasts for progress as “an inevitable & irresistible perpetual improvement of the human condition” — or shall we say, naïve optimists — have surrendered or died, their ghosts continue to hold tenure in all our universities. These ghosts cannot think, therefore cannot teach, anything on its own merits. They only know how to teach “this leads to that.”

Progress may not make everything better any more; indeed the spokesmen for progress can become quite jaded. They say something closer to, “It makes some things better & some things worse; live with it!” But whether for better or worse, one thing leads inexorably to another, & we remain bits in some sort of Hegel Machine. Should it turn out that we have anything resembling free will (& the possibility is frankly doubted), we must orient all our actions as bit-players to the elimination of all the bad, “regressive” tendencies from the past; & to their replacement with good “progressive” tendencies — the words in quotes having taken on a fanatically moral connotation.

In other words, we are back where we started, with the idea of progress in its most fatuous form, as something irresistible. Except, this time, the progressives will make it irresistible, & make those who wander off the progressive script very very sorry that they did so.

I was about to mention the name, Johann Georg Hamann. In order to inoculate myself against the charge of being stale-dated, I did a quick Internet sweep, for recent “books about” him — with no intention whatever of reading them, only to see what is there, & get the gist from publishers’ blurbs & excerpts.

What I found was precisely what I expected: Hamann, considered as leading to this, & leading to that. This is the Hamann that “everybody knows” — though I should think most readers had never heard of him, including 99 percent of the post-graduates in North America’s drive-in universities. Never you mind. For even had he been your best buddy, you wouldn’t recognize him in an honours course. He is made into a donkey on which any number of tails may be pinned: romanticism, pluralism, diversity, identity politics, deconstructionism, terrorism, totalitarianism, &c. None of which have anything fondly to do with him.

While the reader’s familiarity is casually assumed, it is equally assumed that Hamann could have nothing to say to the present, directly. (He died in 1788 after all.) All this secondary literature on where he was coming from, & where he led. Shelves of it. The only thing you will not easily find, even in a big university library, is the works of J.G. Hamann. Or any which set out to explicate them, directly. Perhaps I am exaggerating.

He was a friend of Herder & Kant, & almost every other figure of the German Enlightenment, but — & this is an important “but” — he was opposed to them in every conceivable way. He is therefore presented as an opponent of “Reason,” & proponent of what Isaiah Berlin liked to call the “Counter-Enlightenment” — with all Berlin’s charm, & bag-load of donkey tails. (I wasted a lot of time once, reading Berlin when I could have been reading his sources.)

Hamann is presented as “leading to Kierkegaard” — & thus to Existentialism & all that — but it would be sufficient to say that Kierkegaard read him with great attention, & it shows. The rest is all bosh. Given a small coracle, a long journey, & a choice between these two oarsmen, you may bet I would choose Hamann. (I’d go nuts with Kierkegaard, in a small coracle.)

Perhaps even my gentle reader has never heard of J.G. Hamann. I wouldn’t blame him in the least. He is taken to be less important, thus more forgettable than, say, Herder or Kant, because he is pointed in the wrong direction, & is against what every emancipated progressive person is supposed to be for. The later German Romanticism with which he is associated has long been in rather poor taste (largely for what it is taken to have led to). But having declined to punish Marx for the Marxists, Darwin for the Darwinoids, or even Freud for all the frauds, I will not saddle Hamann with the Sturm und Drang. He is anyway totally innocent of that sensibility.

He is mystically Christian — albeit in a mildly Lutherish, pietistic way — “born again” through an unconcealed encounter with Jesus Christ, in London of all places. (Even at the time, good children were expected to be born only once, at most, & Hamann’s conversion cost him a fiancée, for starters.)

Books have been filled with what we mean by “mystical,” & most of them remain to be written, but for the purposes of this present writing let me define it as the conversation at the heart of prayer, & what emerges from that into life. Or, as it were: the essence of creativity, stripped of consciously imposed effects. In the contemporary popular mind, there is something quite vague about mysticism. In reality, however, it is quite the opposite, & genuine mystics are among the clearest writers.

Hamann is witty & pointed & crisp of speech, even when speaking in riddles. And he is usually speaking in riddles. Kant, who would never have consciously spoken in riddles, is almost incomprehensible in the service of “pure reason,” & much more attractive to the professorial mind, in which the primordial cliché is constantly emerging from the primordial mudswamp. By contrast, as my quote for the day, let me supply what is perhaps Hamann’s most famous saying:

“I look upon logical proofs the way a well-bred girl looks upon a love letter.”

I know very little of Hamann myself, but just enough to love him. And that is saying a lot, for the man was a Prussian, just like Frederick II; & from Königsberg, just like Kant; & if I haven’t stated my prejudice against Prussianism thus far in this website, trust me, I’ll get around to it.

But truth to tell, one needs German, & my bootgrip on German peaked around age sixteen (there was a German girl I was trying to impress …) & has since been sliding. I can’t even read a German newspaper any more without lexicographical crutches, & yet I have come to appreciate the failure of translation. For few translators have minds on par with the authors they are translating, & more is lost than wordplay & a few allusions. The tensions themselves are lost: the hard fibre of sanity itself.

Now, Hamann is a very elegant writer, whose Aesthetica in Nuce (“Aesthetics in a Nutshell”) has a lot to say in a couple of dozen pages. And if gentle reader were to think he could get more from it at a single pass, than a strong flavour, then I’m sorry to say, gentle reader must be one of those naïve optimists. But ditto if he is hoping for another deadly Teutonic pedagogue. If anyone ever thought Germans can’t do irony, they should read Hamann. He does it symphonically. Yet every sentence parses easily, & we don’t have any Kantian oilspill of subsidiary clauses.

He also does voices & accents, like a pro. When he takes up an argument against an opponent, he takes up the opponent’s style & substance in rich & often comic layers of parody & mimesis. He breathes life, or at least the danse macabre, into the most desiccated academic skeletons. And let us say he “anticipated” the Internet, too, for he signs off his essays with a little galaxy of pseudonyms — Aristobolus, Adelgunde, The Sybil, &c — each one pregnant with some particular intent. Hegel, in one of his lighter moments, quoted the French when they say “the style is the man himself” — then made an exception for Hamann, in whose case, “the man is style itself.”

He (Hamann, not Hegel; O Lord, not Hegel) certainly anticipated the linguistic philosophy of the 20th century, & remains well ahead of it. I think he may actually have invented Wittgenstein, which I admit shows a kind of influence — a “this,” in a sense, leading to a “that.” But again, in the round, he never “led to” anything. Rather, he understood that the origin of language is both human & divine, something Wittgenstein only suspected.

He was an oracular writer — there are very few of those. But for our weakness he at least kept his writings mercifully short. This was not so simple a thing as compression, however: the oracular style conveys matter that by its nature neither is, nor can be, compressed. But it is not simply poetic, either, for although rhythmic & allusive, the intention is philosophical. Hamann, a master lutenist, condemned his good friend Herder for being “poetic.” When Hamann wanted to be poetic, he played upon his lute.

Moreover, prophecy requires prophets. Hamann is “prosopopoeic” to the core: a nice long word that means, he personifies. The very ideas he presents are clothed, & walk across the stage playing parts in the pageant, as allegories in Mediaeval morality plays. (Once the reader gets this, he’ll find Hamann easier to follow.) Thanks perhaps to his influence, nay inspiration, Kant almost acquired this habit, while writing his Critique of Aesthetic Judgement. (See James Creed Meredith’s translation & notes from 1911, which explain everything. The argument develops dramatically, like a play; though it accelerates more like a train. The ideas inside it are presented like players, with their exits & their entrances; though unfortunately for them, while the train is moving. The whole book seems to be aspiring to dialogue.)

