Essays in Idleness


Is democracy Christian?

The question in my title is rhetorical. Of course democracy is not Christian, how could it be? No system of secular government, no Caesarean Constitution, could possibly be Christian, except insofar as it tries to reflect divine and natural justice (which are not finally detachable from each other). Are a bad people more just than a good king, or a moderate junto? Are a good people better than a bad king? Et cetera. These are meaningless questions. The Church herself has had to cope with all regimes, and will not be replaced by one or another. Justice is as justice does, and in the complete absence of any instructions at all from Jesus Christ, on how we should organize ourselves politically — it is really quite astonishing, the lengths to which he went to avoid this question — we might almost stop our thinking there. And yet, thanks to democracy, we can’t. We are obliged to vote on it. We are asked for our consequential opinion on something most of us know nothing about, and which does not touch on the most important matters. Tyranny comes in this door.

Or perhaps we can and do ignore the issue. The number of people genuinely interested in political questions is itself, from what I can see, a small proportion of any population. Many of these few are obsessive, however, and so make their weight tip far above “equality” on the scales, enlivened as they are by the aphrodisiac of Power. For the great majority, politics are not something in which they participate, but something that happens. What does democracy really mean to them? They receive unearned money, or have the money they’ve earned taken away; but also, there is a huge and constantly increasing burden of form-filling to do, plus security checks, body searches, elaborate signage and warnings, and in cities especially, the occasional sudden take-down.

If the diktats came down from kings and royal courts, rather than from politicians and departmental bureaucrats, it would make no difference to the citizen’s level of “empowerment.” In either case the influence of the “man in the street” rounds out to zero. The State expects him to do what he is told, promptly; and to take his punishment should he hesitate, or talk back to any government official. In a small kingdom, or a small town, he might represent perhaps a visible power of inertia. Perhaps even in a vast people’s republic there is cellular resistance to being pushed around. But to say that the citizen of a democracy, today, is governed by his own consent — when items of legislation fill ten-thousands of pages in Kafkaesque obscurity, with serious penalties for non-compliance, to be enforced or not enforced at the government’s whim — is at best silly. Should the citizen be charged with any crime, the conviction rate, at least in the United States, approaches that in Stalin’s Russia (to be fair, it is far lower in Canada and Europe), and his only hope is to “confess” and agree to a plea bargain.

This is the normal working of democratic government today. Anyone who has had his taxes audited knows how much power he has against the State, and what kind of people the tax department hires. He knows that his very livelihood depends on their “judgement calls,” and that he had better adopt a cringing subservience before his masters. He knows that “innocent until proven guilty” is a pious fraud, and that unless he has millions in his war chest, no court will help him. Such abuses are of just the sort the old Common Law served to prevent, standing for centuries against the arrogance of power on behalf of the common man. Today, in his terrible anxieties, he can only turn to prayer.

Elsewhere I have written about the inevitability of the Nanny State, once the “ideal” of democracy is established. It is as socialism has proved, when proposed as a programme for economic efficiency: for it is not something that seldom works, but something that can never work at all. Democracy, in its modern, representative form, appeals to people at the level of what they want, or are told they might get by voting in blocks together. In that lies the divisiveness which Thomas Aquinas and other mediaeval critics of democracy foresaw, long before anything like modern democracy emerged to illustrate the points they were making. Democracy factionalizes a society that might otherwise have remained contented and peaceful; it keeps class envy and the hope of retribution constantly upon the electoral table, and eventually they get out of hand.

Yet the real significance of a citizen should not be what he wants, but what he is. As an ensouled human individual, he is an irreducible thing. His natural liberties begin with his right to life, and corresponding duty (not right) to defend himself. Insofar as they were recognized under previous systems of government, rights corresponded generally to duties — duties which can never be identical, from person to person, until Procrustes has finished his savage work.

This, I allow, is no longer understood, and therefore cannot be said without wide misunderstanding. The entire conception of human liberty, with which Western man started, has been trickling away, along with the religious order which gave it meaning, and the foundation of human within natural and divine law.

The laws must be obeyed. But we cannot understand this concept unless we also understand that the moral laws will be obeyed — as surely, in the end, as the laws of physics. Human legislation itself may err, and ultimately any law that is written in defiance of the divine and natural order will, necessarily, perish — for in the end, evil does not triumph. The true law, written into nature and men’s hearts, was never created by men. Rather it is discovered by them, often by means of trial and error, and thus over long periods of time. Yet in a coherent system of doctrine, internal contradictions are eventually exposed, and mistakes and misdirections corrected.

Hence, the Scottish jurisprude who said: “We do not break the law. We break ourselves upon the law.”

The contrary notion that law is whatever the government decides, and therefore in a democracy what the people decide their government should impose, produces law that becomes progressively more and more incoherent, and thus ever more arbitrary and unjust. My rightwing friends like to point to hypocrisies they find in leftwing schemes of social engineering. Examples are very easy to find. And yet these hypocrisies did not require malice to come into being (much though they may be enhanced or compounded by ill-will). It is sufficient to have a system in which decisions are made not in light of precedent, and gradually settled by experience; but according to the passions of the moment, expressed in electoral fluctuations, manipulated by polling and publicity specialists.

Parliament itself has changed in its nature over time. Outwardly it has been transformed from a gentleman’s club of the landed and privileged, in which members were well known to each other, and by inclination resistant to change. By increments it became something genuinely responsive to paid lobbies and current fashion trends. The quality of thinking and debate has been in consistent decline, and Parliamentary declamation now consists almost exclusively of playing to the gallery. Envies and resentments are openly exploited, by Members who themselves could not hope to be elected except with the help of big party machines, and by going huckster. Much depended, in the past, upon the dignity and prestige of Parliament. Little of that survives.

This was not some natural decay within the institution itself. Institutions may be organic in the sense that they develop historically, but they are not biological entities fated to grow old and die. Like buildings they survive so long as they are competently maintained and repaired; are kept in proper use. What happened to Parliament, gradually over the course of the 19th century and more quickly after the Great War, was an ideological transformation. Abstract demands for “equality” and “democracy” and “liberty” amounting to licence, transformed a gentleman’s debating club into the cockpit for crude factional battles. The franchise was spread without qualification, and in the strictest sense, Parliament became vulgar. In appearance it is now a circus or professional sports arena: the party leaders prancing before the cameras, and their competitively ranting fans.


Somewhere or other I once described modern representative democracy as, “England’s poisoned gift to the world.” By this I did not mean to criticize the legal and political institutions which had evolved in England — from unambiguously mediaeval roots. Nor was I necessarily referring to the notion of “rule by the people” in itself, for that kind of nonsense has arisen independently in many other countries — is endemic within barbaric tribal cultures, and is everywhere the cause of gratuitous bloodshed.

