Essays in Idleness


Against commerce

It would be useful if all those who are opposed to capitalism, or commercialism, would declare themselves. Hypocrisy requires them to retire from economic activity, and its consequences, such as eating. It happens that most of the material features of our society, and all known previous societies, depended upon commercial activities, and can be described as “capitalist” even when they insist upon describing themselves as “socialist” or “communist.”

The differences come not from buying and selling things, but from what a military man would call “command.” Certain persons (mostly non-military) are elevated in law, to a position where they acquire command of resources, and decide arbitrarily who gets what, based on an equally arbitrary moral system of reward and punishment.

No system of “free market capitalism” is perfect, because no such system has yet to exist, nor could exist given a world that is finite, and in most of its details, consistently real. Indeed, the more “free market” it is declared, the more its operation is interfered with by agencies of the government, in more complicated and unpredictable ways. Taxation is only one of the impositions; and yet substantial, compound taxation is imposed even in sectors of the national economy that are publicly called tax-free.

The issue is not complicated; whereas politicians and the self-interested political or bureaucratic class must pretend that it is. “The world is too complicated to survive without regulations.” Our schools are designed to drive this message home, and thus deprive our infants of even the possibility of freedom; they manufacture the evidence of complication. Except, some children nevertheless instinctively learn to experience freedom as the gift of God.

In my mind, “the economy” has some purposes besides the creation of paperwork, and prison sentences, but its consequences are always tediously economic. For instance, how is it that everyday, necessary objects of food, clothing, and shelter are, if they are not consciously made to an extravagant, luxury standard (which often involves bad taste), are still no match for military goods, which typically may be used only once; if that.

At the Sally Anne and similar institutions, the junk of our culture may be cheaply obtained; it is almost given away. But as we see in Afghanistan, the most potent weapons tend to be distributed absolutely without charge (to our most repulsive enemies). And these are made to an incomparably high standard of reliability, and even beauty.

I am seldom offended by the injustice of our various commercial arrangements — on a good day when the sun comes out, and there are not too many biting insects. Instead, I am uncomprehending.

What chiefly mystifies me about the economy is the common belief in the universal existence of entirely imaginary things; when the universal non-existence of them is fairly clear. This is the case with “capitalism,” or “commercialism” (to maintain a higher standard of politeness. The latter is perhaps more innocent because it is merely comparative; nevertheless it is also rude).

Military items are made to the standard to which religious objects once often answered, or weapons intended for almost purely aesthetic display. Cost is not an issue, whether in manufacture nor in giving the goods away (or sometimes, wantonly destroying them in an act reminiscent of iconoclasm). Whereas, cost/benefit seems always to be calculated, and usually the determinant, in goods available to “the free market.”

That a high proportion of military goods don’t work, when they come to be tested, may be taken for granted; for the cost of testing is a necessary contributor to the theatre of government waste. That is a universal truth — most things don’t work, or don’t work for long — but that is an entirely different issue.


Near the beginning of his De Rerum Natura, Lucretius predicts that Mount Etna will again erupt — “ad caelumque ferat flammai fulgura rursum.” The old classics hand, believing that he is dealing with the eccentricities of a poet, will take this as a colourful way to describe a volcano vomiting forth.

But “fulgura” here refers to lightning, so that if the passage is properly translated, lightning will be thrown into the sky.

This is not a poetic metaphor. It is a description that is scientifically exact. The lightning is generated in the heart of the volcano, and thus shoots upward. We aren’t reading what it looks like, but what it is.

Scientists — for instance, a knowing Epicurean like Lucretius — can grasp this. Literature professors might grasp it as well, I suppose, though they tend not to. And, journalists … know less than anybody. In reading the classics, with attention, and perhaps a dictionary, one acquires some respect for the ancients.


Afghans similarly. They have had a most unfortunate reputation through most of my adult life, … as psychopathic killers. Yet when I travelled, fairly extensively in that country, as a youth, I saw no sign of this. There were several mostly unrelated regions of Afghanistan, yet there was only one district in one region (Baluchistan) that I felt uncomfortable visiting, to the point of unsafe.

In those days, Afghanistan had not yet been invaded by the Soviets; let alone by Americans and the combined forces of NATO. She had a king. She was surprisingly independent, and ridiculously poor, but was mastering the art of begging from the world’s competing suppliers of foreign aid.

This was unwise. It is sufficient to be poor: the powers will most likely leave you alone in that case.

But the Afghans, especially the overly proud Pashtoons, had the settled habit of gunning down unwelcome intruders. This is not as mad as the world assumes, for it usually discourages their entry.

Granted, Afghans were, in the main, infidels; but when not being invaded, they were generous and hospitable, lively and charming peoples, almost to a fault. Also, some of them good dancers.

The libels told against them are appalling. The Taliban are a small part of the population, though enthusiastically armed, and manly. Their native, foreign-equipped defence forces, against this Taliban, were useful, before the United States Congress decided to cut them off supplies, repeating the crime they had committed at the end of the Vietnam War.

Unlike Afghans, it appears that Americans are easily defeated. Patience and time are all that is needful. They panic and surrender, when they hold all the cards — for instance, surrendering the immense, quite defensible, Bagram Airfield, which they still had a use for, if they were going to ship Americans out. Many other decisions, in which their advantages were relinquished, leave an unfortunate impression of sub-normal intelligence.

More significantly, they announce to the world that they are untrustworthy and unreliable. I am puzzled by such behaviour. A sovereign nation tries generally to avoid this.

