Essays in Idleness


Winged victory

Today is again Michaelmas, the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels — of Michael, physician, and general in war; commander of the Jews, patron of the Nile, archistrategos of the Greeks, defender of the Romans; rescuer of souls. On this day in old Normandy, and England, the husbandman’s season ended, and another began; as too, the terms in colleges and courts. Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael — who bring the autumn to the North, and spring to the South, and through whom we pray as our battle continues against the Prince of Darkness in this fallen world — heavenly martials of our Victory.

It is thus a year since I began this anti-blog, whose purpose is not yet clear to me, although the intention was indicated at the launch. For of course, this is war. The title chosen invoked “Idleness,” and in the most bellicose sense. In the words of the prayer, not my will but, “Thy will be done.” Let us stand bravely against all human industry, not directed to its proper end. Let us down the tools of our illegitimate masters. Let us “stand athwart history,” refuse to let it pass.

I had been reading through the closing Questiones of the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologica, where the guardianship of the angels is expounded, and our hidden government is touched upon. From Boethius, Saint Thomas Aquinas inherits both the ancient idea of fate, and its Christian transformation — in which the influence of the astral is ever acknowledged, for good and evil; but along with the immutable fact of our human freedom. For no angel will dictate our acts, and no devil can force our obedience.

An apprehension of celestial war, and of the necessity of angels, has been among men of all religious doctrines and traditions, since time out of mind. Yet it would go without saying today, that the slaves of empirical reason deny the possibility of such persons as angels and devils; as also the events in which they take part. The very idea of an angel is mocked, after it has been misrepresented, in the “demythologizing” school that flourishes even within the Church. Yet we know the angels; and intimately so, for we know instinctively which we should obey. But also that we do not have to obey. No angel, aloft or fallen, can compel the smallest action on our part. The former may inspire, the latter tempt, but we, under God, are the captains of our souls, and sovereign within our domain. Notwithstanding, it is war, and we are well to take our orders.

I have myself been aware, in key moments, of the presence of what is called a “guardian angel.” It was this angel, for instance, who shouted in alarm, when once I was tempted into an act which would have brought quite terrible consequences, and not only to me. I recall the shock that came with the instruction: “Get out of here!” It was as if I had surrendered my will in the matter — following the path of least resistance as it led down into the mire — until this instant of awakening. And I was told, sharply and exactly, just what to do.

Many, I’d say most, perhaps all human persons have had this experience at some point or points, and will recall the like whether or not they can imagine the celestial dynamics. The instruction comes with the authority of a divine order — not, as it were, to the brain, but to the heart of one’s being — resonating through body & soul. It is no fey “categorical imperative.” It comes in a rush, on wings.

Could an angel drop you dead? Of course he could; or raise you high into the air, then set you down safely; or part the sea, or liquify the soil under an invading army; raise mountains up in their folds, or move them like waves on the sea. When the first creature stirred on this earth, there was the presiding angel; and when the last dies, so he will watch, in the mysterious power of divine mercy.

In such cases there are physical effects: but not from the will of the angel. For they in their ranks, from Chayot to Cherubim, are agents of the heavenly power, who act only upon its command, as mediaries between God and his Creation — echoing through our universe, “Thy will be done.”

We cannot pretend to be Christian — or Jewish, or Muslim, or even Buddhist for that matter — without acknowledging the present reality of angels. From the first memory of man, this truth has been acknowledged, that there are spiritual beyond the physical forces, that they are personal in their nature, that they could even be named. Our modern anthropologists have great difficulty interpreting this “primitive” mind, for it does not personalize impersonal forces. It discerns the personal, apart. And so with the gods of pre-Christian mythology: detached, always, from what they control.

Nature is a drudge, without angelic forces. She has only her entropies to obey, and the dead to bury her dead. Life itself stands testimony to the operation of the divine Will, acting through angelic mediation.

We cannot take the Scripture to heart, nor the Fathers, nor Doctors, nor Saints of the Church, while overlooking this “detail.” Christ himself is vividly aware, as we may read throughout the Gospels, of this angelic order. They announced his coming to the shepherds by Bethlehem; to the wise men afar; to the ancient world in the anticipation of Christ, and within the Temple of the Hebrews. All from God is announced through angels; all men of faith are led to this awareness, and faith itself engages with a supernatural strength.

Yet no more than gravity can it be seen through the eyes, nor heard through the ears, nor touched with the fingers, nor smelled with the nose, nor tasted with the tongue — unless God will the manifestation. Grace itself is apparent invisibly, through its effects, and the apprehension of our very being is not restricted by our senses five. They are our openings into this sensual world, in which we have taken the form of animals, but we remain so only for a time. We are the creature at our pupal stage, the chrysalis enclosed, the pharate within — who in due course will shuffle out, leaving an exuvium. We look to the Resurrection as to another world that we do not yet inhabit. I think it may be a development of this one; an incomprehensible development of what was already a realm of miracle. But this I cannot know, only glimpse in prayer, as through a glass, darkly.

In his “Vision of the Last Judgement,” from a notebook in which his great lost painting is described, William Blake shows an unearthly comprehension, of what is a person through every metamorphosis; of what does not change, through change. And consider:

“It is not because Angels are Holier than Men or Devils that makes them Angels, but because they do not Expect Holiness from one another, but from God only.”

Likewise, as Blake patiently explains, they are not happier than men and devils because they are better, but because they do not pry at the Tree of Knowledge for the gratification of Satan. For knowledge can be no end in itself, and power is not their game. Rather, they are figures of a perfect intellection, and messengers of supernatural joy.

And so our Michael, assigned and assigning, in the command of celestial forces, who “rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm” — archistrategos in the glorious battle, in the joyful war. He, in the battle, at the front line, which runs through every human heart, where the stand is made with angelic armies.

Defend us in battle! Be our protection against the wickedness and snares!