Rather I meant to denounce a peculiarly English success in packaging. The English genius, first clearly exposed in the Industrial Revolution, and now copied around the world, was for making shoddy goods seem temporarily respectable. The trappings of the (ancient and reasonably impressive) English constitutional order were used to frill and decorate something quite opposed to its spirit. “Representative democracy” emerged as a new industrial product, associated in the dreamy public mind with the delivery of abstract incompatibles — “liberty” and “equality” being the most obvious mutually contradictory terms.

It was a most remarkable development, in the end much like the gimmicks used by property developers and manufacturers of cheap goods. They use poetical terms from a vaguely-remembered past to brand products utterly unlike their descriptions. I remember as a child looking at a fresh suburban street sign which identified “Mountainview Boulevard,” and asking myself where is the mountain. Soon I learnt that the whole point of mass advertising is to associate a product with what it is not; and that “honesty in advertising” is not really obtainable. It is against this background, but also contributing to it, that “representative democracy” has flourished. For in a real democracy, the electors vote directly on public issues which they themselves have framed; whereas, in a “representative” democracy, they do not.

Products must be sold aggressively. Any salesman can tell you that being shy about it won’t land the contract; that the whole point of salesmanship is to push the customer a little beyond where he wants to go. The abstract “democracy” in the venerable “Parliamentary” box, whether or not it was an organic development in its land of origin, was sold abroad with chutzpah.

English-speaking chauvinism — whether it comes in British, North American, Australian, or other provincial forms — has been a moral danger to ourselves, but a source of tyranny to others. We present ourselves as a “chosen people” when in the event we were never chosen, except by ourselves. The arrogance has come to be embodied within our English language, through four centuries of special pleading for what I will call the Protestant State; and the chance success of British colonial and imperial endeavours. Today the mindset has degenerated into atheist and State post-Protestant posturing, yet the myths behind the propaganda endure — supporting the rather quaint assumption that we, who acquired our English from the crib, are “the best and the brightest,” with much to teach and nothing to learn. The word “exceptionalism” could be bruited here: a received term for the “American way” that seems to have floated over on the Mayflower, and still communicates the Puritan’s “holier than thou.” Yet the whole scheme originated earlier, and in England, not in some exalted “separation of powers,” but in the State’s appropriation of the Church.

Nowhere is this idea of “exceptionalism” better expressed than in the notion that the English-speaking peoples were trained through history and social development in the functioning of democracy, and in its various components — civil society, rule of law, individual responsibility and all that. In other words, we do not affirm our luck or our unworthiness, but a conviction of our own superiority. And if democracy fails elsewhere, as anything suddenly imposed will tend to do, then this is because those foreign peoples were not ready for it. (Or in the extreme: might never be ready.) When we look at what we have actually achieved — the features of the Nanny State that I was ticking off above — our claim to maturity is not only proud, but risible.

The people cannot form a government, and never could, in England or anywhere; democracy did not even work for long in ancient Athens, where only a small part of the adult male population had been enfranchised. It is not physically possible for “we the people” to do such a thing. We can elect our rulers, or even at that, a tiny proportion of them. Under any system of government, the great majority of office-holders will be appointed, to sinecures often outlasting those who appointed them. The calibre of appointments depends ultimately on the character and astuteness of the men or women who make them. Who can seriously believe that people voting in the mass, to choose between demagogues known to them only through sound bites and the glaze of mass media, will alight upon candidates whose judgement of persons and policies is sound?

And then we must consider the decadence of public religion. I am using the word “religion” not in a mystical sense, but in the classical, as the bond of common belief and assumption, that holds a society together; which governs man by custom, and by the education of his conscience teaches him to govern himself. Christianity has been almost consciously discarded as our common ground, and replaced by a secular religion on whose tenets man will write, as opposed to discover, what is the law. Spiritual qualities have been transferred from divine to human agencies, in the false belief that they were being abandoned. Magical properties become associated with words that once had specific meanings, chiefly “democracy” itself. We come to think that simply by introducing “democracy,” to a cesspit of conflict, every problem can be solved; and then we are utterly puzzled when the conflict is exacerbated.

Let me draw this together, for today if not for the year, by quoting that fine old Austrian sage, Eric Maria Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909–99). A broadly learned man (who travelled everywhere, and read in twenty-five languages), his political thought became focused on the rise of the Left — which, since the Enlightenment, has been filling the vacuum of a retreating Christianity. He grasped that the Left (or to my view, “politicization”) flourished precisely in a modern environment where political thought has become abstracted, and religious teaching is replaced by “ideals.” The book from which I will quote is, Leftism: from de Sade & Marx to Hitler & Marcuse. I select this early passage because I think it brings home, at a practical level, the consequences of democratic smugness, both in ourselves and in our imitators abroad:

“It is precisely the unwarranted identification of democracy with liberty which has caused a great many of the recurrent tragedies  of American foreign policy (as well as a number of internal American woes). We have to remember all the wars, all the propaganda, all the  pressure campaigns for the cause of democracy, how every hailed and applauded victory of democracy has ended in terrible defeat for personal liberty, the one cause really dear to American hearts.

“This is by no means a new story. Even Burke welcomed the French Revolution in the beginning. Eminent Americans praised it. But it all  ended in a forest of guillotines. Mr Woodrow Wilson enthusiastically welcomed Alexander Kerensky’s government which was to make Russia  ‘fit for a league of honour’. But how long did it last? The Weimar Republic, the near-republican Italian monarchy, the Spanish republic,  the ‘decolonized’ free nations from Haiti to Tanzania, from North Vietnam to Indonesia, Latin America from Santo Domingo to Buenos Aires — all have been grievous disappointments to ‘progressive’ Americans, all terminating in dictatorships, civil wars, crowded jails, confiscated newspapers, gallows and firing squads, one-party tyrannies, sequestrations, nationalizations, ‘social engineering’.”

One might redundantly add the Arab Spring, developments in Burma, or within the last few weeks, the fruit of our attempts to impose “power sharing” and “democracy” upon the new nation of South Sudan — thousands and thousands of unnecessary corpses, and we, through our pink filters, unable to see the blood on our own hands.


