Essays in Idleness


Reflections on Thomism

“Yes, these days all the live-in girlfriends are Thomists,” I was writing this morning, to my Chief Buncombe Correspondent. (The county is in North Carolina.) I was commenting on his account of an Uber ride, with a nihilist doctoral candidate, who lives with a fan of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

“Someone in the household has to deny that effects precede causes,” I added.

“Indeed, someone has to put the kettle on,” my CBC replied.

Meanwhile, up here in the burglary-prone High Doganate, I gather that the superintendress has been sacked, and her son arrested. This is the consensus of various accounts from my fellow tenants, some dozens of whom had also been burgled over the past year or so. The downside: no one to open the laundry room in the morning. The upside: no one to collect our rent. And, security may actually have improved, now that no one is protecting us.

Inside every cloud, a silver lining.

Nothing was learnt from the two policemen (well, one of them was male) who visited, to ask if I could supply additional details, when what I was looking for was more of an exchange. This was surprisingly prompt. Only six months had passed since the crime was committed.

Had I noticed anything odd? Yes, that my nest-egg of cash had gone missing. But the good news was that the burglar, who must have had ample leisure from the knowledge that I’d gone out of town, had left all my books.

It could have been worse. Had the burglar been accompanied by a Thomist girlfriend, my Summa Theologica might also have been lost.

The news is often a mixed bag. Life, generally, is like that.

Take Trompe, for instance. Good news and bad news, all in the same package.

An avid selfie-taker explained to me on the weekend the advantage of keeping a record of where he has been. I suppose it was because he was taking selfies that he hadn’t noticed, himself. I bet if I lifted his iPhone, he would notice. For that would give him a direct human experience; he wouldn’t like that.

He also drives for Uber, I learnt. Thus has a live-in Thomist girlfriend, I assume.

“Has the world gone mad?” I wondered, recently, while observing street events from my balconata. A gentleman was shrieking obscenities, to no one in particular. Another was doing the same, but in a different direction. Surely, I thought, they should be shrieking at each other. Keep up appearances, you know.

But “look on the bright side,” as my mama used to sing. (Ironically.) No bloodshed, at least while I was watching. For if there were — oh bother! — I’d feel as if I had to do something. And I have no live-in Thomist girlfriend to tell me what.


It must have been about 7 a.m.
when a shrew-like mammal stumbled
out of his dark burrow
and peered nearsightedly
at the first flower with
an expression close to amazement
and decided it wasn’t dangerous …

The late beloved Canadian poet, Al Purdy, here describes the invention of flowers — by plants — “In the Early Cretaceous.” He was off by several periods, and a whole era. According to fossils recently found in China, they had already been invented fifty million years before that.

Nanjinganthus dendrostyla! … This is the name now given to an angiosperm, or if you will, flower. What is it doing in the South Xiangshan Formation? Minding its own business, I would say. But in finding it we toss yet another brick into the hornet nest of evolutionary theory. Instead of “just popped up in the Cretaceous,” flowers now pop up in the Jurassic; and in fossil slabs so abundant, it would be hard to hide them all.

We take one thing as precursor to another, and well it might be. Or not be. For if the precursors keep jumping around — fully formed with all necessary parts taking backward leaps of half a million centuries — what can we know of our family tree?

We have no way of knowing, and no prospect of ever knowing, and the evolutionary presumption (the “idea of progress”) is simply read into the evidence. New species “just pop up” there, where we thought we had everything covered, and in the living record, too, every day. Some ancient species known to be extinct just pop up in a fisherman’s net, or are trapped wandering about in the bush.

Better yet: some creature we’d never seen ever, leaps straight from non-existence onto the “endangered species” list. How do we know it wasn’t created, at 7 a.m. yesterday morning?

We can’t check if our “molecular clocks” are working, or our carbon datebooks are correct, or the red shift of the stars has not been entirely misunderstood. I do think we have grasped the general idea, of our descent from a singular cosmic egg of infinitesimal size, and yet it wouldn’t surprise me, as a half-blind shrew, to learn that our temporal depth perception was dysfunctional, and that in fact the world began on the 11th of August, 3114 BC, as the Mayans calculated, or that The Flood happened in 2137 BC, as Varro the Roman explained.

Alternatively our world is much older. My Scofield Reference Bible gives it another thousand years.

What does it matter to us? For as the famous Shakespeare actor said, it’s not just the number of words, no, you must get them in the right order. And we don’t seem able to do that. Look microscopically into the human cell — into any cell for that matter — and you see that in order to work, things that must have come earlier depend on things that must have come later. To which one says, “Ho!” For our assumptions were all built on assumptions, that disappear as we move along.

God, like Obama, says: “You didn’t build that!” Only He who built it can remember when. It is not actually necessary to read evolution, or anything else, into the fossil record. Science is knowledge, and it is enough to accumulate what we have seen and can demonstrate. Leave science fiction to the specialists.

(Richard Feynman: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”)

And long live angiosperms!

I wonder which myopic shrew-like mammal made the first bouquet?

More populist than thou

Let me take a moment to agree with all spinmeisters and talking heads, linked in my inbox this morning. Mister Tucker’s monologue on Fox News t’other evening (which I have now “watched” in video and transcript) was a “game-changer.” That is what we (present and former hacks and pandits) call a speech that outclasses the background noise. It makes listeners wonder, however fitfully, whether their sense of current history is right. It “galvanizes” those who, though they agreed with every proposition in advance, ne’er heard them so well expressed. (Gentle reader will find the thing on the Internet soon enough.)