Lust, anger, values

We take a grim view of statistics up here in the High Doganate, polls especially, & election results in particular. But that does not mean we don’t throw numbers about. One cites them by way of confirming the obvious, when the obvious is being denied. Advocates of “democracy” like to say that voting beats violence as a way to change a government (I don’t have a number for that), but become so mesmerized by this glib nostrum, they cannot see it is possible to have both. Or, that the one may lead to the other, as in Greece, Egypt, &c. Or, that mass murder is also compatible with statistics. Or, that citing statistics is often the first stage in what our generals like to call “graduated escalation.” (I love such pleonasms; “hack journalist” is another favourite.)

An alternative way of avoid violence, as we were mentioning in Comments the other day, is to chemically lobotomize anyone who looks angry all the time. “Anger management” courses may be specified for those who have a good reason to be angry, & are able to explain it. This serves as a useful warning to them, that they had better regulate their emotions in a more passive-aggressive way, if they are going to get results in a modern democratic system, wherein the provocateur enjoys the moral high ground.

These are for the special, stand-alone cases. For the population at large, the Internet has become, on balance, the most effective pacifier. Those who become addicted to, & dependant upon, are neutralized in a hypnotic state, even better than television because aethereally interactive. Thanks to hand-held & other miniaturized technology, they progressively withdraw from interaction with the biological environment, & hardly notice the provocations. I’ve seen this on trolleys in the Greater Parkdale Area, where it is now possible to pack hundreds into a car which seats forty-seven: the people who are wired feel no pain.

I call this phenomenon “electronic” or “virtual death,” to distinguish from biological death, which presents fewer symptoms. The subject mimics death in the sense that he is always elsewhere, with respect to space & time. The power of suggestion continues to work, but involves zombification. Sex & violence continue, but in a distracted way, at greater & greater distance from intention. Take an email from him, & you find he isn’t really there, either, but constantly “moving on.” This is “progress” in its most poignant form.

But I started by mischievously hinting I might offer a statistic, & here it is. One-in-seven Americans, according to the Pew polling organization, not only aren’t on the Internet, but refuse to get aboard. The proportion is higher for the dirt poor, & the geriatric, but even among the young & hip, better than one-in-eight stay intentionally offline.

This contrasts with the situation one full generation ago when, basically, no one was on the Internet except computer nerds. The trend was sharply upward in the interim, but as we like to say, all trends are reversible, & this one hit ceiling a few years ago. We are dealing with people who are no longer “not on the Internet yet,” but positively failing to queue. Their numbers could be slightly enhanced if we added those who have jobs, & are thus compelled to connect with the Internet at the office, but walk at the end of the day.

Such refuseniks offer a challenge to government & industry, for how can they be monitored? How can they even be reached with demographically-targeted, mass advertising? I suppose at some point with electronic anklets & forced implants. Meanwhile, video cameras are being installed all over the place, to catch those who have, in fragrante delicto, strayed offline.


Not statistics, but proportions, have long intrigued me. The proportion one-in-seven corresponds, I would guess from the extent of my inquiries, to the number of Christians who opted for some version of the monastic life in the High Middle Ages, when it was generally available & a visible alternative to the more worldly familial calling. Then, too, there may have been a disproportion of geriatrics, & the dirt poor in need of some wardship, but the monasteries also attracted many of the young & hip. It is a little-known fact, at least to our contemporary world — one might almost call it a scandal to the worldly — that many actually prefer the celibate, eremitical life, & would choose it if they could. Others, though goaded by sexual desire, sometimes rather intense, might nevertheless take celibacy as their least bad option, on a broad view of life, love, Heaven, Hell, & so forth. This is to reduce the religious mind to a view of sexuality: but I am addressing my contemporary world.

On the modern view, the erotic & the sexual are interchangeable terms. In the pre-modern view, they were not, nor did they much overlap. The relation between teacher & student, for instance, is erotic but not sexual; or else it may become sexual but not erotic. Eros drives art, & much spirituality, of just the kind sexuality kills. Let me recall the case of Michelangelo, as an obvious example; beyond him, many other great artists, craftsmen, thinkers, perhaps even saints who were, disproportionately, of the homosexual inclination. Indeed, our modern toleration, nay encouragement of homosexual practice, has had a devastating effect on the production of art. So, too, through previous generations, the dispersal of (often “heterosexual”) monks & nuns.

The recent triumphs of homosexual activism have depended on this background social condition, in which it is inconceivable that persons who suffer from sexual desires would keep their pants on. They are now “expressing themselves,” & of course they are helped by the detachment of sex from childbirth in the popular imagination. By a subtle hocus-pocus, or not so subtle, an Ought is derived from an Is, & the people are instructed to “go to.”

Sex is also presented as prophylactic against anger, by an extension of the “make love not war” propaganda, disseminated in the 1960s; though again, as in the case of voting & violence, it is quite possible to have both. Verily, the older school of psychological wizardry was given to observe that wrath & lust are related conditions, sometimes two sides of a spinning coin. Look around, & gentle reader might see this duality in action among the hormonally charged.

We all know this, at least in our hearts, but there is another fact to which we are blinded by that very knowledge, in its current form. What I see all around me is the young forced into sex, often against their weak wills & better judgements. Virginity is rejected on the analogy of illiteracy; sex is assigned as part of education. Quite literally, as it were: for the idea is reinforced by the constant extension of “sex education” to younger & younger children in our schools. When teacher says it is “natural” he really means it is mandatory. Violence is also perfectly “natural,” to human nature. When teacher says violence is “unnatural,” however, he means that it is banned.

The Internet is a teaching medium. What it teaches, we might want to discuss. We might actually be appalled by what it teaches. The idea that teaching anything is good, is yet another of those strange, indefensible notions, necessary to the sustenance of the progressive mind, & to the general emancipation from reason. The older notion, which survives in parody, was that teaching requires moral intelligence; that right & wrong must be carefully distinguished; that character & good habits should be instilled. On this view, the essential education is “home schooling”; classroom instruction is supplementary, specialized. Thanks to “democracy,” this is now reversed, & it is the task of public education to instil the new “public values,” such as self-expression through sex, & the need for violence to be sublimated. Moreover, to overwrite any “private virtues” that may have been contracted from old-fashioned parents, or by reading non-approved highbrow literature.

