Essays in Idleness


Gallimaufry & anamnesis

“Liberalism is an empty parking lot. Conservatism is a garden full of weeds.”

“The problem with ‘I think, therefore I am’ is that it can be true only for God. When man appropriates this to himself he implicitly claims to be God.”

“All causes except the first uncaused cause are effects. This is so because the first cause causes them to be causes.”

“If Man was God’s attempt to make an artificial intelligence, it didn’t work out.”

“Turning to God will not, necessarily, make one a saint, for that is in God’s grace & providence. But turning from God will, necessarily, make one a pig.”

The quotes above were plagiarized from the “Gallimaufry” page of another blog, or more precisely another anti-blog entitled, A Philosophical Journal — slightly edited in several instances to suit my own tastes. The author signs himself, “RP.” He persists in leaving intelligent, penetrating Comments over here, often with useful references to Thomas Aquinas & others. Conversely, he thanks me for reminding him of the term “Pieperian Thomist,” & has just added it as subtitle to his own works, over there. Alas, thanks to my much-criticized identification policy, I won’t publish his correspondence until he spells out his name. As he refuses to do that even on his own website, we are at an impasse.

RP’s particular interest, it seems to me on perusing his archives, is the Christian reconstruction of the Platonic conception of anamnesis — unfolding in the Paschal Mystery from Christ’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” It is at the heart of the Eucharist, in both its Western (Catholic) & Eastern (Orthodox) manifestations. It is what we tried to lose at the Reformation, & are still trying to lose, every day. But it cannot be lost, cannot be forgotten.

The gentleman shares with me a distaste for hyperlinks, & for advertisements. He disallows Comments on his own website, entirely, because they will let automated advertisements in through the program he is using. I would do the same, in that situation. Since we are of a mind, I will give no link to his anti-blog, either, but gentle reader will find it easily enough from the information I have supplied.


We suffer, up here in the High Doganate, from moments of acute eco-mania. Perhaps we have confessed this before. We were having one just now on our balconata, as an ice cream truck that works Inner Parkdale came by, too early in the morning. Its repulsive jingle is endlessly repeated from a short & cranky tape spool, amplified to skull-cracking volume. That the driver — whom we have pointlessly confronted on several occasions — appears also to be the wild-eyed Afghan terrorist from central casting, may contribute to this mania in some ineffable way. The man seems to be working on the theory that he can scare children into buying his ice cream. About thrice daily, through the summer months, I must fight the temptation to drop a brick ten storeys onto the source of the noise.

In my last confrontation, the amply-bearded gentleman dismissed my suggestion that he should turn down the volume & use his jingle more sparingly, on grounds that he’d never received a complaint from anyone else in the neighbourhood. While I knew this to be a bald lie, it would nevertheless not have surprised me were it true. Many Canadians still live in the municipality — we are among the larger visible minority groups — & as a class we never complain about anything. An American visitor once observed, of the ice cream vendor in question, that he could drive over a Canadian, dividing him in two. And the surviving upper half would pull himself up to the truck window, to say calmly & reasonably: “Watch where you’re going, eh?”

In other news, I see that U.S. oil exports have overtaken imports, & that our less peaceable neighbour is well on the way to overall energy self-sufficiency, despite every effort by the Barabbas administration to exclude human enterprise from federal land. I hardly know what to think about that. I get a little thrill of schadenfreude in considering what happens to the OPEC cartel. But gentle reader will be aware of my dislike for cars, & other powered machinery. The environmentalcases raise (incomprehensible) moral objections to any bumper harvest; my own objections tend to the aesthetic. I haven’t the slightest objection to oil drilling, per se; nor burning off the product in the hope of contributing to a warmer, more carbon-rich atmosphere, that will benefit the world’s farms, gardens, & forests. I just can’t see how cheap oil helps us get rid of cars.

Meanwhile, yet another new species of animal has been discovered, to designate “endangered.” Evidently, every newly discovered species goes straight on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. No wonder their list keeps growing: for we discover new species almost every day.

Our latest friend is a warbler, & let us call him Orthotomus chaktomuk. Verily, a tailorbird — among those which weave the most meticulous nests, of leaves sewn with gossamer. Very pretty little fellow, with his own distinct song & morphological nuances, to distinguish from his relations; but very much the tailorbird as one may see from the pix: the short rounded wings, the pert querulous tail, the strong legs, & exquisitely droll slight downward curvature of the beak. Darzee, as we call him in Urdu (meaning, “tailor”), was first described (to me) in Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.” This fresh Cambodian model comes with a fine rufous outcrop on the top of his little head.

“Cheer-up, cheer-up, cheer-up,” sang the tailorbird in the tiny swamp woodlot, over the wall from Nedous Hotel in Lahore, whenas I & my little sister would climb over it, half a century ago. He had every reason to be happy, with the supply of damselflies in there.

Our new Cambodian tailorbird was discovered at a construction site in downtown Phnom Penh, incidentally, “hiding in plain sight.” He managed to evade recognition until the census-takers came for the avian flu. Now he, too — poor little fellow — will be a client of government programmes, after millennia of freedom in the Mekhong floodplain.

Quote for the day

Principia essentialia rerum sunt nobis ignota. … Or, as we might put it in English, “The essential principles of things are unknown to us.” The quote comes very early in the commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, by Thomas Aquinas. The same or like point is made, passim, through the latter’s works, but I’d been looking for the clincher to make my point that Saint Thomas was not a “systematic philosopher,” against several email correspondents who allege that he was, one of whom claims to be “a Thomist,” & has a few more degrees than I have, to push his opinion home.

