Essays in Idleness


An example of usury

Perhaps I could be accused of Christian tendencies, or at the least of a religious frame of mind, in my view of the Oeconomy, and the “science” of Oeconomics. To start with, I don’t think it exists; for I cannot locate it in the metaphysical scheme of Aristotle the Stagyrite, where I can easily find the eternal sensible of the heavens, the perishable sensible of our sublunary sphere, or the divinely insensible. It is not a thing, in other words; just some boring talk about money. (The Metaphysics, Book Lambda; gentle reader should peruse all the chapters.)

I’m not even sure that money exists, except as printouts. It is at a level of philosophical abstraction that defeats me. It is assigned a “value” that it cannot have except by means of an illusion: a kind of con game writ large. We agree to pretend that it has real substance until the day comes when the only bits anyone could want were those minted in gold and silver. Now those are things.

All other kinds are, as it were, minted by sorcerers and magicians. Or, as we call them today, bankers and central bankers. A bank has deposits of, shall we say, one hundred dollars. This entitles it to lend out a thousand, or two thousand; three thousand might seem “excessive.” And then charge interest on the higher sum; and even collect it sometimes. Whenupon, it can lend out twenty times more. For years I’ve thought I must be missing something, but 816 moons have passed, and I still don’t get it. To my mind, if you have your grubby hands on one hundred dollars, the most you can lend is one hundred dollars; and you’ll be needing at least some of that for lunch.

I don’t mind if you charge a fee to the borrower. Neither did (nor does) the Catholic Church, by the way. You have not the use of that money while it is lent out, something should be owing for the service. Too, you are taking a risk. Maybe you have your customer over a barrel, and you are charging too much. That’s bad, but the rates are negotiable, and sometimes the law steps in.

Real usury is something more fundamental, in my view (and I have stated my qualifications frankly). It comes closer to paying for things with play money.

Once upon a time, when I participated in the imaginary oeconomy, I witnessed transactions that seemed fairly large, to me. Capitalists, using banks, were assembling huge possessions, by means of what appeared to be accounting tricks. In one case an immense (and very ugly) shopping mall emerged from the (figurative) top hats, when I was expecting a rabbit. Large numbers of persons with immortal souls were to be enslaved, building and staffing it. But the whole thing was a confidence trick: “We pretend to work and you pretend to pay us.”

Nobody really owns anything, except the things that they buy in the shopping mall, whose resale value tends to be zilch. Call me a materialist, but I whine that there’s hardly any “stuff” any more. Just “product.”

A lady I know has thrice, in the last year or two, bought a security chain for the door of her apartment — from a hardware store galaxy that enjoys a local near-monopoly, from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. Every time, the chain breaks, from her own modest use. She is an old lady, not very strong. Even at my age (816 moons), I think I could break the bronze-painted “product” with one good pull. It looks quite dinky. I marvel at this lady’s optimism, in buying the same thing over and over, for $11.95 plus $1.55 of sales tax on her debit card, when she could get the same from a dollar store, and pay only 13 cents of tax. (They come, after all, from the same prison camp in China.)

Confidence in the oeconomy — that’s what this lady has. Or to put it another way, she is a victim of usury.

And who will mind the minders?

The world is (have you heard?) full of injustice and corruption. It extends even to me. But I’d rather focus on other people.

Greed and self-interest are often given as explanations. Violence is explained by passion and a cause. Crimes that appear to be pointless, actions that seem remorselessly perverse, invite the question, “Why? Why?” We will do anything except confront the question of evil directly, and would rather consider sin as exceptional. We are told, in the face of bitter evidence, that people are naturally good.

And there is good in them, even virtues often corresponding to their vices (and vice versa). A delicate point, in the old Catholic teaching about human weakness, is to acknowledge sin to oneself and to a priest in persona Christi — the same who sings the Mass. The concept is plain enough, and for the sceptical and distrusting, the psychology makes sense, too.

Confessing to yourself is only a preparation. No Absolution can come of it.

But from those who do not recognize sin as a category, much oppression can be expected. For those who disbelieve in divine justice — who think that if they escape discovery they are home free — there can be no restraints. There is the voice of one’s God-installed conscience, but this can be tampered with, twisted and inverted. We are, for the most part, governed today not by those haunted with faith, but by self-proclaimed “idealists” — those whose ends are essentially totalitarian, and for whom ends justify means. They are invariably haunted by the lust for power.

