Essays in Idleness


Holy Trinity

It was all explained to me on a bridge in London, some thirty-nine years ago, yet I still find it an unplumbable mystery, this “Holy Trinity” of Whom Christians speak. It makes sense, it is biblically and theologically explicable to anyone sufficiently patient, and yet it is so far beyond normal human reach and comprehension that we must consider it a miracle in normal, historical terms: how people have continued to believe it.

When, in the early sixteenth century, the whole of the Western Church began to split apart, almost all of the splinter groups took away with them the trinitarian “concept.” Though it was not “rational” to the conventionally “rationalist” mind — which is reductionist to a (grievous) fault — the brethren who were separating themselves wanted to remain Christian. They realized that without this bold conception of the Trinity — inferred throughout the New Testament, and often hinted in the Old — they would cease to be Christian.

The Socinians, and others of that ilk (Arminians, Remonstrants, Unitarians and so forth), quickly demonstrated what happens to Christianity when trinitarianism is abandoned. We do not go from “three-in-one and one-in-three” to “one-in-one.” Instead, in the effort to retrieve Christ from a rapidly condensing theology, while avoiding dualism and pantheism, we go to something like “one-and-a-half in one,” or perhaps, “one-and-a-quarter in one-and-three-eighths,” bouncing back and forth off gnostic walls long before erected. It is a fascinating history, from the remoter reaches of Poland and Transylvania to points west, and through psilanthropic and ebionitic bat-flights, as quite intelligent but pathologically unwise people (like my abandoned hero, Coleridge) try to construct plausible Christologies in their own brains, with important bits missing.

Islam had long before offered the truly unitarian “option,” a heresy more natural to the East. Here the fascination is in the first century after Mohammed had transmitted some part of the Koran. (Scholarly inquiry into the actual development of the Koranic texts is suppressed today, in both East and West, with the threat of violence.)

The best minds of the Islamic conversion went right to work developing a unitarian theology, and soon discovered that if made self-consistent, it must also be incredibly boring. For it made the “otherness” of Allah too complete; so complete that it keeps batting back the question: why Mohammad? Why any prophet at all? Within that century the better Muslim minds turned all their attention instead to Shariah. Why vex themselves with truisms that keep going circular on them, when they could be indulging the far more agreeable pastime of bossing people around?

But isn’t Judaism essentially unitarian? To be sure, it is not doctrinally trinitarian, but that mysteriously plural quality, puritanically rejected in Islam, is implicit throughout Hebrew scripture, and necessary to the nature of God in His works. He is discerned by the Prophets in different aspects that a Christian recognizes as personhoods — but not as multiple gods. The “Sonship” is manifest throughout, in the chosen nature of the Israelites themselves; the Holy Spirit is constantly proceeding, behind, above, beyond the inscrutable transformation of a desert tribe into a universal expression of the divine will. God is not “one” like Moses. “I am that I am” lies unknowably beyond that, both immanent and transcendent.

Christian, and to my view, ultimately Catholic faith alone delivers to us this profound insight, of the unity of God in Three Persons. But once delivered, it reveals depths of knowledge not only of God but of ourselves. Most crucially: Love is a perpetual conversation within that “godhead,” to which we are ourselves ingathered. This is the mysterious human word to convey the infinitely divine quality that requires this “plurality” (co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial) of ingathering.

In saying that “God is Love” we are already acknowledging a triadic “beingness of being,” as it were — a love for one to another from which Another can never be excluded. It seems to me from my weak understanding that this is echoed, too, in our human world, wherein the love of a man and a woman is sealed in the love of God, and open not merely to the biological generation of a child, but pre-existently to the love of that child — re-echoing in turn the Divine Love, which is absolute, which is not conditional.

This is all from a depth into which we cannot see, yet from which all that we can see is proceeding. We cannot know more about God than God; but can descry, in Revelation, enough about God to Love Him as our all-in-all.

Often it is said, by the glib, that there is no Doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible. This from people who either have not read the Bible, or have not understood anything they’ve read. For the Bible does not contain doctrines. It contains matter from which doctrines are construed. God does not Himself speak in doctrines, but in commands. The doctrines follow from what has been said, and are necessary to avoid misunderstanding.

And mostly they are dead obvious, as this one, forespoken in the baptismal formula of Matthew 28, to be uttered always and irreducibly: “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Obedience to tradition

Perhaps I have already confessed to gentle reader the mischievous tricks I play on animals. On the purple finches, and finchesses, now accustomed to free lunch on the balconata of the High Doganate — or rather, early breakfast, then snacks throughout the day — I have played a good one.

Formerly, I was feeding them from a tray at some distance from my writing station; but now I arrange their preferred sunflower seeds along the outside ledge of my window. A screen alone separates the little one, just now crackling and gobbling, from your Idleposter, typing inside.

I am no ornithologist, able to judge the age of a bird at one glance, but am sure this fellow is young, quite young. Young, and therefore fearless, or rather, poorly informed. Even my more sudden movements do not drive him away. Catch him young and, I speculate, one might tame him.

They are melodious creatures, and my motive for luring them along the ledge to the screen was not only to see, but to hear them at close quarters: to learn, if it were possible, a little of the language in which they poetically delight, and the choral arrangements for the singing of their Hours, starting with Lauds about five in the morning.

Much is explained by circumstance. Just earlier, an older finch alone on my railing was chirping earnestly to unseen companions. It was easy to follow. In English translation, his soliloquy went like this:

“I want to crackle and gobble some seeds, but I’m not up to risking it alone. There’s a fresh lot here that The Monster has put out. Are any of you birds hungry? I need five or six for safety. Is Tommy the Guardsman there?”

Normally they feed in groups, and I have noticed one of the group — usually tall Tommy — will stretch himself up to his fullest standing height, and stare through the screen at me directly. He will tolerate me sitting still, but at the first sign of movement, he shrills, and all fly off instantly.

The little one (who has taken his fill, and now flown at his leisure), would flee, too, if he heard the alarm. But he doesn’t because there is no adult to sound it. He would if I came suddenly out the door: he’d flap off in wild agitation. But for the moment my body language is lost on him. He isn’t looking for it.

He will learn, as he grows, from obedience. Eventually the penny will drop for him; all the pennies — why the elders do as they do. And later, how to sound the various alarms, when he has his own hatchlings.

A liberal or other evolutionist would say the little one is smarter. By ignoring my movements, he got his fill. An adult, landing solo, would have taken one seed, to eat elsewhere. Then perhaps returned, for one more. He would do this from his mature calculation of the risks and benefits.

The old should learn from the young, the liberal would say, the way they do in Ireland. The birds should have a debate, and pass legislation, henceforth to ignore the peril. And then they can all eat, until they are very fat.

But no, my children, preserve the ancient ways.

You do not know the buzzard, which also alights sometimes on my balconata railing. You only know from trust the language of the elders; that you must intently listen, and obey.

For the language of alarm among these finches is complex, and crisp, but subtle. Humbly, they must learn.

When I move, inside the window, they fly off as one flock, all in the same direction. But as the buzzard is spied approaching, they fly off every which way. This is not mere panic. By doing so they confuse him, and provide such a choice of targets, that he must waste the moment in deciding which to pursue. They’ll be each under cover by the time he can react.

And the buzzard knows that, too. He merely lands on the rail, conserving his great dignity, as if nabbing a juicy morsel of finch-flesh were the farthest thing from his mind. For he is a proud animal, who’d rather starve than be made a fool of. He won’t give my tiny finches the sweet satisfaction of being chased, and getting away.