It is important to be clear, however, that for all these objections to the actual operation of democratic “ideals,” I am not against elections and Parliaments per se. Elections of some sort are among the many ways to choose a government, or have one chosen, without the need for succession massacres and routine civil wars. I am against unqualified “democracy” because it is what Doctor Johnson called a “canting term.” But I do not propose to overthrow the government (at least not until I have my ducks in order); and I recognize that we must start from where we are, and make the best of what we have. Even where we have made terrible mistakes, we should find ways to reverse them gradually and through existing law, carrying the common people along with us, as even monarchs in the end must do. And while the restoration of the principles of mediaeval monarchy in a revived Catholic Christendom would be a good thing, I do not anticipate this in the foreseeable future.

The limit of my instruction is therefore: “Stop using ‘democracy’ on banners.” Start thinking the consequences through, including the consequences to our own souls of excessive participation in politics.

Being & not-nothingness

There is a Frenchman named Jean-Luc Marion, student of Derrida, who wrote a book entitled God without Being. It is one of those horse texts (er, “hors-texte,” or outside-the-text) we rightly associate with post-modernism, and gentle reader may be aghast if I don’t run it down. Marion himself is celebrated in all the wrong ways, in all the wrong circles, from my seethingly provincial point of view. He has, to my uncertain knowledge, never been quoted with approval by a single member of the Tea Party. On the contrary, he was elected an immortel to the Académie française (taking the seat of the late Cardinal Lustiger), and that should be that: … Dismissed!

Some fifteen years has passed since I first acquired a copy of this book and attempted to read it. I found it exhilarating. In my nutshell, it argues that if God is Love, then in some sense “Love” is prior to “Being.” The theological implications of this mischievous notion are then teased out. What begins as apparently a wildly irresponsible, deconstructionist attack on the received Christian theological tradition, turns persistently on dimes, until we find it merely attacking Heidegger. Or, put another way, by the time Marion is finished with the modern conception of “Being,” there is nothing left standing except God. As I say, exhilarating. Had I been working in that publishing house, it might have appeared with the title, “The Incredible Caducity of Being.”

We then discover that (the more ferocious Catholic traddies should avert their attention for a moment) — Marion is also a disciple of Danielou, Bouyer, de Lubac, von Balthasar, under each of whom he seems also to have studied. And that, in God without Being and subsequent books, he seems to be trying to square his doctrines with those of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and other scholastics. His presentation of Christ as “pure gift” is moreover a hinge between what we imagine to be plain traditional teaching, and what might otherwise appear to be “no longer in Kansas.” His dangerously Neoplatonic notion of the “saturated phenomenon” — let us say for shorthand, truth so dense that it overloads truth — wends us back to Saint Augustine. Marion is an unfamiliar train taking us through some very familiar stations.

Would I put him on the Index? … But of course, I would put everyone on the Index for at least fifty years. To rotate Marion, I think that love should precede being, for authors spouting novelties. We may be able to see, in another half-century or so, whether Marion was a flash in the pan, or if another generation entirely can find some use for him. My own suspicion is that there is something in the love-before-being thesis, of real value to Christian faith.

Let me put it this way. In juxtaposing e.g. Thomas Aquinas with Martin Heidegger and the boys, on the question of Being, I find they are not speaking quite the same language. On the other hand, when moving from Saint Thomas to, say, the Vedanta, or to the Bible itself, I find that they are speaking the same language. “Being,” including that which presents as I-Am-That-I-Am, is a kind of action. By contrast, in the modern philosophers — and by this I mean almost everything since Descartes — “Being” is a kind of lump, or physical solid, described abstractly. It doesn’t really do anything, it is just there. Whereas, to oversimplify Marion, it is not there at all, it is instead doing something.

But Christ is there, to be sure, as what have you — let us say, “pure gift.” And His there-ness, we are to understand, was from the beginning, before all worlds. “In principio” means not only in the beginning but also “in principle,” or “prior” in the philosophical sense. We might also supply “at” or “on” as alternative prepositions of place. I am not writing this to restrict the meaning of the opening of Saint John’s gospel, but rather by way of opening the star-gate. Our temporal notion of before and after may be viewed as a trap. To say of God, that He “was there, in the beginning,” i.e. the beginning of time, might lead us into a very confined, or constrictively modern, and finally atheist, apprehension of the Creation itself.

Or if you will, it will lead us back into the fatal Cartesian bifurcation, by way of various post-Cartesian imbecilities, in which God winds up this clock, then leaves it ticking till the end of time, perhaps dropping in Christ as a kind of daylight-savings-time mechanical correction. The machinery of Nature is allowed to be miraculous, on this view, but only just barely. For sure, it is something, or if you will, “not-nothing.” Being, against the atheistical background of non-being, comes as a surprise. Something appears to come out of nothing. (To which the atheist adds, “ho-hum.”) …

Observe, that it is “pure gift.”

The Creation is not like that clock, and cannot be like that. The temporal “in the beginning” continues as we speak. God has created, is creating, and will create and sustain in every moment, in perfect transcendence. I would add, too, in perfect immanence, except that notion is too easily misunderstood — thanks, I would say, to our received modern notion of Being as an abstractly-described physical solid; or if you will, that blockhead notion that comes from drinking too much empiricism and not vomiting enough.

For conversely, the very somethingness of God eliminates the possibility of nothingness. That somethingness may be beyond comprehension, but cannot be denied. I think of a mukhya Upanishad — composed long before Jesus, before even Buddha — in which I once read: “He is not a male. He is not a female. He is not a neuter. He neither is, nor is not. When he is sought he will take the form in which he is sought; but again he will not come in such a form. It is indeed difficult to describe the Name of the Lord.”

And the Messiah came in a form we were not expecting.

It will be noted that Christmas begins tomorrow night. In the crèche, in the holiness of the Nativity, we contemplate an astounding metaphysical fact. Our Lord has come to visit us “in person.” All the prophets have arrived in Bethlehem, in the humblest of rock-solid caves, with the animals, the sheep and shepherds of the fields, and too, the angels of the Creation. Not “elsewhere” but in the order of our own Being. Unbelievers may make of this what they will — some sweet little fairytale I suppose — but for me it cracks open that whole order of our Being. For everything that could be said about this world, it was not as it appeared.

The Love, the “pure gift”; the mystery of fatherhood in the person of Joseph, and of Mary the Mother of God; the fulfilment of all prophecy “from the beginning” — it is all there, in the crèche. The “ideas” that will be presented in due course, in the Life, the Teaching, the Crucifixion, and Resurrection, will be of necessity perfectly astounding, as they follow from this. But really I find even more astounding the bottomless simplicity of this question:

What child is this?

