Essays in Idleness


Aside on beuks

My intention was to write a long and learned treatise on the Islamic concept of “People of the Book,” but after a sip of tea I forgot about it. My classical Arabic is not up to requirements, and my understanding of Islamic jurisprudence is, quite frankly, slow.

For instance, I am easily defeated by the question, “What is a Sabian?” Having been told that Christians, Jews, and Sabians were “people of the book,” I wanted to meet a Sabian. According to the (safely dated) sources I consult, they might have been some gnostic, middle-eastern sect, but according to the Hadiths, they were all “converted to Islam” anyway.

But I’m still curious. Can I see their Book?

Or, “Beuk,” as I like to spell it, to imply a Scottish brogue. Rhymes with “neuk,” “nook,” or “nuke,” depending on one’s state of civilization. Presbyterians do not, so far as I know, admit to being “people of the beuk,” even if it is the Institutes of Calvin. But most other Protestants seem happy to use the phrase, of themselves. They would be referring to the Bible, though in point of fact, the older sort of Muslims (say, 10th century), would be indicating the Gospels alone, as distinct from the Psalms, the book for the Hebrews.

There are liberals in all religions, and eventually even the Sikh Adi Granth was accepted, by India’s Muslim conquerers, as a bona fide “Beuk”; and this although most Sikhs deny that it is scripture.

Skipping forward, there seems to be a consensus among the scholars that Monotheism, not a book per se, was what would save the neck of an infidel, so long as he also paid the jizya. This confuses me because they eventually half-tolerated the Hindus (who had them seriously outnumbered); and in light of the Trinity, considered Christians to be polytheists, too. I often wish their phanatics would try harder to establish some dogmatic consistency, before they start blowing people up.

But I’m with them when they attribute a kind of magic, to Beuks in the abstract. In this, they were like all the simple, and complicated, peoples of the world, until the invention of printing. It was not only a question of labour. (It took time to copy a manuscript, legibly.) I think Prospero’s attitude towards his precious books conveys this ancient superstition. One could use a book to perform magic.

Nobody understands this today. Consider, if thou wilt, gentle reader, our modern distinction between matter and spirit. It was a Cartesian breakthrough. Ancient people could hardly understand a distinction they’d never heard of, and even if a slicker like Shakespeare had heard, he didn’t trust it.

Neither do I, and in particular, I strongly doubt that books are not magic. This naturally applies to books that contain falsehoods, or may be composed entirely of falsehood, as well as to books that are true. They all have magical properties, as can be demonstrated by the continuing influence of many from the past. They should be treated with reverence (which includes respect), until they are discovered to be evil, in which case they should be burnt.

This is, I confess, an unmodern view. It is not because a book is “useless” that it should be dispensed with. It is rather because the book contains the wrong sort of magic. It encourages, nay empowers, its owner to do wrong. It should not be burnt casually, therefore.

The reason no one agrees with me, is that they don’t take books seriously any more. Thanks to printing and further technical developments, they are turned out today very cheaply. The quality of printing and binding is low. I am myself disinclined to let any book printed after, say, 1970, into the High Doganate. This is because they are ratty. All will be pulped or landfilled, in due course, with the newspapers and magazines. (I once adapted a wood stove for this purpose.)

Instead, we should insist on fine paper, crisp typography, adequate margins, stitched gatherings, strong board covers, or better. This will make burning them an event.


A reader argues that the texts of beuks will survive on the Internet, but as nobody reads those, it is not a problem. Moreover, the Internet itself doesn’t last, and after a few years, it is the electronic equivalent of trying to retrieve old banana peels.

Simplicity itself

To fight with the enemy on the enemy’s own terms. I’m against this. I think it is poor strategy; what I might call the strategy of pre-surrender. While I might disagree with many, actually most of his policies, one thing I like about this Trump fellow, who seems controversial even in his own country, is his fixation on Victory. We should not be planning to lose. We should not be trying to “manage decline,” though in my view the stakes are not economic but civilizational. Our overall plan should be to win, and as for the demons who are getting in our way, to leave them in humiliated silence.

This is why I don’t call myself a “conservative,” although the word is sometimes useful as a collective for “everyone who is not actively resisting the good.” If I had a quibble with the late Sir Roger Scruton, it began with his failure to be Catholic, and thus a thoroughgoing Reactionary. (I loved the man, incidentally.) He was right about most practical worldly things, even when he had the context wrong. He was “instinctively right,” as it were.

By his Wicked Paedia entry, I am reminded of Sir Roger’s complaint against the modern university, which in the name of “relevance” seeks to replace “pure by applied mathematics, logic by computer programming, architecture by engineering, history by sociology.” That is how it has produced charmless philistines to replace men of breadth and learning.

Of course, to consult any Wickish article on a “conservative” writer is to ask for an insult. Their policy will be to present his life “warts and all,” with a strong emphasis on the warts, many of which will require invention. They will flatulate their “smelly little orthodoxies” (Orwell’s phrase for “political correctness”), in order to elevate something quite unexceptionable into a high crime and misdemeanor. The subject’s views will be labelled “controversial,” sometimes as often as the old Peking Review used the label “running dogs,” in case you hadn’t detected their bias yet.