My beloved finches (and finchesses) know the game; they know the difference between The Monster and The Buzzard. From joyful play and long practice they know their signals, which are old and wise.

Wilhelm Roepke

In order to have a cottage on a secluded lake, within several hundred miles of the High Doganate, one must now own the lake. I haven’t fact-checked this exhaustively, however. There may be a virgin, mosquito-infested puddle north of Sudbury somewhere, that no one has claimed. Parks are nice, but everything pleasant beyond them has been scooped up.

Find a lake of exceptional primaeval beauty, and you have found motorboats, monster homes, and an “infrastructure” being noisily installed and constantly repaired or upgraded; the peace once offered now draining or drained away. This includes the drive to the cottage, which becomes an ever longer horrible experience for the whole family.

The solution, as any businessman or free-market enthusiast will see, is to increase production of secluded lakes. Too, we could take existing, unused secluded lakes, presently in remote and inaccessible wilderness locations, and move them closer to the city.

On further inquiry it turns out this cannot be done. I could explain why, but I fear this would over-extend my patience.

Better, I could refer gentle reader to the works of Wilhelm Roepke, the German economist and social thinker who was the principal architect of the “economic miracle” achieved by Ludwig Erhard (under Konrad Adenauer) — which began three years after the Second World War. Roepke and colleagues were able to explain to this unusually intelligent politician why the continuation of Adolf Hitler’s economic policies — insisted upon by the American, British, and French occupation authorities — could only lead to the continuation of hunger, collapse, social disintegration. Erhard bravely followed Roepke’s “anti-plan.”

Overnight, a slew of financial and other regulations were rescinded, and a new hard currency was launched — more or less behind the occupiers’ backs. Then deeper layers of Bismarckian Nanny Statism were cunningly disassembled. Overnight, Germany began to recover, then prosper. In little time the German economy had overtaken that of e.g. Britain, where the very policies Germany had abandoned were being imposed by Clement Attlee’s “moderate Left” (the policies which Margaret Thatcher finally reversed to trigger a British “economic miracle” in the 1980s).

This, anyway, is the myth upon which the free-market, open-society, Mont Pelerin Society feeds. Like some other myths, it is essentially true. I used to hang about the edges of this club myself, years ago. Roepke was a founder and member until 1962, when a big fight with Friedrich Hayek led to his departure.

Germany’s “economic miracle” lifted all boats — for a while. It saved Germany from a revolutionary socialist implosion. But it was only a quick fix. Roepke, while he lived (1899–1966), tirelessly pointed to the limitations of laissez-faire formulas. The quick fix may quickly fix a few things, in a catastrophe; but over a longer period a longer fix will be required, involving ever less hocus-pocus. Values beyond those of economic necessity must be not only restored, but cultivated. They must survive in the hearts of the people themselves; religion is not “optional.”

I’ve been reminded of Roepke by a chance trail of Internet links, which led me to articles about him from the 1990s, by his disciple Ralph Ancil, which have resurfaced at an interesting website called The Imaginative Conservative. They may give my Hayekian readers some idea of what Roepke’s fight with him was about; or vice versa, for I gather Hayek picked it.

(Only “some idea,” however, and while I have shifted away from the “Austrian School” myself, to a broader and more catholic view of life and society, more like Roepke’s, I would not wish to depreciate Hayek’s economic insights, or cease to recommend him as an historian of ideas who traced positivist and revolutionist currents in social thought back to Descartes. Alas, Hayek’s flaw in all cases is that he is spiritually tone-deaf.)

Roepke described himself as “a Protestant who wished the Reformation never happened.” Much of his thinking was rooted in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, as well Hugo Grotius. He was committed unambiguously to a Christian society, in opposition to the prevailing statist collectivism. He was never kidding about liberty — not an abstract, ideologized liberty, imposed by state legislation, but a realized and practical freedom in large areas where the state has no business. He had gone to the wall against Nazism, against Communism, and against “social democracy,” too. But he was no starry-eyed libertarian: he knew that real freedom is grounded in cultural continuities, and reverence for enduring truths. Lose these “intangibles,” found society instead on competition, greed, abstract “rights,” libertinism — and man becomes a sick and vicious animal.

The problem of the secluded lake is just the beginning. The problem of Ireland will come into this as well, should we choose to indulge a little conservative imagination. There are “goods” no free market can deliver, because they are prior, in kind and in logic. They cannot be isolated, then quantified, and therefore cannot be transacted in market terms. The market is instead for what can be bought and sold; as politics for things that can be negotiated. We are fools to put everything up for sale; to vote on the most fundamental institutions of society. Past a certain “point of no return,” we can no longer understand what it is we have bartered away. And then we celebrate a new “liberation” after every irreplaceable thing we destroy.

Here is a point Roepke would have made, about the recent Irish referendum: that the issue was not homosexuality, per se. It was rather, Can we toy with such fundamental social institutions as marriage and child-rearing? To think that we can, that we could ever put such things to a vote, and thus remake the moral order according to our current whim, is bottomlessly depraved. It is worse than perverted, it is Benthamite. Yet moral degeneration on this colossal scale does not arise from a vacuum.

It is in the nature of rapid economic growth, as also in the nature of the welfare state (Roepke attacked both), to destroy both economy and societal welfare over the longer course. It is in the nature of “freedom” and “democracy,” as presently conceived, to eliminate genuine human autonomy and, over time, the possibility of human influence in human affairs. The very qualities which civilized men have always acknowledged to be humane, are sacrificed by our glib methods and criteria. We part with the greater good because the lesser good can be isolated, quantified.

Or put this another way. Our ancestors were wise to fear “too much of a good thing.” It can, and invariably does become a bad thing. Moreover, it becomes an evil that we have lost the ability to recognize, or resist; an evil that can thus spread like a cancer.

We want more of everything, and more for everyone, and in the course of getting more and more, we lose the very thing we first wanted. Secluded lakes were just one example.

The ground sloth

It is a curious thing, an unaccountable thing, the ground sloth of our era.

Of terrestrial conditions in former eras I cannot speak with authority. Nor can any living man, of the gigantic sloths, which moved about the earth in the Americas. I never encountered one. The last of their descendants are hypothesized to have died out in the Antilles just before we were able to make their acquaintance. Nimble they could not have been, unless in slow motion. Some of their distant cousins seem to have made it up the trees to safety, in tropical South America, just as we were coming down from the trees, in Africa. But that only according to the Darwinoids, who weren’t there, either.

Xenarthrans, we may call them. That would be the super-order. Megalonychids are the family to which I’ll now refer: our fellow North Americans. Slow like molasses, we are given to understand, but some of them got as far as Alaska after the continents joined up (on an overlay of several hypotheses). For they were unstoppable, like tanks. Massive thick bones; even thicker bulging joints; and the thickest skin on a mammal, reinforced with unmammal-like bony scales. Big, very big and heavy: ten feet of creeping indifference, weighing perhaps a tonne.

Some (and we are piling hypotheses on hypotheses) lasted to the end of the last Ice Age, but I don’t see how we can blame the Indians for killing them off. Arrows wouldn’t work, nor spears of the conventional design and impulsion. You’d need explosives, or a pile driver.

