The Homebound Symphony

Stagger onward rejoicing

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Becca Rothfeld on “Sanctimony Literature”

Sanctimony literature errs, then, not because it ventures into moral territory, but because it displays no genuine curiosity about what it really means to be good, and is blind to the distinction between morality and moralism, and exhibits no doubt about its own probity. Isn’t it funny that a good person, as envisioned by Lerner and Rooney, is exactly like Lerner and Rooney and all of their readers? And isn’t it striking that all these Lerner-clones and Rooney-clones are depicted as irreproachably upstanding, while all of their enemies are represented as one-dimensionally irredeemable? The heroes and heroines of sanctimony literature are so steeped in self-satisfaction that they provide an inadvertent moral lesson. It turns out that someone can have all the de rigueur political opinions without thereby achieving any measure of meaningful ethical success. A novel’s goodness is bound up with its beauty, but there is more to goodness than boilerplate leftist fervor.

Ted Gioia:

Boredom is built into the [Spotify] platform, because they lose money if you get too excited about music — you’re like the person at the all-you-can-eat buffet who goes back for a third helping. They make the most money from indifferent, lukewarm fans, and they created their interface with them in mind. In other words, Spotify’s highest aspiration is to be the Applebee’s of music.

Encyclopedia Babylonica 3: Daniel

As we have seen, D. W. Griffith gives us an image of an effete and dissolute Babylonian kingdom, destroyed by a combination of its own lassitude and the fierce warlike ambitions of the Persian King Cyrus. But this is not the picture of things that one would get from reading the Hebrew Bible. There we see the Babylonians as not just the conquerors of Israel, but also as the captors and enslavers of the Israelites. 

And then — some time after they had been brought to the rivers of Babylon, where they sat and wept when they remembered Zion — a handful of Jews, the book of Daniel tells us, became key advisors to King Nebuchadnezzar. Now this is an interesting phenomenon in several respects. Let’s look at it more closely. 

Here’s the beginning of the book of Daniel:

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. 

This account raises many questions. For instance, it would be very interesting to know how many Israelite youths were recruited into this program; we only hear about four, but it seems likely that there were more. Did the rest wash out? Or are they not relevant to this story because — as Nebuchadnezzar surely hoped — they became assimilated into the Chaldean culture of Babylon, forgetting the ways of their ancestors and adopting those of their captors? As I wrote some years ago, it happens all the time

In any event: through the rest of the book of Daniel we see Daniel serving as a counselor to the Babylonian kings, first Nebuchadnezzar and then Belshazzar. He performs his duties with grace and wisdom, and in so doing earns promotion for himself and king-mandated respect for the God of Israel. What makes his success surprising is simply that he always brings bad news: he repeatedly reads the kings’ dreams as foretellings of disaster, which they always prove to be. Is this the only time in recorded history when bearers of bad news got themselves promoted? 

Things get strange right at the end of Daniel 5, when Belshazzar is killed and replaced by someone totally unknown to any other historian: Darius the Mede, who is the guy who drops Daniel into the lion’s den. By contrast, Herotodus — who is the primary source for Griffith’s Babylonian story in Intolerance, and even gets cited in a footnote on a title card, an honor granted to few other historians — tells us that the conqueror of Belshazzar’s Babylon is King Cyrus the Great of Persia, who finds a way to break into the great walled city and does so virtually unnoticed:

Now, if the Babylonians had only been given forewarning of what Cyrus was up to, or fathomed it for themselves, then they could have turned the entrance of the Persians into their city so completely to their own advantage as to have annihilated the invaders utterly. All they would have had to do was to secure the postern gates that open out onto the river and mount the low walls that run along its banks, and they would have had the Persians caught as if in a trap. As it was, however, the enemy was upon them before they knew what had hit them. Indeed, according to local tradition, such was the size of the city that those who lived in the centre of Babylon had no idea that the suburbs had fallen, for it was a time of festival, and all were dancing, and indulging themselves in pleasures; so that when they did finally get the news, it was very much the hard way. And that is the story of how, for the first time, Babylon fell. 

But back to Daniel. After Daniel escapes unscathed from the lions, we’re told, “So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian” (6:28). But the rest of the book is devoted to describing a series of visions granted to Daniel: they are identified as happening in some particular year of some king’s reign, but they otherwise say nothing about what Daniel was doing. 

Again, it would be nice to know more, especially given the portrayal of Daniel as an advocate for his people; because Cyrus is perhaps the first royal defender of religious freedom. 

Cyrus Cylinder

That’s the Cyrus Cylinder, now in the British Museum, which contains a lengthy proclamation by Cyrus detailing his power, his glory, and his various achievements. Among these last are his repatriation of conquered peoples and his restoration of their temples and cultic sites. Some overly enthusiastic folks in recent years have called the Cylinder an ancient declaration of human rights, but it’s nothing of the kind: to Cyrus his subjects have no rights; he’s celebrating his own beneficence towards people to whom he owes nothing.

The Cylinder doesn’t mention the Jews, but surely Cyrus’s claims for himself strongly support the picture given in the book of Isaiah and elsewhere of Cyrus as the liberator — indeed the messiah, the anointed one — of Israel, though the Cylinder certainly does not say that Cyrus liberated anyone in response to a commandment from the Lord. We need one more chapter of the book of Daniel telling us that it was Daniel who convinced Cyrus to act so generously. Alas, we have no way to connect those dots. 

(FYI: I am reading and so far very much enjoying Matt Waters’s King of the World: The Life of Cyrus the Great. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t look much like a tolerant modern liberal.) 

So, two pictures of the fall of Babylon: in the version given by Herodotus and endorsed by D. W. Griffith, the Babylonians (largely as a result of their inattentive decadence) fall to a mighty conqueror, a great man of war; in the version given in the Hebrew Bible, they fall because of their cruel domination of the children of Israel, and are replaced by a more generous sovereign who has been anointed by God to be the instrument of Israel’s liberation. But even in the book of Daniel the Babylonians are associated with gross luxury: their doom is announced, via the aboriginal “writing on the wall,” when “King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand” (5:1) — and then chose to drink wine from the sacral vessels stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps a step too far from YHWH to tolerate. 

You and I, my friends — this is the theme and topic of these posts — live in Babylon. How do we thrive? By working our way into the halls of power, or by praying for deliverance? Or, perhaps, by some other means? 

Peter Gray:

Other research has assessed relationships between the amount of time children have to direct their own activities and psychological characteristics predictive of future mental health. Such research has revealed significant positive correlations between the amount of self-structured time (largely involving free play) young children have and (1) scores on tests of executive functioning (ability to create and follow through on a plan to solve a set of problems); (2) indices of emotional control and social ability; and (3) scores, 2 years later, on a measure of self-regulation.

Moreover, two retrospective studies with adults have shown that those who recall more instances of independent play when they were children are, by various indices, happier and more successful in adulthood than those who recall less such independence. And research with college students reveals that those with over-controlling parents (as assessed with questionnaires) fare more poorly psychologically than those whose parents are less controlling. These and other correlational studies all point in the same direction. Opportunities to take more control of your own life when young predict better future well-being. 

See also this essay by Gray: “Why Adult-Directed Sports Are No Substitute for Kid-Directed Play.” Sports, in our context, are very nearly the opposite of play. 


A brilliant, angry, nearly-despairing essay by Justin Smith-Ruiu, one that grows out of a reading of William Gaddis’s brilliant, angry, almost-completely-despairing novel JR:

Is there any more vivid expression of the reduction of lived reality to two-dimensional catchphrases than the one conveyed in a sentence beginning with, “Speaking as an X …”? Our entire social reality is built up out of catchphrases now, and the people who really ought to be criticizing this nightmarish condition have instead abnegated their duty as intellectuals and have taken on the task of enforcing the repetition of certain catchphrases and of muffling other ones. And there is really no one left to perform that last doomed heroic gesture of [Edward] Bast’s, and to force us to hear something truly beautiful through all the noise, incessant and insane, of the Discourse. […] 

In fact the sorry truth is that [mass entertainments] may well be the best thing on offer, simply because the forces that produced them have absolutely bulldozed the last surviving hopes for art as a sphere of autonomous creation. But if that’s the case, well, then at least we have an archive of how things used to be, of postmodern novels from the late twentieth century, for example, which we are still free, for now, to go back and consult at our leisure, in order to remind ourselves how irreducibly complicated, and ultimately insaisissable, artists and intellectuals once knew the world to be. 

The “gesture” he refers to in the first paragraph quoted is the great moment when Bast, a failed or anyway failing composer, tries to make JR, an 11-year-old idiot savant of finance, pause in his manic quest for cash to take just a few moments to listen to Bach’s haunting and glorious cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis. Smith-Ruiu is right to call Bast’s desperate buttonholing of JR a mere gesture, because it’s hopeless, impossible … but perhaps all the more beautiful for that. 