But that is to be distracted by the dogs, or since I like dogs, by the termites. The trick is not to answer to their arguments, but to shut them out. Getting entangled with intricate malice wastes everyone’s time. Better to confront intellectual termites with the literary equivalent of boric acid, plus Trumpian bait stations.

The “virtue of irrelevance,” as Sir Roger advanced it, is in some limited sense a key to the worldly version of the reactionary view. We may see a distinction from conservatism, with its wearisome emphasis on economic growth. To pretend that the GDP will improve, as a result of our cultivated irrelevance, is to live a lie. Of course it will not. I am not against economic activity, but it can take care of itself. Apart from the need to criminalize certain kinds of economic activity, and put the perpetrators in gaol, “trade and investment,” per se, should be no part of a government’s mandate. Let those who want such things as money, shill for it themselves.

What concerns us all is our salvation, and here the distinction between “conservative” and “reactionary” comes immediately into play, along with the unarguable transcendentals — the good, the beautiful, and the true. What we call “the arts” barely describes the art in what we do — that is positive, not passive or negative. The good, even at its most general, has nothing to do with the gymnastic contortions of “tolerance,” for human action will always be intolerable to some — even the high activity of contemplation. The building (not destroying) of a civilization is a by-product of all efforts, though it is not the end we seek at all. God is that end.

What leads towards Him is good. What leads away is evil. It’s as simple as that.

Sir Roger Scruton

The loss of England’s last conservative thinker makes a new addition to our chronicle of death. Sir Roger Scruton had been quite ill, from a cancer, submitting to chemotherapy and the like, yet nevertheless stayed in the news, always with a new book (he wrote around eighty, according to one obituarist, on about as many subjects), in addition to being an accomplished pianist, enthusiastic fox-hunter, and so forth; and most recently in the news from a vicious, deceitful attack on him by a leftist thug, “interviewing” him for the New Statesman (where he had once been the wine columnist).

This cost him, for a while, his remarkable work as (unpaid) chairman of a British commission to promote better-built and more beautiful housing. Fortunately, a recording was found of what he actually said. This did not resemble what the leftist thug said that he had said, so the paper apologised. But in the course of the (widely publicized) “scandal,” Sir Roger was able to discover, hardly for the first time, that the “conservative establishment” are gutless pantwets. Their first instinct was to abandon him for their own personal safety.

I remember Roger Scruton (as he then was) from the start of The Idler magazine, in Toronto. He was editing The Salisbury Review, in London, where some of the people can read. Both were reckless start-ups. Naturally we corresponded, and taking each other for fellow “young fogeys,” were mutually helpful. I was surprised by his command of detail, including subscription and distribution arrangements. He was operating on a shoestring, as I was. Incredible application and industry made him a success, so that his name was soon known across Europe, and even in the United States.

His name is best known in Central Europe, and especially in former Czechoslovakia (which he loved), from the “activist” part of his life before, and then after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In such parts, everyone not a criminal was anti-Communist, but he was thinking in larger terms. In the end, with the ideological degeneration in the West, I thought of him as an English dissident.

The word “conservative” has been used here before. Sir Roger was unashamed of it. He took it to be a philosophy, but finding its adherents somewhat dim, worked heroically to instruct them. He was not a man of one idea, nor as I have mentioned, of one book; he was habitually a teacher. His cause, in a word, was Civilization: its preservation. He was quite unpretentious about it, though his attention to modern “Enlightened” thinkers and use of their vocabulary made him seem, often, to be learnedly dense; but never so much that he could not be followed by a reader who remained conscious. He was exact: something that “perfessers” don’t bother with any more. He was, methodically, independent of mind; and unexcitable. Those who’ve read broadly have, in effect, seen it all before; and he was willing to explain it.

A Burkean conservative, I suppose we could call him, though I favour the term, “reactionary.” Edmund Burke reacted to the French Revolution, grasping that it was evil. Sir Roger’s reaction was to the Paris streets in 1968, a later explosion of “self-indulgent middle-class hooligans,” with an ambitious agenda they can’t articulate, except in gobbledegook and slogans. He realized, on the spot, that he was a builder, not a destroyer. He must get to work, defending things. He did, and paid each price in full.

From the start, he was “obsessed” with beauty. His first books were on art and architecture, and from these objects his interests spread. I won’t go into my disagreements with him — this would take eighty books — but we agreed on most things. We are, or were, both proponents of the “Endarkenment,” in opposition to the Lords of Misrule. Let us say the parting prayer and continue: Backward ho!

Morbid insecurity

Among the advantages of illness, is the opportunity for contemplative thought. One may think of a subject, for instance deaths — by my age, I have encountered plenty. Or just about one’s own death, a non-statistical fact. Or displace this, by thinking of, say, the death of one’s father.