Herbivores they were, almost certainly; fused, mulching teeth; fermenting hindguts like you wouldn’t believe. Foolish was the man who got behind one. I surmise that, like a certain class of Englishman, they (the Sloths, not the Indians) lived on wet cabbage.

And presidential: Thomas Jefferson famously named an excavated species, and told Lewis and Clark to look out for a live one in the American West. And there is a great plop of fossilized ground-sloth dung in the American Museum of Natural History, with the memorable caption:

“Deposited by Theodore Roosevelt.”


But that was not the Sloth I was thinking about, not Jefferson’s Megalonyx (“giant claw,” designed for stripping vegetation in the cabbage patch), nor anything to do with the large but quick and lively Teddy R.

The ground sloth I have in mind this morning is instead the condition of our current North American masses. They are hard to get through to — not because they are so well armoured, but for that related “dietary” reason, living as they do on the moral, aesthetic, intellectual and finally, spiritual equivalent of soggy, overboiled cabbage.

A mysterious Sloth hangs over our continent; over the whole contemporary world for all I can tell. It is the opposite of what I call Idleness, in fact it is working, functioning in a sense, without any perceptible imagination. It does not so much seek as expect to get things (flattery, titillation, good health, wide-screen TVs), in which it can nevertheless find little pleasure.

This Sloth, or slothfulness, persistently chooses the path which may or may not be safest, but is unquestionably the easiest and most boring. It avoids all sports which require participation, all enterprise which requires thought, confining itself to what it calls “no brainers.” It does not even try to justify itself, beyond stating that it is tired. There is a terrible slothful undefeatable yawn, that frightens me more than an armed enemy, who could at least be frightened in return. How to reason with, let alone inspire, a creature who appears in every gesture to be, if not sleeping, then nodding off?

This, I think, is the central challenge of evangelization for the Church in our time: How to awaken people from this ground, or background, condition of Sloth? How, as it were, to administer the Sacraments to a congregation that is apparently comatose? How to feed them anything else, when they seem perfectly satisfied with their watery cabbage pulp?

A Washington friend reminds me of W.H. Auden’s suggestion on this, in his “Aphorisms on Reading.” It does no good to tell them that what they eat is disgusting, it will only confirm them in their prejudices.

Instead, we might try to stir-fry their cabbage, with spice and oil in the alert Chinese manner; or advance in a flourish of sauerkraut. Put it under their noses, see if they will twitch. Tell them stories about steak au poivre.


Appropriately, today’s feast is that of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, monk of Mount Coelius, sent from Rome with a party of forty or so, to wake the Anglo-Saxons; first Primate of England, consecrated bishop in the year 601; stir-fry chef to the wet cabbage eaters.

Latest automations

There is a special feature on the new, self-parking Volvo, which recognizes pedestrians. You pay for it separately. That was the explanation of a corporate spokesman, in response to a video that shows a self-parking Volvo in action. It backs up, pauses for rather a long time, then suddenly shoots forward, running down two “journalists” at speed. (Was their gormlessness, standing in front of the car, the clue to their profession?)

You see, gentle reader, it wasn’t the car’s fault. The owner had not purchased the “pedestrian detection functionality package.” It could see other cars, but not people. Note that it did not hit any other cars.

Even that statement is philosophically naïve. A Volvo lacks consciousness, and therefore cannot “see.” But we are losing our own ability to “see” such fine points; let alone reason from them successfully.

In my own generation, Volvos were endowed with personhood by certain consumer classes: university professors, for instance. Today, what we would have called the “Hal” phenomenon has spread, with cybernetics, and the distinction between animate and inanimate has correspondingly blurred. People who believed in ghosts and poltergeists, in a previous generation, now believe in “artificial intelligence.” They begin to fear computers, not in themselves but for their magic powers. Estimates for when computers will take over the world are published and broadcast frequently.

Yet even the post-modern peasant mind is somewhere ahead of a self-parking Volvo. (As was unfortunately the case for the two in the video, whose injuries have not been disclosed.) The good citizens of Parkdale, I observe, often park their cars without hurting anybody; and can detect objects on the road as small as a squirrel. (Elsewhere in the news: hideous four-car pile-up from a driver who spotted one on a highway.)

Cars do crash frequently, however, and account for more casualties than most wars. In the last decade, as a pedestrian, I have myself been hit twice by them: once on a sidewalk, and once crossing a road on a green light. But I attributed these misfortunes not to the cars, but to the drivers, whose ethnicities and gender I will not mention. Moreover, I become aware of the increasing menace from falling drones and helicopters. We are promised flying cars, in the mass market soon, and won’t that be a treat?

Human stupidity has been with us since Eve and Adam, but is now considerably enhanced by machines. Programmable, computer-operated machines represent another huge advance. A glance at the cover of almost any pop-science periodical will give hints to progress beyond that.

Yet, “Who am I to judge?” as Pope Francis said; and as Hillary Clinton added, “What difference does it make?”

For we must all die eventually; and even the more primitive tribes of Amazon and New Guinea have invented ways to die stupidly.

My objection to “technology” — not some Hegelian abstraction from the Phänomenologie des Geistes, but powered machinery — is of a more practical and, if you will, “aesthetic” nature. It is ugly and noisy and I want it to go away.

Nor do I care whether the machines require depleting carbon fuels. To my mind, the less sustainable the better.

Nor am I a Luddite. For I am not against all powered machines; only about 99 percent of them.

But that includes 100 percent of those which are self-parking.

Apostle to Rome

It is embarrassing to review the condition of the Church in previous centuries. There is always something gone badly wrong, some “face-grabber” that makes any loyal Catholic wince behind his fingers. Just yesterday, in commemoration of Gregory VII, we were reminded of the mess in the later eleventh century. Or maybe it was just me, the history buff, consulting the Cambridge Mediaeval History to obtain a few clues on the saint-du-jour, as my travels had kept me away from the 1070s for a long time. Quickly stuffed my head with lay investiture scandals. I thought the 1970s were bad, but noooo.

Often, it doesn’t look as if the good guys can win, ever. Hildebrand, as he was called before his election in 1073 — a monk of Cluny — could see that the world was upside down. Very worldly princes were installing their agents in very spiritual offices for very material purposes, and the papacy was powerless to stop them. She was becoming a rather unholy Church. And when, as Pope, this bewildered monk started doing something about it, while courageously explaining how the world would look, rightside up, he was run out of Rome. He died at Salerno, 25 May 1085, about as beaten as a Pope could be. Yet within a generation, all sides, including the worst, were coming to accept, at least in principle, what this Cluniac had preached and published: that the Holy See is “set in the midst, between God and man, below God, but above men.”

Similarly, today, the Feast of Saint Philip Neri, is set against a dingy background. Five centuries later, and once again we find Rome in a mess. The mores of Roman society in the early sixteenth century were in some respects not different from what they are now: vulgarly self-serving, avaricious, godless, prurient, lubricious, and frequently malicious. But it’s worse when the factors are more intelligent: today’s dummies are probably less bad.

Two unprecedented Catholic movements arose in those days, so opposite that they define one another: the Jesuits of Ignatius Loyola, and the Oratorians of Philip Neri. The two men knew each other; indeed Philip did spiritual yeoman’s work in his early “apostolic” days, supplying the Jesuits with excellent converts, their hearts now on fire. Both embodied genuine reform — return to basics — but it can be embodied in many ways, and the variety is itself manifestation of the otherworldly breadth of Christ’s call. Each of these spiritual enterprises, strange novelties when they first appeared, are in retrospect inevitable expressions of Holy Church.

