Essays in Idleness


The sun & the mind

During my minor ischaemic breaks from productivity, I have made it my habit not to “follow the science.” Of course, in this ischaemic condition, which I unscientifically call a “mini-stroke,” I cannot actually follow anything; and my perpetual dizziness limits rambling; but I have certain estimable advantages. What better time to observe the properties of mind and body, than when both are in process of slipping away? For once they have slipped, they will be in their most permanent condition, and static from the worldly point-of-view. Whereas, prior to this, they are restless and unpredictable.

Indeed, I would recommend my technique for time passage to Mr John Fetterman, as a better method of rehabilitation than by running for the U.S. Senate. For one is slightly less likely to make a fool of himself on national television, when one never appears on it. However, those who literally “follow the science” also obtain a reputation for foolishness; so as Voltaire would say, each to his own garden.

The sciences I don’t follow are the study of mind and, broadly, the weather. This is because neither of them can be shown to exist. Instead we have, as substitutes, brain surgery, and the collection of climate statistics.

This latter may seem a plausible subject for inquiry, until my reader notices that it excludes serious consideration of the sun. Various technocratic devices are proposed against the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere, and fertilizers in the soil. Gigantic, bird-slaughtering fans are erected in formerly attractive places. But the sun is ignored, except by those who think they can impound its mysterious photonic energies, by vast, quaintly temporary, solar panels.

We do not look directly at the sun, from fear of being blinded. We turn away from it into the dark, or seek enlightenment over our shoulder. We might call this the speleology of Plato, although, I am told, this is also not a science. (Hardly anything is.)

Brain surgery is, today, a technocratic art (as opposed to a -logy), which flourishes even in the absence of mind. The mechanics of brain operation is studied with indifference to causation. That aspect of life is inaccessible, except to the blinking eye of faith. But if one could assemble precise inorganic copies of every particle that is needed to make up a human brain, or even less ambitiously that of a salamander, it almost certainly wouldn’t work — even if you powered it with wind and solar.

More downsizing

The reader with an eye on the Catholic Thing, this morning, will have learnt from Mr Randall Smith how to distinguish the mediaeval reductio, from the contemporary reduction. The former is, from its Latin etymology, a “leading back” to sources and causes; the latter is instead a simplification, or reduction in size and complexity.

He (the reader) will have learnt from another Catholic website, or from life, the importance of his Latin lessons, when he was (or is) preparing himself for the Catholic experience. For as a Catholic, today, he will be increasingly on his own; and surrounded by a culture that is radically in opposition.

For philosophy, as well as religion, speaks Latin, albeit philosophy in translation from Greek. It is the wonderfully quick and well-steered getaway vehicle for our reductio.

My own current thoughts have been rather on downsizing, reduction, “less is more,” &c, in our modern sense. We should be wary of bigness, that is not of God. My own practice is to note this quality, “bigness,” but to run from it rather than approach it and be squashed. For only what is of God will not squash you.

Created nature (and all of it was created by Him) must be smaller than He by comparison, no matter how large it may be in relation to us. I refer only to the quality of sizeness; of course, the quantity cannot be measured. We should never be trying to make the big bigger, when it is not of God. Rather, in our reductio, we should follow it back, for all things finally originate in God. This is the heroic backwardness I have been advocating in these essays; the unity of a worldview that leads reliably from the small and smaller, to the large. We should not be distracted on our journey by objects which are big and empty, like politics or empires. We shouldn’t be satisfied by imitations.

We should ourselves be imitators, of Christ. For that is the one sure way, the positive reductio, by which our lives can make sense. Getting rid of the trash that we have assembled around us is merely the necessary housekeeping.

Downsizing, cont.

The Russian forces are big, but this does not mean they cannot be defeated. Nuclear weapons and the inheritance of socialist bureaucracy gives them the formidable power of intimidation, but it is wrong to fear them because they bring death. Russian empires have always brought death, and have prevailed among those who fear them, but as the new nation of Ukraine has discovered, this is only a conceit. The empire, like all other empires, will contract, from the moment the proper contempt is shown to it. As the contempt “evolves,” more and more of it disappears. The task of the free citizen is to effect this disappearance.

Lest it be thought I am showing my prejudice against the Russian, exclusively, let me add that there are many more empires I would like to make extinct. Largeness, in human affairs, is itself an evil. Every large secular organization that I have encountered, over almost seventy years, is by its nature monstrous, chaotic, and obscene.

Religious organizations have easily relaxed into poisonous secularity. It is a particular affliction of modernity, though the threat often appeared in previous ages. It is the essence of tyranny. As organizations, including the “capitalist” ones, become bigger, they embrace evil. Who can stop them?

Leviathan — he makes himself large. We make ourselves large to resist him. It is our counter-productive instinct. The ancient Babylonians conceived of the cosmic defeat of the great monster whose slain body became heavens and earth. Judaeo-Christian mythology advanced on this, towards the still, small voice. For what is gigantic, and not of God, is of the other persuasion, necessarily.

This is because there are two, and only two, cosmic forces out there: the smaller and the larger, as it were.

Downsizing Satan

Critics of these belligerent and pugnaciously blameless, idle essays, have warned me, that in my low enthusiasm for the war in Ukraine, I stand to lose my carefully cultivated, decades-long reputation as a war-monger. And, not just for war in the abstract, as one of them argues. For if I won’t support a battle against Russia, what country would I go to war with? In the long view of history, would I have given a pass even to the Infidel Turk? Will I make a stand when we are invaded by Martians?