But Saint Thomas held Groucho Marx’s (& Karl’s, & Leo Tolstoy’s) position on clubs that would have him as a member. He would have denied, rather forcefully, being a Thomist himself. Indeed, we forget that for all his tranquility & sublimity of spirit, he could be quite forceful in explaining what’s what to the scholastic, soi-disant “Augustinians” of his day — who thought Christian teaching had already solved the philosophical puzzles; & to the Latin Averroists — who thought it could solve nothing. (These latter were in effect our first “modern philosophers,” insisting upon the detachment of philosophy from theology, of reason from faith. But as Thomas realizes, the truth is not divisible, & as one grows out of the other, they cannot be detached.)

The magnificent architecture of the Summa Theologica is, in the best sense, childishly simple. The First Part deals with God, & what we must know of Him. The Second Part, of Creatures, thus that for which we pray. The Third Part, of Christ, therefore what we must do. The whole thing is presented as a tract “for beginners.” In every part, reason is used to carry us through what can be known, to the edge of rationally impenetrable Mystery. The work itself breaks off, incomplete, in practice. But it never attempted completion, “in theory” — from the clearest possible understanding that that could not be done. What can be done is to detach mere puzzlement & confusion from genuine Mystery. And, this Thomas does like a very able soldier.

There is happily not yet an English word, “reactionism.” The appeal of the “reactionary” position, at least to me, is that it eschews system or Ism entirely. This would include Progressive Ism of course, but also Conservate Ism, along with Thom Ism. They may mean something as vague tendencies, but are nothing in themselves except fanciful orchestrations of illusion. Likewise, Christian Ism should not exist, any more than Islam Ism, except as the description of a tendency, towards Error. Ism Ism is like the upholstery mentioned in a recent post on “The invention of comfort.” Perhaps the softest upholstery of all is Nihil Ism, with its fairweather partner, Scient Ism.

Christ, in His Gospels, gives us no help at all with the political & economic & other Ismic questions. He leaves us totally at a loss where to begin with these things — & goes out of His way to do so. Thomas, along with the Fathers of the Church, including Augustine, will not supply the intentionally missing pieces. In politics, it is interesting that Thomas writes, when requested, “On Kingship,” not on how to construct or manage a kingdom, the way Machiavelli does. Augustine went so far as to contrast the City of God with the City of Man.

But more fundamentally, the essential principles of things are unknown to us, & will remain unknown, so long as the history of this world continues. Faith in every Ism is misplaced. I should think a lot of people will agree with this proposition, including me; but it takes work to pick all the sour little Isms out of our breakfast cereal.

To which end, it strikes me that Catholic Ism is a tendency, too; & perhaps in its nature a tendency to Error, just like Protestant Ism. The Church is real, & also Mysterious; all heresies, to be understood, must be rejected. Our calling to be Christian is clearly Revealed, & reception into Holy Church follows necessarily from it. All the Christian virtues enjoin humility & obedience, to say nothing of fortitude within this Institution which Christ founded, & continues to endow. If Catholic Ism means getting to Mass, I’m for it. But where it is presented as an alternative to Christianity — as alas it sometimes is, by the fanatic in each of us — being Catholic paradoxically requires the rejection of Catholic Ism.

Likewise I think it worth considering the abandonment of Evangel Ism, in favour of evangelizing; & a few other anti-Ismic gestures.

Saint John Baptist

Only 184 shopping days to Christmas, as we were reminded last night in the Eve of the Feast of Saint John Baptist. I love priestly drollness.

That this other Nativity is celebrated at all; that it has been since the earliest times; that it was placed opposite in the year to Christmas, as it were baptising & overwriting the old pagan Midsummer feasts; that the Baptist’s martyrdom is also commemorated (29th August) in liturgical witness to his significance; that he is styled the Precursor or Forerunner or Light lighting the way to Christ, & that the mystical significance of this is clinched in all the Gospels & through the Fathers of the Church; that his embryonic stirring in his mother’s womb, & the special Grace attending upon it, is among the catechetical particulars of Christian belief across all cults & confessions — these facts, & a few more, have been present to the Christian mind these last twenty centuries or so.

We know his mother, Elizabeth, first cousin to Mary Immaculate, was barren & aging, having prayed with husband Zachary for child; & in this tradition we find the cultural meaning of Saint-Jean-Baptiste to Quebec — or as it was formerly called, “Canada.” The festivity was celebrated throughout old Europe (with lights including bonfires on the hills), but especially in France under the ancien régime, & the more when transferred to her New World colony. We trace this through the Jesuit Relations, Canada’s most extraordinary historical documents — in which we find the true meaning of our country, & of the cause for which she was conceived. The symbolism explains itself, to a little contemplation, & ties in further with various ancient legends, ambient in the human psyche — of a sage carried through age to wisdom in his mother’s womb. (One thinks, for instance, of Lao Tzu in China.)

The desecration of this feast in Quebec began around the time of the uprising in 1837. It developed into the, by now, commonplace modern story of the appropriation by nationalists of what never had belonged to them. By increments it became what it is there today – the fully secularized “Fête nationale du Québec,” associated with demonstrations of power & aggression, riot & ugliness, violence & satanism. Nationalism, & its handmaid socialism, became the new “religion of man,” again overwriting the most ancient customs. Its own defining light is that which glints from the blades of the guillotines at Paris: the secular rite of purification through slaughter, continuing today through the child slaughter of our Carthaginian abortion mills. Those acquainted with the profoundly corrupted soul of Quebec, in her national apostasy, will realize the impossibility of “turning history back.” Christ alone can save them.