Saint Philip (1515–95), styled “Apostle of Rome,” set about his task with zero ecclesiastical ambition. He came from high society in Florence, had all the connexions he could want on his mother’s side; had been extremely well educated by the Dominicans at San Marco, there.

He’d been apprenticed in trade to a formidably rich but childless uncle, at San Germano near Naples, who was impressed with the lad’s smarts, his energy and shrewdness, and was eager to make him his heir. Philip had it made, in a world that respected money and pretty things perhaps more than we can imagine today. And he could always go to church on Sundays.

God works in mysterious ways. San Germano was near Monte Cassino: the young Philip was at first enchanted, in what I take for an “aesthetic” way, by the sight of her Benedictine monks, and the thought of their library. He’d visit their little mountain chapel, in a cleft of rock above the harbour at Gaeta; that’s where he was whenever he went missing. Outwardly disciplined and cautious, though hardly shy, he was nevertheless, within, a footloose pilgrim character, born for the open road.

Suddenly God put him on the road to Rome. He had some sort of vision, then; other visions, and demonic temptations, throughout his life, yet he glided through. Later, praying in the catacombs at Rome, a vision with miraculous physiological effects — an aneurism, or whatever it was, that left him with (quite literally) an enlarged heart, as from a Love that was exploding. Medical science can never explain such things, and neither can I.

He became a full-blown “religious nutjob” — with Catholic qualifications, my highest term of praise. Yet he had no specific calling, except, not yet twenty, for that road to Rome. His uncle let him go, with regret; he was off along it, like Peter and Paul before him.

For seventeen years he wandered the streets of that city. He was not starving, he could always have found money if he needed it, except, he’d cut himself off from his father’s generosity, and when shown a paper with his pedigree, he tore it up. His charm was such that at any moment he could have made his sandcastle, anyway. Rich old ladies adored him, aristocrats vied for his services as tutor to their less-than-illustrious offspring, for he was an inspiring teacher in almost any subject.

He had a room somewhere, donated by an admirer: the rope bed, the table, a couple of chairs, the rope to hang his clothes over. He lived on water, bread, and a few herbs; preferring to sleep on the floor.

Where, I suspect, books were piling up. I love him for this foible: he couldn’t help collecting books. Fancy-free in every other respect, he could be weighed down with thick volumes. (At his death, he left a considerable personal library, full of classics, by no means strictly religious.) Scholars were amazed at his knowledge of theology.

The idea of becoming a priest did not seem to cross his mind. At age thirty-six he was more or less forced into it, told to regularize his “institution” of secular priests, living voluntarily together.

Long before, he had gathered around him an impressive circle of young men, mostly well-born and of high culture, attracted to him as a beacon; and to his works, which included selflessly and recklessly caring for the old and ill, the crippled and hapless, the abandoned of all sorts. The combination of this with the literary and musical evenings; with his love of art, and writing of poetry in Latin and Italian; with his rollicking humour, and good-natured practical jokes — put him quite out of the ordinary.

And the “religiosity,” directed to the Mass, in mystically close attention. In the “seven churches” of Rome, in the catacombs, in any church around the corner, there he was, praying everywhere. Saints tend to be obsessive in this way.

Philip Neri was irresistible, lovable, in an extreme degree. He had the gift of bringing out the best in people; in almost everyone he met. He had the gift of standing foursquare in the world, and simultaneously beyond this world, without conflict. He was what he was — unique even in Catholic history — and in his own personal being, a kind of holy contagion.

He began to change the manners throughout the city of Rome, bottom to top and top to bottom — and yet without any formal remit or authority. He was truly an Apostle, but of a peculiarly modern kind: winning nominal Catholics back to Catholicism.

To me, Saint Philip, beloved friend and guide, is the exemplar of a saying of Jesus that puzzles most modern Bible readers: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This scratches our ears as droll indeed, for the burden seems to us impossibly heavy. But only because we are carrying other things. Put them down, and follow Christ, instead.

I am not going to tell the rest of this story, gentle reader may find it easily enough. My priest, Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory, in Parkdale here, has written a wonderful book on the topic: The Embodied Mysticism of St Philip Neri. It will appear one of these days from Angelico Press.

Place your orders now.


This morning’s effusion is in honour of my hero, Marshal Foch, whom gentle reader may recognize in his famous telegram to Marshal Joffre, during the First Battle of the Marne:

“My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking.”

His commendably cheerful view of warfare is otherwise encapsulated in his collection of aphorisms, Precepts and Judgements, brightly translated by Hilaire Belloc (1920). I recommend it to all genuine (i.e. “traditional”) Catholics, and other sincere Christians, not only for its spiritual content — which is indirect — but as an expression of “attitude,” and for some hints on tactics and strategy, easily applicable to what we face now.

Against what, one may ask, should one direct one’s fire?

“Against the obstacles which may delay the march of one’s infantry.”

We start by taking out the enemy’s biggest guns. That is not where we finish. This is the opposite to the counsel now received from our more prominent fairies. They propose to work around the guns in plain sight, and look away from those partially hidden. While I agree that we should minimize casualties, especially on our own side, victory does not come without risk, and risk takes casualties. It is the Catholic tradition to take them cheerfully.

At the present day, our centre is giving way, and our right is retreating.

This is marvellous, as Marshal Foch would observe. It means we can attack in any direction.


According to information put before me this morning, only three countries have yet to embrace the metric system: Burma, Liberia, and the United States. However, the information presented (by a metric enthusiast) was out of date. Burma began metrificating in 2013, and Liberia secretly metrificated without anyone noticing. Truth to tell, the sick USA bureaucracy has been trying to metrificate for a long time, their problem being that the people won’t have it. And sometimes, in the USA, that counts.

It might also be observed, that every country in the world now has a decimal currency. This became a political necessity from the moment the world went off the gold standard, for paper money is, shall we say, more flexible. A decimal system helps to conceal the pain of inflation, as a paper currency gradually relaxes to the value of the paper it is printed on (and then to the electrons in which it is digitized). Of course, we aren’t thinking about this with interest rates approaching or passing into negative levels. But we will resume thinking about it when they climb to only a few percent.

People notice when something once available for a farthing goes over a penny, then over tuppence, thruppence, a sixpence, a shilling, a florin, a crown, a pound. These are benchmarks, but decimalize that currency, and it is all smooth sailing to Hell. The Chinese imperial bureaucracy discovered this when they invented paper money in the T’ang Dynasty. They were pioneers of decimalization. So much for the argument that it is “modern.”

For there is no such thing as a “modern” sin. You can’t invent one, however hard you try. It has all been tried before.

Note, that had God wanted us to metrificate, He would have given us ten fingers. Instead He gave us eight, plus thumbs: the same principle as an abacus. (Requires no electricity and is faster than entering the numbers on a keyboard.)

The metric system is sinful in the same way as any decimation, but right across the board. It removes all the benchmarks. Common speech recalls them in antiquated terms: we still do not say, “give him 2.54 centimetres and he will take 1.609 kilometres,” although my subeditors would sometimes make such changes to my copy, in the bad old days, out of their zeal to dehumanize. (Later, they couldn’t care.)