A famous Welsh poet told his father to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” I would not make this suggestion to gentle reader. My own father, who had lost most of his marbles in the course of events, went quietly. He was seraphic towards his (biological) end. But he had thought of death thoroughly, before, back when he was fully equipped for intellectual adventures. He was impressively courageous, and took the view that, “Death is exciting. One wonders what comes next. There will be something, I’m quite sure.”

His daughter once told me that the fear of death is overdone. “Suppose you knew that you were going to die tomorrow afternoon. You could still do stuff in the morning.”

To which I would add, forget the expenses. Either your papers are in order, or they’re not. If not, they are a problem for other people. And lo: death puts an end to taxes, at least for you. As to your worldly goods, why worry? You won’t be needing them any more.

I am taking a “practical,” rather than philosophical view. I was discussing this matter with an Atheist, recently, and found we were, neither of us, worrying at that moment. If your consciousness becomes extinct in perpetuity, there is nothing to think about at all. If it continues, transformed, one is nevertheless free of this planet. In many ways that would be a good thing. But even if one is a “clinger,” towards biological life, it is still over. No matter how shamefully one has lived, there will be no biological consequences. You left your life as an author leaves his book. The book itself has no “feelings.”

For the Christian, of course, one’s life is just beginning. One’s reputation is on a different thread. One had, from the beginning, a much different Reader. But for either Christian or Atheist, what people say either no longer matters, or never did. Anxiety becomes as pointless as it was before. Your biological death was on the cards, all along.

Should everyone around you also die — from instantaneous climate change or whatever — it won’t increase the drama. No one will be checking the news, next day. Those who looked forward to a dramatic martyrdom will be disappointed, but the disappointment won’t last.

It was all in the prospect.

Everyone believes in God, even when they are in denial. (I am quite sure of this.) They can’t help it, they were wired that way. Atheists suffer the most. This is because their theological opinions are the most primitive. The kindergarten God is petty. He is ruthless, basically, always out to get you. One way is by killing you off; though another was by making it rain today. The joy in existing is muted, at best, because Something would have to take credit for that. For even Atheists secretly realize, they did not create themselves.

To my observation, the triumph of the “Nones” (i.e. people without religion, the large majority today) is revealed less in statistics than in this joylessness. And behind it, a very real pathology, based on a theology in which God, though apparently powerful, is small and somewhat mindless. He likes to punish people, often for no reason. We are anxious about what he will do to us today. Maybe He will give us cancer. Maybe He will make the stock market plunge. If He’s in a mood, He may shoot down our aeroplane.

But God is not petty.


Is gentle reader secure? I would hope not, for it must be a terrible curse.

Speaking recently to an elderly gentleman, who had once however been much younger, I was told how he envied the young today. He spoke especially of university students, of whom he had formerly been one. This was about the time I was contriving to be born, or very soon after — towards the middle of the 1950s. He came from a rural community in eastern Ontario, or rather two such communities, but in the same location. One was Scotch, the other French, in our county of Glengarry.

More completely, one was Scotch Highland Orange Lodge Presbyterian; the other, slightly more sophisticated and poorer, French Canadian Peasant Catholic, with a church somewhere. (Nobody knew where it was.)

They got along well. The French spoke English, and the Scotch spoke no French. This helped them to understand each other. (Had the Gaelic been retained, there might have been fights.)

Perhaps I have given too much background, already; but gentle readers in New Zealand must picture the scene. My informant is old enough to have come from somewhere. It was from a little village that was more like a crossroads, where all the buildings (houses, barns, &c) were painted grey (except those which had never been painted).

The Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, once commented on this. He said if you had a house in the suburbs, where all the doors were painted grey, and a neighbour was painting his door red, you would be under a moral obligation to plead with him.

Now that is one sort of security, which can be powerful when it is community-enforced, or as we say today, “a community value.” But Frederic, or Fred as I shall call him, assured me that the rural place he came from, and of which he had the fondest memories, was catatonically boring.

If one drove through that intersection today, which still has arguable remains, though not of the highest archaeological standard, one would not remember one had been there. This is because one would not notice passing through. Today it has no commercial enterprises, and the Orange Lodge is gone. Does it still have Frenchmen? No one knows.

Now, Fred was a bright ambitious boy, who learnt how to read. He got good marks in school, and in the course of time, went into a university. This was in a town, where he met other university students, and professors, though no one as smart and well-informed as his first grade teacher. Finally, he graduated. (The subject wasn’t important: English or whatever.)

This was the big event of his life. After that, he could get a good job, and did, here in the big city. He could make a good multiple of what his income might otherwise had been — easy work, regular hours, no heavy lifting. There were annual vacations.

The next big event in his life was his retirement. After this he could collect a pension. Decades have passed, and he is still collecting it. There was something about a wife and family, but they seem to have gone away.

Well, I wouldn’t want to tell you more; I’d feel I were invading Fred’s privacy. My one point was going to be about security. Fred himself said he had a lot. And he was envious of “the kids today.” He was referring specifically to the university students.

