Essays in Idleness


Hang ’em high chronicles

Among the characteristics of humans, when they are hated, is to hate right back. This applies to Left and Right; I think each side could enthusiastically agree, that the other is beneath contempt, if not beneath reproach. Yet both sides can’t be right. Judging only from passing comments in my inbox, including remarks forwarded to me, even my own harmless scribblings offend some people. I have been “triggering” the “trolls,” a friend explains. Truth to tell, sometimes I enjoy it.

But to preach hatred, as if it were a good — hatred of pope or president, for instance — is morally defective. In particular, the old Christian distinction between sin and sinner was a huge improvement on previous teaching. A man is bad, not for who he is, but for what he does or doesn’t do. It is actually possible to hate the sin but love the sinner. Difficult, but it can be done.

From my great impartial height, and with the occasional assistance of Our Lord’s instructions with regard to the treatment of one’s enemies, I survey the moral landscape. And then, I wonder what to drop. I am not in possession of thermonuclear devices. At the moment I have access only to the large icicles that have formed on my balconata. But I don’t know how to aim them. “Peace would be indicated,” as a lawyer might say. (I mentioned the “war” alternative, only yesterday.)

As the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu once taught, the wrathful, hateful man is unlikely to win wars. He omitted the part about loving one’s enemy. Notwithstanding, it is the cool, rational head, who (assuming resourcefulness, or sufficient arms) wins the battle. He must assimilate realities, to do so. Indeed, one of Sun Tzu’s tips, was to anger the opposing general. Make him do crazy things, because he is “triggered.” Let him charge blindly into the traps one has dispassionately set for him.

But wars are large. Let’s keep this small and personal.

The loss of Christian faith has entailed the loss of Christian thinking, including a purchase on all of the ideas which made Western Civ work. Many of these ideas were not exclusively Christian, but were shared over time by all the sane. This included the aspiration to sanity itself, present at least somewhere in all the “great religions.”

To be more explicitly Christian, love is not an incense. It arrives, sometimes, without any scent, and generally without smoke and/or mirrors. As Plato’s Socrates projected, the best expression of love may be to administer punishment, justly. For without a “course correction,” the regretless sinful man will (not “may”) continue in the wrong direction.

Our own ancestors once understood, that sometimes the kindest favour one can do, for the seriously bad man, is to hang him. Gentle reader may agree that this is tough love at its toughest. But it can be understood. The man who dies hanged enters into the posthumous state, having paid for at least some of his crimes. He’s in much better shape than were he still a debtor.

It is alleged, correctly, that I am a reactionary, and in my spare time, also perhaps a conservative, and “rightwing.” (The Christian part is often overlooked.) I see no reason to abandon the principles of the Revelation, or of the jurisprudence that was built around it. Indeed, anyone who proposes to “reform” these things — the partisans of mindless “niceness” — I consider to be not only my personal enemy, but an enemy of mankind.

Let me love him. Let me work diligently, when I can, to prevent his liberalism from succeeding, and likewise spare him from the gallows he might eventually deserve.

Unending descent

There is a wild, strange, exhilaration at the appearance of first snow; that generous Christmas feeling, and the glory of boots and greatcoats. Soon we will be skating and sliding. An end has been announced to autumn; the old year will be frozen out.

Rising all the way from the street, to my altitude in the High Doganate, I hear one of my neighbours cussing, and a fine old-fashioned car that chokes and won’t start.

In these parts there is relief from the anticipated “northern monsoon,” as I call it; for most years we have cold rain and drizzle through the month of November. But ho: the sky had some better reason to be overcast this year. Let it fill our streets with promise. Let it halt traffic for a moment of peace.

Gently falling snow, on battlefields and historical places, or on the receding memory of them — and now, this grace returns upon us. Again the world is being cleaned, the stage purified for the next acts and scenes in our play. A curtain of snow has deleted my view across the Lake, and Humber Bay. By God’s grace, across the water, the highrise settlement of Mimico has disappeared. Only the near neighbourhood is visible, the roofs white-on-white, against the white background. A gull cries, and in the echo Hilda Doolittle: “The walls do not fall.”

It is Armistice Day; our poppies are all fastened. The cannon will sound, in the inaudible distance; our clocks will soundlessly strike eleven. For a moment, perhaps, the dead look down upon their children, or upon the children they never had. The stillness binds us all together, beinglessly.

Thirty years ago the Berlin Wall fell. Of course I remember the occasion. It was like first snow. All history was being obscured by it. There was wild surmise in the offices of the Idler magazine, where I then worked; we gathered round a banner headline in the New York Times. What to make of this?

Was the monstrosity of Leninism actually collapsing, the Iron Curtain crashing down? Were the hundred million slaves of Communism suddenly walking free? Nay two, three, four hundred millions? It was a joyous occasion, yet too, a hollow one. For we had done nothing.