One of Hamann’s collections was Biblische Betrachtungen (“Bible Reflections”), & in these it seems to me that he expounds oracular expressions in Scripture by means of oracular expressions of his own that pair with them, in the way a second eye gives us depth perception. It might be taken as a demonstration of what he called not just the “reconciliation” but, the “union” of opposites. (And quite the opposite of Manichaeism.) One might wrongly think he takes his Bible lightly when in fact he is taking it more seriously, on its own terms, than any “Bible thumper” could take it through earnest literalism. In his response to nuance in the Old Testament, he is Mishnah & Hasid all rolled up in one: the reason, I suppose, Martin Buber loved him.

Was he a philosopher or a theologian or a man of letters? It doesn’t matter.

Towards the end of his life Hamann produced, in response to Kant, what he called a “Metacritique of the Purism of Reason,” in which he suggested language without imagery is meaningless & sterile, & that on the contrary to being “pure,” the a priori reason is merely untenable. For from the moment God is dismissed from the dialogue, we hear the monologue of one lonely human soul. If not the shrieking of a madman.

But that is not to say that Hamann dismissed Reason. To say that would be taking him at his word, in the moment when he is being most ironical. He was instead a sybil of the Impure Reason — of a kind of thinking which embraced intuition, rather than sending it into exile. Perfect (in the sense of, “complete”) Reason requires the full tripod of the transcendentals (the Platonic goodness, beauty, & truth) short any leg of which it will fall over — as flat as Enlightenment Reason. It was because of this that Goethe called Hamann the brightest light of his age — that very Goethe who may be taken himself as the protean exponent of “holism.”

Can this stuff be Catholicized? I would think so. All that is good, beautiful, & true, can be Catholicized. Saint Paul explains this. (Philippians 4:8, et seq.)

Professor Immanuel Kant, who like the rest of us had to earn money sometimes (his dayjob at the Albertus-Universität didn’t pay well), once wangled a commission to write a physics textbook for children. He offered Hamann the co-authorship, knowing him to be a savant in this realm. Hamann promptly declined, but kindly supplied some hints to his friend on how to go about it:

“To win oneself praise out of the mouths of babes & sucklings! … One must begin by divesting oneself of all superiority in age & wisdom of one’s own free will, & renouncing all vanity. A philosophical book for children must therefore appear as simple, foolish, & unrefined as a book written by God for men. … The method for teaching children consists in condescending to their weakness. However, no one can understand this principle, nor put it into practice unless, to use a vulgar expression, he is crazy about children & loves them without really knowing why.”

I smile as I imagine this profound theological observation passing, with a nice clean whistle, right over Kant’s head; indeed right over Königsberg, & then impacting somewhere in the Urals with the power of a mighty meteorite.

In defence of idleness

In the past — do you remember when we were “living in the past,” gentle reader? neither do I — in the past, & with our old technology, time delays in publishing & correspondence were not so much an imposition as part of the rhythm of life. A physical letter took at least some time in transit, & the time elapsed contributed to the recipient’s leisure in responding. The physical letter, when from a person loved or esteemed or even silently detested, was an artefact, an object of some value. It could be kept & returned to, over time. There are bales of such keepsakes up here in the High Doganate, to remind me that I was once living in the past, without realizing. They remind me, too, that I must now be living in the past. Handwriting provided a physical presence, & even those who used typewriters became familiar through their fonts, & peculiarities as slight as the way they indented paragraphs. The reply might be “dashed off,” or it might be carefully composed, draughted then copied nicely. In both cases, some degree of “linear thinking” was required.

From the age before “reply all,” I recall the thrill of receiving an envelope addressed in a certain handwriting, in ink of a certain purplish shade, with stamps from a certain country. The world indeed keeps shrinking & shrinking, but I have noticed it is still the same distance to walk; so that it is not the distance that is the primary illusion. It is instead the proximity. Though, distance is of course also an illusion, according to the old Buddhist quatrain that Japanese travellers once carried in their breasts:

          Really there is no East, no West;
          Where then is the North & the South?
          Illusion makes the world close in.
          Enlightenment opens it on every side.

An old lady of my acquaintance — one of those who is not my mother — was found smoking in the Parkdale snows the other day. She was clutching a letter, which she wanted to show me; not have me read, just look at it as an “objective thing.” It was the first letter she ever received from the man who became her husband, himself long gone. It was the proof to her that she had not imagined all the past. It was as tattered as an old prayer book. I think it served a similar function, for her, bringing the proximity & distance together until they met at the point of reality. And when she dies someone will throw it out. That won’t matter; it has served in its time. And everything that ever was is immutable in the Eye of God.

Today we require an act of will to appreciate these distances. Time in transit once spared us what I find today an almost excruciating effort — to appreciate distance — compounded by the demand for instantaneous response, & the electronic sense that one is writing on water. “The Internet never forgets,” one correspondent wrote, but I don’t believe this. I’ve seen all my old links go dead after a few years, & the bookmarks themselves lost with old laptops. Our technology becomes faster & faster, & with that, increasingly defective.

A fine lady in Venice has been writing to me, & sending wonderful photographs, which I had better find a way to print out. What enchants her most about that city is a quality she calls the “fittingness” of all things, including the people who have been “conditioned” by their environment. We might say that Venice is a very beautiful city (the part built long ago), but I would go farther & suggest that this Venice was built in the light of the Gloria.

It was built, incrementally, with the kind of time delays we once had by analogy to the transit of mail. An “aesthetic” point is made in the elaboration of one building, & the next after responds to it; not in antagonism, but as a new voice rising in the choir. There is leisure to consider the rhythm of this response, & for the reconciliation of apparent contradictions: the use of dissonant notes in the construction of larger harmonies. There is an etiquette which has grown up organically in statement & response, & over centuries of time what was once successive has become simultaneous: a foreshadowing of life beyond time. Nothing was built, nor removed, casually; though as we can know, things were often built & removed, in the development of this extraordinary choir — in stone, on water.

In the hope that this lady writing from the Cannaregio will forgive me for quoting what she has perfectly observed:

“Why build three huge gorgeous churches on one corner, & fill them with sculpture & painting? Certainly there were not enough people to fill them, so it seems they were built to fill the world with glory.”

Speed & efficiency, both of them narrowly & nastily defined, have been erasing a whole dimension of Reason among us, at a terrible cost. We do not have time, in our “economy,” to consider & reconsider; we must act quickly & decisively. The penalty for dawdling over the “fittingness” of our actions has been growing, till we are reduced to quick mental checklists which focus entirely on the immediate cause & effect. I think of an old architect, in a very old Spain, who in his enthusiasm for his project wrote to his patron, “We will build such & so great a Cathedral that those who look upon it in the future will think that we were mad!” (Cannot find the reference, alas, for I cannot find my old copy of John Harvey’s Cathedrals of Spain.)

We have been erasing, as it were, a dimension of Reason itself, in the name of Reason. For the madness of this architect was a form of reason. He had an image in his mind which could only be conveyed by “rational” drawings, & finally in the Nueva Catedral itself — which would come into its full being a couple of centuries after his death, & after many later modifications to improve the “fittingness” of each part to the whole, & the whole to the landscape of its city. Consider, if thou wilt, the sublime patience of this madman.