As text, the speech is not so much argument as evasion of argument, with frequent appeals to the gallery. But as delivered, it is “fine talk,” and I was impressed by a sterling performance.

Gallantly, Mister Tucker has articulated the desire of the Right and Left-wavering to raise the tone of American politics to that of Bhutan. His most striking expressions called attention to the fact that material prosperity does not make people happy. Perhaps we should instruct the statisticians to replace their calculations of Gross Domestic Product, with Gross National Happiness, as they now do in Thimphu. The figure would still be meaningless, but might provide some modest, transient uplift.

In my humbly contrary view, material prosperity — i.e. getting filthy rich — does actually make people happy. Those who win the lottery do not cry from despair. But within a few months of scoring, and often within days, they have a new set of personal problems, to pile upon the old ones. Happiness, from material causes, does not last; not even for the poor. It is emotional catharsis. Something makes you happy; and then it fades away.

Only drugs can keep you happy, until you die. But the downside there is that they kill you.

In view of the current opioid crisis, I would observe that happiness is as fleeting as wealth, and should not be sought as an end in itself. I would rather refer to “a crisis of optimism.” People want happiness, seek it, win, then lose, and are left “more unhappier” than ever. We discover, if I may use an exceptionally rancid cliché, that “money can’t buy happiness” (it can buy spiffy yachts, however); and drugs only work while they are in your bloodstream. Were it not for the afterlife, drugs would be the better bet.

However, Mister Tucker is using the H-word (“happiness”) in something like the sense understood by those Merican Founding Fathers. Perhaps we might translate it “satisfaction” today, so to re-include the association with “contentment.” For there is a form of happiness that is not giddy, and comes with living well, regardless of income or other treats.

Politics can oppress people, but it cannot make them wiser or more sensible, independent of mind, or just. Happiness in the older sense has never required “political action.” Instead, it takes joy in friendship and community. One could be happy in a prison camp, or facing painful death. This has been done, I insist, though we are unlikely to have read about it in the MSM. A joyful happiness of this sort exists in a confident, i.e. faithful relation with God, and thus clarity in one’s prospect of a life that is eternal. Without that, the number of things to moan about grows and grows.

But prison camps and painful deaths are not good, in themselves. To want them, for ourselves or for others, would be a sign of psychic disorder. To this end, guvmint should at least be on the side of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That will not take us to Utopia, but is as close as we should go.

I notice that Mister Tucker, in his eloquent “take” on populism, turns instinctively to politics with his plea for relief. He, like the rest, thinks there is something the guvmint should be doing, other than what it is doing now. So do I, for that matter: I think the guvmint should be leaving us alone.

Rather than the State, I think the Church should be getting its act together, to instruct us once more on how not to be mendacious, self-destructive clowns. The worst thing about ecclesiastical scandals, sez I, is that they block Christ’s messaging. Indeed, that is more or less the definition of a scandal.

But politics is a game that everyone can play; an exceptionally nasty one. Rather than play, we should just grow up.


[My fortnightly Thing, on sanitary engineering, may be found here.]

Review & outlook

“Call me a Reactionary, but I will make common cause with all those who have been unpersoned then murdered by the stinking satanic soft-liberal establishment.”

That, for what it’s worth, was what I gave when asked for my New Year’s resolution.

Context is sometimes important. Mention had been made of the unknown number — more than one hundred million, but there is no precise total — of those killed at the hands or on the orders of utopian irreligious ideologues, in the time since the Armistice of 1918. These were in addition to those who had died in wars of any description, or otherwise under arms. I wish to count only the defenceless. And in deference to my interlocutor’s soft-liberal views, I was not at first counting abortions and infanticides, although the victims were quite defenceless, and had surely been “unpersoned” in the prelude to each crime. Add them, from around the world, and the toll rises, to more than a thousand million.

The word “murdered” was queried. Why would I accuse comfortable soft liberals and miscellaneous progressive types of such dastardly deeds? Because, by their silence and inanition, in their tolerance and their diversity, they had participated. For under old principles of common law, those complicit in murder may be fairly charged. Malice must be proved, to get a conviction, but all those who had played along, from the stage of “we didn’t know” to the stage of working for the beasts, were accomplices in the demonic malice, and remain so. (Immortally.)

A pose of naïveté, as a cover for indifference, is the defence usually offered. Who could guess that the rise of a Lenin or a Hitler or a Mao would end in such vast, pointless carnage? Who could foresee that the modern, inverted ideals of materialism, from Marx and Darwin through the many convolutions of eugenics, would make the triumphs of such men inevitable? For it must be admitted that only intelligent and perceptive people, with decency and the courage to stand their ground, would oppose them: a small minority in any polity. The invincibly ignorant have their excuse.

Yet the characters named hardly killed anyone with their own hands. And the executioners they employed — also in the millions — were “only following orders.” One might even say that the woman demanding that the child she is carrying be brutally destroyed, is only giving orders. Or that the doctor giving the final injection to a patient so old and confused and unwanted that she has ceased to want even herself, is only doing as instructed. Like Dr Mengele’s nurses, or the prison camp guards, they go home at the end of each shift, to their bourgeois lives; and some have violins to play Mozart.

I do not share the happyface view of a world from which Christ has been extracted; in which responsibility for one’s own acts is boundlessly diffused.

My hope for the New Year is that all who are complicit — finally every one, of course including me — will recognize their sins, confess them, and seek absolution. And that, having done that, we will all change sides.