For a moment I thought that, in the sentence I’ve highlighted, Smith-Ruiu meant to use the word “abdicated,” but on reflection decided that “abnegated” is indeed the right word. 

Encyclopedia Babylonica 2: Belshazzar


Let’s talk about about the OG Babylon — not as it was, perhaps, but as we have envisioned it. For instance, let’s consider D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, his insanely ambitious film of 1916, made in part to counter the idea, shared by many viewers of Birth of a Nation (1915), that he himself advocated intolerance towards Black people. Griffith decided to interlace four stories from four different periods of history, each of which in his mind illustrates the sin of intolerance. In fact, only one of them, the story of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France (1572) seems to me to concern intolerance as such. The others are about power and moralism and various other matters, and are tied together (though not really) by a weird image of Lillian Gish rocking a cradle, with three women — the Fates, I guess — in the background. I often think of Pauline Kael’s view of this film as “the greatest extravaganza and the greatest folly in movie history, an epic celebration of the potentialities of the new medium”; “a great, desperate, innovative, ruinous film”; an abject failure and also the greatest film ever made. (She wrote that in 1968.)  

But let’s talk about Babylon. Griffith depicts Babylon at the end of the reign of Belshazzar, who is threatened by a possible Persian invasion but seems unaware of the danger. It’s a picture of Babylon that gets more complicated the more you think about it.


Belshazzar moves through his world in a kind of daze, as though intoxicated or drugged, but what intoxicates him is beauty: he is besotted with the Princess Beloved (pictured above), and the environment which he has built around him is one of constant singing and dancing, almost all of the dancing being done by women in diaphanous gowns (with nothing under them – this was pre-code Hollywood). Belshazzar is a devoté of Ishtar, goddess of love, which has aroused the jealousy of the priest of Bel-Marduk, the former chief God of the city. (I call this jealousy, and power-hunger, as opposed to “intolerance.”) He is kindly and generous, but also — well, decadent. And of course this is the defining image, in later culture, of Babylon. 

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Belshazzar, then, enjoys the pleasurable privileges of rule but seems to be unaware of his kingly responsibilities. Now, to Griffith this is clearly preferable to the sheer bloodlust of the Persian king Cyrus, who, as he prepares his invasion and conquest, out-Herods Herod. Against this determined tyranny, the gentle eroticism of Belshazzar is helpless.

But here’s a key point: it’s possible to think very differently about the character of both Belshazzar and Cyrus than Griffith does, but in order to do that, we would need to consider some people who are completely absent from Griffith’s depiction. I refer, of course, to the Jews. They’ll be the subject of my next entry. 

excerpt from my Sent folder: favor

A friend wrote in response to my addition, at the end of my most recent newsletter, a quote from Robert Farrar Capon. My friend asked about how I see the relation between Capon’s picture of what we might call the absolutism of grace and, on the other hand, the call to the spiritual disciplines made by people like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. Here’s my reply: 

I think you’re right to be attracted by both parties, because, properly understood, the two parties are talking about two very different things. Capon is talking about our ideas of finding favor with the Lord — about the universal human belief that we can and should earn our favor with the Lord, and that those of us who more successfully practice the various virtues will have more favor from the Lord that those who do less. (There’s a kind of implicit scarcity model at work here: God only has so much favor to go around, so we want to get more for ourselves, leaving less for our neighbors.) 

What Capon wants us to understand is that our favor with the Lord is completely the result of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. Completely. Because of what Christ has done for us, because of the favor that he has earned for us, then we can be confident that we will be received on the last day. (I’ve reason to believe we all will be received at Graceland.) We are therefore free and the question then becomes: What do we do with our freedom? 

And this I think is where the disciplines come in. We practice the various spiritual disciplines, not in order to earn God‘s favor, but in gratitude for having already received it. We practice them because we want to draw nearer to the God who has saved us, or let him draw nearer to us, and because we want to be like Jesus. We want it, we don’t have to do it in order to earn our salvation. Jesus already did that. So if we don’t practice those disciplines today, God isn’t frowning on us. And if we know he isn’t frowning on us, that “when we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” then I think we have more incentive, not less, to do better tomorrow. It’s less terrifying because our salvation does not hinge on it. 

Encyclopedia Babylonica 1: welcome

Welcome to Babylon! I know you’re not all happy about it, but here’s something I’ve learned from experience: You’ll get used to it. Indeed, some of you will come to prefer life here to life in your native city — or what you think of, perhaps aspirationally, as your native city. And even if you don’t come to prefer it … well, you could do worse. Indeed you have done worse. 

But we’re talking about Babylon, aren’t we? And it’s my job to try to help you understand where you are and how you can flourish in what might seem to be unpropitious circumstances.

Let’s begin in what might seem an odd place: with a man named Aurelius Augustinus. He lived a long time ago, and you might think that his world had nothing to do with Babylon. He was born in North Africa — Roman North Africa. He was a Roman, not a Babylonian. Yet he didn’t see it that way. Not quite.

He wrote a book, a very big book called The City of God, that explored the long and messy relationship between what he called the City of God — that’s a long story — and the City of Man. And that’s where we come in. Because one avatar of the City of Man is Rome — and, Augustine says, another is Babylon. Again and again he describes Rome as “the second Babylon,” and Babylon as “the first Rome.” Babylon wasn’t the native city of the children of Israel, and Rome isn’t the native city of the people of God’s church — even When the Emperor is a Christian.

And yet — here’s the main thing I want you to understand — many Israelites flourished in Babylon, so much so that when they had the chance to return to the Holy Land they declined and stayed right where they were. And many Christians flourished in the “second Babylon,” Rome. How did this happen? That’s a big part of what we’re here to explore. So stay tuned!

There are people whose intelligence I admire, whose decency I respect, but with whom I feel ill at ease: I censor my remarks to avoid being misunderstood, to avoid seeming cynical, to avoid wounding them by some frivolous word. They do not live at peace with the comical. I do not blame them for it; their agelasty [literally “laughlessness”] is deeply embedded in them, and they cannot help it. But neither can I help it and, while I do not detest them, I give them a wide berth. 

— Milan Kundera, The Curtain 

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So the wonderful Dulwich Picture Gallery is beginning a renovation that will add a … big shoebox to their garden. Will architects ever get tired of designing minimally decorated boxes? It’s been going on for nearly a century now….

I’ll be off to Austin this afternoon to see Oppenheimer, and while I know the Alamo Drafthouse will present it beautifully, I do dream a little about seeing it in IMAX. Take a look at this video about how the technicians at the Science Museum in London splice together the fifty-three reels of the IMAX version of the film — weighing almost 600 pounds — to prepare it for viewing.

Unanswered Questions

Over the past few months I’ve occasionally made oblique references to a book I’m working on. That book is tentatively titled Unanswered Questions: The Art of Terrence Malick. It will be an exploration of the whole arc of Malick’s career as a filmmaker, though its structure will not be linear. A linear structure, working chronologically through all the movies, would not be a very Malickian way of doing business, would it? That said, the book will begin with a moment from Malick’s first movie, Badlands (1973) — this moment: 

Badlands this very moment

But it will quickly move on from there to later films, then back to earlier ones … you’ll see when the time comes what my initial perception is, and how it will shape everything that comes later. (One hint: it involves Ralph Waldo Emerson.) 

I won’t be writing about the project here, because that would reduce the likelihood of my eventually placing it with a publisher — and this is a book that I’m genuinely unsure I will be able to place. Books about movies are less common than they used to be, for reasons not totally clear, though some people think that real movie fans are more likely to invest their money in social Blu-Ray editions of their favorites, complete with commentaries and other special features, than in books. And this one will not have a conventional structure, so … well, we’ll see, in time. And this will take time: I won’t be able to finish it until Malick’s next film appears, and I don’t know when that will be. In the meantime, I want to write as much as I can, while remaining aware of the possibility that this great-work-to-come will change my mind about many things.  

In the meantime I will be posting here about movies in general. Watching and thinking about other movies has helped me better to understand Malick, who makes movies unlike anyone else’s — he has his own distinctive cinematic grammar and syntax and vocabulary, and I find that by having a clearer sense of the movie languages he is departing from, I am better able to describe what he’s up to. (I once saw an interview with Christopher Nolan in which he commented that on the basis of a 30-second clip you can with absolute confidence identify a movie as Malick’s — though he went on to say that if you ask him to explain how he recognizes it as Malick he can’t do it. I’m hoping to achieve more explanatory power.)  

Anyway, check out the “movies” tag for more. But probably not much more about Malick.  