My view on this topic is unmodern. It includes the phenomenon of demonic inhabitation. I do not think Christ was kidding, throughout the Gospels, when he mentioned this phenomenon, too. We make our little deals with the Devil, and some make big deals. We may even thank God for the Devil’s help, in our moral confusion. Our criterion for virtue becomes worldly success.

To make a stand against the Devil, first in oneself through self-examining humility, then by extension through love of one’s neighbour, is a challenge before each. Evil must be confronted and the occasions of evil avoided when they can be avoided. With Christ’s help, the Devil can be defeated. This has been the teaching for a long, long time.

“Censorship” of many kinds is necessary to this end, both of oneself and at large. Practically, there is much that cannot be stopped, but can at least be discouraged, and ought to be condemned. There is no society in which censorship is not practised, as evidence our present in which, more often than not, the good is censored (not only by governments), and where miscarriages of justice have become commonplace (not only in courts). Often it seems the Devil is in charge, and his servants have captured all of the administrative positions.

Hence the old (and reasonable) liberal saw, “Who will mind the minders?”

This will always be “a problem,” so long as we live in this sinful world. We will always find corruption in high places, even as we now find it spreading like a fire, at the top of our Church. The thoroughly corrupt make poor censors, and worse law-givers.

Everything in this human world is a mess, and so far as I have read, always has been. Still, we cannot give up the struggle to be good ourselves, and put men both good and competent in charge of what needs doing. That task begins with knowing what the good is, and loving instead of fearing it.

There is no way around this: repairing what is broken and maintaining what is not. And so we must get on with it. Pray for angelic guidance.


(See my Thing column today, here, also promoting censorship.)

Saint Anthony’s

Some meejah foon (the word is not a misspelling of “fool” but a contraction of “buffoon”) notes that Saint Anthony’s Shrine (and basilica) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, is a “multifaith” institution. At the moment it would be a closed multifaith facility, as it was bombed out during Easter Sunday Mass.

Hundreds were killed, but in addition more hundreds were maimed, there and elsewhere that day — scarred painfully for life, limbs amputated, &c — by young suicide bombers who kill themselves instantly and painlessly, in the expectation of an immortal sex life with the houris of the Islamic paradise. (Imagine their surprise!)

Anti-Catholic bigotry is normal among Muslim terrorists, but also among liberal journalists; more common still is their drooling ignorance on the subject of the Church (as well as on most other subjects). All churches, not only Catholic, are “multifaith facilities.” We (I will speak only for the Catholics) have, since our beginnings, let people of all other religions inside. They can’t (legitimately) take Communion, but they may attend the Mass, and use the church for silence, meditation, prayer. Well, yes, there have sometimes been “security concerns”; and visitors making an unpleasant scene, or performing property damage, have sometimes been discouraged.

Saint Anthony’s, as the BBC reporter learnt, was a magnet for Christians other than Catholic; for Buddhists, for Hindus, for Muslims, for “others,” and for the postmodern “nones” who are a growing constituency in Asia as in the West. From its 18th-century foundation under Dutch colonial rule, as an underground congregation (the Dutch authorities banned Catholic worship), it was taking in strangers.

Saint Anthony of Padua has a following through South Asia, and may turn up, in mudbrick or stone, in popular art and portraiture, in the least expected places. As a child I attended a Saint Anthony’s school in Lahore, Pakistan; on my reception into the Catholic Church I took his name as my religious moniker because, like the superstitious peasants of far India, I could recall his presence in many signal moments from childhood forward. It was an acknowledgement of grace.

The shrine in Colombo was itself founded in circumstances powerfully mysterious, and its patron draws even non-Christians as a miracle-worker and bestower of gifts upon all who approach him. I realize that this will sound absurd to the desiccated minds of our self-styled “rationalists,” but there ye go. I have respect for the simple people they have contempt for; I have contempt for the people they hold in respect.

When we say, “Saint Anthony, pray for us,” as they are now saying in such numbers through Sri Lanka, we are not merely uttering a formula, or invoking a “symbol.” We are speaking of a person, and to that person, whose presence continues in human life. Most of us are Catholics, to be sure, but many are not.

Saint Anthony answers prayers. He does not check credentials.