“When they graduate, they might not get a well-paid job. They might not be able to find any job at all, or will have to find a new one every few years, or weeks. They won’t know what comes next, or even if, forty years from now, there will be a pension.” Fairly certainly they will start and end with a mountain of debt, &c.

For sure, they live interesting lives. They have been freed from the curse of security.


Still lifes

The Twelfth Night of Christmas, wherein I am writing — the Eve of the Epiphany — is another of those evenings when the ghosts walk. The date is my father’s birthday. He would be ninety-five, were he with us still. Through the day I have felt as if he were present, and whether my eyes be open or closed, moments from what I saw of his past recur to my apprehension. Vivid still pictures that were never photographs — appear before me unbidden.

I can’t know other minds except by acts of the projective imagination. I don’t know if others, or how many, have my ability to recall scenes. I mislead by calling them “stills,” for often they include motion, especially characteristic gestures. It is as though I were looking at the living person, as he was, or as she was, with all intervening years cut away. My old feelings towards that person are aroused, even when they are in conflict with my present feelings. I am able to describe the picture, though not with the detail to draw a portrait, or move around the frame.  Nevertheless, the image has power, to reproduce scenes long forgotten. Always, the subject is someone who was close to me, if only in the moment of my recollection. When it is my father, there are many, many scenes, some of which I don’t “remember having remembered” before. I can’t summon such an image at will, however.

My mother described these experiences, and like her I could, with the aid of them, produce checkable facts. She could summon the memories, and had an extraordinary ability to do so. Were she still alive, she could give demonstrations.

Because I live alone, these days, I have more time for drifting thought than most people. Too, I have been quite ill lately; some seasonal flu I assume. Fever explores parts of mind usually unvisited, or so I guess. Beyond this, there are several kinds of idleness, at which I am proficient. And I am nostalgic, by nature, although what I see from the past is seldom accompanied by nostalgic longing. It is like being back, however briefly, in a previous present. It is usually some long-ago, for instance today my father driving a car when I must have been two or three. I have never had a prognostic “epiphany,” as some claim to have had; nor have I dabbled in past lives.

Or perhaps I have, for with eyes closed, towards sleep, I sometimes vividly “see” a face that I have never seen before. It is the face, as if of a living person, but no one I could name; sometimes in rather dated clothing. Or a succession of strange faces pass quickly by.

On the Day of Judgement, by Christian consensus, we will be able to remember everything; simultaneously, I suppose, or anyway outside time. We will not need an accuser, being so perfectly placed to judge ourselves. That will be when we need an advocate, if I may use temporal terms for the timeless. Better that we start preparing now.

But even in this world we proceed with “flashes,” of recollection, to remind us nothing that has happened can be scrubbed, though we might wish. Not scrubbed, at least, by us. Guilt in our own failures and purposeful misdeeds return to haunt us. But this is not the whole of it.

There were times when it seemed I glimpsed paradise, in some earthly moment of incomparable beauty and peace. I imagine that others, perhaps all, have known such things, and they are not deleted, either.

Looking ahead

We go into 2020 without Gertrude Himmelfarb, who, having reached the age of ninety-seven, died yesterday. I am among those who are left in debt. Her accounts, especially of intellectual developments in the 19th century, also describe the heavy scaffolding for thought in the 20th. The Victorian world had become a far countrie, however, for those of my generation, who were left with too much freedom to think, irresponsibly.

She was called, provisionally, a “conservative scholar,” but by that was meant a learned and thoughtful writer, who could recreate the scenery around — e.g. Marx, and Darwin; Acton, and Bismarck; Comte, and Mill; Carlyle, and Newman — showing them plausibly as the men they were, rather than the men they became in later caricature. She could show, in doing so, constants in modernity; what was noble as well as ignoble; what not lost, as well as what was lost. Her invaluable “background” is not given in the spirit of parti pris, but broadly and openly, with calm and dignity.

The historian, Himmelfarb, is particularly good at revealing the often generational decline in “liberal values,” for instance from helping the poor through hands-on institutions such as the Salvation Army, to using them for moral posturing at no personal cost. This corresponds to a loss of religious faith, and its replacement by moralizing.

Modern “virtue signalling” has deep Victorian roots.

Unfortunately we now live in a time that is narrow, and for the most part thinkers are ignored, or reduced to single sound bites. For our time, and in our universities, so great a student of philosophy as Leo Strauss, of literature as Lionel Trilling, of social research as Irving Kristol (the brilliant man Himmelfarb married) are dismissed unread as “neo-conservatives” and worse, when in fact they were engaged with the whole Western tradition. Today, the contemptible Washington Post associates them with a rightwing “backlash,” as if they were shouting slogans. Impressive Jewish thinkers are casually compared to “white nationalists” or “supremacists,” in the frothing malice of the SJWs.

Yet the characters rejected were once themselves Leftists (though anti-Stalinists), and their perceived voyage to the Right was a steadiness as the waters passed them by.