To my mind, it was interesting that long-established and much adored English measures could be easily translated into any other language, ancient or modern; and vice versa. This is because, before metrification, the “concept” of the inch or dactyl; of the palm, foot, cubit, yard, fathom; of the ounce and pound — were truly universal. God made us with feet and arms, hands, fingers, and heads — not only in England. And measures of area and volume developed just where these units intersected — a “pound,” for instance, being the cube of a hand’s breadth, in the weight of water. (And condensed into a stone, “just right,” for, say, tossing at a commie.)

Local discrepancies there were, all over the world, even from one town to another, and yet an English foot was in approximate range of a Paris foot, of an ancient Roman or Greek foot, of an Egyptian or Babylonian foot, of a Chinese or Japanese foot, et cetera. To the human mind, uncontaminated by the lust for false precision or spurious accuracy, it was all roughly the same.

Yet the fact of variety so scandalized the progressive, bloodthirsty savages of the French Revolution, that they leapt upon the latest decimal system which the Enlightenment pointy-heads had devised. To a figure like the number-crunching Condorcet, or his economist friend Turgot, it was as obvious that a soi-disant “rational” system of weights and measures should be imposed, as that soi-disant “equality” be visited upon every living human. (“Procrustean” is our word for this.) To their credit, John Adams spoke eloquently on what was wrong with Condorcet and Turgot; and Thomas Jefferson was father of the noble American resistance to metrification.


Clearly, an immediate obstacle to the advance of our infantry is the metric system. It is a big gun, and we must take it out. My scheme was inspired in Nippon, where workmen casually interpret the metre as three feet, and now measure tatami thus, “three feet by six.” Also in northern Europe, where they still call half a kilogramme a pfund. And by the jewellers of Amsterdam and Geneva who count five carats to the gramme. These are all good starting points for de-metrificatory subversion.

But what we need to subvert the metric system more profoundly is a scheme that can be readily adopted anywhere, which uses the universally-established metric system itself to calibrate precisely comparable physical magnitudes, to which all the classical measurement systems can then be adjusted.

The trick, paradoxically enough, is to make it easy to transfer any measurement to metric, thus stealthily meeting bureaucratic packaging requirements; but awkward to transfer back. I grant that this is counter-intuitive, but swear that it will work. The reason is that once people are able to think again in human terms, most will do so. The few who don’t will be left puzzling when they try to communicate their ridiculous trails of decimals back to the neat, hard fractions — the halvings and thirdings — which humans have always used to estimate scale and visualize transactions.

Mathematical nature is with us, here. As computer freaks know, 1000 looks clean, but is an impractical number. A more convenient “k” is instead 1024, quickly obtained by doublings. A million should be 1024 squared, and so forth. Let our trading libra, or mina, or pound, or pfund, or tael, be 512 grammes precisely. Let it consist of sixteen ounces, each of 32 grammes precisely. Let each gramme be divided into 5 stealthy carats, and thus precisely 15 grains (the carat, or “carob bean,” being equal to 3 “barleycorn” grains by ancient custom).

From our new standard “barleycorn” grain (or the alternative “wheatgrain” of 20 to a gramme, or “ratti-seed” of 8 to a gramme for India, et cetera) we may reconstruct all the classical systems, each easily converted into metric units, and thus co-existent with each other. The pennyweight of 24 grains, for instance, becomes 1.6 grammes precisely; the old drachm or drachma or franc or thruppence of 72 grains becomes 4.8 precisely; the shilling or sol will be 19.2; the crown of five shillings, 96; the “troy pound” of four crowns, 384 grammes — which is to say, exactly 12 of our newly-calibrated ounces. The mark, or half a commodity-trading pound, becomes precisely 256 grammes, or 8 of our old-and-new ounces. Et cetera.

(We may also use a 20-ounce pound or pint for specialized purposes. Pints of ale come to mind.)

Crucial proportions are thus restored, not only for measurement in silver and gold, but according with custom in all other commodities. I would not insist on the Western heritage, outside the West. On call, I am ready with a restored and improved system for pies, annas, rupees, and mohurs, that will integrate nicely with our Charlemagnian system of denarii, solidi, librae (thus renewing what the British East India Company did so patiently in 1833). Too, I have prepared a system for dollars, pesos, or thalers, which restores proper halves, quarters, pieces-of-eight, and then twelfths of those pieces, yielding 96 large coppers or “granos” to replace these irritating “cents” — each equal once again to the ha’penny or obol, and thus worth 1 grain of gold, or 12 of silver by mediaeval convention. (But I won’t fall for bimetallism; no, not me.)

Suddenly we have words for everything, and may find them in the common speech and literature of every language, and convert one unit to another by simple and comprehensible fractions. And, we may once again use our precious-metal coins for weights on our exquisite balances again (that need only gravity), with comparisons dis-abstracted.


I do hope gentle reader is paying attention.


A foot has 12 inches (finger-joints), to be Roman about it; or 16 dactyls (finger-breadths), to be Greek or Asiatic. Let us restore this so that a dactyl is 2 centimetres precisely, an inch thus 8/3rds, and a foot right on 32 centimetres — which happens to be within a few hairs of the old Paris foot, which was a standard across Europe until the metrificators wrecked it.

Now, let us take 5760 of these feet to make a mile, and we are very close to the nautical mile, still used in navigation, for it corresponds to the surviving ancient division of our home planet, by increments of 360 Babylonian degrees, of 60 miles each, then 60ths of those; as too, the 24 hours, then 60th minutes, then 60th seconds, at which that world turns (a mile takes the sun four seconds). For hexagesimals are so beautiful, and so apt, to the wheels-in-wheels turning, nonny, nonny. … O, how the wheel becomes it!

Everything now falls into place, large and small. And better, that old-and-new mile may now be divided for the nice determination of sequential lengths, and areas, into eight easily-divisible 720-foot furlongs; or into 96 of 60-foot chains; or 60 of 96-foot chains; or 960 fathoms, or 1920 yards, or 3840 cubits, as you please — all ticked by the sun (at least along the equator).

Repeat after me: “three inches equals four dactyls equals eight centimetres,” strictly. With this aphorism in mind, gentle reader may quickly summon a pint of water (or ale!) before his thirsty imagination. For this is the cube root of our pound of water, a fairly common substance on the surface of this planet (measured distilled at sea level), roughly equal in weight to so many other liquids. That cube is, as the arithmetical reader must immediately see, precisely 512 cubic centimetres (or 64 cubic dactyls, or 27 cubic inches). And there you have also your 512 grammes.


As Pope Gregory XIII took the initiative in fixing our solar calendar, let Pope Francis or his successor take it in fixing our weights and measures — so to bring them, too, back to observed realities. This is a fine Catholic tradition, of service not only to Catholics but all men, and for a modest fee, and suitable lodgings in Rome, I will be happy to advise.


Were you a mediaeval villein, you would be getting a week off, now. There are so many ways in which the life of a mediaeval villein was better than that of a twenty-first century wage slave.

It seems odd to get a holiday because the Paschaltide is over, but there you go. In the Middle Ages, when work was for men, there were lots of holidays. Today, when men are for work, there are only a few. The wheels of industry keep turning. And the days are long, too. Imagine, having to work seven or eight hours continuously, with only a short break for lunch. But I have friends who must do this, and spend another three “commuting,” and they do it five days a week. Can you believe it?

A lot of things are worse now than they used to be, and people are right to fear change.

“All change is for the worse, including change for the better.” I think Frederick William Faber said that, but the Internet isn’t helping me.