Had my generation escaped a Third vast war, that would have followed naturally upon the First and the Second? Were we really excused, so easily, from the horrors which had engulfed my father’s generation, and that of his father? Had we proved, somehow, not worth killing in a great cause?

Were all wars over? Was this “the end of history” as enthusiasts proclaimed? Were we the first of many generations, who would endure the unending boredom of peace?

But in moments history was starting up again, to our equally hollow disappointment.

The world is like that; we should have known. “Peace on Earth” doesn’t happen, except in the heart of a mystery religion, whose partisans fade away. The guns will blaze anew, or perhaps they will be lasers. The bodies will again be frozen, into the ice of time. And as it melts, the siren of Utopia will be heard, to signal the approach of fresh conflicts. Again, the war cry, the demand now for a Green Paradise on Earth — another murderous try at socialism.

Men fail — to learn the mystery of acceptance, the beauty of what they have. The soldiers will ready for battle again. Let the optimists despair.

And here we are, nearly twenty years into a new, violent century. The armies have reformed, into a “new world order.” Think of the armistices to come. And the snows will come, and with the snows, the silence.

On getting up

As Kipling said, one must keep one’s head, “when all about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you.” He has other advice in the same poem, but I notice, this is where it starts. I think it is good advice, in general, though I would add a few whimsical qualifications, here and there. Too, the piece goes rather psycho, towards the end.

My late grandfather supplied me with the framed text; it was very kind of him. He was an illuminator, in his spare time from being a cartographer. The idea was, that I could read the text while shaving.

A lady friend suggests that I should shave more often. But as I’ve never let her inside the High Doganate, she couldn’t have been “commenting” on more than my appearance.

Nor have I drawn the inference, that men with beards are unwiser than clean-shaven men. Or, women for that matter. But no, I am not a pogonophobe. For not everyone is provided with an illuminated copy of the “If –” poem, to review at the start of his day.

I mention it for the sake of nostalgia, but also as a remedy against current ills. If, instead of didactic verse, one begins by reading meejah headlines on the Internet, it is less likely the day will turn out well. One might, for instance, go as crazy as the meejah. The day might then easily degenerate, from the motive of revenge.

From hard personal experience, I have discovered that I lack influence in the world. The insane things, that are insanely reported, would probably happen if I never got up. I could, quite probably, do more good by going first thing to Mass. Or even by giving a bottle of whisky to a “homeless person”; it might save him money for his other needs. As to the big problems of Society and State, nothing I do is going to solve them.

God might put me in a situation like that in which He put those Austrian boys: the two who tossed the “pachamamas” in the river at Rome. Though as a friend said, there are lots of bad things in the Tiber already. Perhaps toss a few liberal bishops in the Amazon. It might make for a better video; especially if you lucked into a school of piranhas. But now, perhaps, I’m getting carried away.

And anyway, I’m against providing clickbait.

Where Kipling goes wrong, predictably because he is not a Catholic, I think, is by omitting the one thing I could reliably do, to make the world a better place; however indirectly. It is to become Holy. This, truly, is “to advance one’s own cause” — in the highest sense, selfish.

It is the selfishness that is distantly reflected, as it were in mudwater at the bottom of a pit, in The Fable of the Bees. (In that, the ideology of Capitalism was foreseen: “private vices, publick benefits.” The author, Bernard Mandeville, was our English Machiavelli. He preferred selfish vices, to “virtue signalling.”)

Alternatively, as Newman suggests, the path to sanctity begins even before shaving. Step one is to get out of bed in the morning, … promptly.

I’m still working on step two.

Our Kingdom, where?

We cannot know, and perhaps should not presume to know, whether the election of our current pope was a good thing or a bad thing. The matter will not be decided by historians, who for the most part are as useless as journalists in getting to the bottom of anything, and are often as riddled with bias as the worst of them.

There can be no doubt that the Church was in a bad way, before Jorge Bergoglio took office. That a conclave in Rome, made of cardinals appointed by the two preceding popes, were capable of electing such a man, is superficially distressing. We have had bad popes in the past, however, and Lord, bad cardinals, too. Rarely are they the majority, but the world is the world. To each generation, the Church appears to be made of men, but by now we should have noticed what wretches men are.

Some become saints, and ought therefore to be trusted, but the very question of who are the saints is being confused by the current practice of creating them wholesale. If, for instance, every pope is to be pronounced a saint as if it were a gold watch on his retirement, we can look forward to a Saint Pope Francis when the conclave he has stacked chooses his successor. Unlike many “traditional” Catholics, I do not look forward to when Bergoglio goes. I can easily imagine the worse that could follow.