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This isn’t quite right: Auden would never have been named Poet Laureate even if his comic/pornographic poem about a blow job hadn’t existed. He was widely loathed in England, as I explain early in this piece, because he stayed in the U.S., where he had arrived in January 1939, when war broke out in September. And then in 1946 he became an American citizen, which surely would have ruled out any such honor. (Imagine someone writing poems for British public occasions who wasn’t a subject of the Queen!) Any commentary on the “filthy” poem was just one more whack on a long-dead horse. 

All that said, Auden would’ve loved being Poet Laureate. He enjoyed to an extreme degree writing poems for particular occasions — when giving his inaugural address as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry, in 1956, he said, “I should be feeling less uneasy at this moment than I do, if the duties of the Professor of Poetry were to produce, as occasion should demand, an epithalamium for the nuptials of a Reader in Romance Languages, an elegy on a deceased Canon of Christ Church, a May-day Masque for Somerville or an election ballad for his successor. I should at least be working in the medium to which I am accustomed.” He often said that any real poet could write a good poem on any subject when asked. Only amateurs and incompetents have to wait for “inspiration.” 

a little ride in the time machine

Gloria Swanson

Here’s something people often don’t notice about Sunset Boulevard: Norma Desmond isn’t old. Several elements in the film are designed to make us think she’s elderly: the decrepit old mansion she lives in, her old butler, the comments people make on the Paramount set she visits — “Is she still alive?” But then the screenplay (a work of genius, primarily by Charles Brackett and the film’s director, Billy Wilder) starts to undermine the impression it has taken pains to produce. On that movie set, Cecil B. DeMille, playing himself, reminds people that he’s old enough to be her father. Joe Gillis (William Holden) comments that she’s “middle-aged,” and then, in their climactic confrontation, reminds her that she’s fifty years old. 

And Gloria Swanson was indeed fifty when the movie came out — 49 when it was made. DeMille was 69 and Erich von Stroheim 65, but one of the other superannuated silent-movie stars we meet in the course of the picture, Buster Keaton, was just 55. The point here is a powerful one: that the coming of sound to motion pictures utterly transformed the industry, and did so overnight, so that one year’s matinée idols were the next years’ forgotten ancestors. 

This could of course also be a comment on a Hollywood youth culture — never cast anyone over thirty — but I don’t think that’s the case here. Swanson was just five years older than Cary Grant, seven years older than Katherine Hepburn, both of whom would continue to be superstars for years and years. Her misfortune was that she became big too soon — just before the Great Divide introduced by sound. (“I am big — it’s the pictures that got small.”) 

Let’s compare that situation to our own moment. Swanson was born in 1899; her career as a star was essentially over before she turned 30, so let’s say by 1929; this movie was released in 1950. Imagine a version of Sunset Boulevard coming out today, featuring an actress whose career had followed a similar trajectory to Norma Desmond’s. Let’s see, we’d need an actress born around 1972, so: Jennifer Garner. Gwyneth Paltrow. Thandiwe Newton. Any of those strike you as plausible candidates for Norma Desmond? (“Gwyneth Paltrow — is she still alive?”) Sandra Bullock of course would be too old for the part, as would Marisa Tomei and Jennifer Aniston. One might also take a look at the widely varying ages of the actresses who have played Norma Desmond in the musical version of the story

Now, how about the even more archaic 55-year-old Buster Keaton? That would call for … let’s see … Will Smith, Hugh Jackman, or Daniel Craig. Tom Cruise? Way too elderly. But maybe he could play the Erich von Stroheim role. (Incidentally: early in his career Jackman played Joe Gillis in a Melbourne staging of the musical.)  

All of this we can explain with reference to general improvements in health care, exercise regimes, and cosmetic medicine. But there’s another element that’s more curious.

So let’s make a different comparison. One of Swanson’s most successful films was Sadie Thompson (1928) — a movie released 22 years before Sunset Boulevard. To the moviegoers of 1950 that was effectively the Jurassic era. But let’s think about films made in 2001: Monsters Inc. A Beautiful Mind. Shrek. The Royal Tenenbaums. Mulholland Drive — and The Fellowship of the Ring. All movies that are, to one degree or another, a part of the contemporary conversation. Not Jurassic; not even Neolithic. 

What does this difference tell us? Certainly that the silent-to-sound transition was devastating to the cultural currency of everything made in the silent era. But it also suggests that we of 2023 aren’t necessarily the most present-minded Americans ever. We might have a longer cultural memory, at least in some media and in some genres, than we give ourselves credit for. And surely there’s a big technological reason for that: the availability of movies, almost any movies we might want, in our homes — something that I’m especially thankful for right about now, since it enabled me to watch Sunset Boulevard last night, on the whim of the moment. 

My old friend Noah Millman, who writes and directs:

I love actors, and I want to see them continue to get jobs. More so, I love actors as actors, and I dread the prospect of a future where their deeply human activity is replaced by a machine that feels nothing, when feeling is so essential to what it is an actor does. I had a marvelous time working with all my actors on my recent film, very much including the background actors (of which I had quite a few). Those background actors were a non-trivial part of my budget, and I believe they were worth every penny because they brought themselves to their tiny roles, and those selves mattered, and mattered in ways I couldn’t have anticipated without their presence in person, on set. In their absence, we’re left with just the director’s solitary self fiddling with knobs on a machine, doing precisely what he thinks he wants, and never learning that something else was possible. The essentially collaborative and hence surprising aspect of filmmaking will, I suspect, progressively be drained away in the brave new world aborning, and we’re going to feel that loss in ways that we can’t yet fully comprehend.

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David Thomson: “The most daring novelty in Citizen Kane was not its deep-focus photography, overlapping sound, or flashback structure (though those things are truly difficult). The greater challenge was in saying, Don’t expect one viewing to settle this — or even several. For the mystery here is the most precious thing. Unknowability is close to where this film is leading. For 1941, that was not just daring or innovative; it was close to a denial of the entertainment medium.” 

How Google Reader died:

At its peak, Reader had just north of 30 million users, many of them using it every day. That’s a big number — by almost any scale other than Google’s. Google scale projects are about hundreds of millions and billions of users, and executives always seemed to regard Reader as a rounding error. Internally, lots of workers used and loved it, but the company’s leadership began to wonder whether Reader was ever going to hit Google scale. Almost nothing ever hits Google scale, which is why Google kills almost everything.

I was never a big Reader user, in part because I wasn’t interested in the social dimension of the app, and in part because I was a very early and loyal NetNewsWire adopter. I fiddled with it from time to time. But if Google had stuck with it, I think I might have become a serious user when Twitter began to decompose. 

David Samuels:

The reasons for the Nobel Committee’s snub [of Milan Kundera], which occurred at the height of the award’s geopolitical if not literary significance, are not hard to fathom. Most obviously, Kundera was never particularly interested in or engaged by politics. Instead, his work was a passionate defence of the right to pursue one’s own individual desires and lusts against bureaucratic maniacs of whatever stripe who wished to colonise individual experience on behalf of the state. To his critics on both the Right and the Left, Kundera’s stance was borderline immoral, not to mention hopelessly bourgeois. While the Left preferred Che and the Right preferred Solzhenitsyn, Kundera insisted on the human right to be left alone.

my new title

I ain’t going nowhere. I’m still here at Baylor’s Honors College, and I’ll continue, mostly, to do what I’ve been doing. But I have a new job title, and I want to explain what that means for me.

My new title, which is sorta bolted on to the old one, is – and I’m gonna need to take a deep breath here – the Jim and Sharon Harrod Chair of Christian Thought and Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program of Baylor University. That, friends, is a mouthful and no mistake.

When I was invited to apply for this newly-created position, I hesitated. I hesitated simply because I love the humanities – all the disciplines of humanistic learning, and all the ways they interact with one another – and I love the idea of professing a body of learning, a way of thinking, that is so often neglected, despised, and, by many of its soi-disant adherents, betrayed. I liked my old job title; through it I could stand for something I want to stand for. I didn’t want to give it up. (As it turns out, I get to keep it! – but I didn’t at the outset know how Baylor would handle the whole business.)

That said, I have also spent much of my career trying to demonstrate to readers the enduring power and relevance of the 2000-year history of Christian thought. My first book was largely about W. H. Auden’s discovery of the richness of that complicated and sometimes contradictory tradition; my second monograph tried to imagine how the challenges of literary reading and interpretation could be navigated with the aid of Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (297–426 AD). And I have gone on in this vein ever since, as best I’ve been able. I hope to continue as long as I can.

I’ll be giving an inaugural lecture at some point in the coming year, and I’ll probably post it here.

