Essays in Idleness



The word subsidiarity may be hurled as a slogan by respelling it in a Calvinist way. I shall be channelling Johannes Althusius (1563–1638) in today’s remark, but as gentle reader may suspect, I have not read him, have only read about him. But I broadly approve. For he was a Calvinist Aristotelian, which should give us confidence; and he carried into early modernity some political notions of that marvellous Catholic, Thomas Aquinas. These included subsidiarity as a splendid political, and social, good.

He was in opposition to Hugo Grotius, as the legal conception of the modern state was being formed, or invented. He was, to be plain, a champion of small local autonomies, at a time when the “wars of religion” were cluttering Europe with fledgling modern nation states. In my counter-history, this was an unfortunate development; but it is accepted with the same mindlessness as the Enlightenment is accepted by most of my contemporaries, whether of the Left or Right. Alas one argues hopelessly.

In Althusius we may see that, from the beginning, subsidiarity was advanced as an alternative to the nation state, not as a supplementary principle of nationalism. That what we now call “fascism,” and some worse names, was the consequence of the invention of nationalism in those dark, early modern times, I take to be obvious. That notions like “freedom” should come to be associated with a common ethnicity, in the construction of modern states, is part of our tragic history. With fake freedom, absolutism prevails.

The ancient Greek state was, in modern terms, a town. It was geographically restricted, generally to the distance one could walk, or perhaps ride a horse, or paddle a canoe, conveniently, in the course of a morning, if one intended to return by nightfall. It was an urban territory, plus a few farms, as opposed to a tribal territory. It was a conspiracy of everyone who lived there, excluding everyone who did not.

Once this is accepted as the approximate definition of a political state, the catholic principle of subsidiarity flows naturally. Anything else involves the creation of an aggressive bureaucracy, to manipulate fear.

In a world of tiny, autonomous states, you may travel abroad, and visit populations who are not one’s countrymen; and you will be under universal rules of politeness. Or you may have a war, against the state next door, if you think that is wise; but it will never amount to much. What happens within The Empire stays within the empire.

In my view, “The Empire” should be defined as Christendom; but no one consults me as a lexicographer.

Tangled Webb

There is a scandal in the American space programme. It was caused by the James Webb telescope, which was launched at Christmas 2021, and then arrived at the Lagrange Point (of equilibrium between Sun and the Earth) a year later, beginning to take its infrared pictures last summer. It was thought to be the most trustworthy of cosmic photographers.

The Webb Space Telescope would be capable of depicting conditions some thirteen-point-five billion years in the past, within the first few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Fans would not only see proof of stellar evolution in development, but gatefolds and centrespreads of primitive exoplanets as a bonus. We would get a smooth account of what we previously glimpsed choppily, thanks to the latest technology. In the words of a leading scientist: “We expected only to find tiny, young, baby galaxies at this point in time.”

But then he continues: “We’ve discovered galaxies as mature as our own in what was previously understood to be the dawn of the universe.”

Surely the expensive James Webb programme (to which Canada contributes) will have to be cancelled. For it is not “following the science,” as our political authorities had promised. It not only threatens but actually contradicts the settled science in this age of progress. It depicts, among other improprieties, galaxies too monstrously large to be accommodated within our cosmic scheme. There are super-massive black holes, too, and altogether, the universal mass seems to be more than a hundred times what we were prepared to allow.

Biological evolution had already been seriously disturbed — by almost everything we have discovered about the early life of our planet. The Darwinian “scientific community” has often had to wince. But to suggest that even the background physics of our universe, is wrong! That is more than we should expect the friends of science to endure.

Secular humanism must respond to this impertinence! Progressives must now insist on more vigorous enforcement of the “scientifically correct.” It is time to suppress the latest astronomical “truthers”!

The last day

After this, our world can be de-commercialized, and de-politicized. This is not, strictly, a means to make it Christian, but it is not exactly not. Both evils entail worship of other gods, and neglect of the actual God. And both are to be understood in the extent that they do this.

Of course, “this” calls for a little modest definition. I am currently identifying Shrovetide, and its last day, Shrove Tuesday; or whatever it is called wherever it is observed, or celebrated. Note that I do not have the slightest objection to pancakes, or sausages, or swilling alcohol, or the ingestion of the many other culinary items which traditionally precedes the year’s longest, most significant fast. Everything on its day, or in its season. To fast properly, one cannot be a (typically American) Puritan. It is also impossible to be a Puritan and feast; neurosis has ever been opposed to catholic (small-c) religion.