As He alone can save us.

In the story of Saint John Baptist we find the prelude of that Gospel, & the tiny embryonic stirrings of the Light unto the Gentiles (Luke, echoing Isaiah); or if you will, the DNA of our Christendom. The feast provides a day to rededicate our task, of restoring Hope. This is the Hope that is in the singular, & requires the capital, & is not concerned with the glib plural “hopes” of worldly & material advancement. For it was from the beginning the genius of Christianity to acknowledge a Hope that extends beyond the finitude of this world, along the path of forthright escape from its evils.

This is what every religion has offered; what Judaism itself offered before the arrival of the Messiah, & still offers; & what, beyond it, from my own travels, I became best acquainted with in the “theology” of the Theravada school: the Lord Buddha, in his serene images, enlightening a path of escape from the snares of this world of death, & all the anxieties attending upon it.

In the popular mythology of the West, in our times, this Buddhism has become associated with a kind of religious, environmentalist atheism; but as I learnt from the lips of no less than the venerable Phra Prayudh Payutto (Thailand’s foremost interpreter of the ancient Pali Canon), & from my own guided reading, it grew as the embodiment of an explicitly divine revelation, through a supermundane Insight into the Four Truths & the Eightfold Path. (It would be truer to say that the Theravada way distils a cautious modesty towards the Godhead, in a reform of Brahmanism, but this is a large topic upon which the honour of Buddhism, not Christianity, depends.)

To my own understanding, religion came to appear the primary good of this world; the fount of a Good not ulterior in purpose. And in Buddhism, first, I saw its operation upon society through monastic institutions; for I was living in Siam when I noticed. Indeed, part of my original appreciation of the Western “Middle Ages” was from this pre-Christian model, & my appreciation of John Baptist himself was acquired by the arcane route of the Buddhist-inspired “Wisdom of Balahvar,” applied to the solution of a literary puzzle in Shakespeare (the three caskets in the Merchant of Venice). Too, a fascination with the Prophet Elijah, & his avatars in seemingly all religious traditions. But here I am straying wildly into material for the ramble of another day; my point today being only the “fittingness” of this precursive figure, who stands as if designed by God in the very scheme of the Creation, before all worlds.

Religion is the primary good; Christianity is the religion par excellence; & Catholicism the authoritative form of that religion. Some readers will dispute this, to whom I can only say it took me half a century to get that far, perhaps they can get there quicker. It is hardly the end of the road. It is a milestone on the Royal Road, where by-ways & tributaries are collected, & the road leads ever onward, from Earth towards Heaven.

Urban vision

I am worried about the disposal problem presented by all this glass. It tends to blow out of the highrises from differential air pressure over time (rising suddenly inside over outside a building under certain storm conditions), & then smash when it lands. This will make the area formerly occupied by cities inconvenient & even dangerous to hike through, for glass doesn’t degrade biologically & may require millions of years to be geologically recycled. And if you’ve ever had to clean up broken glass, you’ll know what a pain it is.

Worse, so much of our prime farmland is directly underneath these cities. Though come to think of it, our Upper Canadian pioneers didn’t have it much better clearing rocks & pulling tree roots. One must, I suppose, take it one acre at a time; then choose the succession of crops wisely to restore the soil. And avoid moaning that when the glass is ground up — again, patience is required for the manual operation — all you get is sand.

Whereas, bricks make good rubble for re-facing with stone, & cars can provide useful metal when they are melted down. Some could perhaps be beaten into ploughshares. There is also plenty of wood in furnishings & interiors to keep our descendants warm through the winters; paper & upholstery to light it; & the odd delightful trinket with which their children may play.

Better to look on this brighter side.

The last telegram

Telegraphy is as old as the hills, or not quite, but the use of hills to convey fire or other optical signals from one station to another, quickly over considerable distances, goes back to ancient Egypt & Mesopotamia.

Reading Sir Aurel Stein’s wonderful archaeological memoirs as a boy, I recall my thrill at his description of the signalling system, which conveyed messages from the T’ang Dynasty’s wild west all the way back to the capital at Chang-an, along such as the towers of the Great Wall. Barbarian savages would attack & overrun a remote position, but hooo! Their assumption was, dead men tell no tales. So imagine their surprise when soon after they are faced with a disciplined Chinese army, assembled seemingly out of nowhere.

Civilization can usually win, if it wants to. To this day, I am charmed by the idea that our security forces use algorithms to spot suspicious behaviour on the Internet, specifically Islamist cells plotting terror hits. Even drones appeal to me, as a means to promptly reach & annihilate these devils in human flesh. Gung ho!

So I was being a little facetious on a television programme yesterday when I lamented the invention of the electro-magnetic telegraph, thanks to which, from about the middle of the century before last, we began to get remarkable things, such as same-day breaking news:

“This seriously disturbed the peace of the world. Perhaps the invention should have been suppressed, along with all the other magical & dangerous forms of action-at-a-distance. Or just put on hold until the human race became mature enough to handle it.”

This world’s very last telegraph offices are to be closed in India next month — that blessed country where the last manual typewriters were being manufactured only two years ago. Really, I felt a little sad about these losses. One becomes attached to old technology. I admit this is a sentimental, merely conservative tendency, & not the more defensible reactionary position just staked. A day will come when a tear is shed for the Internet & email; when they are rendered quaint by even more frightening technology, from which there will be no re-tweet.