As I was just writing to this fine lady: “Now, one of the ‘problems’ as I have come to see it is that, when Reason excludes that form of contemplation in which we discover what is fitting, what is rhythmic, what is beautiful, it starts turning against itself. We have these battles to the death between exponents of Reason from different camps. There is nothing left to elide their differences. The gnit-pickers triumph in blood & gore.”

We have always had this problem. We have always had men who will stop at nothing, & would not dream of stopping to think through the prudential implications of what they are doing; & even centuries ago there were men who would tear all of Holy Church apart for the sake of simplifying fine points of doctrine, excluding one or another of the transcendentals to reduce Truth to a slogan. (And they were not all Protestants, far from it; & to be fair, it was not they who tore the Church apart — for on the larger scale, it was men with their eyes fixed beadily upon worldly power, using theological controversy for their excuse to seize both the property & authority which belonged to that Church — again, French Catholics as English Protestants.) We have always had men in a hurry, & will always have, regardless of technology. The sin in this case is quite “original”; & no machine can be original like that.

What we have not always had, however, is the modern & now post-modern condition of constant acceleration of pace. Reason is not extinguished by this, it is only narrowed: made more & more svelte to keep up with the race. We pitch sanity to keep the frame lighter.

That, in case gentle reader has wondered, will account for the peculiar eccentricities of this blog, & why I am trying to make it & keep it a kind of “anti-blog,” devoted to that spirit of Idleness in which we try, so far as God will assist, to restore the Gloria, & the beauty in things that the world has no time for.

Fresh fiats

Some general “Hints to the Commentariat” were previously offered. As I mentioned then, I’d intended the tone & style of comments to be that of the old-fashioned “letter to the editor,” as to the Times (of London) in some other century. In January I briefly considered cutting off comments entirely, being distressed by a tone that was growing ugly. After Thursday’s thread, I was tempted to do this again; but have resolved on a course slightly less drastic.

“Trolls” & “foodfights” are among the terms of art, used to describe the soi-disant battle of ideas along Internet comment threads. It seems to be given to almost every partisan, to recognize trollish behaviour in an adversary. It is given to few to recognize this in an ally, or in oneself. It becomes the harder to see when the conversation is on topics apparently exalted, where the partisans imagine themselves to be defending the highest principles, & just as they are sliding into the worst kind of sectarian darkness — the kind which has left many bloody swathes through Western, & world history. At such moments, religion is transformed into a very worldly ideology, wherein the end justifies the means.

It is embarrassing (or rather, worse than embarrassing), to me as a Catholic, to look through the long history of events in which Catholicism was defended by unCatholic means. And I do not mean by physical violence in unnecessary wars, only; I mean also by intellectual & spiritual violence in many kinds, which leave a legacy of hatred whether or not directly accompanied by bloodshed. It is acutely painful, to see one’s own allies attributing to God a malice that could not come from Him, in the service of certainties that are all too human.

No word in that last paragraph speaks against genuine Catholic doctrine, teased out by reason from Revelation over two thousand years. Nor am I disowning a history, in which good & evil are necessarily entwined. The good comes from God & men divinely inspired; the evil from wilful men taking their shortcuts to what they imagine will be the good result. Least of all am I suggesting that Catholics are especially guilty, in the sectarian clashes that litter history; nor suggesting that some of the worst behaviour did not begin in reasonably justified self-defence.

Men are men, as all Christians should know, to say nothing of others; & therefore we are never to be entirely trusted. The condition of Sanctity is real, but it is also very rare, & never to be tritely assumed. The Church herself has always been sceptical of claims to Sainthood, as to claims of Miracles. She accepts & recognizes them only when they survive the most exacting investigations. She learnt to do this from both divine instruction & worldly experience: she knows that men get carried away. And her task, when her men & women have been equal to her task through the ages, has been necessarily (as T.S. Eliot put it) to be hard when people would be soft, soft when people would be hard.

My function as Author of this little website — as a kind of hack journalist set free from the constraints of contemporary media — is to write about men, events, & ideas, to the best of my ability in truth. By that I mean, truths plural in the light of the Truth singular, which I sincerely believe to hinge on Jesus Christ. My function as Moderator towards “comments” is not to censor divergent views, but to assure myself that they are compatible in tone & intention with my own exercise. I will not have this as yet another forum for “trolls” & “foodfights” — even highly intelligent trolls, intending very sophisticated foodfights.

Since Michaelmas last year, I have been proceeding with a general idea through trial & error. There are actually many attractions & even virtues in amusing pseudonyms, & wanderings off the point. They may reflect “idleness” in the best sense, where it is quite the opposite of “acedia.” Leisure is required for the free play of reason when it seeks the good, the beautiful, & the true. Reason is not a mule to be hitched to a cart, & whipped towards a precise destination. It should be, far more often than it is allowed to be today, a means of exploration. But against this, I must consider in the balance the vices that are encouraged by the use of costume identities & the indulgence of hobby horses.

It might even be that squabbles among the Commentariat attract readers to the website, & hold the reader’s attention even when he is appalled, so that I ought to encourage them for the sake of “success” — usually measured in number of comments, & number of visitors to the website, & the trendline. But with such success comes, not always but almost inevitably, the corruption of the original intention. I’d rather stick by that intention, & should the number of comments sharply decline, & the number of readers with them, then so be it.

And let me add that I have no other websites. This one is entirely devoted to my own writing & thinking, for all its flaws. And while commenters are welcome to point to my errors or their disagreements, it does not exist for the purpose of letting them argue among themselves on topics of their own choosing. There are many, many, many places in the Internet where they may do that.

I am, incidentally, myself among the guilty of the sins I have defined. For I have myself been joining in the cat herd on topics unrelated to my own posts. My motive has been sometimes to correct what appear to be egregious errors, & sometimes, to lighten the tone where it seems to be growing dark. But sometimes I just take a gleeful kick, in the smartass manner. Therefore I have decided to ban myself from making comments: for my purposes will be better served in Comments by just shutting up. If I have something to say on another topic, or in response to an especially thoughtful comment from a reader in Comments or email or conversation, I will make it into another post, & thereby open the field to comments on that topic.

No one else is banned from Comments, but I leave them free to withdraw themselves, should they rebel against either of these two New Rules, which I hereby proclaim, with the infallible authority of the High Doganate:

The first rule is, all comments to appear under real names. Those who feel uneasy posting comments under their own identities should either take heart, or take flight. I have become convinced that the use of pseudonyms on the Internet, here as everywhere, encourages unpleasant habits, & the worst of them the most subtly. Those in possession of titles may use them parenthetically, but recall that, by custom, even members of the British House of Lords use their own untitled names as their by-lines in the public prints. (Those who use their titles for that purpose are considered to be jack-asses.)

The second rule is, all remarks to be addressed in the correct Parliamentary manner, “to the chair.” That is: one is speaking before all members, & all readers, at all times; & never in private dialogue, banter or cross-talk with another member. The fact that I, in my capacity as “Speaker of the House,” have recognized a commenter, may be deduced from the fact that his comment has appeared. If it never appears, the commenter may rightly assume that his remark was ruled out of order. He may well benefit from trying to guess why. (No Speaker has the time to justify every small decision, & none can possibly avoid making the occasional mistake.)