Note the opposition of “values,” which are transient, to “virtues,” which are non-transient. Our politicians discuss “values” only. I have even noticed that the more progressive the politician, the more he will blather on about “values.” The vacuity of the term is appealing, for the purpose of conning the simple-minded, when they are unsure how to vote. Note further, that the Internet has proved a useful & important teaching aid, for while it may inculcate little in the way of general understanding, & nothing in the way of self-knowledge, it is an exemplary source of “values.” It shows the student that depravity is perfectly natural, & widely available, & that by suppuration he can fit right in. It is why we need computers in our schools. The Zeitgeist absolutely demands it.

But what to do with that minority of kids who refuse to “hook up” — in every current sense of that term? Who are, by the received modern definition, anti-social? Who, even after generations of progressive indoctrination, persist in living life in the raw, in the flesh as it were, without access to pornography? Who may be privately indulging in celibacy, or other forms of chastity, & thus intentionally cultivating independence of mind in defiance of our “community values”? And what if they aren’t paying their taxes?

Surely the government will have to intervene.

On the culture

The Greeks, as I once learned through Leo Strauss, had a wonderful word for vulgarity. They called it apeirokalia — that is, a lack of experience in beautiful things. At the heart of liberal education (“liberal” in the pre-modern sense), is a project to rescue men from this condition. It gives them the experience they need, among beautiful things. It puts them in contact with the finest minds, the finest works, this world has to offer. As Strauss said, this is to make them humble, & to make them bold. Humble: to discover their place in an intellectual order, among minds more learned & wiser than their own. Bold: to break with “the noise, the rush, the thoughtlessness, the cheapness of the Vanity Fair.”

What we have today, in the governing heights of Western society, is not liberal education. Rather it is the Vanity Fair of the intellectuals — the class, the herd, the swine in many ways, who have come to dominate the intellectual trades. In academia, in media, in law, in bureaucracy, in religion (broadly considered to include “secular humanism”), we have people who are credentialled, to be sure, but who have not been educated. In particular, the education they have not received is liberal education, which requires nearly the polar opposite of the kind of training they have successfully endured.

Liberal education is not specialized. The word “university” once conveyed this. It had many faculties, but was in that sense alone multifarious. It was an aggregation of teachers & scholars gathered in one place, to consider matters “in the whole.” It offered training in many disciplines, but to a common end.

Well, who am I to judge? “I have a Grade X education,” as I was explaining to a gentleman the other day, by way of excusing myself from an opinion on some monsterpiece of advanced “textual criticism” by an academic star, which he proposed to study as a project in self-improvement. “I can hardly read & write. You have a Doctorate in Philosophy, I’m sure it will make sense to you.”

He could not imagine I had read the book. He was, I assume, assuming I had seen the reviews. That is how most of us form our opinions, having delegated the homework to the specialists.

Pressed on the matter, I recalled the moment of vivid clarity I had experienced at the age of sixteen, when I suddenly decided to leave High School. It was like an impulse to leap off a train, upon realizing where it was going. Somehow I grasped, perhaps through older friends, that it was taking me to a University, to a modern one — to a kind of cemetery for the philosophical mind; to a place where the love of wisdom had been replaced with the demands of industry; to an institution in which everything I myself loved would become desiccated & tedious. Somehow I saw that the humanities had been “professionalized,” that the adepts of the ancillary disciplines had taken over. The brain had rebelled & deposed the heart; mind had itself been displaced by a revolutionary committee of sparky little neurons.

This wasn’t a Left/Right thing, incidentally. I was anyway much more “liberal” in those days (in the modern sense). Rather, the technocrats had removed the thinkers. This must have moral & political consequences; shallowness always does. No doubt it all began with a suggestion from the Devil; but I’m sure the pioneers of modern higher education were well-meaning people, who considered themselves perfectly humane. (They were, as I understand, the people who pioneered modern textual criticism of the Bible, in Protestant England then Protestant Germany, from the later 17th century forward; their sceptical techniques spreading incrementally through other fields, making each in turn ever more specialized & self-referential.)

In the olden time — to which I was already semi-consciously adhering — the introduction to a classical work might tell you what it was about, who wrote it, when & why; things of this nature. That the book was written at some time, by someone, & had been preserved in some apparent even if fragmentary order, might go without saying. After all, men had loved it, & gone to the trouble of copying & re-copying, time out of mind. This in itself showed it must be worth visiting. The teacher’s job was to focus the excitement; to show a way in.

In the modern time, the introduction begins with the textual history. What the book is & why one should read it is the afterthought. It is the part that is taken for granted, for the scholars are working assiduously on the text. This is an enterprise like coal mining, in diminishing seams. Advancement comes of scraping lignite off the walls, in ever smaller chips with ever greater precision. Then, as we arrive at “literary theory,” polishing the nothing that remains.

This, anyway, was my juvenile rebellion: “You are not going to send me down that mine!” My general idea was to read instead, from love of learning; to travel & find what professors I could on the open road. Yes, there were some left, & they always took me in. I had only to write to an impressive teacher, & he would immediately agree to see me. I never suffered from lack of teachers; though I could have done better on the point of discipline & self-organization, for I have always been a reckless lover.

Here is the motto I discovered near the front of a book that my high-school Latin teacher lent to me, it seems yesterday, but now long ago. It is by Emil Staiger:

“The organs of recognition, without which no true reading is possible, are reverence & love. Knowledge cannot dispense with them, for it can grasp & analyse only what love takes possession of, & without love it is empty.”

Let me add that the teacher, the late Mrs Jessie Glynn, is exempt from all criticism, textual or otherwise. She was a real teacher, of classics to anyone who wished to learn; a remarkable product of the old rural (& very Protestant) Ontario; the last of her tribe. She was herself approaching her last year of schoolteaching, a subject that would be cancelled as irrelevant to modern needs. The other teachers told me I must stay in school for my own good; she alone told me I’d be better off leaving. They understood small things, she understood large. They were employees; she went on teaching privately without charge to anyone who came to her — through four decades, as an old widow woman, past the age of one hundred. God rest her beloved soul!