Enforced literacy

Once upon a time, when I was still employable in the Main Stream Media, or at least by the newspaper chain which owned the Ottawa Citizen, I had the pleasure of attending to the whims of a very public-spirited Publisher. An enthusiastic partisan of “enlightened self-interest,” he led each year our corporate campaign to promote Literacy. We, his editorial serfs in contractual bondage, were not directly ordered to sell subscriptions to the paper on streetcorners for the duration of this event. That was a “voluntary” activity, which I quietly avoided. Nor were we ordered, but rather “advised” to do, each in his (or her!) own station, whatever we could to promote the ideal of universal Literacy, if not literacy itself.

By way of acknowledging this advice, I contributed an annual column, either opposing Literacy, or extolling the virtues of illiterate people. If that didn’t help the cause, nothing would. The subtlety of my attack on compulsory education — for it reflected Alexander Pope’s dictum, “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring” — was ignored by my usual counter-attackers, focusing as they invariably did upon my own illiteracy and “one-figure IQ.” As I explained to this Publisher, when queried, I was doing my part. For what could I write that would more effectively inspire his goons to go spread the gospel of Literacy among the unlettered masses of Ottawa, Ontario?

My argument often consisted of memoir. It would be of one or another encounter with illiterate farming peasants or hill tribes from my earlier days of wandering in Asia. In them I had found happiness and purpose in life, and a supporting contentment with family and possessions, that in modern city life I had not detected. Also, I had found intelligent full attention: a capacity for observation and learning that was not characteristic of our urban slums. But most of all, I was impressed by their memories.

This last point was brought home to me by an old lady in a village of north-eastern Thailand. By chance I came to visit that village twice, at a remove of some years. My “central” Thai never rose to the level of “appalling,” and my command of the tones was winceingly comic, but here I was trying to make myself understood among speakers of another dialect of Thai.

The old lady in question — something of a sooth-sayer, but that is another story — greeted me on my return with what could have passed for affection. I listened while she delivered some kind of welcoming address. But as she spoke, other villagers began giggling softly, then more loudly, until they would split their sides. Whereas, I remained good-naturedly puzzled — wearing, I’m sure, that gormless, gently grinning expression which nice liberal people wear when they are out of their depth and beginning to be fearful for their lives.

Gradually it dawned, what was so funny. It was not what she was saying, but the way it was said. The old lady had remembered, it seemed, every word I’d spoken, or rather tried to speak, on my last visit — so precisely that she could now do an elaborate parody. The sun shone when I heard what sounded like my own voice, played back as if on a tape-recorder. She had my number. I did not have hers. Her mind, uncluttered by the impedimenta of literacy, had taken everything in.

One of the delights, in reading the old European travellers, as well those so recent as Redmond O’Hanlon, is to follow them into territory where all the “advantages of civilization” disappear, and they are now at the mercy of the natives. Perhaps only in such circumstances, in the natives’ own environment, can one hope to acquire the kind of respect which they in turn will require of their visitors. This would include respect for their technology, insofar as it may consist of things like blow-darts, or jungle traps for the most alert animals. But some modestly graduated version of this experience is available to any city boy, who drifts away from his own social and ecological niche.

I could rehearse here other parts of an argument that will already be familiar to the more than half-educated: e.g. the astounding range and subtlety which the anthropologists and linguists have found, embedded within languages never committed to writing, unless by some industrious Protestant missionary turning out elaborate parodies of the Bible. And here I am not referring to old clichés, such as how many words the Eskimos have for “snow.” (About the same number we have in English, but with a much greater range of modifiers.) And of course not to such tropes as the one about the New Guinea tribe that gets by on a word-list of less than two hundred. (For as I recall, the next visitor found they had more than that in their ornithological vocabulary alone; that most of them also spoke five or six other tribal languages; but that they restricted themselves to a kind of tribal Esperanto when dealing with visitors from farther away.) Modern, urban people are easy prey for almost any nonsense about “primitive tribesmen” — or anyone else not modern and urbane.

Rather I am referring to the scholarship that has accumulated over the last century or two on the extraordinary range, complexity, and grace of oral literatures. This began with the realization that the Iliad could not have been composed by a literate man, nor the Odyssey nor, once the lesson sank in, the Vedas, the Eddas, or any of the formative “texts” from ancient civilizations. Yet these works show every sign of having been “composed” — as opposed to the narrowly literate idea of “redacted.” To this day, one is compelled to smile (contemptuously) at “biblical textual scholars” presenting the Hebrew Genesis as if it had been assembled in drafts by a college committee.

Plato knew better, and though himself a sophisticated cosmopolitan, warned against the dangers, moral as intellectual, of literal-mindedness. The sincere man does not write, but teaches; the wise write only as an amusement, or for the sake of laying down a few reminders in case memory fails them in their old age. Aristotle, likewise, does not assume that the “cultured” depends on the “grammatical,” since the former is in every sense prior. And among my own Gaelic forebears on my mama’s side, there was a clear understanding that the content of books is only “known of.” What is actually known, can be recited.

They were unfortunately the first victims of a Literacy Crusade, sprung in Reformation Scotland, by Calvinist fanatics animated by the demonstrably insane idea that everyone must be forced to read, so they may then be forced to read the Scriptures, then forced to subscribe to the Calvinist interpretation of them, and finally forced to declare that they had come to these Calvinist conclusions entirely on their own. Scotland became the first benighted country in the history of this galaxy to achieve universal literacy, from a system of compulsory state schooling that, in its descendant form, remains an affliction upon every North American child. It is the great enforcer of dark ignorance and servile conformity — or, “democracy” to use the more common term.

Baloney or Bologna?

A progressive lady of my acquaintance has characterized my statement in the last post, that “a certain minority of talented women have always flourished outside the home,” as — and I quote — “Baloney!” She notes that prior to the Great War, women were not admitted to British universities, or practically anywhere else in the English-speaking world.

To this, one must inevitably reply, “Bologna!” — alluding of course to the ancient Italian town, whose university, developed from a law school, has been admitting students of both sexes from across Europe for at least one thousand years, and rather more if we take it back to the foundation by Theodosius in 425. One remembers among its professors for instance the learned (and very beautiful) Novella d’Andrea in the 14th century; or Laura Bassi, the illustrious mathematician and physicist; or Signora Mazzolini, the incisive anatomist; or Clotilda Tambroni the poetess, philologist, and Greek classicist.

It is true that a major feature of the Protestant Reformation consisted of closing women out of academic and other areas of public life. One thinks of John Knox, and his pamphlet, First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, and other expostulations of that kind from the old anti-Catholic propaganda. But as Catholics we can hardly be held accountable for it: his was the very sort of narrowness we were fighting.