They need science, and poets. Also manliness. They have soldiers and aeroplanes enough.



No one can make a serious argument, with or without moral posturing, that the United States had no right to be in Afghanistan. Moreover, there is little evidence that Americans and allies (including Canadians) committed any significant atrocities in that country, that might be cited under Geneva Conventions (which anyway don’t apply). In fact, substantial casualties were taken to avoid inflicting civilian casualties and destruction, even when the civilians in question were committing grievous acts themselves. They just weren’t wearing uniforms.

Whether it was the Americans, in Asia, or the Romans, in remote Europe, it is difficult for any mostly civilized military force to defeat or tame a barbaric enemy. This must be attempted, from time to time.

It is not sufficient to imprison this sort of enemy. As a practical matter, he must instead be killed, both to remove him definitively from the theatre of conflict, and to terrify survivors, thus make them compliant. Modern, Western, post-Christian man has failed to do this even in imagination.

The principle of “mercy” does not come into it. We were fighting to the death against a mortal enemy. Any relaxation on our part would appear as weakness, and weakness costs lives.

The war lasted twenty years, less a few weeks, counting from 9/11. The United States (and allies) once again established their incoherence in battle. A coherent strategy would have ended in victory in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the intimidation of any potential enemies thoughout the “Middle East.” This result was almost available to the George Bush regime, but was sacrificed to maintain several childish illusions about democracy and the rule-of-law, where neither had ever existed.

Foreign wars, against barbaric savages, can be fought and won. Publicity should be avoided, as it has been in all successful encounters of this sort, since history began. We cannot afford to “pull punches.”

It is a myth that Afghans were unwilling to accommodate Western ways of life, or that Muslim fanatics cannot be defeated. The former, like most men, can be governed by fear, when that is what is left to motivate them; and the latter through annihilation.

An inconceivable God

“He is not a male; he is not a female; he is not a neuter. He neither is, nor is not. When he is sought, he will take the form in which he is sought; but again, he will not come in such a form. …

“It is indeed difficult, to describe the name of the Lord!”

This is how God appeared to sages of the Upanishads, in not-quite-ancient India. I would update it, by adding that it neither is, nor is not, compatible with our Christian attempts at description. A Christian would not have God depersonalized to this extent, while even today, a Hindu might think this would be a good thing.

But consider, the Christian has it both ways, in the person of Jesus Christ. The Father of Christ can be — for as much as it means anything to the human understanding — more abstract. He cannot, even in principle, be seen. Christ is less abstract, and more immediately poignant, to the human person. The Bible stories present Him as within the reach of the sympathetic imagination, in a way that, for instance, a mathematical abstraction is not within reach.

“Personhood” has many implications, including the implication of reality. But then what we’ve implied is transcended, through the provision that Christ is “Very God.” Somewhere in this, we have stepped through the irresistible Indian qualifications of God, without reducing everything else to “maya.” It is, theologically, why even as an intellectual attainment, Christianity exceeds all other religions.

But was it achieved by human hands or human minds? This is where the question of Faith re-enters, in its peculiarly Christian way. Our Saviour had to declare Himself. There was no way he could have been discovered. Our Faith must be necessarily a “reckless” departure, from what can be done on our own terms, to what can be done only on His.

Without Christ, Christ is inconceivable.


“We can only renew ourselves by discerning God’s will in our daily lives.”

This line was all that I retained from the blither and blather of a random papal Tweet. It is a statement of radical, uncontested Protestantism; if I should put it vaguely. More succinctly, it reveals pathological narcissism in the speaker, and marks him out as someone, at most, only partially sane.

His other remarks were of the same quality.

Let me explain. No one can discern God’s Will, even when it is presented to us in its simplest, most direct form. God, for instance, tells us not to murder our children. But we don’t need to discern this. It is like science. The “fact” that murder is evil, is confirmed by all human experience, and is too obvious to insist upon a written proof. A person who doesn’t understand it is not making a mistake, a “scientific error,” or discovering an exception to the conventional rule — although such things happen.

But we are discussing Murder. An intelligent person knows what that means, as much as an unintelligent person can know it. I daresay even an over-busied Peronist from Argentina will “smoak” it out.

What he may not know — what he may imperfectly “discern” — is that he will be damned for a knowing act of murder. The same for many acts that are an analogy to that; that resemble murder by intention or style. Or perhaps, after the course of a complex life, he will not be damned.

We might know this by discerning God’s Will, assiduously through all pasts and futures, if we could. Be we cannot. We can only beg for mercy, and promise to amend.

This, at least, distinguished a Catholic from a Calvinist in my mind. I am not trying to condemn Calvinists here, for again in my experience, few of them honestly believe what they’ve been taught, and many are in defiance of the teaching, or by forgetting it, kind and merciful. The belief that they’ve been saved, by the Will of God, and are among the “elect,” is an emotional distraction from what in their lives was objective. It is foolish to depend upon discernment.

It is foolish to pretend that you know what you can’t know, and yet, can know perfectly well that you can’t know.

Call this “science.” The standards for proof are very high, when we look into the most straightforward, demonstrable empirical questions. It goes beyond, for matters that must be permanently invisible to us, such as the Will of God in all its unknowable detail.

The person who claims to teach, more than he has received from his own teachers, and tells others to claim this freedom for themselves, must generally assume himself to be very knowing. But he lies, and is a mindless tyrant, and what he knows is false. Ignore him.