As recently as 1997, despatched as a hack to cover the funeral of Mother Teresa at Calcutta, I was able to fall back on old-fashioned telex when fax & laptop failed. But after one awkward round of that, I fell farther back on the even older method of bribery, to get my hand-written reports to the front of the queue for a Government of India fax machine. (Returning home, I met the young editor who had never received hand-written copy before, & was still in a state of trauma from the experience of deciphering it.)

I do not accept bribes myself, but as an Old Asia Hand never felt much compunction about giving them. They are among the more innocent bureaucratic transactions, usually accepted like tips in a restaurant. But as the old epigram goes,

One cannot hope to bribe or twist
The honest English journalist;
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there is no reason to.

The notion that I must be getting old is advanced when I recall telegrams sent & received, decades ago: the messenger arriving as the embodiment of Fate. They were expensive little things, not used except by the very rich for casual communications; one selected “night letter” whenever possible to get the lower rate. A telegram meant good news, or more likely very bad. It arrived folded & sealed in a little envelope, so that the man delivering it could not know if he was announcing a joyous birth, or a death in the family. He had one of the tougher underpaid jobs.

It is really that envelope for which I pine. Diplomatic cables were secret & encoded, but for the rank & file of citizens, the envelope provided the seal. The breach of an envelope by anyone other than the addressee was — still is to some extent — considered a very low act, almost on a level with a breach of the Confessional. It could be done by authority, on reasonable suspicion of a crime, presented to obtain a court order. It was unthinkable without that authority, or rather, could be justified only as a crime of passion.

Yet someone had to receive the telegram in a public place, & perhaps transcribe it. The message could be electronically intercepted. In exchange for speed & efficiency, the world’s correspondence was already being opened to view by the inventions of Samuel Morse, & others — who did not at first realize the “privacy” implication. Morse himself (1791–1872) claimed to be motivated by his grief on having been notified too late of the fatal illness of his wife, who died alone. He’d been away in Washington, on a portrait painting commission.

An enthusiast for the institution of slavery, & advocate for the persecution of Catholics, Morse was celebrated in his day as a great exponent of “the American way.” His scene paintings extol the austerity of the Puritan pilgrims to America’s shores; his portraits are a gallery of Patriot heroes. The modern inventors, in England & Europe as much as this side of the pond, were for the most part cut from such cloth. The Industrial Revolution was stamped by the enterprise of Calvinists, Quakers, Huguenots. It was most certainly a Protestant triumph (see Max Weber); pyrrhic in the sense that it has since contributed mightily to the extinction of Protestantism.

Or rather, as I’ve come to think, to the transformation through technology & enterprise of that “Protestant ethic” into a new & different kind of religion, which I have been ever so subtly critiquing in these electronic pages (if gentle reader can bear present participles of that sort, & paragraph breaks in mid-sentence).

The technology itself is a matter of indifference, as a correspondent recently insisted. Anyone can use it, to a variety of purposes. Catholics bought into telegraphy as fast as they once bought into the divine right of kings, or into the Crusades on eye-for-eye principles. The purveyor of worldly advantage will always find purchasers, in all camps, & as McLuhan taught, the medium becomes the message. I do not think, in the end, “privacy” is the most important issue, though I will grant it some importance.

Atomic bombs are morally indifferent, & I have no objection to them, per se. “Only a problem for people with bad nerves,” as Stalin put it. It is when we drop one on Hiroshima that it acquires apparent significance in that moral line. But “Little Boy” itself had no will, no bad intention. It was never rigged to do anything but explode. Similarly, the equipage of electro-magnetic telegraphy, & each of its successor technologies, may be cleared of every allegation of ill will. It is what we do with these things that counts, & therein I part ways with the Luddites, sympathetic as I might be with their overall approach.

I’d prefer a more Catholic form of resistance. Unless men can be brought to maturity — made to consider the consequences of each act — the technology will rule. And it will rule with the same moral indifference.

The idleness of Saint Thomas

I have been reading that Angelic Doctor again, as part of my continuing Mediaeval binge — hunting hungrily for Thomistic advice on the nature of Beauty. Though large, & potentially vexing, this is not a subject on which most people consult Saint Thomas. One might almost say he writes as if there were only two Platonic transcendentals, the Good & the True. Yet there are enlightening, even startling passages (I may give a brief list later, in footnotes), scattered randomly through his works. Had we asked him to compose a treatise on Aesthetics, I’m sure he would have done so. But it’s too late now.

In the course of my hare chase, a very simple point came home to me. I realized why Moderns, including those who appear to be trying, cannot get much thrill from “the philosophical system of Thomas Aquinas,” nor even a purchase on it. This is for a fundamental reason, which has nothing to do with the presence of Catholic doctrine, per se. The Thomist “system” is not a system. It is open-ended. From the light of what is known, it attempts to cast on what is not known; to extend knowledge. The project is to answer reasonable questions as they arise.  Nota bene: “as they arise.”

Thomas does not “solve problems.” That is what system builders do. He answers questions, which is a much different thing. The “problematic” — I think but am not sure — is an invention of the modern imagination. It presupposes a neurotic condition, on which I will comment shortly.

The Modern Mind cannot cope with open-ended things. It requires system in a formal schematic sense; “pure” theory; a consistent & undeviating method. It demands perfection — everything, or nothing. It wants watertight divisions between subjects, & cellular divisions within each. It requires jargon, & all the rest of the machinery of abstraction. This it does not find in the Summas, but instead, brilliant rambling from one question to another, & idleness of a very high order. (As Josef Pieper is my witness, there is no jargon in Saint Thomas, at all; just as there is no mistake in reasoning, or after all these centuries surely one would have been found.)