In a similar spirit, the commendable Deacon Scheer pointed to an interpretive error in one of my recent Idleposts, on “Victoria Day.” It is not we who honour a sovereign with such a birthday gesture, he explained, on behalf of Elizabeth, on behalf of our national birth-mother, Victoria. Rather, she favours us:

“From time out of mind,” he wrote, “in lands near and far, the sovereign (virtually all sovereigns, in fact) granted the people a holiday from the subsistence-farming that nearly every society was, until we learned to eat chemicals instead of food. As passports were once permission to leave, not authority to enter, so the holiday marked today was in its origin a national ‘hall pass from the principal’ to be off larking about. And it also was an occasion of thanksgiving for the stability that a living governor permitted, as contrasted with wars of succession. (For governors, even despots, are preferred to anarchy. See Declaration of Independence: ‘Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.’)”

I stand corrected.


I am not sure precisely when the Church originated, in historical time, and I’m not sure I need to understand it. But it was some time over the last few weeks. Those who date it from the Last Supper (i.e. the first Mass) are unanswerable, but so are those who date it from the Ascension and the Pentecost. At this moment we stand bereft of Christ, who has returned to Heaven; but not without the promise we have seen fulfilled. The Holy Spirit has descended upon us, and will be with us until Christ comes again. Then, as now, we are living in the End Time.

If I might re-phrase Winston Churchill, as I am wont to do, “Now this is not the beginning. Let alone the end of the beginning. But it is, perhaps, the beginning of the end.”

Thus reversed, we may perhaps glimpse our paradoxical situation. We look to a future, a very distant future, where there is … nothing. For time began and in the end time ends. In earthly terms, those who live for the future live for Death. It is an odd way to live, yet as we were reminded from Ireland yesterday, this is only one of the ways in which men of the West now embrace sterility and futility; that “Culture of Death.”

To be dead, and to leave no successors, and no record except the evaporating one, of having indulged one’s earthly desires, with, or more commonly without, much pleasure. The other beasts of Earth do as much. But they seem to enjoy it more, and have more foresight, with respect to progeny.

Our current idea of Life has become strictly bounded by time. Some gnostic idea of an afterlife is still entertained (as likely by nominal Catholics as by the nominal “Nones” as the statisticians now call them), but it is iron-cast in temporal terms. No serious effort is directed to looking beyond time as, among the beasts of this world, only humans can do. In the future, we will all be dead, as Lord Keynes said. (And true enough, he died, leaving us debt-ridden by his “progressive” economic prescriptions.)

Futurity is not like that at all. What is beyond time, is beyond time. It was previously, is now, and will continue to be — beyond time. And we are in time, only for this moment.

A moment bounded by the timeless on every side. And a moment within which we discern the rushing of the Spirit, the babble of tongues, the displacement of persons, the direction to ends beyond human understanding. And with this comes a simple instruction, understood at least by some:

Go and tell the world that nothing changes.

Aer lingus

It would seem that the Lemming Party has swept Ireland this morning. From early returns the referendum count appears two-to-one in favour of “gay marriage.” In Dublin, it’s much higher than that; perhaps I am not surprised.

Upon calling up the Irish Independent to check for results first thing, what did I get? My laptop screen filled with a demand that I participate in a referendum on my “smartphone.” None of the questions made sense to me. For I do not own a smartphone, and have no intention of acquiring one. Or it may be more correct to say, as people do of their dogs today, “I am not a smartphone guardian.” Unless we are beyond that now. Many of my friends are married to their smartphones, in a manner of speaking: the two are never apart. Though really it is more like civil unions. (An old-fashioned person, I am against “sexting” with your smartphone.) To my mind, they are living in sin. Should they be allowed to marry their smartphones? I think not, but can’t come up with a media-plausible argument. Should smartphones be allowed to marry each other? I vote no.

My position on leprechauns is not for publication.

Cue now my Chief Irish Correspondent, a veterinarian somewhere in the west of that country (I shan’t be more precise than that), who mentions in email that he is girding himself for the tide of “gay” gloating, this morning. He adds that he must hide all his Bibles. I didn’t know what else to suggest. Fill spray guns with holy water?

Some days ago, I read a piece by my colleague Austin Ruse (beloved by me for the phrase, “The ugly claws and bared teeth of the pelvic Left”), over at Crisis “magazine.” He said he would not be surprised if the Irish voted “no” to “gay marriage” after saying “yes” to all the pollsters. This because people tell other people what they think the others want to hear. But I thought, I won’t be surprised if Ruse is surprised, after all. This because, we’re beyond that now.

Beyond hypocrisy, in a manner of speaking. People now think what they think others want them to think. And, “democracy” provides them with a way to prove this.

We have, as it were, “progressed” beyond the point when people would tell pollsters one thing, and then do another. They’re not hypocrites like that any more. They aren’t hiding anything. Verily, nothing left to hide. Not in Ireland. Nor, anywhere.

From Dublin, the new spirit is running across the island. I picture, in the far west, those magnificent cliffs.

There was an article in the Irish Examiner on lemmings, recently. It was a defence of lemmings. Apparently they are not as stupid as Walt Disney made out, in some 1958 wildlife documentary, entitled White Wilderness, that won an Oscar and many other prizes. His director needed footage of lemmings leaping, en masse, off a cliff into the sea. But it was hard to find, because lemmings don’t actually do that. At least, not voluntarily.

But this was a big budget film. The makers contrived to have some hundreds of lemmings trapped in a cliffless location, near Hudson Bay, then flown to a cliff in a sea-less location, near Calgary. Technicians constructed a turntable to fling them off the cliff, past their carefully placed cameras.

So now gentle reader has learnt something about lemmings, and something about the media. And perhaps, too, something about the Irish, captured by the media, en masse, and delivered to the metaphorical cliffs. Then asked a simple modern polling question:

“Why go to Hell in a handcart, when you can fly?”

Against bombing

There is a paper somewhere (darned if I can find it) from the British Society of Antiquaries (I think) that surveys the district around the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük. This is a pair of Neolithic mounds which rise above the plain of Konya, south-east of the city that now goes by that name — the ancient Iconium, in Anatolia, now part of “Turkey.” Excavations that began in the late 1950s established that it was, about nine thousand years ago, a metropolis by Neolithic standards: perhaps one, perhaps two thousand households on either side of a long-dried riverbed. It was a city before there were cities, or rather, well before we have evidence of any other town that size.

It is a fascinating layout. As I am reminded from wikipaediations, there were no streets or other open public spaces. All the elements of much later urbanity were present, but materially “internalized.” The whole town was a honeycomb maze, and entrances to houses were down ladders from the roofs. In hundreds of excavated rooms, the remains were found of very smooth plaster walls, and sharply squared timbers. In the larger rooms, the most extraordinary murals, figurines, and other works of art. In the smaller rooms, quite sophisticated domestic arrangements including well-appointed and ventilated kitchens, and raised platforms on which the inhabitants apparently sat and slept. Their dead were buried, with ceremony, beneath where they had lived.

The go-to archaeologist is currently Ian Hodder of Cambridge, a pioneer of “post-processualism,” which is the usual mess of post-modern, neo-Marxist theoretical blather, and multicultural “subjectivity,” with big corporate sponsorships and glitz publicity. This makes old-fashioned “processual” facts hard to extract, but patience is sometimes rewarded.