Also, I’ve been talking with my bosses, Doug Henry and Elizabeth Corey, about a signature course for the chair – or at least a course that suits the ways I can exemplify the character and the purpose of the chair, and honor the generosity of the Harrods. (Some later holder of the chair, from some discipline other than mine, will surely do something totally different.) To conclude this post, here’s my initial sketch:

The Christian Renaissance of the 20th Century

By the end of the 19th century, close observers of elite culture were confident that Christianity was soon to be dead – at least among the artists and intellectuals of the Western world. Those observers were wrong. The twentieth century witnessed a great intellectual and artistic flourishing among Christians, a flourishing that altered the entire cultural landscape of the Western world. In this class we will explore this signal development. Figures studied may include:

  • Writers of fiction: J. R. R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Shūsaku Endō
  • Poets: T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Geoffrey Hill
  • Composers: Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, John Tavener
  • Philosophers: Jacques Maritain, G. M. Anscombe, Alvin Plantinga
  • Theologians: Karl Barth, Simone Weil, C. S. Lewis
  • Visual artists: Georges Rouault, Arcabas, Mako Fujimura
  • Filmmakers: Robert Bresson, Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese

The goal here is not to give a comprehensive survey — that would be too vast a challenge for one course — but rather to understand how Christian thinkers and artists changed, and are still changing, our cultural world.

(Obviously I could replace all of those figures with others and still make the thing work; the multitude of choices just shows how vast in scope this renaissance has been.)

personal organization

Here’s my one piece of advice about personal organization: (calendars, tasks, planning, tracking): Think hard about your needs, pick a system, and then do not under any circumstances change it until at least one full year has passed. When you discover that your chosen system has some flaw — which you will — you’ll be tempted to change to a different system that doesn’t have that particular flaw. But: the new system will have other flaws, because no system is perfect, and those may be worse than the one you’re dealing with now. And you can lose vast tracts of time trying to find the (inevitably nonexistent) perfect system, which will make it harder, not easier, for you to get things done.

Moreover, you’ll need several months, at a minimum, to fine-tune whatever system you’re using to meet your needs. You won’t really know its weaknesses, or its strengths, until then. After a year, even if you’re frustrated by some things, you’ll be using it well, and can make a rational decision about whether to exchange it for something else. But remember: should you change, it’ll take you a long time to learn your new system. Are you sure you want to invest that time?

Some people are sure. And there can be value in shaking up your familiar habits — I do that myself sometimes. But the better you know a system, the more accurately you can calculate the costs and benefits of abandoning it.

starting from zero

The young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study and learn from the Silver Prince talked about “starting from zero.” One heard the phrase all the time: “starting from zero.” Gropius gave his backing to any experiment they cared to make, so long as it was in the name of a clean and pure future. Even new religions such as Mazdaznan. Even health-food regimens. During one stretch at Weimar the Bauhaus diet consisted entirely of a mush of fresh vegetables. It was so bland and fibrous they had to keep adding garlic in order to create any taste at all. Gropius’ wife at the time was Alma Mahler, formerly Mrs. Gustav Mahler, the first and foremost of that marvelous twentieth-century species, the Art Widow. The historians tell us, she remarked years later, that the hallmarks of the Bauhaus style were glass corners, flat roofs, honest materials, and expressed structure. But she, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel — she had since added the poet Franz Werfel to the skein — could assure you that the most unforgettable characteristic of the Bauhaus style was “garlic on the breath.” Nevertheless! how pure, how clean, how glorious it was to be … starting from zero!

— Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House

The new issue of Religion and Liberty features a long essay by Christine Rosen criticizing the we-have-nothing-to-conserve case presented by Jon Askonas in an essay I discuss here and here. Two points from me:

One: Rosen points out that Askonas’s hope for taking power through “a serious program of technological development” is just another version of Mark Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” — a model of action which has repeatedly proven much better at destroying than building. Another way to put this is to borrow a phrase from N. S. Lyons and say that the members of several recent post-conservative movements – as exemplified by Askonas’s essay, but also by Patrick Deneen’s call for “regime change,” and by several more extreme calls from some corner of the right to Blow It All Up – tend to be “change merchants”:

Whether an academic, a journalist, a financial analyst, or a software developer, a member of this Virtual class makes his living — and, indeed, establishes his social and economic value — by manipulating, categorizing, and interpreting symbolic information and narrative. “Manipulate” is an important verb here, and not merely in the sense of deviousness. Such an individual’s job is to take existing information and change it into new forms, present it in new ways, or use it to tell new stories. This is what I am attempting to do as a writer in shaping this article, for example.

Members of this class therefore cannot produce anything without change. And they cannot sell what they’re producing unless it offers something at least somewhat new and different. Indeed, change is literally what they sell, in a sense, and they have a material incentive to push for it, since the faster the times are a-changin’ in their field, or in society, the more market opportunity exists for their products and services. They are, fundamentally, merchants of change.

Maybe I shouldn’t include either Askonas or Deneen in this description, because Askonas has walked back his strongest claims, and some reviewers say that Deneen does the same in the latter portions of Regime Change. (I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t yet read it, but the more hard-nosed hard-right critics of the book chastise Deneen for not following through on his more extreme denunciations of the System.) But as a general rule: To be a successful change merchant you have to include, as a necessary prelude to your sales pitch, the claim that nothing you’ll destroy along the way to your innovation is worth preserving. (Starting from zero!) That is, the genuine change merchant will always say that we have nothing to conserve, and the person who genuinely believes we have nothing to conserve will always be either a change merchant or a victim of despair (or maybe both).

Many changes are, of course, necessary, and others are not perhaps necessary but are good or useful or beautiful or all of the above. In my judgment, the people best placed to implement the better kinds of change are not neophiles, who are impatient with anything that exists and desirous to replace it with whatever happens to occur to them, but rather those with a well-founded appreciation for what already exists and from that very appreciation develop a desire to preserve, sustain — and improve. (As Wolfe points out, the neomania of the Bauhaus movement led to a situation in which “Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse.”) One of Burke’s most famous lines is germane here: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.” Conservation and change are not opposites, but, in what that great conservative Albus Dumbledore calls “the well-organized mind,” complementary impulses.

Two: Again, some of those who say that there’s nothing to conserve will qualify that statement when challenged; but there are many among us who think it’s really true. And when I hear that, I find myself thinking about a famous passage from Henry James’s study of Nathaniel Hawthorne:

The negative side of the spectacle on which Hawthorne looked out, in his contemplative saunterings and reveries, might, indeed, with a little ingenuity, be made almost ludicrous; one might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left. No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools — no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class — no Epsom nor Ascot!

It turns out that there’s a certain kind of person who looks at the world we’re living in and thinks: No legitimate government, no useful laws, no worthwhile political acts or actors; no schools, no books, no skills of reading or writing or mathematics or art-making; no charitable organizations that serve people in need; no churches, no inspiring sermons, no beautiful liturgies, no memorable hymns; no national forests and parks, nor well-tended fields; no beautiful architecture, no thriving neighborhoods — no families! Nope. Not a thing to conserve. Those who went before us left us absolutely nothing of value. What can we do but start from zero, says the true change merchant, with me as your guide?

academic bullshit

My estimable friend Dan Cohen:

Maybe AI tools can help to combat their unethical counterparts? SciScore seeks to improve the reliability of scientific papers by analyzing their methods and sources, producing a set of reports for editors, peer reviewers, and other scientists who want to reproduce an experiment. Ripeta uses AI trained on over 30 million articles to identify “trust markers” within a paper’s dense text. Using new AI computer vision tools, Proofig takes aim at falsified images within academic work.

But fighting AI with AI assumes a level of care and attention that are increasingly scarce resources in academia. As scholarly publishers will admit, peer reviewers are harder and harder to come by, as journals proliferate and there are greater pressures on the time of every professor. It’s more productive to crank out your own work than to correct the work of others. Professors who are concerned about their students using ChatGPT to create plausible-sounding essays might not look over their shoulders at their own colleagues using more sophisticated tools to do the same thing.

If they — and we — fail to stem the tide of AI-generated academic work, that very work will come into question, and one of the last wells of careful writing, of deep thought, of debate supported by evidence, might be fatally poisoned.

All of Dan’s concerns here are legitimate and serious … but I also think there’s another side to this, at least potentially. I’ve written before about the ways that ChatGPT and the like are revealing the unimaginative, mechanical nature of so many assignments we college teachers create and administer. In that post I wrote, “If an AI can write it, and an AI can read it and respond to it, then does it need to be done at all?“ Might we not ask the same question about our research, so much of which is produced simply because publish-or-perish demands it, not because of any value it has either to its authors or its readers (if it has any readers)?

Countless times in my career I have heard people talk about their need to publish research — to get tenure or promotion — in an AI-like pattern-matching mode: What sort of thing is getting published these days? What terms and concepts are predominantly featured? What previous scholarship is most often cited? And once they answer those questions, they generate the appropriate “content” and then fit it into one of the very few predetermined structures of academic writing. And isn’t all this a perfect illustration of a bullshit job?