A formal system is supposed, from the outward appearance of the Summas, but there is no such thing inside. Therefore the Modern thinks Thomas must be cheating. But the architecture of these immense treatises, beautiful to first sight, is different in kind from modern intellectual architecture. They are built “generationally,” like mediaeval cathedrals. This does not mean each did not start with a plan. It starts with a plan that is then constantly adapted, but with a view to the whole. Whereas, the modern building is delivered to a contract, & the slightest digression from the drawings may involve lawsuits.

That part of the opera which is most “purely” philosophical (as opposed to theological, though no more than math is opposed to physics) — not the Summa Contra Gentiles, but the Commentaries on Aristotle — has no structure at all. Thomas follows the text of The Philosopher, & expounds it. To the reader of modern commentaries, this is extraordinary. Years ago, in my earnest youth, trying to follow Thomas following the Metaphysics (& it was the most useful commentary I found, by far), I was amazed that it never occurred to him to question the integrity of the text, the compositional order of the books, &c. To my recollection, he did not propose a single textual emendation. And thanks to this curiously unmodern habit, he found all kinds of sense in passages which left the modern commentators utterly baffled. The text looked good to him. It seemed to have been left in a comprehensible order. It repaid study, just as it stood.

Another way to put this, is that the modern scholar is — not entirely of course, but in the main — a malicious idiot. If he cannot understand what is before him, he changes it to what he can understand.

If we can get to Heaven, one of the things we will discover there (I feel fairly certain), is that not only the Bible, but other surviving ancient texts, came down through the centuries reasonably intact. This was for the simple reason that those transcribing usually knew what they were doing — or they would not have been transcribing. It stands to reason. There were many little flaws, to be sure, but even those tended to be shaken out when one manuscript collided with another.

Faith involves trust; & in the Age of Faith, trust was more common. To the Modern Mind it was much too common. We pursue scepticism over the boundary into neurosis. They, although sometimes downright naïve, were less inclined to become insane.

As Saint Thomas realizes, from sudden start to sudden end (the Mediaevals hardly ever finished anything), final perfection is not available in this world. A Modern might allow this in theory, but cannot possibly abide it in practice. We don’t start what we can’t finish. For Thomas, whose way of thinking must necessarily appear backward to a Modern, the way forward is the other way. We should rather proceed with what we have, than with what we don’t have, & see where it will lead. And on this strategy, we immediately discover that we have more than we realized, to be getting on with. And that, more of it fits together than we had any right to expect. And that, what we have begun, another may continue, as God may will. For the universe isn’t “all about me.”

The basic Thomist, or High Mediaeval philosophical approach is, What makes sense? It is not “how can we know” but “what can we know.” Faith gets them past that first turnstile, in which the Modern Mind is permanently jammed. They could believe what they could not know with certainty. We can’t believe what we do certainly know.


And so to bed: Beauty is objective.

It is not “in the eye of the beholder,” but dwells in the heart of that which exists. It is revealed to those who look for it. It may be found, at least to some slight degree, in everything that actually exists. Conversely, it cannot be found in things that do not exist — which is just where we look for it today. An artist might thus, in a sense, “create” beauty. (Here I long for Saint Thomas to treat at greater length of the defect of ugliness as untruthfulness or “fakery”: the canker of an unreality within the real.) Reality is the ultimate source of beauty, & the degree of beauty in a thing is proportionate to its perfection in its own kind. There is thus a hierarchy in beauty which accords with gradations of being within the Creation, & which leads beyond this world.

The analysis of the Beautiful reveals three necessary constituents: First, the carrying into this world of the divine perfection & completeness, though in a representative if finite & mortal thing. Second, the display of harmony & proportion in the parts. Third, the presence of a splendour that is irreducible, yet knowable in degree through analogy & likeness.

Curiously the triune personality of the transcendentals is reproduced within each transcendental, so that in this case we have been referring respectively to the truth, the goodness, & the beauty, within Beauty. We can know what Beauty is when we see it, but this analysis can actually help us to see. Also, to distinguish the components: for example, goodness is appetitive, but beauty is cognitive. (Each intimates of Heaven, while offering the consolation of a means of satisfaction within this world.)

Reading & trying to plumb such observations, I reflect without surprise that when he was not engaged in prayer, philosophy, theology, eating, sleeping, exchanging pleasantries in the street, or walking across Europe — & perhaps even when he was — Thomas Aquinas was an extraordinary poet. His eucharistic hymns are poetically sublime, & of an almost superhuman craftsmanship. If we turn to him on questions of “aesthetics,” we turn to the accomplished master of an art, not to some voluble, well-meaning amateur.

There is a great deal that Thomas could say, but does not though he implies & suggests pregnantly. His account of Truth provides rich parallels. For Beauty is a source of knowledge or insight into beings & things, & thus the nature of nature. It is also a source of delight, & of rest. It is relational in a way parallel with Truth, where the relation is between the thing & the intellection of the thing by the knowing subject; the Truth requires intelligence. Likewise, in the Beautiful, we find a binding relation between the thing & the perception of the thing; & the Beautiful requires perception. We are taught & through teaching transformed in the contemplation of each, by which God draws us nearer — just as He does through the virtuous actions that attend upon the Good. But note, please, that the relational does not mean “relative,” for in each case an absolute is enjoined.

And more, & more. How I long for a leisure even greater than I have.