“Go to Confession,” is perhaps a standard greeting for Shrove Tuesday; go to it in the moments off your feast. Or save it to Ash Wednesday. But by one method or another, rejoice. We may not be absolved from sin, today; but in prospect, we can be saved from the filth and squalor of “Capitalism” and “Socialism.” And for at least forty days.

My tax plan

Let me be clear, like a politician, when he is running for office. I am not running for office, and will not be, no matter how popular my political views. Unlike most of my rivals, neither have I ever run for office in the past; except, one campaign for the student council, when I was in high school.

My chief plank in this campaign was to construct an airstrip behind the school, so we could have a parachute club. The airstrip would be built over the football field then occupying the site, thus eliminating several other extracurricular activities. This I successfully concealed from the school’s avid sporting fans.

I did however have to confute several who complained about the potential noise of jet aircraft coming and going, by suggesting that the airstrip might serve only as a balloon-launching facility. Ascents and parachute descents, even free-fall, non-parachute drops, would be both voluntary and involuntary, by decision of the student council.

I finished a respectable, encouraging third in that election. By quitting school soon after, I disqualified myself from trying my luck again the next year. This was a pity, for several of my other policies, though ruinously expensive and implausibly funded, had proved attractive to the high-school voter, and would gain in popularity, I thought. My less attractive proposals, such as a fully-equipped plasma lab, were soon forgotten.

For reasons of pride, I did not reboot my political career, once “on the outside.” I did not feel the need to make this sort of spectacle, in adult society. But I’ve since noticed that many of my contemporaries were unable to resist; the poor, vexed devils. For their political careers never ended well. All they ever managed to achieve was to squander huge amounts of other people’s wealth, while getting rich themselves. They could have done this in private business, instead, if they had had the skill.

There is one policy I regret not having promoted, however; for no one else seems to have taken it up. This is to make the tax system, at every level, entirely voluntary.

If passed, this measure would immediately enable us to release almost all of the civil service from employment, including several disagreeable tax collectors I’ve met. We could reduce public spending to pre-modern levels. And, as most government expenditures are not only wasteful, but evil, it would put taxpayers to work as our moral guardians. They could be trusted to eliminate excess.

On the annual voluntary tax form, we could check off which departments should receive our hard-earned subsidy of cash (and which we might pay to have demolished). I expect police and military would partially survive the cutbacks, after some initial confusion, but no matter; only those who felt the need for protection from the “bad guys” of this world would feel compelled to pay for them. Cops, for instance, would have to earn the material support of their rhetorical supporters. Those who live in places like Parkdale, would reasonably consider themselves exempt from payment for services they seldom receive.

The same principle would apply to welfare funding, including profligate hospital insurance. Anyone who believes that this should be free to the poor, would have the opportunity to step forward, and provide the funding. Others, wanting capable assistance, would make arrangements for themselves. Those who complain about “unfairness” would be, as they presently are, ignored.

Arrangements can be quickly sorted out, when “money is talking.” The new voluntarism might cause some inconvenience to those who have foolishly lent a government money, but there would be no risk that this mistake would be repeated. For the public debt will be quickly forgotten, when debt payments are made voluntary, too.

One thing & another

By my (resumed) survey of Englishmen and foreigners on Twitter, I am (sometimes) refreshed. Perhaps the world is not going permanently “to Hell in a handcart,” but has just been visiting. It seems to me that our fallen balance might even be retrieved, given sufficient leisure. The public, or at least the public elsewhere, is losing its interest in “democratic politics,” and has had its interest in violence restored — in the many creative forms. For violence is much broader than hunting and fishing, or even such activities as political assassination, which politicians have also sought to ban.

It is thanks to Twitter that I was recently informed of a saying by G. K. Chesterton (who would himself have made a great Tweet-composer, had he lived to his 140th year). I could not find it again (the turnover in Twitter is prodigious) but as I recall, Mr Chesterton was defending violence as a virtue — provided that it is not self-seeking. For selfish violence should be condemned; together with those sponsors who seek to profit from it. I am myself generally against the professionalization of violence, except where it is necessary to the practice of a fine hobby or craft.

Mary Harrington, the much-younger correspondent of the platform Substack, who styles herself the “Reactionary Feminist,” unconsciously illustrated this by mentioning the latest figures on the British Christianist terror list. These include Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Thomas Carlyle, Joseph Conrad, George Orwell; and of course C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and anyone who has attended the Latin Mass. Those found reading in any of these areas may be convicted as being “Far Right,” according to a recent leftish report from the government bureaucracy.

These people might also be assessed as literate, which was the standard for death sentences under Cambodia’s Pol Pot. I giggle to myself, gentle reader, when I think of the many leftwing intellectuals who read one of these authors in college. Soon, we may be permitted to shoot them.