Yes, I’m worried about what AI will do to academic life — but I also see the possibility of our having to face the ways in which our work, as students, teachers, and researchers, has become mechanistic and dehumanizing. And if we can honestly acknowledge the conditions, then maybe we can do something better.

Little, Big

My friend Adam Roberts wrote recently about John Crowley’s Little, Big, which is (a) one of my very favorite novels and (b) a book I have never written about. I suspect that I’ve never written about it precisely because it means so much to me. One day perhaps I will get to the bottom of this. But for now I just want to make a few comments.

One: Adam thinks the book is a version of baroque, but I don’t think I agree. My inclination is to say that there are forms of elaboration other than the baroque, and Crowley dwells in one of those traditions. His imagination, especially his visual imagination, seems to me to arise from the vision of art that begins with the Pre-Raphaelites, moves on through William Morris, and culminates in the Arts & Crafts movement, which in the first two decades of the twentieth century — the period in which Edgewood was built — was a very big thing in the upstate-New-York world to which Crowley is always drawn. (The Aegypt books are set there too.) Edgewood is surely a house in this tradition, though in its decorated rather than its spare aspect. If you imagine Richard Norman Shaw’s Cragside sitting in a heavily forested corner of the Catskills I think you might envision Edgewood correctly.   

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Also, the women of Little, Big are often very much in the Pre-Raphaelite “stunner” mode. (Primarily the Elizabeth Siddall cascading-redhead type rather than the Jane Morris darkly-brooding type.) Cf. Rossetti’s The Beloved, which could be a depiction of the enthronement of Daily Alice: 

Width 1200 BauCQFW

Peter Milton’s illustrations for the rather magnificent 40th anniversary edition of the book capture some of the feel of the novel, though with an Art Deco tinge that might not be elaborate enough: 

IMG 2738

That’s not wrong, exactly, but I think it’s missing the density of detail present in so many Pre-Raphaelite paintings and William Morris designs, e.g. the Green Dining Room

Morris room

I think if you stripped the Pre-Raphaelite visual world of its medievalism — there ain’t no medieval culture here in the Americas — you’d be getting close to the visual aesthetic of Little, Big.  

Two: I think almost the whole of Crowley’s imagination — in his fantasies, though not in his many non-fantastic writings — derives from two books, both of them by Frances Yates: The Art of Memory and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. The first is a book about making the events and experiences and encounters of the past meaningful and coherent; the second is a book about achieving a nirvana, a wholly enlightened consciousness. The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is re-enacted or re-interpreted several times in Crowley’s work, including the marriage of Smoky and Daily Alice. (Colin Burrow, in an essay that Adam cites, notes this influence and thinks that current scholarly skepticism about Yates’s arguments creates a “big problem” for Crowley’s fiction, though I don’t know why that would be. Surely works of literary art don’t need to be grounded in sound scholarship to be good stories. The discrediting of the Ptomelaic cosmos doesn’t make the Divine Comedy less compelling.) 

It may be that Crowley sees us as having to choose between the two visions of Yates’s two books: that is, we can have a history that takes beautiful form or a beatific vision of total Meaning. Those granted nirvana leave their history behind, as the fairies leave behind Edgewood; that it is “a house made of time” is why they must leave it. You could say that Edgewood is the real protagonist of the story because it enables enlightenment for the fairies and for Smoky the completion of his Tale. And so at the end it runs on, telling its story because it doesn’t know how to do anything else, though both of its audiences have departed. I don’t know anything lovelier in literature than the final paragraph of Little, Big, a book that does not begin but rather ends with “once upon a time.”

(There are, I think, three chief sources of image and myth in Crowley’s fantasies: the Arts & Crafts movement, the Rosicrucian Enlightenment, and one more: the counterculture of the Sixties, which I think Crowley sees as, at its best, inheriting those earlier movements — but never quite laying firm hold on them. Swerving from what it could have been and should have been. But that’s more of a theme in the Aegypt books than Little, Big.) 

Three: Little, Big is full of Sehnsucht, it is a “search for the blue flower” story, and I don’t know any other book that better depicts this experience. (I don’t agree with Burrow that such a fantasy is “a conscious substitute for the magic in which you don’t quite believe any more”; I think it’s in no way a substitute, but a pointer towards something that necessarily remains always out of reach.) I also think — and this is not unrelated — that Little, Big is an illustration of the fact that for us mortals “death is the mother of beauty”: Smoky’s apprehension of the Tale is shaped wholly by the fact that he will not inherit it, is not made to inherit and inhabit it, but through helping it to come to be he plays a part that only an outsider to its full enactment can play. It is beautiful to him in a way that it cannot be to its participants; that is its gift to him. There is an inevitable asymmetry in his marriage which somehow make it stronger and more wonderful rather than weaker: he loves Daily Alice differently than she loves him. She occupies almost the whole of his short life; he can be to her only a moment, though perhaps the dearest moment, in an endless one. (It is very sweet to me that she and only she knows where he is buried.) 

I think by calling attention to this asymmetry he remedies the biggest defect in The King of Elfland’s Daughter: Dunsany never acknowledges that by bringing the whole of Erl into Elfland he has taken away the very thing that makes Lirazel ache for her husband and family: their mortality. Blake’s “Eternity is in love with the productions of time” is the mirror-image of Sehnsucht, and Crowley gets that, while Dunsany, I think, does not. 

more on SCOTUS and university admissions

Just a few random thoughts about the Harvard opinion. (On this blog I tend to avoid opining on current events, but I am endlessly fascinated by the law, by legal reasoning, and by the various strategies of legal interpretation. As Stanley Fish discovered a long time ago, there’s much overlap between literary and legal interpretation. I caught the bug from him.) 

In Sotomayor’s dissent, she describes the majority opinion in this way:

Today, the Court concludes that indifference to race is the only constitutionally permissible means to achieve racial equality in college admissions. That interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment is not only contrary to precedent and the entire teachings of our history, see supra, at 2–17, but is also grounded in the illusion that racial inequality was a problem of a different generation. Entrenched racial inequality remains a reality today. That is true for society writ large and, more specifically, for Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC), two institutions with a long history of racial exclusion. Ignoring race will not equalize a society that is racially unequal. What was true in the 1860s, and again in 1954, is true today: Equality requires acknowledgment of inequality.

The problem is that this description is wrong. Indeed, later on she walks some of this back, admitting that “The majority does not dispute that some uses of race are constitutionally permissible. See ante, at 15. Indeed, it agrees that a limited use of race is permissible in some college admissions programs.” So the majority opinion does not demand “indifference to race” (even if Justice Thomas would probably like it to).

But unless I missed it — and I may have; her dissent is lengthy — she doesn’t walk back the baldly false claim that the majority holds to “the illusion that racial inequality was a problem of a different generation.”

Thomas in his concurrence: “I, of course, agree that our society is not, and has never been, colorblind.” Gorsuch in his concurrence: “In the aftermath of the Civil War, Congress took vital steps toward realizing the promise of equality under the law. As important as those initial efforts were, much work remained to be done — and much remains today.” Kavanaugh in his concurrence: “To be clear, although progress has been made since Bakke and Grutter, racial discrimination still occurs and the effects of past racial discrimination still persist.“ (Probably not great for collegiality when one justice forcefully accuses her colleagues of holding views that they have explicitly disavowed. It’s disappointing to see Sotomayor writing in such open disregard for the truth of her statements — but that’s the world we live in.) 

Only Roberts, writing for the Court, doesn’t make any such statement, because in his legal reasoning it doesn’t matter. Racial inequality could be better than it used to be, about the same, or worse — it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is whether the policies employed by Harvard and UNC are legally justifiable. That’s his whole argument.

By contrast, what matters to Sotomayor is that the policies work:

The use of race in college admissions has had profound consequences by increasing the enrollment of underrepresented minorities on college campuses. This Court presupposes that segregation is a sin of the past and that raceconscious college admissions have played no role in the progress society has made. The fact that affirmative action in higher education “has worked and is continuing to work” is no reason to abandon the practice today.

Justice Jackson’s dissent operates under a similar logic: racism is an ongoing social problem, these policies are remedies for racism, therefore these policies are justifiable. But that’s a strange argument for a jurist to make. Many practices work — I could list a thousand tactics police departments have used to reduce crime — but that doesn’t make them legal. So these arguments by Sotomayor and Jackson seem to be outside the scope of their duties. But then, the same is true of Thomas’s dissent, which devotes a great deal of time to arguing that such policies do not work, do not accomplish their goals. That’s actually the chief burden of his concurrence, in which he directs much of his fire towards Jackson: You think policies like this help people like us, but they don’t

The funny thing about all this is that Harvard and UNC in their briefs and oral arguments explicitly denied that their policies attempt to remediate the consequences of past and ongoing racism — they say that it’s all about creating “diversity.” They did so because SCOTUS precedent wouldn’t have worked in their favor if they had admitted that remediation of injustice is their goal. (Too long a story to get into here.) But the fact that, except for Roberts, the justices largely ignore the explicit justification and instead argue about the role that university admissions play or do not play in remedying injustice indicates that they know what the real reasons for these policies are.