Incident report

A week has passed since the fire in, or on, Notre Dame de Paris; let me be the last to comment on a story that is stale-dated by any meejah standard. It dominated international mindwaves for only two days, but left images that viewers may be able to recall many decades from now.

“The church is on fire,” is a commonplace thought, when a church is visibly on fire, and I who am commonplace was thinking that while turning to the news. As an old meejah hack, who happens to know a little about Gothic architecture, I was prepared to discount the “fake news” that would be disseminated in “live time.” For instance, when told that the roof had collapsed, with strong hints that the building was now a write-off, I reflected that the roof is a hat, only. Stone vaulting lies underneath it, except the circle much of the spire fell through (as burnt offering onto the altar). Stone doesn’t burn easily; and even fallen vaulting can be repaired, having been erected with technology we would consider primitive (if ingenious) today.

A spectacle: to see the ancient oak timbers, of great girth, burning up like matchsticks. But the craft masons of Notre Dame — far, far in advance of our modern Lego builders — expected fire and lived in a time so simple that they knew oak doesn’t burn without help. It isn’t big matchsticks. The idea that you need some serious accelerants to make it burn, and that only the accelerants would flame like that, was among my initial thoughts. We’ll see what comes of investigations. I also recalled two recent attempts to torch the cathedral, associated with terrorism. And that more than one thousand churches have been desecrated in France in the last year (and five hundred synagogues, and one hundred mosques).

Instead, the explanation of a clumsy accident by restoration workers was immediately accepted by the talking heads, and even Fox News hung up on a guest who had another theory. In favour of the politically correct, plausible account, for which no evidence was being offered, I learnt that a fire alarm had sounded 23 minutes before the blaze itself was first spotted. Paradoxically, this would show the ruinous consequences of depending exclusively on modern technology: the computers directed the first responders to the wrong place, away from the actual heat source.

I can easily believe in electrical short circuits as a fire hazard, especially since having had myself to flee a building where a cost-cutting landlord was having an elevator repaired by what I characterized as “a Romanian comedy team.” (They buzz-sawed through a live electrical cable, then themselves fled the scene of their handiwork as smoke shot up the shaft and spread through the building. Luckily this smoke warned all tenants to evacuate; the building’s fire buzzer alone would have been taken by everyone as yet another false alarm.)


“Things happen,” according to public lore; and even in the case of terror, such as the horrific strikes in Sri Lanka for Easter yesterday, I’m against keeping score. I noted that the police commander in Colombo had warned that a specific Muslim faction was planning just such a “thing,” days before it happened, and I have noticed that of the ten thousands of terrorist incidents through the last generation, a statistically anomalous proportion were performed by Muslim factions, but these are just facts. One needs to keep a cool head, not to be provoked into foolish retaliations.

War is war. But to win, one needs clarity, solid discipline, and courage. Weapons help, too. Inane, misdirected propaganda, and general hysteria, focused by scoundrels this way and that, are of more use to the enemy. Wrath is a moral substance that needs to be carefully applied. But God did create it for a purpose, as He did the other tools of victory over evil.


I am exhausted by the misdirected propaganda over Notre Dame — about its “artistic” value, its “symbolism” of France, its long history, the draw for tourists, &c. (When I last went in, more than twenty years ago, the slobbering tourists already outnumbered the faithful at prayer, by a large margin.)

All the most precious sacred artefacts were saved; humped over to the Louvre for care by experts. Much more physical damage was done to the irreplaceable art treasures of this church by the Huguenots of the Reformation, and the Atheists of the French Revolution.

God bless the firemen’s chaplain who rescued the Host from the tabernacle: the most valuable item in that Temple. To non-Catholics, it would be a dangerous waste of time.

Worse, aesthetically, will likely follow last week’s disaster, now that President Macron has invited the masturbatory elites of the fashion world to design a new spire, and install other disharmonies, to make the State-appropriated cathedral “more beautiful than ever.” The unity of the building, founded in sacred not profane vision, will be lost to assuage various modernist, anti-Christian, multicultural interests. The result is likely to be as vile as the self-promoting perpetrators.

But even the most sacred chalice can be lost. As Abbot Suger, the creative genius at the foundation of the Gothic style, explained plainly, all these objects have their significance in service to the Holy Eucharist — which is Christ. So far as they do not, they are just baubles.