I was thinking this just now while reading the first essay in Himmelfarb’s latest and possibly last book of essays: Past & Present. It is about Strauss (another formative influence). What a paradise it would have been to be among the “Ivy Leaguers” of the post-War and ‘fifties; during a long-lost American adventure into the world of ideas. Himmelfarb was the last of that team of adventurers, I was thinking; the landscape now is, intellectually, barren. Even to participate in “high culture” — what Matthew Arnold innocently called, “the best that has been thought and said” — is to put a professor at physical risk.

Leo Strauss explained somewhere, or in several places, that the student of the past must be prepared to learn something — “not merely about the thinkers of the past, but from them.”

Today’s students (if any in the humanities), reply with incomprehension. What an affront Strauss is, to a later academy, in which the only purpose for the past is to judge it, by the asinine prejudices of the present day.

While pessimism will keep us from going mad, in the New Year, we should renew our intention to fight “change,” and to restore reason as well as faith in the time to come. If it was possible for such a woman as “Bea Kristol” (née Himmelfarb) to be, there remains hope for a revival. Let us never abandon our mission in this world, to move decisively — backward.

Of head shots

As we look to the future, and a New Year, we must reckon with earthly realities. Some of us have years to run, before being recalled by our Maker. For what is upcoming, it is important to be armed. This is brought home, at least to the sane, in multiple events, inadequately reported in the “mainstream” media.

My thoughts turn to Texas, where two parishioners were killed, and a third critically injured, in a Fort Worth suburban church. A massacre was in progress, but ended in six seconds. Six people drew guns, and one of them, apparently a firearms trainer, took out the assailant with a single head shot. (All those not killed are indebted to this man for their lives.) The other gunslingers, locked and loaded as it were, then surrounded the assailant, ready to react if he moved.

It was a horrible event, though it ended justly. Not so in New York and vicinity, where assaults on Jews have become commonplace — and are treated with relative indifference by the leftist media and municipal government. Owing to this (ideological) indifference, it is hard to get reliable information on any of these events, including one in Jersey City which resembled a commando raid on a kosher shop.

Raids on churches, synagogues, those who “look Jewish,” &c, have become commonplace in France; now they are occurring in America. It is true that they are performed by people who are mentally disturbed. The crime itself — murder in cold blood, of unknown individuals — establishes that fairly clearly. That such people cannot be negotiated with, nor pacified by state-assigned psychologists, should go without saying. When the media ask, “What was his motive?” — and worse, the police play along — they ask an unanswerable question about the mystery of evil.

What we need, instead, is a single accurate head shot, for each perpetrator, administered with all possible haste.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, which has changed demographically because voters in Washington’s Virginian suburbs (overwhelmingly Democrat) now outnumber the Virginians themselves (majority sane) — the latest essay in gun control is proceeding, by a governor himself somewhat titched. When I last checked, it appeared that all counties outside this suburban zone would declare themselves “second amendment sanctuaries,” in defiance of new gun-confiscation laws. These would necessarily disarm legal and responsible gun-owners. I should think if there were going to be a civil war, that’s where it would break out. Too, that it would be over quickly.

Yet gun control, in Virginia and elsewhere, remains an urban political phenomenon. It is understandable, in places like Toronto, where a high proportion of residents are mad. Once shooting starts, the voters can easily imagine “wild west” scenes, and are incapable of thinking beyond them.

Of course, guns aren’t strictly required, as we learn from the knifing epidemic in London, or as I was reminded last week, one block away in Toronto. A much-liked neighbour was knifed to death, under circumstances that are hard to reconstruct except by rumour, since the “sensitivity police” only give out news edited by their public relations department, after interest in the event has died down.

Again, it is unfortunate that neither the victim nor anyone in his environment (it was an open-air crime, hardly the first in Parkdale), was there to administer the needed head shot.

The world is full of kooks: people who vote Democrat in USA, Liberal up here, Labour in Britain. They have bought so dearly into dependence on the State, that they cannot understand do-it-yourself attitudes. However, given realities now unfolding, their numbers are beginning to shrink.

Massacre of the Innocents

Those who shop for their food in supermarkets — and I did recently — will notice that the music is “curated.” They are closed on Christmas day, but for weeks before their customers are offered “Christmas carols.” These will be (if the ones I heard are an example) stripped of Christmas content; the lyrics possibly rewritten; but the tunes recognizable as “holiday music.” No attempt has been made to edit them in other respects. For instance, I heard a reference to a “one-horse open sleigh.” It is many years since I saw one of those; and other references are to some cosy comfiness that is quite irrelevant to the way we live today. Lurching through the parking lot after, I did not find a single sleigh parked there. I was not even looking for a baby in a manger, or other religious paraphernalia.

But return just after Christmas and the jingle music is gone. The all-season pop music has returned. The holiday is quite ended, except, holiday-themed goods are on sale at big discounts. Another sales season has cut in, and for a moment there may be a New Year’s theme, but generally we have segued to “bleak mid-winter” when we shop mostly because we need things. The sales staff may relax slightly; or, those not yet replaced by check-out machines.