In my view, which dominates these Idleposts, this “proto-city” was not necessarily significant in its time (which ranged over perhaps eighteen centuries). Its significance to us is that we found it, and that it helped explode many preconceived ideas about life in the Stone Age. There are innumerable large and small “tells” or mounds through the Middle East, which the Daesh will not think of blowing up, until they are properly excavated. The truth is that our knowledge of human “prehistory” is extremely sketchy, and often proved wrong; and that vast quantities of archaeological material still lie where they settled, for later generations to retrieve.

And, hooo, I have just found an abstract of that district survey on the Internet, which proves I had not imagined the whole thing. It began in 1995, over a ground six or seven miles square, to the north-east of Çatalhöyük. There were topographical maps and satellite photos and yet, simply by walking about for a couple of months, decently-trained (i.e. old-fashioned) British archaeologists were able to spot eight new tells. In the next couple of seasons, expanding the area of survey, and now using satellite imagery expertly from a ground-based perspective, some seventy-four new sites were located, with samples showing many of them to be multi-period. And so forth, through 2002.

Satellites are helpful, and low-level aerial photography exploiting angles and shadowing is more helpful still, but what makes the difference is feet on the ground. These latter include human brains, which are mounted atop each pair of walking stalks (minus those blown off by landmines). These process information in a way no computer is now, or will ever be able to do: questions of judgement which in their nature cannot be reduced to algorithms.

And this, in turn, is my argument against bombing, as a strategy to deal with the Daesh and other baddies — who, nevertheless, need killin’, at various locations through the same Middle East. It applies not only to massive or saturation bombing campaigns, in which non-combatants are exterminated by the hundreds, and thousands, and hundreds of thousands, but also and particularly to the drone attacks which the high-tech-idolizing idiots around the White House now favour. These latter depend on the sort of algorithms that have resulted in the annihilation of many wedding parties, and other defenceless people who happen by ill-luck to fit the current programming criteria. It is a monstrous, an unambiguously evil way to conduct war, which is nevertheless attractive in the post-modern West because, for the perpetrators, it is sanitized and casualty-free — and thus compatible with the smug self-satisfaction of our liberal and progressive elites.

That each drone attack provides an effective recruitment post for the Daesh — now operating within the morally-vacated spaces of our North American high schools and universities, as in our prisons — is something that passes bat-like over those gloaming, “enlightened” heads.


Indeed, by way of afterthought, I am inclined to draw a parallel between the “progressive” Church of Nice, which does spiritual warfare on the analogy of drones and algorithms; and the “traditional” Church of Nasty, which does it on the analogy of quaint mediaeval mano-a-mano, and therefore acknowledges the existence of pain in individuals, as opposed to classes. But this analogy will require a few minutes of contemplation.


The little things are what I first notice in the news. This morning, for instance, that the U.S. government is fast-tracking the shipment of anti-tank missiles to the government of (some of) Iraq. This, we can only suppose, so that Baghdad’s shrinking army may try to destroy some of the U.S.-supplied tanks and other heavy equipment, as well as the light equipment, that their soldiers abandoned to the Daesh in their hasty retreat from Ramadi; as well as all the equipment lost during their many previous hasty retreats. But will the same soldiers run before firing them, this time? I should think so.

There are also bigger things, such as the Syrian army’s surrender of Palmyra to the same Daesh. Some journalists speculate that these Sunni Islamic psychotics may blow up the archaeological remains of this ancient “Venice of the sands.” As they have done the same with all other pre-Islamic, and non-Sunni monuments that have fallen into their hands, I will admit the possibility. They will also, once again, massacre the defenceless, &c.

Total, I’d say, is the stupidity, incompetence, and all-round dysfunctionality of President Obama, his executive, and his State Department. Whether in responding to events in “Iraq and Syria,” or Libya, or Yemen, or in Baltimore for that matter, or to a train accident, or to anything, we can depend on all administrative spokesmen to utter mendacious absurdities including easily demonstrated lies, then follow up with action that is dramatically counter-productive. And yet they continue to enjoy the unflinching support of their clientele, both in the progressive elites, and the electoral underclasses.

With one exception. I note that a State Department spokesman is quoted thus, on Palmyra this morning:

“You’d have to be delusional not to take something like this and say, What went wrong? How do you fix it? And how do we correct course from here?”

This frank acknowledgement that Obama’s policies have been “delusional” is a welcome first step. There are foreign ministries across Europe that could benefit from a like candour. For some reason, our foreign department in Ottawa — so far as it is staffed by Stephen Harper’s political hacks — more or less understands the situation. They know, for instance, that Israel is our friend, and that Iran is our enemy. I can’t really account for this. Expect Harper to be voted out later this year.

All the above by way of supplementing what I wrote Tuesday under the title, “Ramadi.” I should have mentioned it then.

While there are urgent measures all Western governments should be taking, by way of armed ground intervention in the Middle East, the next best response would be to do nothing. For doing nothing would be a radical improvement on what they are doing now. The United States has become, through layered delusions, the leading supplier of hideously powerful (and expensive) weapons to the Sunni Islamist Internationale; and through negotiations with Iran, the chief inspiration for the current regional arms race. Too, the administration has been consistently unhelpful, to the point of sabotage, when regional allies (especially Israel, Egypt, Jordan) have tried to cover for its mistakes.

“Nothing” beats catastrophic error, every time. It can even provide a positive: an opportunity for the politicians to stare at their mess, and ask for advice, ideally from people whose track record isn’t consistently zero, as everyone Obama and company now consult. In this case, perhaps a chance to recall some of the demonized “neocons” from the previous administration — men who could actually read Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.

But here we run up against one of the “problems of democracy” to which I sometimes allude. In nine of ten cases, overall, “nothing” is the best thing a government can do, and in the tenth case, the best alternative to doing what is counter-productive. But the dynamic of democracy (with its drumbeat media) is such, that nothing is the one thing no government can do.

Making war better

Gentle reader may have noticed that I said nothing yesterday — nothing at all — about “just war theory,” nor provided so much as a passing and whimsical Catholic justification of a foreign policy that would necessarily involve killing people (Islamist terrorists, to fine the point).

By a happy coincidence, George Weigel was supplying this missing dimension at the same moment, at National Review (here). He gives fifty years to a frankly pacifist “Catholic” view of war, which he traces to the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes — in which the pregnant phrase “mente omnino nova” proposes new thinking on an old but arguably “evolving” topic.

As Weigel hints (and I will caricature), it invites contrary interpretations. Either it is taken to mean that conditions of war in this world have changed so much since the Middle Ages, through the introduction of “total war,” that we’d better review how the old Augustinian realism applies to it. Or, the phrase might suggest that the old Augustinian realism was itself wrong at start, and that a different “attitude” was necessary all along.

Liberals in the Church take the latter for granted: that what we always needed was a hip, psychologizing, and morally exhibitionist approach to evil on a massive scale. The bad guys should be told to stop being mean and hurting us; good guys should be reminded that they have faults, too. The world needs to be taught that “peace is better than war,” … as if the world didn’t already know that.

While I do not wish to psychologize the Fathers of Vatican II, I suspect it was the former they meant to assert, and that a purposeful mistranslation of the phrase has advanced misunderstanding. This because, I do not believe these Fathers were men of sub-normal intelligence. War we will have always with us. And evil, ditto, so long as the world wags: there are times when it threatens to get out of hand, and must be stopped.