Well, I do like to pick my wars wisely. Some aren’t worth winning, and some (a smaller number) may not be worth even delivering a meaningless threat.

Was reading last evening, Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, by La Motte Fouqué — the glorious Prussian war-monger. I thought it might lift my spirits from this wan recumbent posture. Heinrich Heine wrote of Sigurd that he is “as strong as the rocks of Norway and as impetuous as the ocean that dashes upon them, he is as brave as a hundred lions, and has as much sense as two donkeys.”

Yes, there are great beauties in Fouqué’s little tales, and great humour though none of it is intended. One enjoys him as one enjoys an ice-cold shower. It was Chesterton, I believe, who pointed long before the Second World War, to the earlier modern Prussians as the proto-Nazis. As I recall, he didn’t even use the clinching argument, that they were Protestants. He did mention their Puritanical disposition, however. And like Puritans, everywhere, they loved to dress very smartly in uniform, beat drums and so forth. With some imagination, you might convince yourself to march along.

But also with Chesterton, I favour defensive wars, and discountenance the offensive variety. Wars of conquest do not appeal to me at all, and never did. You must fight, and die, for love of what is behind you. Hatred, even of Prussians, will not do as an excuse.

I thought my “soft power” views on Ukraine’s current predicament would be apparent. By all means, they should blow the Russkies away.

Thanksgiving in Canada

Thanks are usually given for something positive, not something negative, like not being a toad, or not being a woman. This is because we live within limited perspectives. We cannot really know how joyful and satisfying it might be, to hop with the Bufonidae, especially the female ones, covered with gorgeous, wart-like bumps above their paratoid glands, secreting neurotoxins. Indeed, no one could want to eat us, were we a toad.

But the toads must have their own prayers of thanksgiving, that we know nothing of, and having avoided the scandal of humanity, must pray with every heartbeat. It is a permanent thanksgiving for them. So, I came to think long ago, through all nature. The animals are joyful from the moment of their creation, to the moment of their cessation, in the wild. Grim humans assume that they feel pain and other inconveniences as we do. But I had it on authority of my balconata finches (who did not return after works on my building) that life is one long continuous feast and adventure.

In particular, they do not experience fear as we do. A fright to them is a delicious thrill, as it can be sometimes to us watching movies. Death, to them, is incomprehensible. For all we know, they are immortal by way of “metempsychosis.” Their souls transmigrate.

They will be reborn as other finches, or perhaps may slightly “evolve.” For as nature abhors a vacuum, so too does the spirit of life refuse the blankness of extermination. It pops up somewhere else.

No animal is capable of despair, I think. Humans alone are “deep” enough to approach the proximity of Hell, in their free will. And yet we need not go there; it is up to us.

Had enough war?

The attentive reader will have noticed that I have had nothing to say on the War in Ukraine, during the last few months. This, in addition to “no comment” on several other items of news. I propose to deal with one nothing at a time.

It is more difficult than it once was to tell what is happening upon the old Scythian plain. The effect of propaganda — the intention to deceive the captive audiences on both sides — makes reporting generally unreliable. The events will never be perfectly clear; and the right and wrong of battle depends on the interpretation of such news. The best we can hope for is a few indisputable atrocities; but most of these will be faked.

Ossetes, from one of a pair of ethnications within the blend of the Caucasus, are believed to be the nearest living descendants to the ancient Scythians (or Saka, Sacae, &c) who flourished three thousand years ago. They were in turn very far from being the first inhabitants. The latest “nation,” the Ukrainians, have just finished inventing themselves within the vast pool of Slavic peoples.

Human beings are not, in any political, moral, or historical sense, indigenous to any part of this world. In our arrogance we deny that we are creatures of God, whose past is as unknowable to us as our Maker. We demand science: a science which in nature cannot exist.

We read of ancient wars, between peoples long since dispersed, or annihilated, who left nothing but their orphaned children. Why did they fight? What could they gain? We cannot really know that either, for the past becomes incoherent as soon as any part of it fades.

In what way was their suffering redeemed? We don’t know.

Another of these grand and pointless wars is playing out, until one side or another acknowledges defeat. The fate of the victorious is often more poignant than the fate of the vanquished. We, who happen to survive (maybe there will be an exchange of nuclear missiles?) must confront the time ahead. We cannot know what that will be, either.

The progress of complexity

“Proper shame is now termed sheer stupidity; shamelessness, on the other hand, is called manliness; voluptuousness passes for good tone; haughtiness for good education; lawlessness for freedom; honourable dealing is dubbed hypocrisy, and dishonesty, good fortune.”

The speaker is Thucydides, and he is giving an account of the Greeks during the Peloponnesian War. It came to me this morning with Owen Barfield’s rejuvenating breakfast reading, his History in English Words. He was in the course of explaining how, in modern times, silly lost its old meaning of “blessed”; demure changed from “grave” or “sober” to “affectedly modest”; and the kindly officious came to imply “bustling interference.”

Conversely, he flatters the Roman character, for their word “simple” did not come to be used as a term of contempt, as it did in all other civilized languages. This, I speculate, is one of the mystical reasons that Latin became the (Catholic) liturgical language; it has the power of not changing. It is what it is, such that when the meanings of words are changed, they cease to be Latin.

Whereas, our words slip and slide. A moral degeneration will occur — within Greek, say, or within English — yet the language carries on glibly as before. Thucydides, the hero of political realism, lived in the fifth century before Christ, but his account of the way his contemporaries “slipped” does not appear dated. For moral decline is, in some sense, the same in all ages.