The succession through Advent, which was once a season of abstinence, to the merry explosion of Christmas, has been amended. The “holiday season” now begins at Black Friday. It is not entirely over until January 2nd — for there are these “Boxing Days,” &c. But the notion that Christmas has twelve days, and that the larger season extends until Candlemas, has been obviated. On the 2nd of January we are, definitively, back to work. Unless someone has a birthday, no parties. Towards Easter, chocolate eggs will appear, and candied bunny rabbits, but these, too, vanish, this year on Monday, April 13th — by some coincidence the day after Christians are, in good conscience, allowed to eat them. But they are massively available through Holy Week.

Of course, this is not a major imposition. It does not compare with the Massacre of the Innocents. We can buy things when they are on sale, and stock them up. Better yet, we can avoid supermarkets, shopping malls, and Internet services entirely. There is an alternative economy out there, and by shopping in Korean and Punjabi stores, whenever possible, we needn’t be exposed to the (sparkling hygienic) filth.

Shopping, to my mind, is a religious activity. The products are miraculous, especially those grown and manufactured by human hands. I am amazed by what I am able to bring home, even from the supermarket. I think of farmers, and factory workers, and truck drivers. But these, for the moment, are out of court.

Instead, I want to emphasize the religious dimension of times and seasons. They have been changed, in the interest of a thoroughgoing commercialism, but they are still there. Notice we still have the old system, except turned upside down. Where there were fasts, we now have bloating; where we had feasts, we now have post-bloat diet plans. Where we had a hated king ordering the murder of male children around a little town, we now have an abortion industry. This is change, apparently; progress.

My Chief Texas Correspondent sent me a list of forty things, which, according to a website, proved that the world is better today than it has ever been. (Let me assure gentle reader that my CTC does not “believe” in progress.) Examining it, I could find only four items that were factually wrong. There were twenty-nine accomplishments to which I was basically opposed, and seven I agreed with, though each with serious reservations.

It was, however, though certainly not Christian, a religious manifesto. It was a list of “good things” people live for today. They are free to do so. I have not the power to stop them. But I do have the power to observe that what they think good is, for the most part, bad.

Thankless Christmas

No one in his right mind will be reading a weblog, or antiblog, on Christmas morning. Therefore these remarks are addressed exclusively to my wrong-thinking readers.

I have observed through the years that the wrong-minded crave thanks and recognition; therefore I should like to extend my appreciation to you all. If you tell me who you are, I might write a facetious thank-you note; though if you have recently sent me money, I hesitate. This is because, as I have come to think (whether rightly of wrongly), sincere gratitude is not transactional. In a transaction, you pay.

Moreover, a right-minded person will cultivate anonymity, especially while performing any mitzvah or charitable act. But for the wrong-minded, there is pas de problème. For any of them may plead, in their own defence, that they are not actually in their right minds.

If it were a problem, Christ did not address it. From Nativity to Crucifixion, and thereafter, He does not appear to have thanked anyone. Perhaps an astute scholar or theologian will correct me. (Nominally, He thanks God in his farewell discourse; but think this through.) True, even Jesus is sometimes quoted on Hallmark thank-you cards; but in none of these is Our Saviour himself saying “thank you” to anyone — a formality which, incidentally, any right-thinking person would wave aside.

We can thank God, in our hearts, constantly, and even on our lips. But what has God to thank us for?

A friend mentions the question of salt. While it is not recorded in Scripture, at a dinner table, Jesus probably said, “Please pass the salt.” Then, “thank you,” when it was pushed forward. It is hard to imagine that Our Lord would not have been polite, and customary. Had He not been, it would more likely have been recorded in Scripture.

Now, gratitude is another matter, as surely even the wrong-thinking will agree. But this goes from the start beyond the formal, and is expressed not by the tongue but in the life. We are changed by gratitude, just as we are changed by ingratitude or bitterness (our own).

At the sight of the infant Jesus, however presented, we respond. We are changed by the experience of gratitude, for the better, though when we reject it, for the worse. For a moment out of time, we are in Bethlehem. It is the Bethlehem of Mary and Joseph; also the Bethlehem of Herod.

On a tiny scale, it is the same for any writer, or actor in life; or participant, finally, on one side or the other. He is “effecting change” in those who read, or open themselves to influence in any other way. Of course he may be smeared, as Jesus told us to expect; smeared and persecuted, for His sake. But we have no control over that, only over how we respond. The important things are those over which we have some control. (Here we find the distinction between master and slave.)

It is for this thankless reason that we go into battle — onward Christian soldiers! — cheerfully. For this good cheer is, in itself, the expression of our gratitude, when we are called to serve. Thanks are unnecessary, whether we should live or die. There is only remembrance of the Child, who by his very appearance declared that, henceforth, death hath no dominion.