On the other hand, most students in the drive-in universities of today — the ones which were built in the profligacy of the post-War — are not channelled into the advanced technocratic realms. These colleges take in the great mass of kids who simply lack the equipment to benefit from a university education. Instead they are fed the equivalent of paperback blurbs, on books beyond their reading comprehension. The little they must ingest is supplied (once by mimeo, later xerox, later PDF, &c), to spare them the effort & expense of tracking anything down. They are marked on their ability to spew back what has been spewed forth, to standards constantly adjusted downward by a process of inflation so that no one will suffer the ignominy of failure, & thus a first painful prick of self-knowledge. The whole scheme was conceived in the spirit of reductionism, to what is (mistakenly) called the lowest common denominator. It is a process more like pumping gas than mining coal; by comparison it makes going down the mine seem attractive.

The modern world “prioritizes,” the way manuscripts are prioritized by the competent textual scholar. This one comes before that. For sure it does, if it did, & let me not say the textual history of a book is uninteresting. Nor would I suggest that the acquisition of basic reading skills in Latin or Greek — the sort of thing redbrick universities don’t encourage — is unimportant. They are not important in themselves, but for the larger purpose of assimilating a classical heritage, or as much as one can within the limits of a human life. For either we do that, in each generation, or the heritage is lost.

As Jacob Burkhardt was quoted, in the same long-ago borrowed book: “We can never be free of the ancient world, unless we become barbarians again.”

Grammar & vocabulary are where we begin — where the child begins with a capacity for rote that will leave him as he grows. Our ancestors understood, that we must catch them young, before that native ability is transformed, during adolescence, into a new power to reason on things, & the old delight in rhythmic recitation becomes dreary & a trial. It is not a “priority,” to start with the declensions & conjugations, it is carpe diem, as Horace used to say.

Ancillary disciplines are not lower in “priority.” That is how the liberals (in their modern version) think. Reality does not work that way. One must become a crack Latinist (& I to my shame never became one) to capture nuance in that language; one must be able to dream in Greek to fully appreciate the use of the old Attic or even the later New Testament rhetorical figures — to actually understand what one is reading. Though let me add that a mind attuned by poetry in any language will be open to the possibilities of nuance in another, so that with a certain genius (in the ancient Greek sense) insufficient training in the ancillary discipline can be overcome. Great scholars of classical Chinese, for instance, have admitted that the irresponsible Ezra Pound did better translations of Li Po; great Thomists have admitted that the hack journalist, G.K. Chesterton, wrote arguably the best book on Thomas Aquinas. Life is unfair.

The ancillary disciplines are specialized, but strictly crucial, means to a general understanding. They can never be discounted, yet they cannot be the end to which we strive. So it is within e.g. Christianity, where moral perfection is not an end in itself, but the means of advance towards the beatific vision. This does not mean it has some lower priority, that it can be safely ignored or bypassed. Only liberals think like that. For the sincere Christian, good behaviour is not optional. It is the only possible path to the destination.

All this I have mentioned in order to make clear what I mean & what I do not mean. To this day, I have nothing against textual scholarship, & have benefited immensely from the coal miner’s work: especially that which was done centuries ago, in the monasteries by men no longer named, when the veins were much richer. Yet those were not specialists. They compared manuscripts, they sought out the best, in the spirit of Saint Jerome: out of hunger for the truth, for the whole of the truth, or for as much as they could get their eyes on. They sought books because they wanted to read them, & their commentaries engaged with the authors of those books. They were men, not apes.

The apes are specialized, each species for its niche; men, to the contrary, were designed to be generalists, in the image of our Maker. That is how we went forth & multiplied & subdued the earth: as masters upon entering the home prepared for us. We were not, Darwinists & Marxians notwithstanding, just a new design of monkey. It is therefore to be regretted that the modern university is, for the most part, graduating apes, not men. Except, those which do not even try to train their innocent charges to the survivalist level, & graduate not independent apes, but interchangeable cyphers for the machinery of perdition, to be ruled by apes.


The demand for “relevance” in education has been throbbing since at least the 1960s. Among the vulgar, it was in demand long before. Expressions such as, “merely academic,” have a long & curious history. So far as I can make out they were a product of reductionism from the era of Reformation propaganda; but a book could be written on this. “Relevance” is for the apes, who delete from observation anything that does not serve the proximate utilitarian end. Human beings were distinguished by idle & irrelevant behaviour — from strange ritual acts of worship, to painting on cave walls, to the very mysterious burial of their dead. Tools could be fashioned by many animals, & apes were especially clever with them. It was the use to which the tools were put that revealed our unique elevation, above nature.

I am making this short observation today, by way of lament for our Church. A commentator on my last post, the Canadian poet, Robert Eady, made what I considered an astute remark. He said, “I think what has been missed for the past fifty years or so is that Christianity is a revealed religion.” This was, in its subtle simplicity, the sort of remark that requires a liberal education. It may be too simple for an illiberal mind to grasp — it could be dismissed as something obvious, & irrelevant. It could be taken glibly, when it is not glib. The entire orientation of our Church is to Christ, alive & available in the Eucharist. This is the unifying centre of our Christian life; not one thing among many in any sort of list. Everything we must do follows from that singular act of Communion, in which the mystery of the Creation is taken whole.

We had bishops, once, of liberal education; men who were not narrow, & reductionist; who had cultivated the habit of seeing things whole. Beyond them we had throughout the Church teachers & scholars of real breadth, whose interpretation of our revealed religion was not constrained by the “power-point” mindset we are now getting, from Rome down. We had clergy & laity alike, broadened daily by the experience of the beautiful old Mass, before it was remodelled by the apes of the ICEL to make it “relevant” to the times. We had a Church that consciously made its appeal to all manner of men & women, & which was in that sense catholic, universal; which was not tempted to pitch away whatever might seem “irrelevant” in the moment. That Church had found her way into the hearts of men of goodwill in every known human culture.