I hope these two rules, which I intend to enforce fairly strictly, will assist in maintaining the highest standards of civility. It should go without saying that unparliamentary language (lively yes; vicious no) will be deleted, even from posts allowed otherwise to stand. And it should be assumed, as an implication of these two strict rules, that no single commenter will be allowed to dominate a long thread. On any given thread, each additional item he submits will be less likely than the one before to be recognized by the Speaker. Therefore, make your first comment count.

The Speaker in this House is a jolly fellow, happy to tipple outside Lent, & will allow some wandering if he finds it genuinely entertaining. He generally allows members to ramble on a bit, if they can complete their points without becoming tedious. But he will not permit persistent wandering from the point, & will try hard to spot & scotch gratuitous efforts to change the subject by the introduction of red herrings & other poisoned fish.

For clarity, let me mention that, on sound Parliamentary principle, I am not enforcing these rules retroactively. They come into force only with this post, & from this moment.

Finally, it follows from the above that this post opens a thread to those who disagree with my New Rules, to explain why they are wrong. But note, gentle commenter should expect only one chance to state his case (or hers, should it come to that), & must sign his own name to it.

Benedict’s “wager”

It makes no sense to send reporters to cover the Vatican who know little about how the Catholic Church works, & are entirely out of sympathy with her cause. What they report will be consistently wrong; crawling with factual errors & silly misjudgements & missed points. In the whole press pool, only one reporter was able to understand Latin. She was therefore the one who broke the story — while her colleagues mulled about looking bored. Nice “irony” there, for if there is one thing every modern journalist knows, with absolutely smug certainty, it is that you don’t need Latin.

The shock attending Pope Benedict’s resignation — not to the public at large, but specifically among journalists — condemns their incompetence. He had openly discussed the possibility of resigning on several occasions over the last three years, & described the conditions in which it would be acceptable. There were two: a moment of relative tranquillity in the government of the Church; when the Pope feels physically unable to continue. These conditions were met. Almost all the banter I have seen in mass media, & all the speculation about “what really happened,” is painfully ignorant & implicitly malicious.

In a farewell to priests in the city of Rome, yesterday, Benedict touched directly on this situation, in its public & political dimension. He spoke of the misrepresentation of Vatican II through mass media that contributed hugely to the catastrophe of the Church in the 1960s. (Not just “progressive” journalists, but “progressive” churchmen using journalists & their media.) Benedict inherited the government of a Church still under siege. Much of what he did through his office was designed expressly to meet the needs of a Church under siege, with limited options. It is a mistake to think the “modern world” is indifferent to Catholicism. It recognizes the Church instinctively as an enemy that must be destroyed.

Reciprocally, the faithful increasingly recognize — more consciously than instinctively — the foolishness in appeasement of their most deadly enemy. It is not Islam, although the rivalry with Islam is ancient & again boiling. It is the quasi-religion that calls itself “secular humanism,” & by any number of other names, each of which implies the self-flattery & self-worship of man in his animal nature, “freed” alike from his supernatural nature, & from God.

Press & popular judgement often fails to grasp that the papacy has always been a multidimensional institution, & is most signally, now. I have noticed from my own mail, & through the Internet, that there is a remarkably sharp “gender divide” on this. Among believing Catholics themselves, women are characteristically blind to the governing function of the Pope; men are characteristically blind to his pastoral function. Both seem to miss what a much older Catholic (by decades, perhaps centuries) would identify as the mystical function: the role of the Pope in prayer.

One of several interesting exceptions is “The Anchoress” — Elizabeth Scalia, an American blogress whose speculations may be overlooked for the sake of focusing on this spiritual acuity: that given the actual existence of God, in the stated relation to His Church, the prayers of the Pope are of very great significance.

And in retiring to a life of prayer, this man elected Pope may be taking upon himself a Gethsemane that only he fully understands, in light of his direct experience of Church government. The weight of the malice directed towards Rome, from the world outside but also from within many Church quarters, is something that must be dealt with not only pastorally, & politically, but in a mystical way, & thus necessarily out of public view. Benedict discerns that all his waning physical powers must be concentrated on that task, leaving the governing, pastoral, & other functions (iconic, liturgical, &c) to a successor. He took the name “Benedict,” which belonged to the founder of European monasticism. It is entirely possible that he knows what he is doing.

I used the term “Gethsemane” with intent. Benedict’s direct experience of non-cooperation, within the Church’s own hierarchy, is telling. He issued very bold instructions to deal with the priestly sexual  scandals, the banking scandals, the liturgical crisis — & has been stonewalled & bafflegabbed every step of the way. At the most intimate level, his own trusted butler stole important personal papers. I am not saying this so gentle reader may feel sorry for him. Rather, he has, with his extraordinary smile (something I once glimpsed with my own eyes from close: something truly unworldly), directly suffered the extraordinary evils now flourishing both outside &, more importantly, inside the Church.

The Church has always coped well with external persecution, & invariably benefited from it, however ghastly the experience. The enemy within is the real danger; & this has always been so. It is prefigured in the Gospel account of Judas. It is more complex than perfect good versus perfect evil: for Judas proved the ultimate “necessary evil,” through whose act the ministry of Christ was completed. These are not shallow waters.

Benedict is taking a grave risk which he clearly understands. The one point he added to the announcement of his own resignation, after the fact — & only this one thing — was an assurance that he understood the gravity of his decision. Sandro Magister, one of the few truly informed Vatican observers, described this in the Italian magazine L’Espresso as a “supernatural wager.” For just as John Paul II made possible the “miracle” of Ratzinger’s election by clinging on, Benedict XVI may by suddenly resigning have created the dynamic by which the College of Cardinals may choose a “miraculous” successor. That would be, I should think, someone other than any of the candidates who have been publicly touted, each of whom strikes me as fatally flawed. (I won’t go through the list with my reasons.)

Unfortunately the term “wager” will be misunderstood, as would my word “risk” — for this is not equivalent to rolling the dice, or flipping a coin. On the contrary, it has become a necessary wager, & its meaning is unmistakably bound in with this unprecedented act of resignation. Benedict is saying, in effect, “Lord you must act in these circumstances, which have passed beyond my power.” And praying thus, as he will continue to pray, with all the gravity of a man who has represented, as Priest before God, more than a billion living Catholics. He is taking the weight of this upon himself, as he has taken the weight of the consequences of his decision.

For his resignation is certainly unprecedented, given the circumstances of the modern world; appears more so to me, the more it is examined. It sets up an unprecedented election in the College of Cardinals, where no time was available for the usual offstage vetting, with the last Pope on his deathbed. In such a sudden gathering, with no “momentum” behind any of the “front runners,” it strikes me that the election of a little-known candidate is possible, even likely. That man might conceivably be the best, even the only suitable candidate. But we must leave this to the College & to God.

We are — we Catholics, & all Christians & other religious & even non-religious who recognize the unique role of the papacy in our world, as a power for good & an obstruction to evil — caught up in this. What can we do? The truth is we can do nothing but pray. But that is not a throwaway. If, as Christians must believe, the drama of this earthly life is real, & we are not random collocations of atoms, those prayers are also real. And God is indeed searching our hearts; & the prayers in question must be in very earnest.

Reason & knowing

It is the received view, up here in the High Doganate, that we do not know what we do not know. Granted, this is a peculiarly Catholic view, & may therefore smack of sectarianism; but we cannot find an alternative to it that is at all convincing. We puzzle upon Mysteries that were simply “given,” entirely beyond human comprehension. Not only “we,” but I. The little I know with any certainty has come mostly from that exercise, both inside & outside religion; for though natural mysteries are different in kind from theological Mysteries, they have a similar impenetrable quality. In fact, they deepen, the more that we learn.