God rest you merry

The carol, whose incipit I cite, is quoted, too, in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and was being parodied already a century before his birth. I think of it as the Ur English Christmas Carol, for it goes back, according to a scholar I once spake with, to those last afterlife moments of Good Queen Mary’s reign, in the 16th century, if not before. The spirit of the carol — the spooky folk melody — comes from that strange place, at the crossover of what is unmistakably mediaeval into what is unmistakably modern. The words change over the centuries, though in this case not much. I think the carol was originally in English. Note that “rest” was a transitive verb. The comma before, “merry gentlemen,” was thus an 18th-century innovation.

I wrote “spooky” for I have so often wondered what would have followed, had the Reformation never happened at all; had it been suppressed, as were the Cathars. The world would be much different today, for things that now seem impossible to us would instead be familiar, and vice versa.

We usually think first of technology, when comparing ourselves to our distant ancestors. But as that is merely cumulative “progress,” and the Catholic Church had been all along more likely to encourage than to discourage it, I can’t see how that could have been so different. Of course we would be “high-tech” today; though still “unmodern.”

Blast furnaces for instance. The archaeologists have now found their fragments within monastic ruins — in England, Holland, Germany, Sweden — from about the year 1100. There was trade in steel balls right across Europe. We may dicker (improbably) over whether the techniques came ultimately from China, but the fact of simple steel-making gives, in itself, the lie to various modernist fairy tales about the Industrial Revolution.

Likewise, so much we have discovered not for the future, but about the past. We want to have invented ourselves. We want to believe our history was inevitable. We want to credit our technology for our greatness. But it hardly counts. The truth is rather in the human element: how this gift of technology is used.

Though I love Charles Dickens, I like to dismiss him as “a commie,” for reasons that might not seem obvious at first. A Child’s History of England, I once threw against a wall. In his genius he pioneered the commercialization of Christmas, and every advertising agency should thank him. For consider, what this commercialization required. Scrooge is converted by sentimental ghosts, into a character of material generosity. The moral hints are materialist throughout. Joy, while it is still remembered, is subtly converted into happiness. Soon we have food stamps, and cash welfare, and shops full of Xmas presents, to buy lest Tiny Tim have a wrang.

Gentle reader may not be surprised if I try to return this gift, and exchange it once again for the mystical. For while the story of the Nativity is easy enough to sentimentalize, and captures the imagination of small children (Jesus speaks to them, child to child), it is the document of an incredible event; without precedent, without compare.

It was more incredible to the old Romans, than to us after so many centuries of trying to assimilate it, until we have extracted it from history, reduced it to a myth, and then a Santa meme so we can have some fun with it.

Yet though not many, there are people who will attend the sacrificial mystery at the Midnight Mass; and who, even today, stand before the humblest crèche in contemplative amazement.

Victorian carols could sometimes recapture this, sometimes deafen us with bombast. The idea that God came down from Heaven, in the form of a defenceless child, to be born in a manger among shepherds and sheep — among the poor and defenceless — can never be fully assimilated. The very idea that the Creator of the Universe would care about us, defied all ancient wisdom. That He would bother to come. That He had not better things to do, than:

“To save us all from Satan’s power, when we were gone astray.”

We children like to ask the “Why?” questions. In this, the greatest of them is answered.

That time of year

Well, it’s the time of year to be nice to Protestants.

Some of my best friends are Protestants; and when it comes to events like Christmas, we might as well be on the same side. Ditto for the Greeks (though with some calendar questions), Orthodox generally, and other acquaintance in the farther East, among whom I have a special affection for Armenians, and Copts. Reciprocally, they would warmly deny that they are pagans of any sort. We have, too, much anciently in common with believing Jews. We may not be in Communion with any of these people, nor with Mussulmans, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Animists, &c — but then, if you look at some of the people with whom we are in Communion, we could at least be polite.

While, unlike our current pope, I am gung-ho for proselytizing, I remain opposed to violence. There are conventions to be observed, going back to arrangements after the Thirty Years’ War and, in a more strict interpretation, going back to Our Lord. While Peace and Love are not enjoying a good press at the moment, they really aren’t fashion questions.

In the Koran (8th century; 7th by some accounts) we are told that, “There is no compulsion in religion,” and that verily, there needn’t be, because the evidences and commands of Islam are so wonderfully plain and clear. Elsewhere we are told that Muslims should fight, until there is no more Fitnah in the world, and all disbelief and polytheism has been exterminated, leaving universal submission to Allah. As I am not of the Islamic persuasion myself, it would be presumptuous of me to choose between these imperatives. Islamic jurisprudes have tried to refine a Just War Theory, between these positions, which some might characterize as contradictory.

My own crusader-Christian view derives from the Gospels, in which Just War Theory is not explicitly discussed; and from Saint Augustine, who gets into detail. As I understand (although I will simplify), you put up with an enemy for as long as you can, but when, finally, naught less will avail, you press the Smite button. But you really don’t want to, and your forbearance should stretch a long way. It does snap at some point, however, and to my reading, has snapped in the past, for reasons that could be articulated.