As the former prime ministrix of France, Édith Cresson, pointed out to reporters back in 1991, there has always been something of a problem with “Anglo-Saxon men.” Asked what she meant by an American reporter, she explained that, “They aren’t really men, they are all homosexual.” (As there was some surprise at this remark, she then qualified it by saying, “Well, not all the Anglo-Saxon men, of course. Perhaps only 35 or 40 percent. But you know what I mean.”)

Cherchez la femme

My first encounter with “demography is destiny” was as an adolescent, reading The Estate of Man, by Michael Roberts. This remarkable poet, mathematician, philosophical thinker, and mountaineer, died young, leaving the book as an uncompleted manuscript from which his (also remarkable) wife, Janet, salvaged seven chapters. It was intended as a general survey of planetary husbandry, and built upon his own earlier works, including The Recovery of the West, written in reply to general discussion of “the decline of Europe.” Roberts was a member of the Auden generation, in the 1930s — among the fashionable young Leftists in the decade before they all grew up and became reactionaries. But Roberts himself had a mind strangely unbefuddled by contemporary vogues, trends, and manias. He was able both to join and then get expelled from the British Communist Party during a single term at Cambridge — perhaps the record for quick learning. It is a pity we lost him, for he would likely have continued growing, into a fine complement for Christopher Dawson.

The statistics cited, from that antediluvian age, before the Baby Boom winked in the eye of the Blitz over London, seem oddly familiar today. Or rather, the trendlines are familiar, and public moaning in the ‘thirties about everything from falling European birthrates, to overpopulation elsewhere, the depletion of oil and coal reserves, the arms races, impending environmental ruin and the like, provide a useful reminder — that all statistical trends are Malthusian, and will show from any point in time that we are going irretrievably to hell. Roberts was an unusual public intellectual, for while he had an uncommon mastery of statistical methods and processes, he was not enslaved by them. Twenty years after his death, he became my teacher for the proposition that “all trends are reversible,” and for the insight that they tend to conceal rather than reveal their own causes. Most interesting, Roberts had a mind not only quick, but by disposition also faithful and chaste. Thus he was endowed with the power to see through momentary excitements and distractions.

He was beginning to see, like Dawson, the extraordinary role of faith itself in the sequences of history. Faith is the great life-giving force, and the loss of faith is death-dealing. By this we do not mean only Christian faith, for the same principle applies in all cultures, and has applied since time out of mind.

The classical example is “the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.” As the pagan Romans lost faith in their own civilization, they stopped having babies. They rehearsed almost all the features of our modern West in their own later decadence: the sophisticated rejection of religious observances; the confident smugness of the half-educated; the degradation of family life; the acceptance of public pornography, and openly perverse liaisons; couch-potato obsessions with circus and professionalized gladiatorial sports; the shift from pride in productivity, to a shameless consumerism; the aesthetic decline in all manufactures; the spread of dishonourable trade practices; the inflation of money, and in all other kinds; debt crises; the growing dependence upon immigrant slaves and other cheap labour for all unpleasant work, including everything required of the Roman armies; the appeasement of enemies, and extravagant buying off of the tribal savages, now being let inside their frontiers. In a word, “individualism,” or in another, “atomization.” Stage by stage, we watch the implosion, until finally we have that wonderful spectacle conveyed in the painting of Delacroix: “Attila the Hun, followed by his hordes, trample Italy and the Arts.”

A more careful historian would not present this decline as continuous, however. As we focus, we see the Roman hesitation. After taking steps back, they take steps forward. There were decades of recovery, when one could imagine the sage pundits of Rome saying, “What were we so worried about?” and boasting of the new Roman hyperpower after winning obscure bush wars. The sense of invincibility would seem to be returning, along with faith in Roman institutions. Then it falters again, because in prosperity the old Roman chests had been emptying out. They no longer believed in their own future, let alone in their gods. They had no mission any more, and could barely cope with even minor disasters. Still, they put off their fate for centuries, until the last legions scattered or ran home.

But here is the mystery of our human history, in which nothing is inevitable, except in retrospect. The modern West will not go the way of Rome. It will go some other way; perhaps even to a restoration of sense, and recovery of faith — in our own Lord, and by extension, in our own future as a civilization. For after all, not everyone has stopped having children, as the faithless diligently weed themselves out of the garden of genes. All the symptoms of decline are there, but also symptoms of the Western “exceptionalism.” The Catholic Church, for instance, is not dead in the West, by a long shot. (See the millions of kids at those papal “youth days.”) She wins converts regularly among the best-educated, and that regardless of what is done in Rome. In the balance the Church is wanting, but she has always been wanting, in a world that has always been in a mess.


What was the cause of the Baby Boom? The standard answer is, it came from the War: that after a good war, the population is restocking. There is some truth in this, and after the First World War I think the birthrate rose a bit. But not for long, and as I learnt from Michael Roberts, in countries like France it fell and fell. After the Second World War it kept rising — a phenomenon that extended into the early 1960s. And then it reversed itself, at the very height of our post-War prosperity, and has continued falling, mostly, since. What can explain this?

From what I am able to understand, faith explains it. There was a remarkable revival of Christian faith, and of all the trappings of it (including “family values”), which began in the horror of that last War, and persisted right through the ‘fifties. The phenomena are of course statistically complex, and cannot be reduced to some smooth curve. Nevertheless, a trend was reversing that had reversed before; and for centuries now Christianity in the West has been on its way out, and then improbably returning. The Catholic Church has, by now, been beaten into the prospect of extinction many times. The obituaries for her were being written a hundred years ago, and throughout the 18th century, and at key moments in the 17th and 16th as well. In the United States, evangelical revivals have been a repeating surprise. And today we have the unprecedented luxury of watching Christian converts from Africa and Asia, returning as missionaries to the countries from which missionaries once proceeded.

All trends are reversible, and I do not think the West can be counted out. Without the Christianity that formed it, and gives it meaning, it is of course stone dead. But we have, itching under our skin, a religion that is better than we are, and for all evidence to the contrary it will not simply go away. We evict Christ by the front door, but our servants keep letting him in the back. And in our hearts, and our worst misfortunes, we still instinctively reach for Him. Secretly, we don’t want to die.

Demography is not destiny, because the trends can change. In some parts of Europe the birthrate is such (Hungary for example, now below one child per woman) that a nation must surely go down the plug hole; in other parts, the numbers are beginning to rise again. As David Goldman (also known as “Spengler”) elaborately explains, something worse than what has happened in Europe is happening all around Europe. The birthrates in the Islamic countries (Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Iran, &c) have plummeted to below Europe’s. In a single generation, Iran for instance has gone from 6.0 to 1.6 children per woman, and that birthrate is still falling. Similar drops may be tracked elsewhere in the “third world,” and in the “tiger economies” of the Far East. The demographic sepuku of Japan is stunning; but also through China and South-east Asia populations must fall; India is now following them onto the slide. By its comparatively gradual decline, Europe has been holding up relatively well, and over here in North America, we have held up a little better.