To the genuine artist, the value of art is in what it is and what it does — how it acts on the human soul — not what it might be worth in the art market. This, if I may be so indirect, is at the sacred heart of beauty’s indivisibility.


Returning full circle to what we saw, projected on the world’s electronic screens just one week ago, I will tell you what I really saw. It was an image of our Church, on fire. Not from the bottom, but from the top. Those were the flames that corresponded to the “smoke of Satan” that Pope Paul VI saw entering the Church a half century ago, at the liturgical height of “the spirit of Vatican II.” And in Paris, the very mitre ablaze, falling through the hole it had made by its burning.

The spiritual task of rebuilding our Church and our civilization will not take the five years Macron specified. The time frame I have in mind is many centuries.


I was going to write a companion piece to the Thing I wrote on beauty (here), under the provisional title, “Beauty is indivisible,” but like so many of my optimistic projects, it floundered. Perhaps I will try again after Easter, for through this coming Holy Week I am going to lie doggo, go silent, shut up.

Often I wish that I were more articulate, as well as better disciplined. I think I can see something fairly clearly, but when it comes to sketching what I see in words, I am at a loss. One must keep trying. The airwaves are full of meaningless blather and bafflegab. Clarity is usually avoided. Often it is punished. The more reason, as through Lent, and the Triduum, to pursue the trial.

My best wishes to gentle reader into Paschaltide. Let there be no dedition, until we can surrender to Christ.


Gentle reader is invited to draw a square on a piece of paper. Let each side be about ten miles. Eight miles will do, or nine; eleven or fourteen would also be acceptable. It could be more of a rectangle than a square, but try to make the corners sharp. Or even a triangle, if the paper runs out.

You have just drawn an Ontario Township.

Now, make your grid. The line roads, north and south, should be 100 chains apart (one-and-a-quarter miles), and the east-west sideroads either the same, or different. They needn’t come out evenly; you may leave a fraction on whichever side you didn’t start from. The whole board may have to be tilted at the “front” (baseline) to parallel a lakeshore, or accommodate the “back” of the next Township down. If you’re in the mood, you might want to draw a diagonal road, right through everything.

Congratulations. You may now have a job as one of His Majesty’s surveyors in pioneer Ontario. It’s a much better job than down south of British North America, where the land is somewhat populated already, and everyone seems to have an opinion about where the roads should go. Up here, not yet any people in the way. But there is still the difficulty of slashing through the bush. You only draw “concessions” — future roads defining blocks, to be further subdivided into future farmlots. When the people granted land move in, they will be compelled by the guvmint to actually make those endless mud ribbons.

This will make the roads more interesting. Where the lines meet an obstacle, you get a little run around it. Or a big one, if the obstacle continues. Intersections don’t quite meet, so you get a jog. Or, you decide to put the jog in the middle of nowhere, instead. There were at least five major surveying systems in Upper Canada (later “Ontario”), and dozens of variations on each one. The line and side roads might be 66 chains apart, or more than twice that, depending on some local magnate’s whim. Or the surveyor may have been drunk that day.

Now, a Roman surveyor, though he had the classic preference for straight lines, took the deformities of the landscape into view from the outset, and thought his routes through. His lines would anticipate the obstacles; and even when he couldn’t have a straight line, he would be trying to establish the shortest “navigable” distance between any two points. And this, even if he was in a hurry, which surveyors and planners always are.

As a proponent of idleness, I praise those pagan Romans. It is surprising how many things take much less time, and turn out better, if you think things through before you start. Sleep, and experiment, could be factored in. Experience might also be consulted.

But back home, in the Ontario of more than two centuries ago, we were doing what we are doing still through our political process: creating problems for future generations to cope with. Currently, piling up debt. Formerly: using rulers to ignore the watershed boundaries; drawing farmlots that ignore the slopes and soil conditions; creating problems that, with thought, more attention, and divine patience, could have been foreseen; and would then have cost nothing to eliminate. For we were as we are: a people who think too fast.

In case she is curious, gentle reader was drawing the plan for Esquesing Township. It is now called “Halton Hills,” but we won’t go there today. The original name was borrowed from the Mississauga Indians, and probably misheard. Had there not been a shortage of poets at the time, it would have been transcribed, “Esquesan.” It meant something like, “The back of beyond.”