A hideous, ape-like, destructive force has been at large in our world for generations, & through the hierarchy of our Church for at least the last two. It is in its animal nature always lurking; it had emerged within the Church before; but in the time since Vatican II it has often seemed to have broken its chains. It cannot be defeated, within this world; therefore must ever be contained.

The Catholic Church teaches a revealed religion, not a religion limited by specialized human inquiry. It is, further, a mystical religion, & irreducibly so — “for men do not live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God.” The Church reaches out not to “the poor,” but to “the poor in spirit,” a much different, & not narrowly material idea. She is there to accommodate sinners & saints, not those of any preferred rank or class. Her works of mercy & charity follow from the Revelation, & out of the mystery of divine Love. They are not a political programme; Christ kept himself aloof from Caesar.

Literalism, reductionism, point-scoring, prioritizing, are marks of the poorly educated mind. The consequences are too easily foreseeable. But the cure is also foreseeable. Prudence itself, queen of the cardinal virtues, requires something in the nature of a liberal education, & we must learn to value that again. It can begin with the restoration of reverence in the Mass, & with the re-apprehension of living beauty; with the re-acquisition of our enchantment with a Creation that is not reducible to parts in a machine. The whole is more than its parts. It is animated by the breath of the Spirit, & it is innate with poetry.

Or as Pope Francis put it yesterday, we must “bear witness to, & disseminate, this ‘culture of life’,” against that culture of death everywhere encroaching.

Go forth, anyway

The Church, to my mind, has a profound problem, which she has had from her beginning, & yet it could be mistaken for a modern problem. She aspires to convert & inspire all folk, & has within herself the means to reach into the heart of every human culture. But in practice, the pews are empty, & the people stay away. There may have been times when the pews were full, but possibly they were full only in practice. For in the testimony we receive from every generation, so many were, in spirit, not there. They would go off & act just as if they were really just a pack of angry & selfish heathen.

I have not written lately about my discouragement at several things said or done at or near the top of the Roman hierarchy. As an old Czech friend used to say, in the depths of the 1970s squalor, “Whatever they do in the Vatican, I’m staying Catholic.” Newman said as much on behalf of the faithful in the time of the Arian heresy, when the Church was apparently saved not by the big but by the little people. (See, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.)

Men are men, & they make very poor bishops indeed. And they are generally at their worst when they are playing to the gallery — when, for instance, perhaps out of a desire to bring in the numbers, they begin to display what I (& Theodore Dalrymple) like to condemn as “moral exhibitionism”; or otherwise adapt the message to the market; or in the old neo-conservative phrase, “define deviancy down” to make everyone more comfortable. In my view, for instance, sentences that begin, “Who am I to judge?” never end well, & oh could I go on.

It may even transpire, that men of high ecclesiastical station play at humility, waving a hairshirt about where all may see, when really they should wear it invisibly under their garments. An example would be a lord who disparages the outward trappings of his office. He may have forgotten that these trappings belong to the office, not to him, & that in the end “dressing down” is like defining deviancy down. It is to call attention to oneself, not the office.

Such things are discouraging, & yet we were instructed by our Founder, even from the Garden of Gethsemane, not to be discouraged.

For it cannot possibly do to give up the struggle, to fill the pews not only with warm bodies but with the genuinely reverent & faithful — not to some passing fashion of the times, but to Our Lord. This starts, of course, with asking God’s help with one’s own case, yet cannot end there, given the specific Christian instruction to “go forth among all nations.”

This, anyway, is my thought for the day.

Taking war seriously

For many years, up here in the High Doganate, we had to think about statecraft, about politics & diplomacy, about peace & war, about the problems of peace & the problems of war, & about history, especially current history in which peace & war are often inextricably mingled. As a consequence, we had many thoughts. We, or more precisely, I, were employed as a media pundit, & paid off accordingly. Even today, freed at least from the income, I continue to think about these things. This is perhaps pointless, for I doubt that I will be marked for my political views, on the Day of Judgement. Nor have I found evidence that world statesmen attend to my instructions. On the contrary, I believe they make their own pragmatic calculations. Notwithstanding, old habits die hard.

I have often thought, that in addition to reciting the Nicene Creed, statesmen should swear the Hippocratic Oath. “First do no harm.” The masters of our laws, however they happen to be chosen, should focus their efforts on averting certain evils, not on “doing good” according to their lights. Indeed, I am known for my aversion to “do-gooders,” who always have a plan. Our laws, to my mind, should be as simple & stable as they can be made; they should be enforced consistently & predictably. Those of a non-criminal disposition should be able to live long lives without much worrying about government agents.

The Grand Historian — not of the High Doganate, but rather of Han-dynasty China, Ssu-ma Ch’ien  — took issue with the mystical writings of Lao Tzu. It will be recalled that the latter wrote, “though states exist side by side, so close they can hear the crowing of each other’s cocks & the barking of each other’s dogs, the people of each state will savour their own food, admire their own clothing, be content with their own customs, delight in their own occupations, grow old & die without ever wandering abroad.” This would seem an ideal arrangement.

Ssu-ma Ch’ien claims no knowledge of the remote times of which Lao Tzu is speaking. (Typically he then shows that he is very well acquainted with all surviving documentary & archaeological evidence.) He observes, however, that the people with whom he is acquainted have appetites that go beyond what was wisely stipulated, & that they take some interest in matters beyond their domain. So long, he observes, have pride & habits of luxury permeated their lives, that, “were one to go door to door preaching the subtle arguments of the Taoists, one might never succeed in changing them.”

Therefore, he suggests: “The best kind of ruler accepts the people as they are; the next best leads the people to what is beneficial; the next gives them moral instruction; the next forces them to obey it; & the very worst kind of ruler enters into competition with them.” (My allusions are all to the 129th chapter of the Shih Chi.)