This is not so simple a matter as not knowing the answers to empirical questions, such as by what means creatures of one species metamorphose into creatures of another. True enough, having rejected as glib the suggestion of “natural selection,” I have nothing whatever to replace it with; but that is only the beginning of my ignorance. And it is not something I need to know. People lived for centuries without knowing the Earth went much more around the Sun than vice versa, yet the sunsets were the same. They could even make accurate astronomical calculations, on a wrong model of the solar system. With the right rocket technology, but that wrong model, we could have landed a man on the moon. So who really needed Copernicus? (Well, he simplified the math.)

A more fundamental ignorance would be, “What is it that I need to know?” For this would involve cutting through far worse misdirections than were supplied by Claudius Ptolemy’s astronomy, & thus much harder mental work.

Faith comes into this equation, in the most elementary sense, because a few things I obviously do need to know come to me via “penny catechism,” the way the alphabet used to come to children through penny broadsides. I can’t think of any other way the most basic theological, philosophical, & even logical propositions could have reached me, than by flat instruction, for none could possibly be discovered through trial & error, by any isolated man working entirely from scratch.

And since one proposition depends on another, it is very much like the problem of the first biological cell. It involved a number of coordinated propositions, & could not have been assembled one bit at a time. (Only inanimate structures can be assembled like that, solid brick over solid brick, & even then one might be living in Christchurch where the ground liquefies from time to time.)

Instead, I am thinking of the “higher,” or at least, most complex propositions, in what seems like the No Man’s Land between what we need to know, & what we don’t. The perfect example, to my mind, is the apparent answer to a prayer. Is it God’s answer, the Devil’s answer, or just my own stupid projection? I will not vex the reader in this case with several dozen subsidiary questions. In only one, or perhaps two cases in the course of my life could I be reasonably sure. In the others, “I don’t know” would be indicated, together with its moral corollary, “Proceed with caution.”

An example might clarify what I am babbling about here. Once, just after the death of a very close friend whom I’d been attending, I pleaded with God to give me a glimpse of what happens immediately after death. And seemingly in response, I had something like a vision, of my friend Bob having passed through a door still slightly ajar, to a place that was like Earth, but with spatial & temporal dimensions transformed, & a light all-suffusing. And with that, a feeling of peace, that we will know the place; that it will not be entirely foreign to the human. But was this a genuine or a false vision? I do not know.

Note that I am not attempting some radical Cartesian or Baconian or Humean or Kantian critique of reason. As a penny-catechized Catholic, I accept reason more or less at face value. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, & has the right ambiance, it may be safely labelled. Should it turn out to be a swan, I will change the label, but it will take some work to convince me. Generally speaking, reason is serviceable, unless one’s own misconceptions (about ducks, for instance) get in the way. Generally speaking, the more checkable information one has, the more one knows. In this case, the more one even knows about how the duck looks back at you, & sizes you up. For I am not sceptical of the empathetic reason, though I know it can take us only so far. The Other is the Other after all, even when it is a duck. But ducks & we have a few things in common.

People should realize that the modern attack on Reason came with the Reformation. (Many previous attacks, but none so materially successful.) The notion that reason itself is twisted, & must be rejected as collateral damage from the Fall of Man, provided much of the theological fuel with which torchings of Holy Church were attempted. She had for her part embraced reason from the beginning, as one of the very tests for the “fallenness” of Man. Reason is of God; it is men who are unreasonable. Because we are unchaste, because we do not pursue reason chastely, because we twist it to get the results we want. This, however, is a problem with us. It is not a problem with reason.

Reason, of just this chaste sort, plays a very large role in day to day religion. Let us now take the Sacrament of Penance — “Confession” — for an example, suitable to Ash Wednesday. Preparing for Confession, I may consult some standard list of mortal vices, under headings such as Pride, Envy, Greed, Lust, Wrath, Sloth, Gluttony. But often one is not quite sure, not merely what heading to choose, but whether what one did was really a sin. And from the best spiritual advisers, it turns out the next question isn’t, “What did it feel like?” That is Pride’s bottomlessly subjective dissertation, the one in which we all love to wallow, gluttonously. The question is instead much plainer & more objective: “What did it look like?”

For reason in this case involves a simple out-of-body exercise. Stand outside & look in, as if you were not you, but an impartial, external observer. If it looked like a sin, walked like a sin, quacked like a sin, & had the right ambiance, you have almost certainly got in nailed. The fact you felt badly when you were caught need not come into it.

(This is something I love about the Church’s teaching on sin, & all the liturgical & other practices that follow from it. It is not emotional & theatrical. It is instead logical & reasonable. Nor does it fantasize that men will, as a regular habit, make full & adequate confessions to God. Knowing what men are, the Church isn’t so easily suckered.)

There is plenty we can know by reason, even without the use of statistics. There indeed must be more that we can know by reason, than we do know, for new things are discovered in the same old data. That, incidentally, is how Catholic doctrines may develop, over time. It is the same old doctrine from the start, but from new experience we suddenly discover an implication we had not seen before. The doctrine in this case has not “changed”; it has instead been more completely comprehended.

The worldview, in which we try reason first, & fight our lazy fatalist habits, is different in kind from the worldview in which everything that happens is attributed to djinns. As Western men & women, we inherit this “rationalist” propensity, perhaps from pagan Greeks, who pioneered in this territory. But the Greeks themselves knew reason was not something they had made, rather something they had discovered. They also knew it was intrinsically divine.

Reason comes down to us, immeasurably enhanced, because the Church bought into it bigtime, from even before the Pauline generation. It is there in Christ who, directly in the Gospels, unhesitantly applies the sharpest reason to the clever people trying to entrap Him. And it has been taught, as part of the “core curriculum” through twenty centuries, so that by now the intellectual heritage of the Greeks — Plato, Aristotle, Theocritus, &c — is inseparable from our Catholic Christian heritage; spliced into the framing of the bark, so to say. (It wasn’t just the recovery of Aristotelian texts from the Byzantine Greeks through the Arabs; for such as Origen & Augustine had already been fully engaged.)

And I left out Socrates who, quite apart from the biographers & admirers through whom we try to “read” him — for like Jesus of Nazareth he wrote nothing down — comes closest to anticipating the Christian point of view, starting from reason. That we learn by direct inquiry; that we start by admitting what we don’t know; that the pursuit of truth requires not just the mind but the whole man. That, reason & unreason war within each human heart. Where, unreason masquerades as reason. That, ideas have consequences in life. Where, they are passed from man to man. That, “philosophy” being not merely thought, but lived — is something profoundly personal.

From a position of real acknowledged ignorance, & proceeding by steps of reason, Socrates was able to get a considerable distance. By pursuing such concepts as “justice” — ruthlessly, in a sense — he came remarkably close to the Christian idea of God. He did not get there. Nevertheless, he taught Plato, & through Plato, Aristotle, things that to outward appearance no merely rational person, even an ingenious Greek, had any business knowing. Being Socrates he stopped at what he could not know. But what he knew, he knew; & he drank the hemlock rather than agree to what he knew was wrong.

Revelation takes us well beyond Reason, yet it is reason that leads to revelation’s door, historically as well as in every other sense. For even in assimilating the content of “Scripture & Tradition” we need minds, to test. It could not be genuine Revelation unless it made sense; unless it was internally consistent & externally coherent; unless we could be sure that its consequences were not trivial or absurd.