As a child, and as a youff, when we were home in “Georgetown” (the capital of Esquesing, surely), I hiked over a considerable portion of its 66,700 acres, uphill and down (on a bicycle sometimes), and (in soggy boots) through the valley of the Credit and all its tributaries. On Google maps, I can find the location immediately of everything in the human and natural landscape that once struck me as delightful or enchanting, and discover that most of those things are gone.

Esquesing was large enough to make a country, with its own little Parliament and its own peculiar ways. Indeed, one could divide it “naturally” into seventeen parishes and a few town wards.

Over large expanses of magnificent farmland, there has now spread a circuit-board of suburban sprawl, and along all approach roads the strip-mall phenomenon, of franchise capitalism at its most ghastly. City planners and surveyors worked it all out. Fifty years, and almost everything I loved has been wantonly destroyed. But thanks to those Google “street views,” I can see that the same has happened almost everywhere else I have ever been. We’re still calling it “progress,” and it is still leading us by the straightest possible line, to Hell.

From an early age, I became a phantasist. I would put what was demolished back together in my mind. I would also design new things and place them in imagination where they seemed to fit — parks and creek-side woodland trails; shops for carpenters and every sort of craftsman; mills, millponds, barns; the quilt of fields and hedgerows surrounding; the steepled townscape rising from the fields; galleries, music halls and cosy theatres; chapels for the meditative types; chantries to remember the dead (catacombs to expand the graveyards); country houses with verandahs for the living, houses without but with balconies above; town courtyard houses with yard and balconies inside; the winding lanes between them, and children at play on the streets; public monuments, sculpture, murals; foundries, bronze casting studios; a covered farmer’s market downtown; pottery kilns and the like; quarries dug for building stone and not for gravel, later to be made into such as sunken Mary gardens.

Each edifice built once, uniquely, as if for all time, with repairs and adjustments made through the years, wearing its age proudly.

Try to imagine what could have been done — with what, for a native, should he open his eyes, is the most beautiful patch in all the vast Godly quilt of our planet — for each homeland, each sacred and precious domain.

I haven’t actually been to Hell, but I’m told it is full of surveyors and planners.

Spilt religion

Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s, according to Our Saviour. I wonder how well this statement is understood, even when taken as quick repartee to an entrapment question. In that light it was an invitation to His persecutors, to think again — about God, about moral obligation, about human freedom, and many related things. Today, we cite the phrase to enforce, from the Christian side, the separation of Church and State. I doubt that could have been the original intention, for Jesus’ contemporaries never concerned themselves with the niceties of American constitutional practice. They had sixteen more centuries before they’d ever have to think about the Peace of Westphalia. Notwithstanding, the distinction between earthly and heavenly power, slurred in ancient paganry including the Roman, was, I think, already morning star on the horizon of Hellenistic thinking.

We can’t cease to be modern, or escape history, so long as we are breathing. Nor have we become again quite so barbaric that the past is lost to us. Even if unwilling, we are anachronists, and the ideas, both of Church and of State, do not go away. To our modern view, shot through with the vice of individualism, a man has connexions with God and with his neighbour that are different in kind. We hear an “either/or” when Christ had specified a “both/and.”

He was — and I am no theologian, don’t trust me — making a distinction between God and Mammon. (Now, what this term “mammon” means is a large topic; its reduction by childish translators to the word “money” is a sign of our times.) Both exist in the spiritual realm, both (by the Incarnation) in the material. The silver piece that Jesus was shown (foreshadowing the silver pieces to Judas), were of Mammon, on whom Christ made no claim. On justice and order He did, so that ultimately Christ claimed Caesar, but in no worldly sense. Caesar did Christ’s work, insofar as he maintained the lawful order of things; or he refused, and served only himself. That coin was his token, either way, and not for Christ to micromanage. It was not a sacred article.

Trade, though it should be honest, is in its nature profane. This does not mean that it is evil. Eating and drinking are not wicked things, in themselves. We are not Manichees. Insofar as a human is an animal, alive within the natural world, he is not a moral subject. Only insofar as he belongs to a supernatural order, does he participate in the absolutes we find there. We are not Animists, we are not Pantheists; the natural order we neither worship nor condemn. We give up the coin in taxes, or we give up our body to the lion in the Forum; at the material level, it is all one.