I take this as an early anticipation & rejection of what I call the Nanny State, in which do-gooding descends through layers of compulsion until finally even routine medical care is provided by some central bureaucracy, & no room is left for voluntary acts. Though born in a country which was much freer than it is today, only sixty years later, & now governed by rules & regulations that are rewritten & extended constantly, I continue to adhere, largely, to the voluntary principle: “live & let live.” I consider the Nanny State a growing & ever less necessary evil, & pray that it may be peacefully dismantled. But this does not mean I am an advanced Marxist or Libertarian who believes the state should wither away to nothing. It has several legitimate & irreplaceable functions.

For instance, I hold that “no means no” when it comes to murder, mayhem, rape, robbery, theft, & other discourtesies, commonly labelled “crimes” in most human jurisdictions. I am even well-disposed to the provision of armies, navies, & so forth (within reason) as a defence against malevolent foreigners. And with all such things should come a (reasonable) amount of public ceremony, so long as it is in good taste, fun to watch, & the tone remains good-humoured. We are Homo Ludens, after all. I favour public allegiance to duly-constituted authority, but think “patriotism” a virtue that turns into vice when it strays too far beyond the natural human attachments, to family, neighbourhood, a landscape, tradition — when it stops making conscientious distinctions between what is “our own” & what is “other people’s.” When patriotism becomes aggressive, chauvinist, jingo, imposing, then devils are at large.

My father’s generation knew countries like that were the sort we would sooner or later have to go to war with. Thanks to the triumph of mass democracy, with its attendant conditions of Total War, & Total Peace, one often feels today that the enemy is one’s own state. The agencies of our provincial & “federal” governments operate in a manner inimical to freedom, & in many other ways are perverted & corrupt. But there are still much worse countries than Canada. In fact I have visited several, including Syria, wherein life is cheap & the human soul is regarded as a disposable item of state property.


We live in the world, we have to deal with it somehow. The question of self-defence is constantly arising. It does not always arise in simple ways. Therefore my prescription for a happy life, free of tyranny, cannot be reduced to immutable precepts. They are useful as a guide, but “judgement calls” must often be made as we deal with darkening “grey areas.” There are times when, in our modern expression, “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” in the cause of justice, & while I aspire to be peaceful, aloof & chaste, I am not a pacifist. For again, I believe there are real evils that should be confronted & stopped — when it is in our power to do so, without causing a worse evil than the one we would escape. This is a delicate balance, a careful navigation. To every Scylla there is a Charybdis, & war-mongering is as bad as an obsessive & hypocritical peace-mongering. Both lead to slavery & carnage.

Today, as for the last century, & at intervals since time out of mind, we share our world with regimes of monstrous will & intention. Beyond the parameters of the state, though seldom by very far, we have demonically motivated “terrorists” themselves able to commit impressive atrocities. We have “globalization” & the technological means to “project power” at a distance, with many competitors engaged in the projecting. I have never liked large standing armies, but it is understandable why even the lesser sinners would wish to maintain them. In Canada, we live effectively under the protection of a powerful neighbour to our south, whom we judge to be not nearly so bad as her principal competitors for world power, & I find the policy of alliance fairly sound. That we should carry our weight in the alliance, rather than become abjectly parasitical & dependent, also makes sense to me. We should strive to be entitled to our opinions when discussing common interests with our allies.

In the twelve years since 9/11 the question of “rogue regimes” & what to do about them has assumed some importance. This is frankly because technology has improved to the point where the formerly isolated may now project formidable power through “weapons of mass destruction,” “cyber attacks” & so forth. We no longer have the luxury, we discovered, of ignoring psychopaths ensconced in the mountains of Afghanistan, or “hermit kingdoms” equally far away. Although here it must be said that, owing to something like a nervous disorder, we often rank the threats incorrectly.

“Nuclear weapons are only a problem for people with bad nerves,” Comrade Stalin once said. He was clearly a man of robust constitution. I do not actually agree with his assessment, but wish to acknowledge some truth in it. While so-called “suitcase bombs” could make a mess in a city, & ditto the release of nerve gas, toxic powders, biological agents & the like, the greater threat will always come from states like Stalin’s, able to use the nastiest weapons in a more fulsome way, over a prolonged period. Free-lance Islamist jihadis are a confounded nuisance, to be sure; but the threat offered by a fully-constituted Islamist state, such as Iran, is more significant. And even among the free-lance operators, as we saw twelve years ago, box-cutting knives can be leveraged into WMD. The human propensity to shriek at a mouse or a slithery snake — to be abnormally disturbed by one sort of threat in preference to another — is itself understandable. We are creatures of the dream, we have the strangest nightmares. But this does not make it rational, or wise.


Let us take this bull by the horns of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Whether or not the atom bombs dropped on them induced the Japanese to surrender (& the historical evidence suggests that they did not, in themselves), the bombs were not tactically decisive. The Americans had, with “conventional” munitions, already laid waste to sixty-six Japanese cities, through the memorable (at least to the Japanese) spring & summer of ‘forty-five. Hiroshima & Nagasaki were just two more, & the number of casualties was far exceeded in e.g. the fire-bombing of Tokyo the night of Operation Meetinghouse. By any standard measure, the amount of physical damage done by the atom bombs in either city had been surpassed on several other occasions. The Americans themselves were counting on the bombs more for their theatrical than material effect.

Now let us recall Saddam Hussein, whose chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, in which up to five thousand died, was often & is still frequently mentioned in our liberal media. That this was horrible, goes without saying. But consider what is generally overlooked: that after Saddam was deposed, Americans & their Iraqi counterparts uncovered mass graves containing, in aggregate, many hundreds of thousands of corpses from the other violent ministrations of Saddam Hussein, done almost entirely in low-tech ways. (I tried, but could never get any of my fellow “mainstream” journalists interested in this story.) These are still being discovered; the tally is not yet complete. Suffice to say, Saddam’s dread chemical weapons did only a small part of the killing; an estimate of “1 percent” would not be unreasonable.