From the beginning, the Church rejected such theological try-ons as “by faith alone,” unless that faith was consistent with reason; or “by scripture alone,” knowing the very canon of Scripture required prayerful reasoning to discern, & prayerful reasoning to interpret. For she began her work even before there was a New Testament; being founded not on Scripture, but in Christ. (But of course everything is in practice checked against Scripture, & has been ever since it was available. Every papal proclamation of which I am aware — quite a few by now, including many quite ancient — has been utterly crawling with scriptural references & allusions.)

The Old Testament served the first generation, & was pre-eminent for several more. The earliest Fathers of the Church, as the Rabbis before them, were fully aware that Scripture is replete with things crying out to be misinterpreted by the perversity of men — who aren’t Saints; whose reasoning is neither chaste nor humble; whose learning is seldom even skin deep; & who in the event are seething, not with charity but with anger. Scripture could be twisted against itself — it was often so twisted before their eyes. Every day, to this day, we may watch men turning the screws on reason: big-brained “reformers” who are puffballs of spite; making rules from which they are self-exempted.

And that is precisely why we read Scripture in light of Church teaching — the cumulative interpretive wisdom of so many hundred years. For two millennia now, the Church has had the delicate task of disowning her fanatics, & putting their djinns back in their bottles; of consolidating & teaching, instead, what can be known among reasonable men, who will consent to learn before they try teaching, & are of an instinct to reverence what they have inherited.

For Revelation, too, takes us only so far. It tells us what we need to know, but not everything we want to know. As human beings — fundamentally flawed, yet also strangely exalted in the image of Christ — we characteristically push at the edges. We ask for precision where only approximation is available to us, or analogy from what we have seen; we demand answers to questions that we cannot even formulate coherently. We ask, always, for more than we can get, & as a trading race, think we can negotiate. A proud race, too, we are always bluffing, especially to ourselves. We almost invariably think we know more than we do — until our ignorance is exposed, if not well after.

One of my own Lenten resolutions this year is to find contentment; not only in what I can eat & drink; in what I must do for penance, & give for alms; but also in what I can know. To shake off, if only for a season, this curiously modern neurosis, that aspires to superhuman knowledge, & blinds one not only to what can be known, but even to what is known already. (Or was this not the first mortal sin, of Adam?) To go, ideally, forty days & nights without trying to make any Faustian bargains.

The resignation

“Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made & properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.” (Canon 332, §2)

It does not really matter how one feels about such things: they are as they are. Those of us who are Catholic, or by tendency orthodox Christians, must orient ourselves to the largest of facts. The battle will be won, with or without us. Christ will ultimately prevail. This is the startling original for the rather cheap Trotskyite notion of being “on the right side of history.” The right side can look very much like the losing side, perhaps for centuries at a time. But a thousand years may be as one day, in the sight of God; & one day as a thousand years. In the light of Eternity, we must endeavour to avoid short-term thinking.

The news of Pope Benedict’s resignation was so stunning that I noticed the first media reports were straightforward, & without comment or insinuations. The reporters & editors must scratch their heads to think how this may be made into another scandal for the Church. As an old media hack myself, I grimace. Yet we may fairly ignore what is said, here today & gone tomorrow.

It has been about six centuries since the last Pope resigned — Gregory XII in 1415, as his part of an arrangement to end a schism in which there were two Popes & two Colleges of Cardinals. These were quite different circumstances from those of today; & indeed a reminder that things can get worse than we are likely to imagine. But, too, what seems impossible may be suddenly resolved, when men put higher interests above their own, & let Christ do His work.

Last before Gregory, I think, was Pope Celestine V, who resigned in 1294 after making a decree which clarified on what terms resignation was possible.  (We do not say “abdicated” because the Pope is not a worldly monarch.) There had been a number of papal resignations before that, going back to the first centuries. The precise number depends on historical speculations. But the possibility of resigning has been consistently acknowledged throughout Church history. Pope John Paul II left a letter of resignation in the hands of the Dean of the College of Cardinals to be acted upon should he become incapacitated in any of several ways. Pope Pius XII, during World War II, made provisions for his resignation to be published in the event of his imprisonment by the Nazis, & for the College of Cardinals to meet in neutral Portugal to choose a successor. This is the world, & prudence has always required such measures.

Our own Pope Benedict XVI — God keep this beloved man — gave the reasons for his resignation clearly. He is becoming enfeebled by age. He states the obvious, that “in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes & shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter & proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind & body are necessary.”

Something more is read between such lines, by this idle observer. The Vatican bureaucracy has been, in recent times, & perhaps inevitably, infiltrated by the very “progressive” forces it exists to fight. The Pope must be entirely on his toes in such an environment. A man of extraordinary humility but also astute, Benedict would be aware of the danger that members of this bureaucracy would exploit his mental & physical decline.

This has become, to my mind, the key practical issue for the Church to face in her immediate future. The Pope & his Bishops have real canonical power, but with the proliferation of bureaucracy within the Church herself, they are required to exert it forcefully. In the Church as in mundane government, the bureaucracies take their own lead. They become too large for detailed supervision; & through the normal operation of organizational politics — a fact of nature — they acquire their own internal directors & directions. Bureaucracy is in itself an evil I have long tried to oppose: it is by its very nature self-serving, & ruthlessly inhumane. I have often compared it to a cancer.

So much is published & taught & done, with Church resources today, that accords far better with contemporary “liberal” ideals than with Church teaching; which twists & compromises the most essential doctrines founded on the teaching of Christ. An impression of authority can be given when heretical statements are left unchallenged, that seem to bear the imprimatur of the Church. But those under holy vows, with the legitimate authority, get their hands so full of trouble they want to avoid “yet another scene.” Cowardice has many arguments; & exhaustion has some more.

At every level, from the parish priest up, the government of the Church must be taken back by those under holy vows, from those who are not, & never were nor will be. The Church must speak with one voice on behalf of Catholic doctrine, or the laity are left in great confusion, with terrible consequences to souls. We need great clarity about what is Catholic & what is not. Then people may decide with clarity whether they are Catholics or not, to live & act accordingly.

It is naturally with foreboding that I look to this immediate future, & to the inevitable tasks of the Church in cultures that are now de-Christianized, & increasingly, sometimes virulently, anti-Christian. I am confident that what must be done will eventually be done, one way or another; confident that in the end Christ will reign. I considered the election of Benedict himself a kind of miracle; the answer to very earnest prayers. And rather than belabour, let me now merely cite the old Catholic prayer during papal elections:

“Lord, do not send us the Pope we deserve.”

False comfort

My latest column at Catholic Thing would seem to be on “False comfort” — or, comforts; I was unsure whether to use the singular or plural in the title I suggested. There is a Whole Earth Catalogue of potential false comforts, indeed:

“There are so many ways to derive false comfort from the situation of the Catholic Church today — in Canada, USA, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Britain, &c — that one becomes bewildered sometimes, trying to choose between them. Each is so easy to kick away. …”

On reflection, they are all variations on the same old false comfort, & so the singular was more appropriate. One might call it “worldly optimism.” Those who put their hope in the things of this world are at an intrinsic disadvantage to those who don’t, in the prospect of Futurity. This is something clearly explained through the Gospels, & supported through Epistles, Fathers & Doctors, & in every other orthodox expression of the Catholic Christian faith. But it is not something people readily understand.