Again, the important thing is not to entertain Far Right views, which after all may be shared with the majority of the population, even in Afghanistan. The important thing is to have thought through, thoroughly and precisely, one’s views on violence. To say that one is against violence tout court, reveals no thinking at all. (Surely thoughtlessness should be violently punished.)

From another Twitter thread, I gather that the closing of libraries will now accelerate in the State of Vermont. Several associated colleges in that state have decided to enforce “online learning,” which will allow them to fire unwanted library staff and pitch the many books they had accumulated to charity, or recycling. Some students and perhaps some teachers are rebelling against this diktat of the administrators, but no violence has so far been directed at them.

Neither have we seen violence when the “de-acquisitioning” process has been advanced in libraries up here; but it is cold and Canadian readers like to remain indoors. Book-burnings may even contribute to domestic heating, now that oil and gas are discouraged.

Perhaps I go beyond what I remember of Chesterton (through Twitter) in observing that violence is not, as liberals contend, inarticulate. It is rather the most articulate form of communication available to man, in many circumstances; and when combined with philosophical thought and principle, it is splendidly convincing.

Zygotic developments

“Before I formed thee in the bowels of thy mother, I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee.”

This passage, from the beginning of the Prophecy of Jeremias, is one of the many that echo the initial theme of the Bible: “in the beginning.” All of them have this simple truth in common: that to the thinking mind, the beginning comes before the end. For the end is also conceived, in the beginning. It is, to speak glibly, the means to the end. But to the human, both means and end are unknowable to reason.

Can we understand anything? For we would have to go back to the time before the beginning to give a scientific account; in other words, to a time that does not exist. It is not science, to deal with things that are not, or cannot be. That is to say, we must acknowledge God, in the moment of creation. For even God has no being, “before He exists.” He is creator, not creature. He had to exist from the beginning.

The zygote of a creature is, but just barely.  This is true of mice and elephants and men. The zygote is a tremendously complex single cell, that comes into being for a moment, with all the genetic equipment a man could wish for. And as instantly, it begins its singular, but multicellular life. This fertilized egg, which already comprehends the union of male and female, unquestionably is. It is irreducible. We may have academic discourse on what is a man; on when he becomes real and when he ceases to be; but this is all nonsense. We moderns confuse the issue with such empty concepts as “the quality of life.” A question preceding this must be, what is the life we are discussing? And how do we presume to pass judgement?

In chronological terms, a zygote is the first man. That he does not resemble the “complete” man, is an irrelevant test of perfection. He is, and cannot be other than a man; he is not “potentially” a human. He has been created, human, and the potential is in him, not in something else. In our world of strange instruments, we view the matter backwards, or rather inside out. We may become whatever, imaginatively; we do not become something that we are, already.

We cannot be transformed from an earlier condition. We were transformed, rather, from the condition of non-being. The matter is too absolute to be analyzed in degrees or stages.

But this is to get confused by ourselves. The mystery has already been accomplished.

Cyril of Jerusalem understood this better than Thomas Aquinas, more than a thousand years before the Angelic Doctor; later, Thomas was still fussing about the moment the embryo quickens. Our own understanding may be more hopelessly backward; for the truth goes back a long way. We get it or we don’t: there is, immortally, life in us. It is a culture of life or a culture of death that we are supporting.

Salutary neglect

While Dignified Flippancy gives the best summary of the means by which the British Empire was extended — especially in its later stages (after the loss of the southern bits of British North America) — we need a phrase to explain the philosophy of government that allowed it to prosper through years of sublime peace. As so often, the Irishman, Edmund Burke, supplied this phrase, in his second speech on the Conciliation with America. It was “a wise and Salutary Neglect” that permitted the American colonies to succeed; as it had been the relaxation of the Navigation Acts and many other Cromwellian schemes and encumbrances, that removed the chief impediments to the growth of their manufacturing and trade.

This did not require any legislation to negate, however. The laws were simply not enforced by the neglectful authorities. And this method worked more generally through the rest of the Empire upon which the sun never set.

Sir Robert Walpole should be given some share in the credit, for his corrupt and Whiggish nature had been pleased to stuff the colonial governments with his incompetent political shills, who did not apply what the mercantile theorists had long suggested. Too, they were often corrupt themselves. Men who are busy making money “unofficially” are more likely to forgive the unofficial behaviour of others. This is what makes corruption such a welcome relief of tyranny.

Indeed, I have often thought that the current progressive, democratic regimes, in the United States and Canada, offer a better excuse to violent revolution than anything extant in the 18th century.