Although this world is a mixture of the sacred and profane, we need not confuse them. We ought not confuse them, and never in God’s name. The sphere of politics, on which I touched yesterday, is the sphere of Caesar’s coin. It is decidedly NOT the sphere of our neighbour, who is never abstract. The most seemingly charitable welfare or eleemosynary schemes are in the realm of Caesar.

Christians are called upon to be alert. With God or neighbour our relation is with a Person; the Church, for all her outward organization, is a vessel in which we find a Person, too. The vessel of the State contains, actually, a bottomless nothing.

Our contemporaries are bewildered by these. They think that Christ has called us to advance His Kingdom by political means; or that good resides in the empty vessel. This is spilt religion; the wine poured, as it were, into the wrong jar, and lost, immortally. That which is owed to Christ — a life — is instead paid into the emptiness.

Chronicles of collusion

I accused the Democrats of colluding to get Donald Trump elected to the presidency of the United States. How could anyone not see it? Everything they did during the last election campaign looks in retrospect, but also looked in prospect, as if it were designed to give people a reason to vote for Mr Trump. The conspiracy was larger, however. The whole Washington Swamp, as it is affectionately called, went to the wall to make Trump electable. The media were enthusiastically playing their part; still are.

It was a put-up job.

And now I accuse Theresa May and the Conservative “remainers” across the water — together with the civil service, the London Swamp, the rightwing media, &c — of colluding to get Jeremy Corbyn into power, for whom no one in his right mind could vote. Mrs May seems to work on this night and day.

A significant portion of any electorate is, of course, not in their right minds, and as I’ve noticed before, they are now the majority; but even as a minority they often constituted the “swing vote.” This helps explain the technique of collusion. All those who are batty, start making demands; the rest of the population forms a closed camp to stop them. Their candidate, too, has the reek of madness; but they hold their noses.

Then the pendulum swings. But here I’m getting ahead of the plot.

To understand what I’m saying, gentle reader must realize that politics have nothing to do with government. A sane country (Switzerland?) would more or less govern itself. Changes would occur, but only from necessity. If they did anything at all, the politicians would be responding to the public will, though resisting it until a consensus were formed, to do the unavoidable. Peaceful government flourishes on consensus; on mom, and apple pie; on knitting, not on pulling at loose ends.

Government in nature works from the bottom, up. Government against nature works from the top, down. Modern politics is contra naturam — no matter which party wins.

Thanks largely to the abandonment of traditional religion, politics have assumed the power of symbol, of religious obligation and belief. Every government decision becomes a symbolic act, to please one faction and affront another. The actual effect of the policy is ignored. The electorate participate in what is essentially a religious war. Finally it escalates to the apocalyptic battle, between two parties that despise each other, psychopathically.

Only at this point can “real change” be accomplished: the country is destroyed.

Another way to put this, is that politics have been spiritualized. Differences between parties have been removed to some cosmic plane, where angels and devils contend. People seek personal transcendence through political action. (Mr O’Rourke in Texas is an especially sad case.) It is a Manichee struggle, in which worldly realities are pushed out of sight. The protagonist, in his heroic gestures, freed from the possibility of self-deprecation, will also lose sight of the fact he is a jackass.

Among my arguments for not voting, perhaps not even voting against the worst freaks, is that one endangers one’s soul. One becomes emotionally “committed” — i.e. fit to be tied. I speak with knowledge of the partisan entanglements in my own soul, but also of political policies that, though fought to the death over, don’t amount to much.

Example: the overwhelming support for stopping illegal immigration at all American borders (that with Mexico is just the most publicized). “The peeple” elect someone who, rather crassly, promises to do something about it — and three years later the problem is much worse.

Yet it was an administrative, not a political issue. No one in his right mind could oppose basic border controls, in the world as we have it. Suddenly it became “a symbol,” and now only crazy things can be done.

What is genuinely necessary, or would at least be helpful? These are things that once could be discussed. Now they are just “triggers.”

Serial groping chronicles

The world could live without Hegel’s philosophy of right, or his principles of logic, but I shed a metaphorical tear when I realized that his philosophy of history was no longer on my shelves, for it is full of juicy anecdotes. Give Hegel up? Personally, I’d find that one of the easier things to omit for Lent; though I know a man for whom it might be difficult. A Hegel quote in every email; one looks for it as for the Captain Midnight secret decoder ring in the box of Sugar Pops.

Was Hegel a serial groper? I don’t know; I’m just asking.