Augustine (in De Vera Religione) did not wobble on the question whether beautiful things are beautiful because they please us, or please us because they are beautiful. The latter is true. The former proposition is nonsense, & can only seem to be true because our apprehension of beauty is itself variable, & defective. Thomas Aquinas gives the same answer, in his dispassionate way.

Because we are blind, or make ourselves blind, to reality, we do not see the beauty in things. One might call it “cultural conditioning” to blindness; & what we make is made by the blind, leading the blind. We will only accept Beauty itself as a thing; as a separated quantity. But it is not a thing, not a quantity, nor even “a quality,” & decidedly not a theory. It is rather in things — dwelling in the very heart or essence of things — to be seen or not seen.

Alas, the Modern Mind, deprived of that reverent silence which makes contemplation possible, can no longer grasp something that has no theory, because it does not require a theory, because it is self-evident. We do not see what is directly before our eyes. Notwithstanding, to see again, we do not need a Doctor. We need instead to open our eyes.

Ends & means

“We stand today at a crossroads. One path leads to despair & utter hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction. Let us hope we have the wisdom to make the right choice.”

The quote is from Woody Allen, & was supplied by one of the commenters to my column yesterday over at Catholic Thing. It was a side-splitting, but accurate paraphrase of what I’d just said about the nature of our politics:

“We have two positions I called, for shorthand, ‘capitalist’ & ‘socialist’ — both worshipping false gods. The first, in my humble but obstinate opinion, worships the Money God, & the second worships Satan more directly. The first thinks Christianity is a waste of time. The second thinks it is something to be destroyed, from both without & within; along with industry, enterprise, & anything else that smacks of human freedom.  …

“Another way to caricature the two positions might be, ‘the culture of desecration’ versus ‘the culture of death’. Democracy gives us the right to vote between them at approximately four year intervals.”

I can’t honestly call Woody Allen one of my favourite filmmakers, for I’ve never actually seen one of his films. (Indeed, I’ve hardly ever seen any movies.) However, I’ve heard many quotes from him that impressed me as translations of ancient prudential wisdom into a post-Yiddish, Brooklyn atheist dialect.

Atheism is only interesting for so long as it can maintain some religious associations, after which it becomes a void. Woody Allen had the wit to stand his ground as a Jewish atheist, just as my atheist mother stands the cultural ground of Gaelic Calvinism. Both rollick in a deliciously dark humour, from actual historical sources. Neither would be funny if they abandoned tradition entirely; & in her nineties, my mama still lisps the old hymns which once she sang in confident mezzo-soprano. (“One needs air just to whistle in the dark,” she confessed recently.)

Woody Allen depends on the Hasidism he mocks. And so he mocks it lovingly. One thinks of his own reversion to Rabbi Raditz of Poland, “a very short rabbi with a long beard, who was said to have inspired many pogroms with his sense of humour.”

One of his disciples asked, “Who did God like better, Moses or Abraham?”

“Abraham,” the Zaddik said.

“But Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land,” said the disciple.

“All right, so Moses.”

Woody Allenism is among the many things implicit in the rich Hasidic teaching. But Hasidic teaching is not among the things implicit in Woody Allen. He was born merely smart: smart enough to cling to his guns & Talmud even while abandoning the hereafter.

There is another, less amusing side to him, that was cumbersomely presented in a French television interview, decades ago. Woody ranted about the barbarization of America, the aesthetic degeneration of New York, the septic materialism of the film industry. From the bits I saw transcribed, he was forgetting to make a light joke of it all. The truth, I suspected, was that there was nothing in it to joke about. He was watching the encroachment of the actual void; the disappearance, into the black hole of post-modernism, of everything that made life tolerable. One cannot be a connoisseur of sex & death, without noticing their evacuation. One needs air to whistle.


Should anyone happen to read my column on “Ends & means,” let me add here a point I found no space for. Its absence was immediately spotted by a fine latter-day Schoolman, who is Deacon to St Patrick’s in the capital of our Dominion. Strictly speaking, the phrase “end justifies the means” is empty; so that, “the end cannot justify the means” strays into Error.

“A good end cannot justify a bad means; nonetheless, most means are indifferent & cannot be just unless justified by a good end. ‘Guns don’t kill people; postal workers do,’ to quote a recent script I heard an actor read.  For an act to be moral, all factors must be just. Indifferent means, such as the use of a gun, has to be justified. In the concrete, there are no indifferent means, inasmuch as the end either does or does not justify a means that is abstractly indifferent.”

True, though I stuck my ground with the colloquial, having dropped a hint that while everyone “knows what we mean” by the phrase, we really don’t know what we are talking about. It was from Thomas Aquinas I lifted the metaphor of “reflection,” of the good end in the good means. Along with this, a Thomistic notion at which I incompletely hinted, that sides with Aristotle as against Democritus: that when “ends” are kept from view, “means” begin to take on the character of a necessity, that belies human freedom.

Or to put this in fighting words: there can be no morality without teleology.

Given world enough, & time, I should love to apply this to the determinism which most “libertarians” vest, both consciously & unconsciously, in “market forces.” (Or if you will, they worship the Money God.) Market forces are held to allow this, to deny that, & one must acknowledge & finally obey them.

This is like saying you can’t get out of bed in the morning, because the “gravity forces” are working the other way. Anything worth accomplishing in this world must, to some degree, resist market forces.