Salutary Neglect was the shining principle (to be distinguished from “benign neglect,” a mere policy of urban planning), by which the British were able to rule the world’s most extensive empire, with a small fraction of the soldiers and bureaucrats employed by the French and others in their European empires.

It was a method not permanently infallible, however. It allowed the Dominion of New England (my maternal ancestry) and other flourishing colonies to become independent. This was a natural development, once they became habituated to free trade. Alas, that is where the politics of nonsense re-enters the picture, metastasizing within each newly created domestic cell. For men will be men, as boys will be boys. They will rule themselves, even to destruction, as the instinct to freedom becomes an instinct to tyranny.

But suffice to say: the earthly paradise is formed with dignified flippancy, and sustained through salutary neglect. And yes: Rule Britannia!

Dignified flippancy

A potentially universal virtue — dignified flippancy — was the signal by which great wealth was amassed in the British Empire, and in select locations elsewhere. It was also what made the imperialists “cool,” and could do so again. One immediately and instinctively granted their requests, without feeling the need to consult the distribution of power. Yielding to their will was simply polite behaviour; it was a question of etiquette.

This is (of course) a masculine virtue, requiring on the part of the exemplar of flippancy an heroic restraint, from crude self-assertion. Display of weapons would, after all, betoken pride, and might give the game away. Even the catechism need not be consulted, for jingo is never appropriate in a gentleman. It is tasteless.

But we live in simplistic times, when the presence or absence of testosterone is all that can be understood. The idea of a gentleman is too complex to be explained; it must instead be demonstrated.

I think of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore and almost viceroy of the Malay archipelago of island Indonesia until the Foreign Office thoughtlessly gave it away. He once found himself in the embarrassing position of having to negotiate some treaty or other with a tribal chief in remotest Java. He was accompanied at the time by a single aide-de-camp, whereas the tribal chief had brought his whole innumerable retinue, armed and postured for war. The chief was sitting upon an elevated throne, that put Sir Thomas thus at a negotiating disadvantage.

He did not waste time whining about this, however. Using his considerable linguistic gift, for the languages in that part of East Asia, he instructed the chief’s apparent lieutenant that there had been a mistake. Sir Thomas was in fact the senior officer, and so the tribal chief had been incorrectly seated. He must move from the throne to the very low seat beside it; Sir Thomas would then be pleased to ascend.

After a moment of confusion, it became clear that dignified flippancy would prevail, and his Javanese Majesty climbed down (literally). Everything could now go smoothly.

Looking down

I have seen no evidence that the Russians are ten feet tall; nor their some-time Chechen allies; nor even the Ukrainians, measured on the military height chart; although each may be around three metres in each other’s estimations. All, and especially those still within the perimeters of eastern Ukraine/Crimea/Donbas, are suffering as we did not think people would suffer in modern life: the aggressors as much as the defenders, in miserable pain.

Take Mr Putin, for instance, who seems abnormally short for a world leader. He is reported to be approximately 170 centimetres, which is five-foot-six, below even Mr Modi from India. One begins to see this as the first of his several psychological influences. Short people “got no reason to live,” according to an American pop song that was suppressed at the demand of a makeshift alliance between the Lilliputians and Blefuscudians (who police American pop culture). Mr Putin has demonstrated the soundness of this cliché, by his ambitious intervention that, in addition to its murderous effects, has driven Ukraine into the hands of NATO, together with Finland and Sweden — two countries we thought would never join. Mr Zelensky, in his turn, has manoeuvred his enemy into a position of wilful obstinacy.

We are obliged to feed heavy, high-tech weapons into the conflict. Even Canada was able to find four tanks to send, over Mr Trudeau’s environmental guidelines. Mr Biden has summoned a sum for weapons larger than the defence budget of both sides, and the Germans more lethal equipment to give away than they had done since the collapse of the Tausendjähriges Reich.

For, as I was explaining to one of my correspondents, “World War I wasn’t very sensible either. Of course, once it starts you are stuck with your side.”

And of course, I myself prefer the Ukrainians, although I’m disinclined to wave the gold-and-blue. Indeed I know several ethnic Russians who are equally disinclined, but in their hearts they are rooting for their new national enemy. Taking sides is at least emotionally satisfying. But how to orchestrate a ceasefire? How to champion peace?

The solution used to be Donald Trump (190 centimetres), who during his presidency kept Putin and other aspiring tyrants from trying things on. He was among the greatest post-war messengers of peace, in our diplomatic annals. A pity that he was brought down by the Lilliputians and Blefuscudians.