There is no truth to the often-circulated rumour that Germans are boring. Indeed, as I once argued to a beautiful German woman (who worked for the FAZ in Frankfurt, which aspired to be the most boring newspaper in the world, except for the NZZ in Zurich), the more interesting they become, the more dangerous. She retaliated by earnestly asking me to explain the English concept of “irony” — knowing full well that it could not be done. (She was a dangerous woman.)

In the subsequent conversation I held up the book, Horace, by the late great German philologist, Eduard Fraenkel. It is a breathtaking work of classical scholarship, which I still have on my shelves, though let me be the first to admit that I have never read the thing right through. Page after page one is arrested by the breadth of his knowledge and the subtlety of his reasoning; this makes it slow-going. Too, even though he was exiled to Oxford (same old story: Jewish in 1933), there are no jokes.

We don’t know if Horace ever groped anyone, but we can know that the poet was as full of sly ironies as any English schoolboy and, I would imagine, given to mischief. Fraenkel certainly knew this, but his reader might never guess. At the moment when Horace’s humour becomes slam-bang obvious, while his good taste seems to be taking a rest, Fraenkel falls mysteriously silent. He was not merely a brilliant German scholar, but an heroic one.

I mention him today to be topical.

They were letting women into the English universities in the last century and, according to quite a few who studied under him, Fraenkel was a serial groper. Verily, there were almost public warnings about him, in which it was conceded that he was a remarkable teacher, but you’d better come to a tutorial armed; because he had arms, and they strayed everywhere. He was the Joe Biden of classics professors.

Between Fraenkel and Biden, I think there may have been others. Someone with a lot of prurience, and patience, should compile a list of famous historical gropers. It won’t be me. I am much too prim.

In the olden times, to which I’ve been referring, groping — even by learned classicists — was a risk the learned woman ran. Some acquired husbands in this way; there is a vogue for #MeToo confessionals among prominent elderly female Latinists just now. I daresay the phenomenon was known in other branches of society. There were no laws against it. There was no law against a woman giving her assailant a crisp slap across the face, either; though I suppose she’d have to wonder what the effect might be on her grades.

But defending one’s virtue is a skill that must be acquired, like any other skill in the jungle of human life. Parents of female children used to teach it, and mother crow could give examples of how it was done to her chicks.

(I think of an unnecessarily attractive waitress in a beer hall I used to frequent. She had mastered the art of dancing with a tray of fully-charged beer steins, never slopping a drop. When male customers reached for her, she’d dance very slightly away, drawing them out until their chairs toppled and they’d be washed by their own beverages. She wouldn’t even look back. One night I counted four such “accidents.”)

Poor Joe Biden. How sad that he may never become President. My heart bleeds. But if he were a real man, he wouldn’t stop. He’d go right out and grope AOC. Turns out, he’s just a coward.

Back to the land

Some younger person, a self-declared “conservative,” who reads these essays even though I am not, asks me what I think is the most important single thing to be “conserved” in politics and society, through the lifetime he may be facing.

As a reactionary, I of course immediately replied it is something to be less conserved, than recovered. It is no particular law or institution. Our laws and institutions, within both Church and State, have been so thoroughly subverted, that the conservative impulse is obviated.

They are, as our architecture, comparable to the buildings that have been erected in the last generation or two. Almost all of them could be cleared away, on the argument that a parking lot would have more substance and dignity. The failure of conservatism is apparent in those buildings that were replaced. If there is a site where something better, or even more solid, was constructed, it has not yet come to my attention.

Much blather is devoted to our recent ideals of “efficiency,” “functionality,” “accessibility,” and so forth. Much attention is devoted to economic calculations — on the large, inhuman scale. The fact that inefficiency, dysfunctionality, and inaccessibility are common, is justified on the argument that “nothing is perfect,” and thus striving for “perfection” (in the sense of “completeness”) is a waste of time. Craftsmanship, once taken as essential, is systematically eliminated, for it gets in the way of our idiot-proofing schemes.

Here I refer only to the physical machinery of modern life and “progress.” The mental and spiritual machinery runs parallel.

To my mind, the common feature is the decline of truth (which is sacred), and its replacement with bullshit, as defined in e.g. Professor Frankfurt’s book (On Bullshit, Princeton, 2005). While the author (about to turn ninety) could fairly be accused of Cartesian and Humean feints, he grasps the rhetorical divide between those who acknowledge the truth as something external to them and valuable; and those who only care for persuasion, and are indifferent to whether what they say is true.