We (my soul & I) are back in the High Doganate after our short wander. Dr Clarke’s book (see last post) proved worth the price of purchase, but her concluding scheme for re-archaizing our schools is disappointing: for it involves turning from, rather than towards classical Latin & Greek, & substituting Milton for Homer. Also: Burke for Demosthenes, Gibbon for Thucydides, & so forth, in the English-speaking realms. I almost wish I hadn’t read that chapter, for while my love for English letters is ardent, the term “English major” fills me with horror. Too, I am sick of pagan nationalism & racialism & tribalism & Stalinism, & just want Christendom back. And while Milton is grand, he is very English, & not quite Catholic (although, by the largeness of his spirit, much of his “music” is as Catholic as J.S. Bach’s).

En route to her rather grim conclusion — redemption through EngLit — Dr Clarke however establishes a big point to which I will surely return. It is the superiority of the narrative to the syllogistic in the education not only of children but of people, generally. Christ taught in parables, & by example. The Bible is an exemplary storybook, which has obvious use in the moralization not only of our pallid race, but of all races. And the technical foundation, in Latin & Greek (perhaps even a soupçon of Hebrew), is best advanced through the delight of the Classics. (The real Classics, the classic Classics, that take us back to the ground conditions of civilized human experience & language.) I think the mediaevals had the syllabus basically right, till they themselves blew it up — with, as ever, the best intentions. Now, hold that thought.

In our present view of the whole planet, we begin to insinuate the Oriental into the Occidental Classics — to absorb the kind of material C.S. Lewis put at the end of The Abolition of Man. I mention this because our spiritual prehistory today has spread beyond the Greek & the Roman, & the highest expressions of Oriental paganism are also worthy. Yet we must be on our guard against teaching more than any student can absorb. Dr Clarke & all wise pedagogues have always known focus & limitation are required, or the net is stretched so wide it can’t catch fish any more. This is a major unacknowledged problem in our schools today: the curriculum as a catch-all compost, & the catch including poisons so that nothing much can grow.

An effort was made in the High Middle Ages, of great consequence down to the present day. “Philosophy” triumphed over “poetry” (Plato would have been pleased), & more to the point, Theology over Scripture & Tradition, & the Doctors over the Fathers of the Church, as the basic study. We may date this transition fairly precisely, from the foundation of secular universities, outside the older cathedral schools. Today, we count the mediaeval invention of universities as an unmixed blessing; I am not so sure it was. For it involved the invention of a supercilious student body, freed from clerical discipline & responsibilities, exposed to urban fashions & the money economy, living wild & suffering the consequences of over-education — the very mark of which is the habit of piling abstraction upon abstraction. Thomas Aquinas was constantly on guard against this; lesser Schoolmen & many of his interpreters were not. But gentle reader will guess this is a Very Big Topic, on which Dr Clarke touches.

Consider alone, this aspect of the fallout. The Latinity of the earlier Middle Ages is fluent & attractive; that of the later, awkwardly over-precise, stilted & jargon-ridden. Towards what we now call “The Renaissance,” intellectuals rebelled against the kind of Latin that emerged in translations from Aristotle, & reverted to smooth Cicero with a vengeance.

They thought they were turning back the clock more than a dozen centuries, but were only really turning it back two or three. The reaction against the Schoolmen was combined with the transmutation of the achievement of Thomas Aquinas & company into “modern philosophy” via Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz & the boys. We have a fissure, a schism if you will, as if between soul & body. The good & the true continued to be sought, but in an increasingly technical & mechanistic way. Somehow the beautiful, the Gloria, came off the cart. And the Schoolmen were not without blame for this accident.

This is what, incidentally, a certain Hans Urs von Balthasar was dealing with, in his own life work, when, without necessarily disparaging the Schoolmen, he turned the light of interpretation back upon the Fathers of the Church, & the warmth & range & poetry of their teachings. He sought to escape the dryness of intellectual abstraction, & with it the reduction of the faith itself to the mechanical, to unthinking rote — to the wrong kind of reactionary sensibility, which progressively ignores planks, & magnifies motes, & is more concerned with killing things than bringing them to life.

As we all know, towards the end of his life, Saint Thomas himself had a vision from which he learnt that all he had written was as straw. He had reached the point beyond which no man could reach, not even perhaps the greatest intellect of the ages. We can climb only so high with our minds & hands, & still the Eagle flies over. All the Mysteries remain intact, & no man can explain them away. To know more, we will just have to ascend to Heaven.

But the road of ascent begins in the parables, & on the hard ground of Everyman’s Hebrew spiritual ancestors. (For God did choose them, among all the races of the Earth, to make clear the path to Our Lord.) The finest theological points are not for normal human minds; we must start from basics. And they are best implanted by stories. On this much I feel a kind of certainty. The highest rational flights are for the two or three or whatever percent of any population who might potentially benefit from attendance at universities. The rest of us would do better to acquire the very basics, as Christ taught, & get on with our several trades & callings.

Within Catholicism, there is the old joke that we do not read the Bible, the priests do that for us — only Protestants read it for themselves. The very real & present danger for the first Protestants was that they read it in an atmosphere of theological controversy; that they were, as it were, reading with imperfect understanding, through sectarian translations, & from ulterior motives. This was another unintended consequence of the Schoolmen, the original “pointy-headed intellectuals” with their “trickle-down effect.”

A Catholic re-evangelization, to my mind, must necessarily focus on re-teaching that very same Bible, through all the media of literature, music, & art, resolved & choreographed in the Liturgy. As much as possible, we must find a way to approach Scripture & Tradition on their own terms, & not through the blinders of faction; to be bravely “catholic” or “universal,” to say nothing of humble in our approach to this magnificent inheritance.