I am not a numbers man, statistics are too glib, but more exceeds less, & the point to be absorbed here is not about technology, but about murder, massacre. To adapt the common phrase, “chemical weapons don’t slaughter people, mass murderers slaughter people.” And the question we face is not whether this or that weapon should be banned, but what should we do about mass murderers, & the men who do their bidding — the regimes that sustain & can usually replace them should an assassination happen to succeed. This is to look at the whole vexed problem, & not at one corner of it. The question, as I think any mediaeval political philosopher would immediately see, is can we overthrow that regime, at a cost not greater in unwanted consequences?

Once that point is clarified, I think it might become possible to begin making intelligent, as opposed to emotional decisions on the use of military force. Many other factors come into such decisions, including serious questions of international law, which as it stands compels us to explain what the threat is — not only to the subjects of the tyrant, but to us. There is also a moral imperative to explain how we will deal with the fallout to which we would contribute, are indeed contracting to “own.” How, for the better, will we restore order & replace the defunct rogue regime? Anything short of that is toying.

All such questions are necessarily vexed, & not every consequence of an act of war can be foreseen. But the statesman is morally bound to previse what is foreseeable, & in the view of Heaven (as the ancient Chinese would put it), he must weigh with the utmost gravity when human lives are at stake.

This is incidentally why I retain some respect for George W. Bush, & have none for Barack Obama. Bush thought the whole thing through, even if he made misjudgements & miscalculations. Everything about his behaviour suggested that he took very seriously alike the lives of his soldiers & all other lives. He did not act “for show,” nor did he make threats that were empty. At huge political cost, he did not walk away when things went badly. He did, however, foolishly bite off more than the American electorate could chew.

It would be good if we could remove the Assad regime, as it was good to remove that of Saddam. Both, I am prepared to argue, have offered palpable threats to their neighbours & ultimately to us (although Iran was & is a substantially greater threat than either). But as we learnt, or rather were reminded in Iraq — every generation must relearn — the world is very messy, & “doing a good thing” is not without cost, potentially horrific. Nor, in the case of realpolitik, can I agree to apply Chesterton’s maxim that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” For war, in my view, should not be a hobby.

Lip service

In my column for Catholic Thing yesterday, I looked over the latest “Fat Man” package by the Intelligent Designists, dropped on the neo-Darwinoids — it is Darwin’s Doubt, by Stephen C. Meyer — & expressed some mildly pacifist sentiment. That the former are basically right about the latter, it may come as no surprise that I believe. Compress the natural selection hypothesis within multiple paired detonators, & it blows up wonderfully. (My analogy is in the worst possible taste.) It leaves the alien city in ruins.

It does not, however, rebuild that city. At the heart of the Intelligent Design movement is, I think, a misleading promise, perhaps even a temptation. It is to suggest that the “scientific materialism” of neo-Darwinism could somehow be replaced with another exercise in scientific materialism. But this is something no “ID” hypothesis can supply. God is God, immanent & transcendent. There is no explaining I Am that I Am. Empirical science cannot provide a theology, nor an infallible cosmology. The best it can do is provide descriptions of the Creation, to be contemplated by the faithful, as icons are contemplated. It can expound some modest aspects of the Mystery, but not explain the Mystery away.

Forget the basic, intractable problem of getting something from nothing; of accounting for how life began on this planet in the first place. Instead keep staring at what is called the “Cambrian explosion” — “in which an astounding variety of incredibly sophisticated ‘body plans’, including apparent precursors of all we know today, emerged during a singularly quick snip of geological time, all over the planet, starting around 525 million years ago.” Then finally, to my mind, look carefully at a sparrow — “Are not two sold for a penny?” — & consider the irreducibility of the thing. We cannot possibly explain macroevolution by minutely incremental microevolutionary changes. It is like saying you can swim from San Francisco to Hawaii, by resting on all the intervening islands. Look at the map, at the fossil record: the islands aren’t there. Charles Darwin’s perfectly sincere argument, that we just haven’t discovered them yet, will no longer wash.

But that isn’t to say his “theory” is disprovable. In any strict Popperian sense, it cannot be, & therefore isn’t technically wrong. Rather, it isn’t “science.” It is a purely materialist explanation which, like the scientific materialism of Karl Marx, is too ludicrous to believe any more. (And that goes equally for “neo-Marxism.”) But no one can confute Marx, either. People killed & died for that “theory” over several generations; millions upon millions of corpses to prove Marx’s point. There are still some killing in the mountains of Peru & Nepal. Nevertheless the word is out. It doesn’t matter how many you kill. It is still nonsense. “Put not your faith in men.”

My argument is also with Popper, however. The amount of reality that can be explained, by faithful adherence to “scientific method,” to theory & counter-theory, is so slight it rounds out to zero. Pure science gives us equations that are beautiful to contemplate. Lifting another analogy from Meyer (I stole Hawaii, above), Newton did not say that gravity created the world. He described it mathematically. He did not even present it as a force of nature, or a law for the jackboots to uphold. He observed it as a kind of perfection. With developments in physics we discovered that, perfect as it appeared to Newton, it was actually more perfect than that.

One of the commenters on my Catholic Thing piece cited another anti-Darwin tract (Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong) to show the same sort of thing is possible in biology:

“Fibonacci patterns, in which each term is equal to the sum of the two preceding ones, seem to be prior to all evolutionary developments; scaling factors in organisms are multiples of a quarter, not of a third, according to the ‘one-quarter power law’; computational analysis of nervous systems of organisms show that their ‘connexion economies’ are perfect; ‘cost versus speed’ analyses of the respiratory patterns of the song of canaries show the most efficient use of energy; tests of the ratio of foraging honeybees to those staying in the hives show perfect solutions in all situations.”

Sure, you can say that this ridiculously bumbling god, Natural Selection, simply homed in on the right answers by trial & error. Except, you will find such perfections throughout living nature, & wherever you look in the fossil record. You can’t swim to Hawaii.