A liar is to be preferred to a bullshitter, for a liar is aware of the truth he is avoiding. He has thus some relation to it. Strictly speaking, most politicians and journalists are not liars. They never rise that high.

Truth is not reducible to a few checkable facts. In my experience, bullshitters make diligent fact-checkers, for “facts,” even true ones, can be used as persuaders. Truth requires an elaboration of context, whereas the use of statistics is, no context required. Cause may be attributed to mere statistical correlation, so that once we have that, the truth doesn’t matter any more. Thus the statistics are gathered in an anti-scientific way — in order to make a point, not to discover anything.

Yet we should know from an elementary experience of nature, that the truth is more likely to be surprising. It is often implausible. The ideological mind is totalitarian, as well as technological, and fanatically plausible. Where nature fails to cooperate, its bulldozing instinct is to change nature.

The demand for truth, which must be recovered, is not for something ethereal. Instead, it is a demand for the real. It offers an escape from our Unreal City. Perhaps only a holiday, under present conditions, but to the young I would advocate: “back to the land.”


A piece I wrote some years ago on the decline of politics,
as a trade, may be relevant. (Here).

Prima aprilis

The procession from March Fools’ Day (which is also Saint David’s), to April Fools’, to May Fools’ (also called “May Day”), to June Fools’, and so on, is a tradition of some historical standing, going back as it does to the Second Punic War. That the pagan Romans celebrated the Veneralia on the kalends (first day) of this month, in honour of Venus and her vestal virgins, I was told as a schoolboy, but by a Latin teacher who may have been joking; not about the festival itself, but in certain details of its celebration, which struck me as implausible. However, the prospect for undressing attractive young women and tossing them into fountains — we may have had our French teacher particularly in mind – seemed grounds good enough for a revival of this custom. It could be explained as “scholarly.” As I recall, overcome by timidity, the lads did not get beyond the kidnapping stage.

The teacher was Scottish, and spoke French quite fluently, though with a brogue and a lisp, which had already inspired some satirical gestures. She had a sense of humour, to be sure, but within the usual limits. She found it easier to command affection than respect, and so the idea of trying something on for the kalends got quickly out of hand. I was incidentally of the killjoy faction, and rather than participate in the plot, ran to fetch a vice-principal. This being an old-fashioned, tightly-disciplined “British” school, the plotters were of course detained, tortured, and killed. (Perhaps I exaggerate.)

“Boys will be boys,” it has sometimes been alleged — or even used as an improbable defence. My own view is that prudence dictates some thought on the likely consequence of one’s action, and while I’m generally against prognostication, in cases like this a moral argument can be made. April Fools’ jokes should be, in the first instance, genuinely funny, to the broad audience, and not merely cruel to certain members. But no cruelty at all might be too little.

The mediaeval conception of fools, intended foolishness, and celebratory misrule, is lost on us moderns. They did it in high spirits for a moment of relief, then returned to order voluntarily. We do it in the name of progress, and never look back.

With a (very Catholic) gentleman of my parents’ generation I once unexpectedly crossed the path of a “Gay Pride Parade,” whose exhibitors were disporting themselves in ways I would rather not describe. I worried that my elderly friend would be outraged, and make a scene. Instead he found it amusing (he’d never seen such a thing before), as if the world had been turned upside down for a joke. He could not stop laughing. I found his response instructive.

“Fake news,” likewise (gentle reader may remember this example); it wears somewhat, when it becomes a feature of everyday life, and is not reserved for special occasions; when, moreover, the will is to keep the audience fooled in perpetuity. This is among my criticisms of the “Main Stream Media,” today. Seldom, any more, do I see a news article that has been played straight. I could laugh at the distortions, but one can only laugh so long. Moreover, in politics, high spirits and the old virtue of a belly-laugh has receded so far, that when something fairly innocent is done to disturb the grimness of our public life, arrests may follow; and the fellow who was trying to “lighten everyone up” will be compelled to attend Maoist self-criticism sessions. Only if he was a certified “progressive” can he hope to get his career back.

April Fools’, and any other fool days, are among our losses. There is no “normal” to invert any more; and there will be none for the foreseeable future — except among our friends, until the surveillance technology has made it impossible to have any.