What was the cause? The explanation I will give is from my own experience as a traveller, and my habitual efforts to keep informed about the countries I have visited. It is, to my mind, a loss of faith: but a more profound loss than in the West. The particulars are of course different from location to location, but as a general rule, the alternatives to Christian faith have been found much less capable of surviving the onslaught of our so-called “secular humanism.” The raw materialism of capitalism and socialism has, even more spectacularly than in the West, hollowed out religious traditions everywhere. And this to such a degree, that the exceptions prove the rule: for wherever we find what looks like a revival, it is of a de-spiritualized religion, politicized in ethnic rivalries — almost entirely, from both sides, along what Samuel Huntington infamously (but accurately) called, “Islam’s bloody borders.”

Similarly, the violence within the Islamic world — proximately caused by “Islamism” — is the product of civilizational despair. That is, loss of faith. As I have written elsewhere, the cross-section of a Muslim terrorist displays religious fanatic on the outside, but atheist within. He is not killing people because he believes, but because he has nothing left to live for, having become inwardly convinced that his own civilization really is done for: that it has been badly beaten in a competition with the West that centuries ago it seemed to be winning, and that main force is all that remains. My clue in this has been, all along, the very calling of the suicide bomber. Traditional Islam in every sect condemned suicide unambiguously; condemned murder unambiguously. The people who claim to defend Islam by murder-suicide, cannot possibly believe its actual teachings. But it is not just them. The collapsing birthrates, in cultures that were intensely child-friendly, everywhere proclaim this abandonment of hope.

Whether in West or East, however, the mechanism of societal disintegration is the same. It could be described in one phrase as “the liberation of women.” The modern economy lures women away from home and family with (ludicrously false) promises of wealth, pleasure, and freedom. Industry required a more docile labour force, the State required revenues from double-income taxation. At a level more fundamental than economics, the times have offered atomizing ideologies — the promise of “democracy” in which everyone will be treated the same, whether man, woman, or some other thing. As Goldman has rather plainly shown (and Roberts showed long before him), we must cherchez la femme.

For women are, as they have always been, the bedrock of both family and religion. Men have, and will be by nature (whether this is recognized or not) the hunters and gatherers and bread winners. There is no point in debating this, for either one gets it or one is wilfully obtuse. A certain minority of talented women have always flourished outside the home, and perhaps a like proportion of men not flourished in the absence of any marketable skills — but the case is straightforward in the main. What we have been enduring, for a century now, is an attempt to change the order of the world by social and sometimes genetic engineering; with results clearly visible all around us, to say nothing of the grief and loneliness and self-pity that each of us is carrying inside.

Curiously enough, Goldman homes in on a statistical fact that Roberts elided. It is that a sharply increasing female literacy rate is a more or less infallible predictor of demographic collapse, in all non-Western countries. Or as I mischievously put it, on Twitter only last night, “statistically and objectively, the quickest way to destroy a nation is to teach their women to read.”

This remark would invite several gallant qualifications. The modern emancipation of women began in the West, where Christian teaching had always accorded women the greatest respect. The social changes were therefore slower and easier to assimilate, here. It is when what happened more gradually in the West, happens more suddenly in the East, that the transformation becomes catastrophic. The whole ancestral order of society comes down, in one generation rather than four or five. And they haven’t seen the worst of it yet, for the West had accumulated reserves of wealth, with which to pay some pensions and geriatric bills. The East will face a more dramatically ageing population, without the reserves.

It makes no sense to gloat, that “the other” is now perishing faster than we are. It should behove us instead to help him if we can. As prudent creatures, we should consider how.

Trying to think this question through, I have come to only one conclusion. Our attempts to export “democracy,” or “free markets,” or “socialism,” or our agnostic materialism whatever it is called — along the paths of rapine scythed by our ancestors — should cease forthwith. Our “secular humanism” has done nothing but undermine and smash, wherever it has landed in foreign cultures, at terrible cost in human souls. Carrying with ourselves a priceless treasure, we sold them what instead? And instead now of hoping we can buy it back, and somehow retrieve our old prosperity and domination, we should take stock of all we have achieved: Nothing. The virus of Christianity spread largely on its own: a few faithful priests tagging along with thousands of compromised traders and raiders; true Christian evangelists, often more repugnant to the colonial authorities than to the natives they first encountered. But that era is over, will not come again, and the circumstances now demand from us a new way of thinking.

Under these new circumstances we should, I think, throw all our resources, material as spiritual, first into re-Christianizing ourselves. And then, where any chance arises, throw what remains into helping our neighbours to Christianize themselves, against all the false promises of this world. For in my settled opinion, only Christ can help us; and at this point so late in the day, only Christ can help them.


And again, it strikes me, cherchez la femme. A woman comes into this in the figure of Mary, commonly venerated by the grace of God not only through what remains of Christendom, but also what remains of the Dar al-Islam. I think on Fatima, but more especially upon Our Lady of Zeitoun (near Cairo, 2nd April 1968, and multiple subsequent apparitions, before immense crowds, photographed and video-recorded from so many angles and by so many cameras as to obviate any possibility of a hoax). It is she, above all, in her own light as “Our Lady of Light,” upon the roof of her own church at Zeitoun — along with those “bursts of diamonds” and “explosions of incense” to which hundreds of thousands of witnesses attested — who calls upon this world. Before Muslim and Christian alike, she was seen standing, and kneeling, alone; then again and again, presenting the Child, cradled in her arms. It is she, to us all, who, I believe, points the only viable way forward.

A proper twit

For the last fortnight, not that anyone has noticed, I have been, as it were, enrolled in the Twitterversity, so that I find at the time of this writing I have ping’d some one hundred and sixty-nine “tweets.” I was put up to this by well-inclined people, at least one of whom argued plausibly that as I do still scan the Internet, as I once scanned newspapers and magazines, and I will make gratuitous comments on the sludge I am reading as I go along, I might as well post such remarks in a place where they can be a source of irritation to a wider audience — and a lure to these “Essays in Idleness,” where a fuller and more formal trial of gentle reader’s ability to withstand abuse can be administered.