That, I suspect, is one of the reasons persons confronting personal, familial, or societal disaster so often turn to God. For that is what it takes for them to get it. There may have been a glimmer of understanding, but it took disaster to bring it home: that there is nothing in & of this world to which we may look with security for salvation.

Which is not to contradict the extraordinary beauty of this world, & the goodness & truth we may well have found here. These things are transient. They are our “intimations of immortality,” but not the thing itself. There are moments, even down here on Earth, when time stands still for us. Often they seem absurd, & thus irrelevant to the lives we are leading. From the “no nonsense” mind they may be dismissed as trivial, as “something I must have eaten,” the way Scrooge rejects his own visitation in the Christmas Carol. The word “sublime” has been used to describe the scenery in such moments, where the word “beautiful” seems no longer to suffice. They remain in the memory, from time but dislocated: as if with no before, no after, only a “during.” I associate them with the light of grace, which shines beyond space & time, into the little box of our creaturely nesting; through its walls. No human born was ever deprived of such glimpses of Paradise; I am convinced by both faith & experience that this is the case. But what do we make of it?

There is one way to turn: towards Christ, & with him through the Cross of Calvary to the Resurrection. But what is the alternative?

A close friend of a close friend recently committed suicide. To the mind of reason, this is “the ultimate subjective act,” in contrast to murder, “the ultimate objective act.” See: T.G. Masaryk, whose pioneering sociological work, Suicide & the Meaning of Civilization (Vienna 1881, translated 1970) was effectively plagiarized but mangled by Durkheim a decade later. Masaryk I think nailed the key feature in societies that were liberalizing, industrializing, & becoming “agnostic” & “post-Protestant.” It was the extraordinary spike in the suicide statistics, to levels inconceivable in any “traditional society.” This was the key indicator of “progress,” as it were.

It is the key indicator for hope in this world, as I have come to realize, thinking back over the list of people I have known, who succumbed to their despair when faced with a disaster beyond their capacity to assimilate: selbstmord, “self murder.” To the older Catholic mind, this was the worst form of murder imaginable. For no greater rejection of God can be imagined.

Conversely joy, & especially joy in real adversity, is the mark of true belief. (“By their fruits ye shall know them.”) We cannot possibly count on happy times, ahead of us in this world; or even on happier times, should they depend on our own contrivance. But if we set our sights farther, it might not be so bad.

Questions of children

Near the beginning of Lark Rise to Candleford — Flora Thompson’s trilogy remembering an 1880s childhood around & about a dusty hamlet of north-east Oxfordshire — the children in the stonemason’s house ask seven searching theological questions:

— Who planted the buttercups?

— Why did God let the wheat get blighted?

— Who lived in this house before we did, & what were their children’s names?

— What’s the sea like?

— Is it bigger than the Cottisloe Pond?

— Why can’t we go to Heaven in the donkey-cart?

— Is it farther than Banbury?

These are haunting questions, when a child asks them; which is why I class them all as “theological.” To the child, buttercups & wheat are known; Cottisloe Pond & even Banbury can be known; birds & beasts & donkey-carts are known. The mysteries within them may not yet be detected. But sometimes they have, & even the most familiar can become suddenly numinous: “Who lived in this house before we did, & what were their children’s names?” It is the sort of question recognized by the inspired writers of Scripture.

A few paragraphs later, a little girl has a leaf in her hand, from a flowerpot, & asks an old lady, “What’s it called?”

“Tis called mind-your-own-business, an’ I think I’d better give a slip of it to your mother to plant in a pot for you,” the old lady replies.

This is not, to my mind, the best pedagogical procedure. It is true that children will ask nuisance questions, questions to which they know the answers, to which they don’t want to know the answers, questions only begging for attention like an ostrich tapping on the window pane. But in the main, I have found from children — my own & other people’s — that there are benefits to be had, on both sides, when a grown-up truly listens to a child’s question.

I say, on both sides, because children teach as well as learn; not only through the questions we cannot answer, but from having seen things we haven’t seen. They start from being smaller & shorter, & that alone gives them another angle. Their minds are necessarily freer from preconceptions. But sometimes it goes quite beyond that. The smallest children seem sometimes aware of presences invisible to us, whose world-weary eyes are practised at deletion. And in their cruelty & their empathy, their dramas & their superstitions, their delight in rhythm & rhyme, they open & close many secret doors:

          Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,
          Your house is on fire, your children are gone,
          Except the little one under a stone,
          Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home.

There is something childlike in the innocence of the saintly & wise, though of course there is, too, something adult in them to our own childishness. In each consultation of the Summa Theologica, I am the more struck by both operating together — yoked, as it were, & in tandem — in the mind of Thomas Aquinas. He is, to a shocking degree, capable of posing the naïve question, from the one side; & from the other, capable of listening to it, with an unearthly calm. Again & again I am astounded by the richness & depth in replies which catch not only the subtlety I have missed in a question, but also the obvious I have missed. Yet this is the man who stopped writing some months before the end of his life, though still well, confiding to an old companion that after a vision he had received, everything he’d written seemed to him as straw.

Without vision, yet working from cumbersome analogy, it seems to me the theological questions disputed most rancorously, by myself & even by members of the Commentariat, are like the questions asked by children. That, perhaps all theological questions are like this — necessary as they may be to answer, or to decide, given the often horrific consequences of getting them wrong. For so often they have life-&-death implications. Yet some adult — some imagined person who has put the childhood of human life behind him, & gone on to his reward — might smile at the questions. For no, the sea is not larger than the Cottisloe Pond; nor Heaven farther than Banbury; & yes, you could reach it in a donkey-cart; & see by Whom the buttercups were planted.

In an old Scots version of the Lord’s Prayer, expanded or exploded as if to parse each phrase, & meant to be sung, “we children” are invoked in a wonderful way:

          Our father God celestial
          Now ar we come to pray to thee.
          We are thy children thairfore we call
          Heir us father mercifullie …

Ornithological note

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I personally resolved never to buy a car — until I could afford a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, & a uniformed chauffeur. This resolution did not last. In the end I bought several cars, always second-hand & a bit rusted, at the insistence of a certain estranged wife. But in my defence, I never learnt to drive, & never piloted even one of them.

Well, that is only approximately true. My papa taught me how to drive his Volkswagen bug when I was ten or eleven (on an abandoned airfield, at first, & then right through Georgetown, Ontario). But at least let me claim, I have never had a driver’s licence, nor ever applied for one. My reasoning was entirely moral. It seemed cruel to me, to deprive servants of employment, & if one cannot at least hire a chauffeur, what business can one have owning a car? It is to prefer machinery to people.

Our views change over time, & with experience, & just last week my view finally changed on that Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. I don’t want it any more. Someone else can have it. Let me explain.


During moments of (arguably) divinely enforced leisure, last week, I found myself dipped in an old favourite Alexandrian poet. It was Callimachus: his Iambi, & Aetia. He is the kind of poet one might expect to appeal to me: royalist, traditionalist, elitist, Aristotelian. Bit of a religious nutjob, in moments. Too, he was the writer of wickedly cutting epigrams. His thirty-year feud with Apollonius of Rhodes — beloved topic of old Classics masters — once added another attraction, for I never much liked the Argonautica. (From what has since been discovered, in the way of papyri, I infer the two were in fact good buddies, who carried on their theatrical rivalry in public as a private joke. Since guessing this I have found the Argonautica much improved.)