But other commenters, several directly to my inbox, complained about the conclusion I drew from all this. I said, “it is pointless to fight the neo-Darwinian establishment. As men like Simon Conway Morris have shown (see his remarkable Map of Life website), the best Christian tactic is to ignore the secular-humanist enemy, with its atheist political agenda, & simply publish the discoveries. They speak for themselves. At heart, the enemy knows he is defeated, & it is time to move on.”

So what was I thinking? Of course “we have to fight” the people who control Big Government & Big Science, driven by their scientific-materialist (i.e. scientistic) agendas. They are persecuting us, & their control, too, of the whole state education system, & through government regulation of all the rest, assures an immense & evil engine of indoctrination. Why shouldn’t we rise up?

And I have not the slightest objection to plugging away, if anyone wants to keep affronting the neo-Darwinian establishment, & is willing thereby to sacrifice his career, & his grant money, & any prospect of rising through the ranks of the party apparatchiks. Nor do I demur when the apparently numerous quiet reactionaries, embedded within the machine, argue for a more free market approach to biological inquiry. Go for it, if you wish.

But I think back on the Cold War, & how we didn’t win it by fighting. We won it instead by outlasting. It didn’t end, for instance, after the confrontation over Cuba. We actually lost most of the other confrontations, in Korea, Vietnam, & so forth. We were no match for the enemy’s espionage services, nor the war economy on which he was willing indefinitely to live. He lived on the lie, as Solzhenitsyn observed more profoundly, & on the willingness of his subjects to participate in the lie. By all means, refuse to participate. Never agree to proclaim what you know to be false. Omit that lip service.

I have noticed this in my perusals of the biology texts, acceptable to the academy. There is lip service to Darwin in the preface, usually in the form, “What hath Darwin wrought?!” If you find the man elsewhere, in the index, it will be for some echo of this scientistic credo. Everything proves neo-Darwinism, because nothing does. In the pop science of the glossy magazines, every new ape or trilobite is presented as a vindication of some (wonderfully hallucinated) family tree. And yet no discovery depends upon it. We have increasingly gratuitous lip service to the party line. Omit that, & nothing is lost; nothing whatever. The ape & the trilobite remain.

In the end, the Marxist scientific materialism came down not with a bang. For more than a generation, the Communists did not themselves believe what they were preaching. They were down to lip service. They lost their will to keep up the persecution; as the Romans before them lost their will, even while retaining an impressive plurality of soldiers & weapons. They no longer believed, & got tired of enforcing a position from which they had themselves defected.

That, I expect, will be the fate of scientific materialism in each of its other guises, of which institutional neo-Darwinism is one. It requires an act of “faith” that is too tiresome, that cannot be sustained by the truth. It will fight & fight for its own survival, for its right to monopolize the academy & persecute heretics without & within. Then, at the least expected moment, it will fold, without even one last memorable explosion because all its fuel is spent.

An authoritarian writes

Well, the summer is over, & that means I don’t have to read modern Chinese history any more. (I self-assign a topic each year for summer reading, & this year it was post-Ming China, crammed as if for a test on Labour Day.)

Now, technically the summer will not end until the equinox on the 22nd of this month; but up here in the High Doganate, we can know it is coming to an end when we find ourself under air attack. This happens without fail every year at the Labour Day weekend, when the Canadian International Air Show overflies beautiful downtown Parkdale, the aeroplanes often banking low over Humber Bay for review from our balconata; or else we may ascend to the roof for the full vista. It starts Friday, with the rehearsals, during which anyone quietly reading in the High Doganate could swear that each scrambling fighter intends a strafing run on our ivory tower.

Then wave after wave they come, in their agility & power, like a bad day in Beirut: the Trojan Horsemen, the Snowbirds, the Red Star & Dragon, the Lucas Oil Jumpers, the Corsairs. One might reach for one’s bedsheet, but it is useless to put up the white flag. The RCAF & USAF combine, & I noticed this year at least one ex-Soviet aircraft; further combined with squadrons from every earlier generation of mechanical aviation in a grand aerial ghost fleet — all come to assault the High Doganate. But fear not, gentle reader. Again this year we have survived, & from the relative quiet of this back-to-school Tuesday, I know they have relented; that the Battle of Britain is over.


Power, that is the thing. It is what I have been reading about, all through this summer: the use of Power to destroy a magnificent civilization. Power, verily in opposition to Authority. For it is Authority that holds a civilization together, Power that blows it apart.

I’m afraid this truth is little understood, in our age of Power Triumphant. Little Man has stood against the gods, & in the euphoria of his hubris, declared them to be overthrown. Henceforth Little Man will make the rules. He will no longer answer to Authority, to the philosophia perennis. By Power he has usurped the Authority, & need not listen to it any more. Henceforth, words will mean whatever Power will choose them to mean, in our looking-glass world. (Take for instance a term from time out of mind, such as “marriage.”)

In the famous passage by Lewis Carroll, Alice is the voice of Authority, Humpty Dumpty the voice of Power. The latter admits that verbs, especially, have a temper & are proud, but “adjectives you can do anything with.” (And an adjective can change the meaning of a noun.) He declares himself the master over all the parts of speech. Alice is puzzled, & has fallen silent. Tellingly, Humpty Dumpty admits to prosopagnosia — the inability to read a human face. He suggests it would be some help to re-arrange the face of Alice: to put, for instance, both eyes on the same side of her nose, or the mouth on top, to make her easier for him to recognize. That is the voice of Power.

We learn, from the Westlaw database via the commonplace Internet site, that the case of Humpty Dumpty has been cited in more than 250 judicial decisions in the USA, including two that went to their Supreme Court. The Law, wherever discovered, not imposed, reaches beneath the surface of nonsense. It seeks Authority. Or else it refuses to reach, & instead seeks Power.

And in the end, Authority is restored; the truth is vindicated by an accident of Nature; Humpty Dumpty tumbles from his Wall. For here is a mystery: that in despite of Little Man, the universe is held together by Authority.