Note that this my Twitter feed can be found here, and should be flagged or “bookmarked” by all masochists. I now consider it to be “my other website,” or if you will, a bonus offered to my subscribers — absolutely free! And whereas I largely eschew use of Uniform Resource Locators in the text of these essays, because they are crass, in Twitterdom they are much the whole point, and my tweets have been and will be full of them.

As an incurable old hack, this gives me an opportunity to point towards events the Main Stream Media are eager to avoid reporting, or to other items on the Internet that would not be to their taste; leaving the tiniest little space to explain what it is that I have found interesting. This makes an amusing exercise, given the limitation of individual posts to 140 characters, net. I am taken back to headline-writing days on the old dead-tree newspapers, where the trick was to fit, into an extremely confined space, as much honest mischief as one thought one’s superiors might allow or, since they allowed very little, fail to understand.

Truth told, I got constantly into trouble for the headlines I had written — usually the next morning, when some earnest colleague would explain the meaning to the publisher, with a comment such as, “Looks like Warren has done it again.” (Often I was charged with “obscurity,” when the problem was that my obscurantism had failed.) Between that, and my childish propensity to practical joking, I was not fated to rise in the journalistic world; especially in North America, where dullness is held among the categorical imperatives, along with conformity to the reigning ideological order.

That no one, under any circumstance, should stoop to reading or writing Tweets, might go without an argument. But like so many other things, starting with the practice of journalism itself, “the world’s second-oldest profession,” I do it anyway. (One must, after all, do something for a living, when one lacks talents or skills.) It seems a suitable medium to the age, in which everything is written on water, and I trust God to make the best of it. I, for my part, have only to disseminate so much of the truth as I think I may have grasped: not much, but something.

Another little kick

By way of belabouring my last post, and replying to an off-screen Texas correspondent, and other commendable tea-drinkers of his ilk, the “roadmap to Utopia” we are discussing at the moment could follow an itinerary like this: Henry VIII; Bacon, Descartes; Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau; Jefferson; Robespierre; Marx, Darwin, Freud; then Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, environmentalism, &c.  One could draw other squiggly paths — this list needs more Prussians, and adoptive Prussians. From American shorthand we are supplied with the term “Positivism,” in the sense of legal positivism. The word is in itself already an essay in reductionism, which involves anachronism, too. But it does give something of the Baconian bouquet, albeit with that ghastly Comtian finish.

When I defend USA to Europeans, I say they tried to get off the bus at Locke; but the bus keeps travelling towards the other camp destinations, often almost robotically. By now, a driver like Barack Obama is hardly aware that the road has two lanes; that one could, at least “in theory,” be travelling along it in the other direction. And this in turn is my excuse for Obama. I honestly don’t think he is “plotting” anything, beyond the commonplace political deceits which are the stock-in-trade of democracy. He just doesn’t know any better.

The same could be said about most of the somewhat-libertarian “conservatives” I know, whose purchase on what we have agreed to call “positivism” is Black-Friday reckless. For the background enemy position has been reinforced with centuries of tedious propaganda, and there they are in the Walmart.

And it is still coming. Having quickly perused the publicity blather for e.g. Daniel Hannan’s bestseller, Inventing Freedom (and on the other side of the sea, under the more explicit title, How We Invented Freedom), I can recommend it to all my “neo-conservative” friends. I can see they will like it. For it is a mishmash of all the tired old Protestant clichés, encrusting upon the stalk of Anglo-Saxon chauvinism. (Yes, Lincoln at Gettysburg was quoting Wycliffe, and that’s exactly what’s wrong with “of, by, and for the people.”) The old Whig pomposity survives, long after its historical account of itself was blown away by serious historical scholarship. People know so little history today, and these clichés are so flattering to their English-speaking ignorance, that Mr Hannan’s latest can be hailed as some boldly original Torch-of-Liberty blaze, when it is really the same old wet sawdust and a patient man with a Bic lighter.

I like him, incidentally. As politicians go, he is several cuts above mediocrity, and the fact he thinks at all is quite remarkable. Like Burke, he is of Irish Catholic descent, and comes to his British Imperial delusions as an immigrant. He has Hayek’s view that less government is better; along with Hayek’s view that some things ought to be against the law regardless of their profitability. I have chosen him for my example because he is the sort of political company in which almost any current political “conservative” would wish to be. I would certainly take tea with him myself, for “democracy” is what we have at the moment, and Christian irony requires us to enjoy what we have, with biscuits.

Notwithstanding, let me observe, that the “democratic” political battle today is between less-government Positivists who usually like foreign wars, and more-government Positivists who prefer domestic ones. This leaves little room for those against Positivism. I should myself have liked to get off the bus around the time of Henry VII, and would have been willing to walk home from there.

What I look for in a political order is all the usual mediaeval things: simplicity of conception, modesty of intention, stability, predictability, the fear of God, and the habit of staying out of our pretty faces. Texans may argue that the USA, thanks to some “inalienable rights” written into their Constitution, comes closer to delivering on this than, say, Canada or the U.K. or continental Europe. They are probably right, God bless them. But they have also missed the point.

The salient point is that the USA Constitution was itself triumphantly Lockean, or if you will, Positivist. It is the oldest such, and by now that Positivism has spread throughout the West, in many increasingly virulent forms, which incidentally wash back on the USA and get copied there. Healthcare for instance: no possible business of the guvmint’s on any soundly mediaeval scheme.

Killing babies: now that is the government’s business, because it is a form of murder, which ought to be discouraged by Law. Nor do we depend on medical expertise to discern that, though high technology has made the truth clearer to anyone who wants to look. Let me just presume that even libertarians might request State assistance against murder, occasionally.

The old States in former Christendom were generally concerned with the enforcement of the Ten Commandments, which they took as having unanswerably divine “thou shalt” authority, without the least need of an election. This is why, for instance, open atheism and heresy would have been a concern to them: because they were a direct attack on Everything. Atheist positivism has reduced those Commandments to maybe three, with qualifications; then added four hundred and thirty-two more, plus seventeen billion pages of regulations. My opposition to this depends in no way upon libertarianism, and I resent the suggestion that it ever might do. Please, if you’re going to use language like that, call me anarcho-feudalist.

The bus of progressive Positivism rolls on — over the Dantean tiers, if you ask me — and those who want to get off are themselves accused of “relativism.” That is because we keep asking to be let off the bus at different locations, whereas the desire is really perfectly consistent: just let us off your bloody bus! We find ourselves defending one or another status quo ante, each of which must be an ipso facto compromise with the prevailing direction of the bus. American conservatives, for instance, anxious for the honour of their own Revolutionary Constitution, want to turn the clock back only that far (“strict constructionism”), which would hardly be far enough back for a genuinely loyal Canadian. We sniff at all that Lockean and Jeffersonian madness.