Callimachus is master of the elegy, but more. Most remarkably, he turned the form away from lament, & its rhythmic reinforcement, by insinuating a certain sauciness of tone, & a new rather urbane range of interests; yet without sacrificing that beautiful background thrum of sadness & melancholy, that conveys the transience of all human life. He became Greek model to such Latin imitators as Catullus, Propertius, Ovid. …

In his dayjob at the Library of Alexandria, Callimachus also made himself useful by constructing the Pinakes: the very first library catalogue, & perhaps to this day the most entertaining & informative. Aheu, it only survives in fragments; & a tremendous quantity of his other prose writings — “notes & queries” material on authors & works the Library was preserving against the ravages of time — are themselves no longer extant. We get poignant glimpses of such enterprise, through stray quotes in later authors — themselves patiently copied & collated by the monks of Byzantium, & so on.

But that is not why I wanted to mention Callimachus; or then, Pausanias, to whom I referred for light on the statuary of Helicon; via the excellent modern British classical scholar, Alan Cameron (Callimachus & His Critics, 1995); & then Strabo, naturally (working the ancient tour guides, backwards); then Judith McKenzie’s fabulous new reconstructive work on The Architecture of Alexandria & Egypt (Yale, 2005); finally to land slap dab in the middle of the Deipnosophistae (Book V, around folio 200: the description of the famous Dionysian procession through Alexandria, which Athenaeus apparently cribs from a lost work of Callixeinus).

Why, you may ask, this Ariadnean thread? To what purpose?

A very discerning question, gentle reader. You see, it started with a reference to Arsinoë, the Macedonian princess who became first wife to Ptolemy II Philadelphus, & is obscurely flattered by Callimachus as a kind of “tenth muse.” Her association with a bronze ostrich emerged from the commentary. And my reader will follow the spool perfectly if he realizes that my “search term” must have been “ostrich” throughout. And that the chase would lead back to Alexandria, inevitably.

(Be patient, gentle reader, I’m making this as short as I can.)


I have always loved ostriches, as much for their feistiness as for their delicious meat. (Some good recipes in Apicius.) Ostriches have been slandered by this “head in the sand” myth, for which we may blame Pliny the Elder. They are not so stupid as that; though from what I have heard, anecdotally, not all that smart, either. I am thinking of one notorious individual on an ostrich farm in Kenya who, having taken an irrational dislike to a certain tree, would not leave off charging at it, & then colliding with it, till substantially more damage had been done to the bird than to the tree.

But the standard, one might almost say instinctive ostrich response to a large enemy in an open desert setting, is more clever. It runs away fast (& an ostrich is the world’s fastest biped) till it has made some distance, then suddenly falls down flat against the ground — exploiting the distance, the heat haze, & its natural colouration to become utterly invisible. For it is now perfectly camouflaged as one among innumerable heaps of dirt. (The head goes onto the sand, in this instance, not into; in other circumstances it may go into the sand, but only because the creature is rooting for something.)

There are quite a few Old Testament references to ostriches, & together they paint a picture more accurate than Pliny’s. It is true an ostrich may be slow on the uptake, & careless. But God uses him as a warning to us against being plain dumb, & then trying to compensate with a bad temper. On the plus side, let it be said that the average ostrich, in the state of nature prior to the introduction of firearms (Theodore Roosevelt was astute on this topic), could live a good long time: decades, & in many cases to the full three score & ten. Moreover, they stay, typically, vibrant & healthy to the end. On the minus side, the end almost invariably comes through some conspicuous act of stupidity.

But he is not a coward. An adult male North African Red-Necked [sic!] Ostrich stands eight or nine feet tall, weighs in over 300 pounds, & should never be messed with. He has excellent eyesight & hearing, & should you seriously annoy him, he can chase you at over 40 miles per hour — dropping perhaps to 30 after ten miles or so, should the race become a marathon. Sooner or later he will surely catch you up, for he has an excellent ticker, & stamina like you wouldn’t believe. Let it also be noted, that when push comes to shove, he has a kick that can take your head clean off. Ostriches in nature have been seen killing lions, when very, very annoyed.

And verily, I have sometimes thought that Nature made the ostrich a flightless bird out of her basic sense of fairness. His wings, though useless for aerobatics, have 101 other household uses. Please, no one call them “vestigial” — it is the moa that has no wings at all. An ostrich can box with his wings, like a prizefighter; they are essential to temperature management for both self & eggs; & likewise in maintaining high running speeds. It is thanks to his wings that an ostrich can turn sharp corners at very high speeds, & sprint with 15-foot strides. A masterpiece of intelligent design; until he forgets to use the wings as stabilizers, whenupon he tends to run in circles alas, adding to his reputation as a rather dim bird.

His eyeballs are of a size with billiard balls, but his brain no larger than a walnut, which makes him, I suppose, something of an artist. That eyeball is magnificently constructed for desert landscapes. He can see what is coming very sharply at great distances, through the shimmer. But in the reading range, he would probably need glasses. Thus I offer this word to the wise: you may confound him by swishing a stick before his face. He will be entirely at a loss how to focus on this distraction, or what to do about it, & will promptly abandon any previous intention to, say, reduce you to a mincemeat pulp with his giant razor toenails (one on each foot).

A powerful bird, & notwithstanding his head so ludicrously small, capable of affection for members of other species &, within his intellectual limitations, of being tamed. There were several accounts from old colonial Palestine & Mesopotamia of ostriches which had adopted humans — with a partiality to British officers in full dress. Having picked their officer, they would follow him around everywhere, possibly to the amusement of native Arab spectators. Loyal to a fault (a comparison with Her Majesty’s Arab subjects would be invidious), they would trail after him outdoors & in. When shut outside, such an ostrich will then tap persistently for attention, with his beak on windows & doors. Endlessly, till you shoot him.

There are many more things to be said about the ostrich kind. I must somehow contain my enthusiasm. But let us finally consider: he is the only bird on our planet that yawns. Which suggests to me, less boredom than a real eagerness for employment.


Well, I’m sure gentle reader sees where this going: back to ancient Alexandria, & to that Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who, in addition to libraries & museums, temples, mausoleums, lighthouses & ports, was also keen on zoos. He kept a considerable menage, in the royal quarter, including aviaries of exotic birds. Monarchical government is generally good for that sort of thing. And Philadelphus loved a parade. Let us imagine, … or rather, let us skip over it, & refer the curious reader to Judith McKenzie for a comprehensive account of the very impressive public buildings & sights past which that Dionysian pageant would have passed, & the further spectacles of which it might have consisted. For I did solemnly promise to be brief.

It is the chariots I wish to fix upon gentle reader’s attention. They were pulled by ostriches, in teams & yoked pairs. The chariots themselves were, we can believe, finely decorated; but lo, the ostriches in their gorgeous attire! … That is style!

And it is the reason I shall be trading in my (imaginary) Rolls. Yes, it is an admirable conveyance, in a mechanical sort of way. But I’m tired of settling for wheel rubber, chrome, & grey polished steel.

A chauffeur I will have, the moment I can afford one; & keepers for my ostrich stables, too. And an ostrich yard, of considerable dimensions, for these animals are nothing if not free range. Confine them in an acre or two, & they will sicken & die. They need miles. They need nesting room. Nor will the cock be happy without a few pretty hens — & my Church does not oppose polygamous customs, at least in that species. Granted, this will all require more money than I currently have; more even than I can run up on Visa.

But I do long to ride through the Greater Parkdale Area in a Ptolemaic chariot, pulled by my exquisite ostrich team.