Again and again Sotomayor and Jackson say Racism is bad, why is the majority denying that racism is bad? And again and again the majority say, Of course racism is bad, but our task is not to end racism, our task is to decide this case. (Kagan’s silence on this case is disappointing, since she joined Sotomayor and Jackson, and is an infinitely superior thinker and writer. My guess is that she has her own reasons, quite different from Sotomayor’s and Jackson’s, for dissenting; I’d like to know what they are.) 

If even Supreme Court Justices don’t know what their job is, how can the rest of us be expected to? Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been tweeting that if the court really believed in color-blindness it would have ended legacy admissions. But nobody brought a suit against legacy admissions. Does AOC really think that the Supreme Court can just decree at any time the end of any practice they think unjust? Actually, she might; it’s perfectly possible that she has no idea how the Supreme Court, or the legal system more generally, works. But I think it’s slightly more likely that she’s just performing rage for her social media audience. That’s perhaps to be expected. What’s less expected is for Supreme Court justices to be doing the same thing. 


David Pierce:

As far as how humans connect to one another, what’s next appears to be group chats and private messaging and forums, returning back to a time when we mostly just talked to the people we know. Maybe that’s a better, less problematic way to live life. Maybe feed and algorithms and the “global town square” were a bad idea. But I find myself desperately looking for new places that feel like everyone’s there. The place where I can simultaneously hear about NBA rumors and cool new AI apps, where I can chat with my friends and coworkers and Nicki Minaj. For a while, there were a few platforms that felt like they had everybody together, hanging out in a single space. Now there are none. 

To each his own, of course, but after seven or eight years on Twitter — I started in early 2007 — I decided that “everybody together, hanging out in a single space” was a nightmare from which I hoped to awake. It took me a while to awaken completely, but I finally got there, and don’t ever want to go back. 

Pierce is wrong about one thing: maybe group chats and private messaging are focused on talking to “the people we know,” but that’s not true of forums, which tend to be built around common interests rather than personal acquaintance. I’m hoping that with all of Reddit’s self-inflicted wounds we’ll get some alternatives, but you know, we could do worse than go back to Usenet

Actually, I think that would be really cool. I’d love to see a Usenet renaissance, in which case maybe Panic would resume development of their fabulous old Usenet client Unison

(But yes, I know that there are problems with this idea. But a guy can dream. And there are infinitely fewer barriers to the fixing of open protocols than to the stable, lasting repair of closed ones.)  

patriotic effusion for Independence Day

I have always, I feel, been somewhat deficient in patriotism — I just don’t have the instinct for it, somehow — but listening to the recent Rest Is History series on the American Revolution got my red-white-and-blue blood up. (I say this, by the way, as a fully paid-up Wang — i.e., member of The Rest Is History Club.) George Washington had wooden teeth (ha ha ha) — Benjamin Franklin went around London “dispensing his wisdom” (ha ha ha) — Aren’t the colonists’ complaints obviously bogus? (ha ha ha) — Why do Americans have a holiday celebrating a press release? (ha ha ha) — Thomas Jefferson is a “phrasemaker” and the American Robespierre … wait, what? I don’t seem to recall Jefferson’s presiding over a Reign of Terror.

In general, I think Brits are the least trustworthy commenters on the United States — in any venue, from the left or the right, I avoid such commentary, because I know it will be filled with overconfident generalizations and smug condescension. Both of those faults arise from the writers’ belief that they have as it were a Special Relationship with the U.S.A. and can therefore interpret it authoritatively. (People from other nations might be even more critical but they are less likely to write or speak from that particular variety of smugness.) I think it telling that when Tom and Dominic did a series on the Irish quest for Home Rule they got an Irishman to guide them — Paul Rouse, who was great — and were highly deferential to his judgments, but when it came time to cover the American Revolution they saw no need for an American perspective.

At the very end there was a brief acknowledgment that George Washington did not become a tyrant when he had the opportunity to do so, and that that’s admirable, but then they immediately went on to talk about his owning of slaves. The overall tone of the episodes converged on a kind of ironic mockery, which I found disappointing not just because I’m an American (I think) but mainly because of its inaccuracy. The leaders of that Revolutionary generation were extraordinary men — it’s almost unimaginable that one moment in history, in so small a nation, would produce figures as prodigiously and variously gifted as Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the ever-underrated Madison. (Though Madison was a little too young to have much of a role in the Revolution proper, he was essential thereafter.)

For a better, clearer, juster view, I would recommend John J. Ellis’s excellent Founding Brothers, but even more than that an extraordinary book that is unaccountably out of print: Garry Wills’s Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment. No other work that I know of so fascinatingly illuminates the character of George Washington – and the way he was understood by his most thoughtful contemporaries. Thus this statue on the Lawn of the University of Virginia:

Note the fasces, which Washington is about to set aside — you can’t quite see it, but behind him is a plow. If, looking at that statue, you were to turn 180º, you’d see across the Lawn a companion statue, this of a seated Jefferson, gazing contemplatively at Washington — perhaps to admire, but perhaps to make sure Washington does indeed follow the example of Cincinnatus. For it is a model easier to invoke than to imitate.

In this spirit, we might also read an essay from 2021 by my friend Rick Gibson on Washington’s Farewell Address.

Let’s conclude by delivering to these unrepentant monarchists some home truths, as articulated by Jefferson in a letter to John Langdon (1810):

When I observed however that the king of England was a cypher, I did not mean to confine the observation to the mere individual now on that throne. The practice of kings marrying only into the families of kings, has been that of Europe for some centuries. Now, take any race of animals, confine them in idleness & inaction whether in a stye, a stable, or a stateroom, pamper them with high diet, gratify all their sexual appetites, immerse them in sensualities, nourish their passions, let every thing bend before them, & banish whatever might lead them to think, & in a few generations they become all body & no mind: & this too by a law of nature, by that very law by which we are in the constant practice of changing the characters & propensities of the animals we raise for our own purposes. Such is the regimen in raising kings, & in this way they had gone on for centuries. While in Europe, I often amused myself with contemplating the characters of the then reigning sovereigns of Europe. Louis the XVIth was a fool, of my own knowledge, & in despite of the answers made for him at his trial. The king of Spain was a fool, & of Naples the same. They passed their lives in hunting, & dispatched two couriers a week, 1000 miles, to let each other know what game they had killed the preceding days. The king of Sardinia was a fool. All these were Bourbons. The Queen of Portugal, a Braganza, was an idiot by nature & so was the king of Denmark. Their sons, as regents, exercised the powers of government. The king of Prussia, successor to the great Frederic, was a mere hog in body as well as in mind. Gustavus of Sweden, & Joseph of Austria were really crazy, & George of England you know was in a straight waistcoat.

And so on that note: All praise to the Founders, and confusion to degenerate monarchies!


P.S. This is unrelated to the diatribe above, but I can’t resist adding it. Adam Smith, the scholarly guest on the podcast, comments at one point that Benjamin Franklin’s only interest in George Whitefield was in determining the range at which he could project his voice. Franklin was certainly interested in that, but not in that only. Here’s my favorite passage in the whole of Franklin’s Autobiography:

Mr. Whitefield, in leaving us, went preaching all the way thro’ the colonies to Georgia. The settlement of that province had lately been begun, but, instead of being made with hardy, industrious husbandmen, accustomed to labour, the only people fit for such an enterprise, it was with families of broken shop-keepers and other insolvent debtors, many of indolent and idle habits, taken out of the jails, who, being set down in the woods, unqualified for clearing land, and unable to endure the hardships of a new settlement, perished in numbers, leaving many helpless children unprovided for. The sight of their miserable situation inspir’d the benevolent heart of Mr. Whitefield with the idea of building an Orphan House there, in which they might be supported and educated. Returning northward, he preach’d up this charity, and made large collections, for his eloquence had a wonderful power over the hearts and purses of his hearers, of which I myself was an instance.

I did not disapprove of the design, but, as Georgia was then destitute of materials and workmen, and it was proposed to send them from Philadelphia at a great expense, I thought it would have been better to have built the house here, and brought the children to it. This I advis’d; but he was resolute in his first project, rejected my counsel, and I therefore refus’d to contribute. I happened soon after to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me asham’d of that, and determin’d me to give the silver; and he finish’d so admirably, that I empty’d my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.

George Orwell, review of Mein Kampf (1940):

Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a good slogan, but at this moment “Better an end with horror than a horror without end” is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal. 