A great deal of responsibility is being passed down the ranks, to individual Catholics, whose difficulties mount. Is superstition not encouraged, when the individual at prayer is distracted by conflicting accounts of what he should be praying?

Is he really supposed to adore Mother Earth? Has he omitted comminations against oil and gas companies? Should he be wearing feathers?

Since Vatican II, if not before and during, the Church herself has been broadcasting mixed messages, so that even plain questions of good and evil are frequently in dispute. We have now reached the point when the Vatican communications officer tells us a pagan ceremony filmed in the Vatican garden, thus witnessed by millions, did not happen. He is then applauded by stolid Vatican bureaucrats sitting along his panel.

Had George Orwell been a Catholic, he could have written a satirical novel about this; though I think Wyndham Lewis could have done better. Evelyn Waugh would have been too discreet. Our contemporaries must be content with ill-written newscasts, and a discouraging diet of lies, lies, lies.

But the question I began with was not, do we have a bad pope, but is that a bad thing? The jury is always out, down here on Earth. As an old-fashioned Catholic my view is that authority descends from Heaven. My guess is that today’s quasi-socialist, radically political church will survive, but in Hell.

It has occurred to me, and several others, that the prevailing “post-Christian” mess in Rome might have good consequences. Even without using the word “schism,” I can see that a new devout, underground Church is emerging, just when it is needed. Those still obedient to the conception of the Church, adumbrated by our Founder, are being inspired to new and more heroic acts, and deeper prayer, in defence of that tradition.

How this will work out, down here on Earth, I have no idea. Yet when evils coalesce down here, resistance is also coalescing.

The means by which the Truth may be disseminated, still, are experimental and uncertain. I am thinking, for instance, of unofficial religious sites on the Internet, which bring comfort to those horrified by Rome. This is a dangerous thing; but as long as there remains a will to orthodoxy, good things can result.

Let us be martyrs: “witnesses.” Let us revive the old habits, contra mundum. In particular, let us recollect that the future we seek is no earthly, political utopia, but a Kingdom not of this world.

A conceptual thing

There is no such thing as “unaided human reason.”

Reason itself were not a machine. The thing itself cannot be sped up by artificial intelligence with quantum computers. This should be evident to anyone who has tried to think something through. There is human reason, but it requires concepts, which exist outside of us.

Time and space also do not exist, as most Neoplatonic philosophers were aware. This is because their parts don’t exist, and how does one construct something very big out of non-existent parts? There is nothing so materially wanting as “a moment” in time, “a location” in space: the one quickly invalidates the other. And yet they are.

Don’t take this lightly: brilliant men in Arabic, and Latin, wrestled with this. The pagan, technocratic Romans made fools of themselves trying to reduce space alone to just two practical dimensions. Alexandrian Greeks had already foreseen this would get them nowhere. Had they slide rules, they would have worn them all out.

The Alexandrians had better concepts (Euclid understood three dimensions). Even the Romans acknowledged this at times. Yet concepts are also made from non-existent parts, unavailable to the technocratic mind.

Nevertheless, as they were sometimes wise, philosophers in what we call the Dark Ages “moved on” from e.g. trying to co-ordinate a determinism that could explain themselves to themselves, from what they had not realized were horizon lines — another visible non-existent.

Or so I vaguely determined in my youth, when struggling with ancient commentaries on Aristotle. (Note the direction of this activity: I was determining, not being determined, by my time and location. The pagans had real problems with free will.)

It is a good mental exercise to try, by the projective imagination, to see the world as others see it. This frees one, in moments, from the tyranny of one’s own being. It is part of what made the Christian missionaries great anthropologists, from the first centuries: their attempt to grasp pagan ways of thinking, as part of the project to convert them. It involved showing others, used to being treated as subhuman, some unaccustomed respect — even the primitive tribal types, such as they were then meeting in Europe. (And in the course of that, coming to a better understanding, themselves.)

The technique proved incredibly successful, as we see today in places so diverse as Africa and China. We mastered how to translate our Christian concepts, through all the languages we encountered.

Missionaries could not start from facts, which their interlocutors had no reason to accept. The God Who Is Christ, for instance, was only a fact, observed locally and briefly, while He was biologically present; first one must conceive the historical possibility. One must find one’s way into “a vision of the thing,” for this precedes all facts.

Why is “scientific method” such a scandal? Everyone hypes it, nobody follows it. There can be no advance in understanding, scientific or of any other sort, without a prior metaphysical leap — as opposed to physical.

Let us revisit young Newton, home from Cambridge because of the plague. He is sitting in the orchard of Woolsthorpe Manor, where the apples are falling. I will not litigate the fact-checker’s question, of whether an apple fell directly on Newton’s head.