And back we must go to Augustine again, & his own deep insight into the “rhetorical” (in a sense of that word we only partially retain), in his own age of religious chaos. Our job is to retrieve the lost sheep for the Sacraments — starting with our own persons — & by a route which cannot start from where it ends. It must start in the cold “real” world of our post-modern chaos. It starts by telling the story, all over again, of how Christ came into our world; then gradually expanding upon this until our world is again filled with Christ’s story, & we are kneeling again to learn at His feet. For God has given us a very large story, which embraces everything & happens to be true. And we are as children to Him, who need teaching.

Re-archaize now

I am off to places where the Internet does not glow, the next few days, & will return to the Greater Parkdale Area not until Tuesday night, Deo volente. Therefore remarks from the Commentariat must wait for approval & posting until then. To compensate, gentle readers will not be afflicted with new Essays, & those of truly retrogressive ilk may wish to reprise the older ones. Comments have continued to wash in beneath those, including some by me, so you may find things you hadn’t read yet. Or, although I hesitate to suggest, you might find better authors to read than this one.

On the subject of Homer, Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, &c, a delicious beuk has fallen into my hands by an Australian lady, published 1962 (the year before the discovery of sex). It is entitled, The Archaic Principle in Education. The authoress, Margaret Clarke, taught “moderns” in English & Continental universities (Heine, & Rimbaud, were the subjects of two previous beuks she had written, the former in French).

I shall be reading it on the train, but from a quick perusal I see her thesis is that modern schooling entered its tailspin in the 1870s, & had been wrecked even before John Dewey. Indeed, Dewey was only made possible by the thorough obliteration of “the archaic principle” (Dr Clarke’s term) which had governed all educational practice, primitive & civilized, Oriental & Occidental, religious & secular, conservative & progressive:

“The archaic principle was the teaching of youth through old stories about the beginning of the race, frequently epics written in verse. An idea both of dépaysement & of essentials was involved. The aim was to impart to youth the ethico-intellectual tradition of the race; for the moralizing of youth was considered to be tremendously difficult. It was the whole task of education.”

Its rival she calls “the technical principle.” The Sophists of ancient Greece were the first to attempt a revolution — to replace moralization with a demoralized or Machiavellian “how to” approach to everything — but they were overcome. Our modern sophistry, which provides the ground condition for the ignorance & criminality of our masses, has by contrast been so successful that it is taken for granted today as the only possible way to raise children.

Dr Clarke surveys the entire planetary history of education, in brief but extremely intelligent compass. She then proposes a scheme for re-archaizing, which I look forward to reading.

The invention of comfort

Perhaps I am not an expert, on anything, but like a good journalist I compensate by having lots of opinions. Many of them are on oeconomic questions. It is part of our fate, as members of this species living on this planet, to participate in something called an oeconomy. The meaning of this word has been subtly modified over the years, so that it means something different to us than it did to, say, the ancient Greeks. For them it was household arrangements. For us it is millions of pages of bleary statistics with bar charts & diagrams & pie charts & ranking tables. The Greeks, who preferred geometry to arithmetic, would not have been impressed, nor interested.

I love their attitude to farms. It appears to be entirely free of romanticism; a farm is a business. You have to be living in a big ugly city to romanticize farms. They are full of pigs, that get diseases — pigs without wings — & as I recall, cows that want to kick you when you’re just five minutes late to milk them. They have fields that attract locusts & other insect pests. And beautiful birds, who instead of usefully eating the insects are helping themselves to your olives. And so on. The ancients generally were given more to stoicism than romanticism, & up here in the High Doganate we like to read Cato the Censor on Farming. One may see how it builds character. One cannot see how it would be much fun. And that’s before the barbarians descend upon you, very hungry.

To eat, we must find food. That is Warren’s First Principle of Oeconomics. I do not start from “consumer choice” the way various experts do. In my travels I had glimpses of the “old world” where most of the population were farmers, & among those who weren’t, fishermen tended to predominate. Most of this labour is now supplied by machines, & cumulative research has made the harvest plentiful, but at the bottom of things there is still the hard earth, & the wine-dark, gale-ridden sea. And as we get away from that we rise into fairyland, & by increments away from the joy of mere survival.

Turning now to the history of furniture — a field in which I am also not an expert — I have long been intrigued by a chapter heading in one or another of the books by John Gloag. It was, if I remember aright, “The invention of comfort.” Reviewing the history of English furniture, he placed this in the 17th century. That is when our chairs & sofas began to be upholstered, & we started to live, as it were, in padded cells.

Visitors to the High Doganate have sometimes noted that, while the walls of our cell are padded with printed books (all of Gloag’s have passed to other owners, however), the chairs are of hardwood, strictly. So was the throne of the Chinese Emperor, & the Mughal one, too, if I am not mistaken — although Oriental luxury began, early, to infect that latter regime.

To outward splendour of palaces, & tombs, I make no objection. To the “ivory” encrustation of the Taj Mahal (in fact white marble, picked with details in jasper, turquoise, jade, sapphire, carnelian & the like) I have raised no objection, so gloriously does it rise from the mudbanks of the Jumna, in the pulsating heat, & does it turn towards its Moonlight Garden. It was a worthy employment for many thousands of artisans & craftsmen: this “teardrop in the eye of the Lord,” who hates death, as we hate death. It gives comfort of a kind, assuaging grief.

But it is not “comfortable” in our glib & modern sense; & a corollary of my First Principle of Oeconomics is that we must slip out of the comfortable.