UPDATE: My friend Adam Roberts thinks that this review may have inspired one of Churchill’s most famous speeches.

reading SCOTUS

Some facts: 

  • Very few Americans even know what the Supreme Court does; fewer still care. 
  • Not all those who care know. 
  • Among those who care, 99% — including every single journalist in America — have one simple criterion for evaluating SCOTUS decisions: If they like the outcome, it’s a good decision; if they dislike the outcome, it’s a bad decision. 
  • It’s utterly impossible to make such people understand that the Supreme Court always should be and often is bound to issue decisions based on the Constitution and existing law (when such law is itself consistent with the Constitution); sometimes justices issue or endorse judgments they’d rather not issue. 

I’m here for the tiny fraction of 1% of Americans who can grasp that the interpretation of law, including the Constitution itself, is very difficult, especially when you have more than 200 years of precedent to reckon with. Often precedents are inconsistent with one another; previous Supreme Court decisions can be unclear, some of them right from the beginning and others in light of social and political developments that came after they were issued; very few cases make it to the Supreme Court if there are not defensible claims on both sides — if they were easy, they’d have been settled in lower courts, and SCOTUS wouldn’t have agreed to hear them at all. 

Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College is a fascinating case, and the opinions, concurrences, and dissents — all 237 pages of them — provide an extraordinary education in the social as well as the legal consequences of hundreds of years of American racism, and in the enormous complications introduced into our system by the arrival in America of large numbers of people who are neither white nor black.

(I’m setting aside, for the moment, Native Americans, who have been a dramatically special case from the beginning — as can be seen in SCOTUS cases from this very term, most notably Haaland v. Brackeen. See this NYT piece on Justice Gorsuch’s passionate commitment to Native American rights.) 

I don’t know how you could read the Harvard/UNC case and think that these matters are easily resolved. Those who can’t be bothered to read the details of the case may well find it easy, but then, most issues on most subjects are easy to the uninformed. This is one of those cases in which every argument (opinion, concurrence, dissent) seems convincing — when read in isolation from the others. 

I’m working my way through the whole thing, and already have a thousand thoughts. I may report later. But in the meantime, I would just encourage those of you who haven’t read the case, and especially those of you who won’t read the case, to give up the luxury of having an opinion about it. 

Thomas Pynchon, America’s Theologian

Today is the pub day for the longest essay I’ve ever published: “The Far Invisible: Thomas Pynchon as America’s Theologian.” (It’s paywalled, but of course you’ll want to subscribe.) (UPDATE: It has now escaped its paywall.)

How seriously do I mean my claim that Pynchon is a theologian? Is it a substantive claim or a provocation? I mean it pretty seriously.

Here’s how I would put it: Emmanuel Levinas famously argued that “ethics is first philosophy” – it is in ethics that philosophy should and indeed must begin. So, what is first theology? The answer to that question might not always be the same; it might vary by time and place. So I say that in our moment suspicion is first theology – a double suspicion, first that the rulers of this world are not the beneficent guides that they claim to be, and second that the world they rule is not the sum of things. (As Wendell Berry puts it, there are two economies, the market economy and the Kingdom of God.) Such suspicion is thus, in an endless doubling, skeptical and hopeful. These are also the two modes of prophecy, it seems to me.

This first theology is not, and cannot be, the whole of theology; but even Aquinas and Barth could not do the whole of theology, and we shouldn’t demand it of any theologian. I argue that Pynchon is our best guide to where and how theology in our time must begin; and one way to think of the task of theology for Christians is to ask what theological project should follow the one that Pynchon has inaugurated.

For those of you who are new to Pynchon — especially those who are intimidated by the thought of reading him — I’ve written an introductory guide just for you.

Finally (for now), just a couple of connections: I might want to put Pynchon in conversation with

Much more to do here!

The best thing you are likely to read about the Supreme Court affirmative action decision — or rather the response to it — is Freddie’s take. Two points strike me as especially important: first, that the whole kerfuffle is a distraction from any actually meaningful racial politics in this country, since a candidate who has to go to Columbia or Amherst rather than Harvard is not exactly a victim; and second, that there’s a massive media freakout about this because so many people in our media are the products of elite universities. Several decades ago, when most journalists attended mediocre universities or, often enough, were not even college educated, we would have had a chance to have this story like this presented with some fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective. But our journalists haven’t had any of that commodity on hand for a long, long time.

the system


I’m going to begin by quoting a very long passage from Bleak House, one involving a suitor in the court of Chancery, generally known as “the man from Shropshire,” an oddity who in every session cries out “My Lord!” – hoping to get the attention of the Lord Chancellor; hoping always in vain. His name is Mr. Gridley and Esther Summerson relates an encounter with him:

“Mr. Jarndyce,” he said, “consider my case. As true as there is a heaven above us, this is my case. I am one of two brothers. My father (a farmer) made a will and left his farm and stock and so forth to my mother for her life. After my mother’s death, all was to come to me except a legacy of three hundred pounds that I was then to pay my brother. My mother died. My brother some time afterwards claimed his legacy. I and some of my relations said that he had had a part of it already in board and lodging and some other things. Now mind! That was the question, and nothing else. No one disputed the will; no one disputed anything but whether part of that three hundred pounds had been already paid or not. To settle that question, my brother filing a bill, I was obliged to go into this accursed Chancery; I was forced there because the law forced me and would let me go nowhere else. Seventeen people were made defendants to that simple suit! It first came on after two years. It was then stopped for another two years while the master (may his head rot off!) inquired whether I was my father’s son, about which there was no dispute at all with any mortal creature. He then found out that there were not defendants enough—remember, there were only seventeen as yet!—but that we must have another who had been left out and must begin all over again. The costs at that time — before the thing was begun! — were three times the legacy. My brother would have given up the legacy, and joyful, to escape more costs. My whole estate, left to me in that will of my father’s, has gone in costs. The suit, still undecided, has fallen into rack, and ruin, and despair, with everything else — and here I stand, this day! Now, Mr. Jarndyce, in your suit there are thousands and thousands involved, where in mine there are hundreds. Is mine less hard to bear or is it harder to bear, when my whole living was in it and has been thus shamefully sucked away?”

Mr. Jarndyce said that he condoled with him with all his heart and that he set up no monopoly himself in being unjustly treated by this monstrous system.

“There again!” said Mr. Gridley with no diminution of his rage. “The system! I am told on all hands, it’s the system. I mustn’t look to individuals. It’s the system. I mustn’t go into court and say, ‘My Lord, I beg to know this from you — is this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice and therefore am dismissed?’ My Lord knows nothing of it. He sits there to administer the system. I mustn’t go to Mr. Tulkinghorn, the solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and say to him when he makes me furious by being so cool and satisfied — as they all do, for I know they gain by it while I lose, don’t I? — I mustn’t say to him, ‘I will have something out of some one for my ruin, by fair means or foul!’ HE is not responsible. It’s the system. But, if I do no violence to any of them, here — I may! I don’t know what may happen if I am carried beyond myself at last! I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!”

His passion was fearful. I could not have believed in such rage without seeing it.

Now, please bear Mr. Gridley, and his rage, in mind as I turn to George Orwell’s great essay on Dickens. It’s possibly the finest thing ever written about Dickens – even though it’s often wrong – and is a wonderful illustration of Orwell’s power of inquiring into his own readerly responses. (A topic for another post.) 

The first point I want to call attention to is this: Orwell was of course a socialist, a person who believed that British society required radical change; and there were people who saw Dickens as a kind of proto-socialist. This, Orwell points out, is nonsense on stilts. If you want to know what Dickens thinks about revolutionary political movements, just read A Tale of Two Cities. He’s horrified by them.

Orwell then goes on to note that Dickens’s early experiences as a reporter on Parliament seem to have been important for shaping his attitude towards government as a whole: “at the back of his mind there is usually a half-belief that the whole apparatus of government is unnecessary. Parliament is simply Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle, the Empire is simply Major Bagstock and his Indian servant, the Army is simply Colonel Chowser and Doctor Slammer, the public services are simply Bumble and the Circumlocution Office — and so on and so forth.”

Such a man could never be a socialist. And yet, “Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached.” So what is the nature of this attack?

The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens’s attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power. Of course one can draw this inference for oneself, and one can draw it again from the remarks about Bounderby’s will at the end of Hard Times, and indeed from the whole of Dickens’s work one can infer the evil of laissez-faire capitalism; but Dickens makes no such inference himself. It is said that Macaulay refused to review Hard Times because he disapproved of its ‘sullen Socialism’. Obviously Macaulay is here using the word ‘Socialism’ in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as ‘Bolshevism’. There is not a line in the book that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious. Bounder by is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.

And here’s what I love about Orwell: he says that Dickens’s position “at first glance looks like an enormous platitude” – but he is not content with a first glance. He continues to think about it, and as he does he realizes that Dickens, after all, has a point. This I think is the most extraordinary moment in the essay:

His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, ‘Behave decently’, which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence.