Probably not, however, for in order to learn from observation, he would have had to be watching, impartially. The point, or rather the line, was straight. The apples fell straight down. Everything was falling, unless something interfered, in straight lines towards the centre of the earth. … Aha, gravity!

Does gravity exist? This is a question like, does the Sun revolve around the Earth, or vice versa. Children are made to laugh at this today, but like me, they really don’t know. They replace one concept with another, and are taught to disparage the older one. Yet it took centuries upon centuries for anyone with the wit of a Copernicus, or a Newton, to entertain the possibility that ancient Alexandrians had been right about our planet — the same fussy Greeks that the children of pagan Rome had been taught to laugh at. … Har-har-har!

That “settled science” is a crock, I take for granted, as will anyone who knows anything at all about science, but it is not the issue here. Rather, that the world of concept is alive. It cannot be reached by the unaided reason. The brain itself had to be conceived, before all worlds.

A robot can be designed to pretend that it is Christian. But there will never be a robot who actually believes. And this is not because robots are by nature irreligious. It is because their concepts have to be installed. Whereas, for us, faith and reason are necessarily intertwined.

As sage Heraclitus said (in Diels fragment 40, I think), “Abundance of knowledge does not teach men to be wise.”

Only a man (a concept which counterfactually includes women) can become a Christian. It is a conceptual thing.

Derek Chisholm

Let me suppose gentle reader has acquired the rudiments of calligraphy. He has experimented with pens and inks and papers — eager to practise, but pressed for time, like my friend Derek, even through the long years before he married, and became a father, in fairly old age. Then after that.

In the evenings, say, or very early in the mornings, or on holidays, he had a chance. This, because he was extremely well-organized. He had other time-consuming tasks, too, for instance being an active elder in his Presbyterian church (one of his degrees was in divinity), a quiet but very generous patron of arts, a culinary expert, a (very) long distance walker, teacher of a bewildering variety of university courses, book-buyer and broad reader in topics he didn’t even teach, a theoretical economist who was always controversial, and disconcertingly impossible to confute.

I should also mention the dayjob from which he recently retired: high up in the Ontario civil service. Political appointees regularly abused him, for he was there on merit and “track record” alone. He didn’t cultivate political connexions. He did work they couldn’t do and wouldn’t want to: keeping the pension fund afloat, seeing off men who would break the bank, saving credit ratings in New York, and the province itself from what looked like bankruptcy. “Never complain, never explain,” he explained.

Through this Derek Chisholm (born 1948, died on Monday) I got the faintest glimpse of others like him, in key places within several government bureaucracies; honest and dedicated men, thanks to whom spendthrift politicians are guided and warned; or more frequently saved from the consequences of their (sometimes maliciously) stupid actions, through brilliant manoeuvres in the money markets. Without men like these, huge economies would come crashing down.

It was interesting that most if not all of these were serious Christians.

Calligraphy was just one of Derek’s hobbies. I saw one product of it in his study: binders and binders and thick binders in his elegant hand. He resolved to copy out the whole Bible, and make his own commentary upon it, between all the lines. It was a labour of seventeen years. It wasn’t for show, it was a spiritual exercise. It was a way to move himself, closer to God: a tireless contemplative effort.

I became Catholic in my fiftieth year, though I’d been leaning that way for decades. We wrangled sometimes, mostly about ecclesial history. Derek was one of several I’ve met whom I could call “mystically Calvinist.” Each was or is in life an artist of some kind: a poet, a musician, a painter, a metalsmith. Derek was an economist who understood his art in a religious way. As a young man, though acknowledged as very capable, he almost did not collect his principal degree. This was because his thesis was as far removed from Keynesian as he could travel. He challenged every cliché that had been used to slide Britain, Canada, and many other countries off the gold standard in the 1920s; and how the Depression had followed from them.

He believed God was behind the laws of supply and demand, and that they were written into nature as a gift. And he would say this to people quite bombastically unwilling to hear it. In the same study I saw a huge library of economic classics and studies; apparently all annotated.

But there were other rooms in his house, and these were filled with art and literature. I’d met him years before through a “secret society,” whose members were antiquarian booksellers and bookish lawyers: each an eccentric and Derek most of all. His hats were particularly memorable. His staccato laughter made one duck for cover.

He got people to do things. I seem to remember being put up to lecturing on Edmund Burke to a Korean audience. I was paid excessively: with a caricature of Burke by Derek’s wife, Ji Myoung, more acute than anything in my talk.

He spoke once to me in a very Caledonian way, about himself, as “a foetid person.” What an unusual word to apply to oneself! I couldn’t spot anything in him that was less than good and honourable.

Well, it is All Souls, and Derek Chisholm’s funeral was this morning.

Qui Lazarum resuscitasti a monumento foetidum …