Decent men, not only Catholics, have known this for a very long time. When your Hitler annexes half of your Poland you see that appeasement has run its course. Similarly in other situations: the very idea of law, both natural and positive, is to draw a few lines. We may debate where they are, who has crossed them and why, but only in the nicer cases.

To my Augustinian and realist mind, “total war” did in fact present an intellectual challenge. I was uncomfortable with annihilating non-combatants by the hundred thousand, on the “eye for an eye” principle; as too, about drafting millions to feed the front lines. A certain amount of “collateral damage” I am usually willing to accept, but not intentional massacre. And those weren’t the only head-scratchers.

Let us consider nuclear weapons for a paragraph. I don’t like to see them dropped on cities; I think that is very bad form. (But then, the “conventional” fire-storming of Tokyo killed more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined; and it was a situation in which “showmanship” counted.) I might, however, advocate their use in excavating well-fortified bunkers. Had one been available on the 20th of July 1944, for instance — and had Lieut.-Col. Stauffenberg kindly tipped us off — I would not have hesitated to drop it on the Wolfsschanze. And this, even if it meant irradiating a beautiful section of the Masurian woods.

I believe this a Catholic position. No weapon can be condemned categorically; the question is how we propose to use it. There were caves in Afghanistan into which I would have pumped poison gas, without compunction. I can think of some good places to lay mines. And I would remind “liberal Catholics” that winning the war is an important part of “just war theory.” Indeed, I find their attitude to war downright puritan.

We should look for the most economical means to a good end (destruction of an identified evil), consistent with irreproachably good behaviour; not for a way to let evil win. Sun Tzu is the more Catholic military strategist, in my humble but possibly Sinophile opinion; Clausewitz less so (though he is often misrepresented as advocating what he is merely describing).

Now, it happens that for Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and a few other places, the American military has been developing and using weapons rather more accurate than those we employed in the World Wars. The kind of focus that was practicable in the better sort of mediaeval battles is gradually becoming so again. We should, for instance, have directed more praise to the admirable way in which the Rumsfeld Pentagon went about e.g. their Iraqi blitz, minimizing casualties even at the expense of assuming greater risks.

Like everything else, war requires craftsmanship, and the long Catholic commitment to art should be reflected in our critique of it. Let us work harder on making it attractive.


“If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

This is a principle the Daesh (“IS,” “ISIS,” &c) understand, but we in the West have forgotten. Now, I should think there is a dispute between us on what “doing right” might consist of. Eliminating all the Christians, Yazidis, Shia and other non-Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere, is not on our agenda; but it is on theirs. Our interest is restricted to eliminating the Daesh, with the complicating factor that we must also contain the Ayatollahs of Iran (ideally by removing them), and eliminating their proxies: Hezbollah, and for realpolitikal purposes, Hamas.

This is pure speculation on my part, but it seems that international, fanatic Sunni Islam is consolidating under the leadership of the Daesh on one side; and that international, fanatic Shia Islam has already consolidated under the patronage of Iran’s ayatollahs. One’s first instinct is let the two at each other, on the analogy of Hitler and Stalin. That this leaves too many million defenceless hostages to fate, may perhaps be seen. Beyond this, we soon discover that we have become hostages to fate ourselves, as our own enemies link (Russia and China come into this eventually), and the world descends into unimaginably destructive war.

It is useless to complain that the black-flag hordes who took Ramadi, while “Western-trained” Iraqi troops ran away (leaving yet another fortune in U.S.-supplied weapons) — are barbaric savages. It has been said before, and a time comes when something must be done about them. Bombing, it should be evident by now, cannot be the full answer. Nor does it make much sense, as in Yemen, to wink as the Saudi air force goes to work, with its comparative indifference to what we sometimes call “collateral damage.”

Note that, in the case of Iraq generally, and Ramadi as of this morning, the “proxy” on whom we depend is now our even-worse enemy, Iran.

Removing bad guys is a task that requires a variety of co-ordinated military methods. This naturally includes feet on the ground — the more against a millipedal opponent. To restrict efforts to the aerial (plus the occasional high-profile commando hit-job) is fey. To announce in advance that one’s efforts will be thus restricted is to intend failure.

Some years ago, as hack newspaper pundit, I supported allied intervention in Afghanistan, then Iraq. I would have supported it in Iran, too, had the offer been on the table. I’ve confessed before my regret that I did not spell my position out more candidly: in particular, my opposition to almost everything that came after the initial, rather impressive, invasions — except insofar as the plans involved keeping an allied military presence in theatre (a few discreet action-ready bases here and there). I was appalled by the ridiculous and profligate “nation-building” exercises under President Bush, and more by the “cut and run” that followed under Obama. All we needed were governments unambiguously on our side, and the means to sustain them.

My preference for Western intervention stands. For in the world as it actually works (apart from “theory”), peace requires order. There was, to my mind, a “sweet point,” soon after the American-led conquest of Iraq, when this object had been obtained. It had only to be maintained, thereafter. That is to say, not only had the Taliban been neutralized in Afghanistan, and Saddam’s Ba’ath in Iraq, but every other government in the region, including Iran’s and Gaddafi’s Libya, had become suddenly quite respectful of, and co-operative with, the United States of America.

Bush Dubya had, I think to start with, the right idea. One says, “If you do this, we will do that.” And then, if one is not obeyed, one does that, unfailingly. (Obama’s threats are pointless, because no one believes them.) This was easier when we had at least de facto governments in all capitals except Mogadishu. The instruction was: that they would suppress their terrorists, and conduct a government responsive to occasional Western requests. Or, we would do it for them. In superpowering terms, this was a modest instruction.

That it nevertheless smells of old-fashioned Imperialism, I allow. But gentle reader knows that I am old-fashioned. (You may call me a “neocon,” too; I have a thick skin.) Through the history of the world, civilized cultures have had to deal with uncivilized outliers at their frontiers, and it is best done quietly and ruthlessly. This is because every alternative is worse.

Publicity is not required. Indeed, it should be avoided, as much as possible. For people who live in bourgeois safety, far from the realities of conflict at those frontiers, have not the stomach for what is necessary. I don’t think most people could bear to watch open-heart surgery, either. Vietnam was lost, thanks to publicity, and ditto Afghanistan and Iraq. Even under the rah-rah conditions of press cheerleading through the World Wars, the problem of “too much information” frequently presented itself.

Let the histories be written, as accurately as possible, and with full access to the official records — after, and not during, the events. (That was the British way, and it worked.)

I had a little conversation once with the late admired American jurisprude, Robert Bork, just as the Bush administration was setting up logistically to “do Iraq.” He had been reading the New York Times, and was deeply pessimistic. He had no doubt that the U.S. military could perform its task, but could also see that the U.S. media were setting up, to “do another Vietnam.” He feared Bush did not realize how brief would be the American popular commitment to any foreign war; that, “He’d better get it over quickly.”

So let me blame Bush, for having made the presidency of Obama possible. We are in a position now where we have no stomach for the fight, nor any reasonable way to avoid it. We are not dealing with people we can negotiate with. Moreover, given our retreat, and the nature of the enemy since emerging, not even plausible threats will work. We will need once again Western leaders who — like Bush and Blair — make their threats stick.

All this must be admitted, too, as we look again at a regional situation that seriously threatens the peace of the whole world, in coming at least mentally to terms with it. For the stability we briefly created has been lost.

I do not see any practical alternative to doing the job ourselves. Our proxies in most regional states are useless. Either we do the job, or it is not done.