Pacifism, vegetarianism, teetotalism, and non-smoking (except for marijuana), are not positions that I find attractive, although I have endured them, heroically in some cases. I may have passed through a hippie phase, between three and five o’clock on 10th August, 1969, but quickly recovered. Worldly (as opposed to spiritual) perfectionism has (almost) never appealed to me. Mortal evils are different in flavour. They were inscribed on a tablet, memorably, for Moses. Each item could be seen as a form of murder, starting with the attempt to murder God. But they were not a social policy.

I am against unnecessary impositions. There was a time when I was reading John Locke (whose Epistola de Tolerantia says Catholics and Jews should forget about citizenship or voting). Among other soi-disant philosophers, lines are drawn elsewhere in the sand, but to me the key is understood, even by animals. Threaten me, my family, my friends, my tribe, and you may not live to regret it. For this, we could have an international convention, to which dolphins, fleas, and rattlesnakes could be invited.

As to aggression and food-seeking, all bets are off. “Rights language” can never cope with such features of reality. But for people who admit a right to self-defence, what the Mericans call the Second Amendment has been in force since the beginning of time, with or without Militias.

And so has been the Law of Love, that governs the universe, invisibly when it is not shown or expressed. It was to this that Our Lord was constantly alluding. It is not a “nice” law — it is the burning Fire of Creation — but it allows niceness often enough, and is all but obligatory on festive occasions.

Which is why I say, it’s the time of year to be nice to Protestants.

De seculo & religione

Coluccio Salutati is a name to be reckoned with. He is one of the early “humanists” along with such (older) contemporaries as Boccaccio. He is eloquent in a way that has served as a model. He stands at an intersection of life, between worldly and religious aspirations. This is an intersection that remains familiar.

Called “Cicero’s Monkey” for his refined Latin, and who knows what for his chancellorship in the Florentine Republic (back in pre-Medici days), Salutati (1332–1406) could be read today as a kind of fin de 14th-century Rod Dreher, telling his readers to retreat from a world, from which he boldly is not retreating. Back then, retreat meant clearly to a monastery or hermitage; the world was full of such possibilities, and an agrarian economy had been developed to support them. There were monasteries in and around cities, not only in remote countryside, and there were several prominent in Florence. As today, the more urban and urbane were often vexed, especially in Florence, by the convulsions of this world and its usual Party fervors. (Whether Buddhist or Christian, monks are quite capable of getting into fights. They still live in the sublunary, after all.)

Salutati’s book, On the World & Religious Life, translated and published in Harvard’s “I Tatti” series a few years ago (with the original en face), is written as a long letter to a Camaldolese monk who was his patron and mentor, and had been a renowned canon lawyer. This “Father Jerome” is now dealing with political discord within the urban monastery into which he had tried to disappear. Outside, the mobs were conducting the Ciompi Revolt, which we won’t get into.

Florence is prosperous, and getting more so, as modern methods of trade, banking, and investment are being pioneered. God, apparently, allows us in our freedom to pursue riches, if we want them. He even lets riches grow, as Salutati can see, for the industrious and conscientious, as well as for the undeserving.

Yes, we want to retreat from the world, and a very small number of the religiously devoted manage to pull it off. Many fail, but most do not succeed even in starting because their idea of retreat is a romantic posture. They die, still dreaming, of a discipline ungained. They are, as it were, sincere in their insincerity; that is, sincerely distracted from their worldly tasks, by the desire to be elsewhere. (Cue the virtue-signalling.)

In Salutati, as in others of his age, the conflict intervenes even in his account of the world. Sometimes he is astounded by its divine beauty; sometimes he describes it as a toilet; sometimes he manages mildly Manichaean feints in other directions.

But let this Idlepostulator (Idleposter?) observe that the world itself is like that, and answers to our needs, and moods. Salutati set out to write a robust defence of the active life, as his humanist successors would be doing, rather shamelessly, in another century or two. Arguably, his personal misfortunes gradually turned his attention inward, from moralizing to theologizing; and made his classical prose something new.

To me, he is an interesting as well as disappointing figure. To me, the whole “Renaissance” was a mistake, and all the self-conscious “enlightenments” that follow from it are part of a civilizational retreat, from God. But the most convincing “humanists” are the earliest ones; too, its most convincing artists. By this I don’t mean that the great Renaissance figures can be dismissed or forgotten. Dante and Giotto herald glorious things, but I insist that they precede humanism. We followed a path towards the aggrandizement and celebration of Man, and we have continued along it, farther and farther downhill. Six centuries or so later, we probably need more than six centuries to climb back up the hill.

That will not be to a city in the clouds, or “utopia,” however. Late mediaeval Florentine politics stand as guarantee that the world-as-toilet will persist. Rather the limit of our ambition should be to ascend, to a place where the City of God becomes visible again. Much of that “backward progress” must necessarily involve retracing our steps.