The attitudes of my Loyalist ancestors, so far as I can discern them going back to the very first American Civil War in the 1770s, was itself shockingly “positivist.” Most had bought into the inaptly named “Glorious Revolution” in England, and all apparently into the Protestant succession. My ancestors were far from perfect, as I concede from time to time.  But they felt in their guts there was something wrong in pushing envelopes of “Liberty” and “Enlightenment” any farther. In that sense they were “conservatives” like Texans, saying with all its faults we’ll keep the constitution we have, which gives the colonial politicians scope enough (Texas today is a mildly rebellious colony of the District of Columbia); and wait for any solecism to be corrected in a constitutional manner. In that context, I would have been loading my musket with them.

What more interests me, however, is the Loyalists’ deeper “Crown and Altar” gut feeling, which one might characterize as a mediaeval survival: an instinctive reference to the anciently established order of Christendom. In Quebec this was gloriously Catholic to boot, and some of these modern “positivist” attitudes did not fully penetrate that province until well into the 20th century — whenupon the poor sods finally lost their courage, and went bat-feathering insane. Indeed, the remaining spiritual superstructure of French Canadian society disintegrated all at once in a specific year: 1960. That aspect is fascinating: for rural Quebec was, along perhaps with western Ireland and some mountain fastnesses in Spain and Italy, among the last of this world’s beautifully mediaeval backwaters.

My Loyalists and these Frenchmen — and believe me, we did not naturally take to each other in a spontaneous way — joined forces for a last stand, and actually pulled off “Canada.” That was something that still gives me a bit of the goosebumps: beating back the Yankee invaders of 1776 and 1812 (with some thanks to the Royal Navy).

There is a book by one of those Frenchmen named Lanctot on the improbable loyalty of his kind to His Britannic Majesty at the time of the Revolution — to say nothing of later when the alternative to the Crown was the prim and rather shrieky little Catholic-baiting James Madison, Jr. It is really rather moving, the way those Habitants joined up voluntarily, in gallant numbers, to fight for our royal British cause — while the sleazy English merchants of Montreal, protective of their delicate sons, were cutting sorry deals with the Yankees.

But my point was going to be: subscription to the old motto of the fine Province of Ontario (Ut incepit fidelis sic permanet; “Loyal she began, and loyal she remains”). The cause to which this motto specifically referred is long lost, according to the conventional view. Yet one still stands, in solidarity with one’s own oddly Calvinist ancestors, in the deeper memory of a legitimate and Christian order that was simple, modest, stable, predictable, God-fearing, and out of our pretty faces.

Locke the key

Locke hardly read Hobbes, denied having read him when asked, and among Locke’s surviving notes which suggest serious attention to a wide range of authors, there would seem to be only one mention of Hobbes, and that rather dismissive. So that when I casually remarked, somewhere the other day, that Locke developed certain ideas from Hobbes I was, strictly speaking, uttering nonsense. I often do that, and feel slightly embarrassed later. Curiously, it was the mere sight of the spine of Laslett’s edition of Locke’s Two Treatises that sobered me, afterwards. (If I lived off e-books, I’d have no such prompts.) It has a long and, in the best sense, scholarly introduction I suddenly remembered having perused.

But I’m a hack, a mere journalist, wandering ignorantly through space and time, and people like me do not bother with footnotes. We find them too confining; raw memory will serve. (My hero Kipling refused even to keep notebooks.) What I think I meant was that Hobbes appropriated various ideas about the nature of politics and the human condition from the plein air, as it was circulating in his time; and Locke developed the same in the next generation.

Locke himself, pillar of our modern Gringo world, and the Anglo bits especially, is a slew of self-contradictions and vague sourceless references (see Laslett, again). Yet he was, too, a meticulous, if ignored, reviser of his own manuscripts. Charged, for instance, with having no intellectual appreciation of the foundations of Natural Law, he would become very snooty and fix the text in which he had left that impression. It was not his fault that all his careful corrections were dispersed unread at his death, only to be rediscovered centuries later. Others among his eccentricities incline me to love him as at least a fellow hack, ducking and weaving through the mudfights of his time, inching towards the celestial castle on its promontory, far far away.

It was in realizing my own, typically Twitterish mistake, that I recalled what made Locke, even more than Hobbes, novel and frightening and exhilarating to his own first readers. Hobbes’s nastiness, brutality, and shortness, is conducted in a full view of actual history. He sparkles with classical and biblical allusion, with his sense of the development of civil law, with an insistence on cumulative human experience. His prose style itself — among the most magnificent exhibitions of the English language — designedly throbs with such particulars, and is fretted with the old poetical renderings of beautiful words such as “warre.” To my mind, he is the enemy, but a fine and worthy one. I could close a pub, drinking with that man.

Locke is an enemy of a different, and rather abstemious kind. He writes almost exclusively about politics and the human condition “in principle,” and with an indifference to heritage that makes him seem sometimes to have been born yesterday. This was the revolutionary thrill he gave many of his interpreters: who felt, reading him, the power of his tabula rasa — his notion that the human child arrives in the world with a blank slate, upon which almost anything can be written. This was the kind of liberation he offered. Henceforth the old Aristotelian order was truly overthrown, and the work of Enlightenment could proceed. The American Constitution, to give just one example, could not exist without Locke, written as it was in the belief that we could throw out everything and start again. Rousseau and Revolution were, if I may make another of my irresponsible assertions, communicated by Locke’s key from England also unto France. (The French will deny this.) And history, uncoupled from its former drivers, could slide with a new, gravitationally-assisted speed, towards the Finland Station.

Is this a wild overstatement? Do I take Locke too seriously? Of that, my learned reader must decide. I, for my part, am content if I have found no more than a means to justify my absurd, almost perverse love for Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. For he was arguably the last of our literary, i.e. readable, political philosophers — those who assumed that the moral of the story must emerge from the telling of the story, as from the life lived; and that it does not descend from the sky as a species of sterilized gezo or manna. Even David Hume can be seen as something of a reactionary in this light, with his great concern for an actual British history, and his backward-looking habit of writing well. Even Voltaire (as I explained once in some review of a book by John Ralston-Purina) could be presented as a soi-disant Tory in this light, oriented to the past, by comparison to his self-styled “bastards.” Though if a Tory, Voltaire was, like Hume, a rather glib one.

To put this another way, I feel more at home in a house with furniture. And this, even if the furniture is a little tacky. I like to be able to sit somewhere: to find a chair, then maybe a pot to boil my lentils. I do not like to conjure them from scratch.