Most revolutionaries are potential Tories – that is, their revolutionary sensibility would erase itself if they could just get Their Boys into power. Once they and people like them are in charge, then they will do anything they can to thwart change. But what that means is: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (As I note in this essay, following Ursula K. LeGuin, even an anarchist society would have its petty tyrants.) Most would-be revolutionaries ignore this problem, but “Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness.” And that’s why he’s vital.

This point takes us back to the man from Shropshire, Mr. Gridley. He will not be calmed by invocations of “the system,” the broken system in which everyone is trapped. The Lord Chancellor is not trapped as he is trapped. The Lord Chancellor is not a victim as he is a victim. The people who enable the system, and profit from it, must be held accountable – or nothing important will change. The salon of politics will only be redecorated. So: “I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!”

And this, Orwell suggests, is what the novelist can do, what the novelist can bring before our minds and lay upon our hearts. Some political systems are clearly superior to others; but Dickens understands that whatever political system we build, its chief material will be what Kant called “the crooked timber of humanity,” of which “no straight thing was ever made.”  To force us to look at that truth — which, properly understood, will result not in political quietism but a genuine and healthy realism — is what the novelist can do for us. “That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician.” The novelist-as-moralist has the power to drag the individual workers of the system, any system, “before the great eternal bar” — but not God’s bar as such, which is what Mr. Gridley means, but rather, the bar of our readerly witness, our readerly judgment, whoever and whenever we are.  

Counterman implications

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Arguing with Supreme Court opinions, as one does — in this case Counterman v. Colorado. Now, let me be quick to say that the comment I am making above is really irrelevant to the case, because almost nothing in the opinion or the dissent is about what Counterman did or didn’t do — it’s almost exclusively an in-house debate about what criteria should be used to determine whether given speech-acts are or are nor protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Basically, the judgment of the Court could be summarized thus: “Hey Colorado, you went after Counterman by claiming that he was making ‘true threats’ and further arguing that one should use a reasonable-person standard to decide what makes something a true threat, but you went about it all wrong. The guy may well be guilty of something, but the particular argument you made against him is inconsistent with First Amendment protections, so we’re going to vacate your decision and send it back to you. Please do better in the future.” So now Colorado has to decide whether to try Counterman again using a different set of standards. 

I think this decision will be really consequential in the long term. For now just a handful of thoughts: 

  1. Kagan’s opinion is poorly-reasoned and — this is really surprising, because she’s usually the Court’s most elegant stylist — poorly written. It’s a tired opinion: when she acknowledges Barrett’s dissent she claims that one argument “falls flat” without saying why it falls flat, and claims that one case Barrett invokes is a “poor analog” without saying why it’s a poor analog. 
  2. I think this may be because the opinion simply tries to do too much. (This is Sotomayor’s complaint in her partial concurrence: You could have just stopped after declaring the “recklessness” standard the proper one to apply here.) Kagan gets deep into the weeds by looking at several different standards that might be applied in different contexts to determine what forms of speech are unprotected by the First Amendment. Barrett’s dissent also gets into those weeds, but invokes different standards than the ones that Kagan prefers. After a while the Counterman case altogether disappears from view. 
  3. I don’t think the majority opinion is intended to empower stalkers, harassers, and trolls, but that’s exactly what it will do. This is certainly Barrett’s view: “The Court’s decision thus sweeps much further than it lets on.” And this will lead to more bad behavior, especially online, and future legal cases that … 
  4. … the Court’s decision here will not help to decide. The most important conclusion to be drawn from this opinion is that the Supreme Court’s free-speech jurisprudence is a total mess. Kagan clearly wants to use Counterman in order to sort through the complexity of previous cases and bring order to the jurisprudential record. But there is no order in the jurisprudential record, and in the midst of the confusion a great many bad actors are going to think themselves free to be as nasty as they want to be.  
  5. The primary losers here will therefore be women — women like Coles Whalen, whose experience of relentless harassment by Billy Counterman was the origin of this case. And for what it’s worth, I agree with Barrett that this is an unnecessary loss:

The bottom line is this: Counterman communicated true threats, which, everyone agrees, lie outside the bounds of the First Amendment’s protection.” Ante, at 4. He knew what the words meant. Those threats caused the victim to fear for her life, and they “upended her daily existence.” Ante, at 2. Nonetheless, the Court concludes that Counterman can prevail on a First Amendment defense. Nothing in the Constitution compels that result. I respectfully dissent.

more on Korematsu

The other day I mentioned some famous Supreme Court cases that were influenced by public opinion. I had forgotten that a few years ago I wrote a post, no longer online, about one of the most important of them. I’m reposting it here, with minor edits. 

Let’s take a look at one of the most widely condemned of SCOTUS decisions, Korematsu vs. the United States. In Korematsu the court allowed the practice of evicting United States citizens, often native-born citizens, from their homes and moving them away from the West Coast simply because they were of Japanese descent. The vote was 6–3, and each of the justices in the majority was appointed by President Roosevelt, the man who issued that order. (In a separate but closely related ruling, issued on the same day, the Court ruled that such citizens, though they could be forced to leave their homes, could not be “detained,” thus depriving the internment camps for Japanese-Americans of legal sanction.)

The chief interest of Korematsu, for today’s reader of the history, is the dissent by Justice Robert Jackson, later to become the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. In the first stage of his dissent — which you may see in full by going here and scrolling aout three-fourths of the way down — Jackson points out that Fred Korematsu was a natural-born citizen of the United States whose loyalty to his country had never been questioned by anyone. He was merely living and working in the place of his birth (Oakland, California) but was by the Executive Order obliged to turn himself in to military authorities — an obligation that he would not have faced had he been “a German alien enemy, an Italian alien enemy, [or] a citizen of American-born ancestors, convicted of treason but out on parole.” Yet he was different from those others “only in that he was born of different racial stock.” Jackson continues:

Now, if any fundamental assumption underlies our system, it is that guilt is personal and not inheritable. Even if all of one’s antecedents had been convicted of treason, the Constitution forbids its penalties to be visited upon him, for it provides that ‘no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attained.’ Article 3, 3, cl. 2. But here is an attempt to make an otherwise innocent act a crime merely because this prisoner is the son of parents as to whom he had no choice, and belongs to a race from which there is no way to resign.

This point would have been sufficient in itself to declare Roosevelt’s order unconstitutional, but Jackson discerned a larger and greater issue at stake:

Much is said of the danger to liberty from the Army program for deporting and detaining these citizens of Japanese extraction. But a judicial construction of the due process clause that will sustain this order is a far more subtle blow to liberty than the promulgation of the order itself. A military order, however unconstitutional, is not apt to last longer than the military emergency. Even during that period a succeeding commander may revoke it all. But once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens.

Jackson’s point here is exceptionally acute: this is not as matter of rationalizing — that is, giving an implausible intellectual account of — the order, but rationalizing the Constitution itself. Which is a far more dangerous move.

The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need. Every repetition imbeds that principle more deeply in our law and thinking and expands it to new purposes. All who observe the work of courts are familiar with what Judge Cardozo described as ‘the tendency of a principle to expand itself to the limit of its logic.’ A military commander may overstep the bounds of constitutionality, and it is an incident. But if we [i.e., we Justices of the Supreme Court] review and approve, that passing incident becomes the doctrine of the Constitution. There it has a generative power of its own, and all that it creates will be in its own image. Nothing better illustrates this danger than does the Court’s opinion in this case.

People are often automatically dismissive of “slippery-slope” arguments, as though no slopes are ever slippery; but once a metaphor is dead it’s dead. Justice Cardozo’s phrasing may be more useful: “the tendency of a principle to expand itself to the limits of its logic.” This tendency is almost inevitable in SCOTUS decisions, because of the power of precedent: only rarely is a decision walked back; rather, a “passing incident” very easily and naturally “becomes the doctrine of the Constitution” when justices see different situations in which it can be applied. All the pressure is on one side, towards expansion rather than contraction of the principle.

Such expansion of a principle is all the more likely to happen when popular opinion, especially elite popular opinion, is also strongly on one side. FDR’s decision to move Japanese-Americans from their homes was quite popular (as were the internment camps) and eight of the Justices had the further pressure of owing their positions on the Court to the Roosevelt. What the Justices needed was a jurisprudential principle substantial enough to make a counterweight to those pressures. All three of the dissenting judges had that principle, but it was most fully developed in and articulated by Jackson.

Not long before his death Justice Antonin Scalia was asked, by law students at Santa Clara University, which Supreme Court opinion he most admired. He named Jackson’s dissent in Korematsu.

Canadian river mist rises

That’s the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle. The lovely photo is by Sean Fitzgerald from this story. The theme of this issue of Texas Highways is rivers — and more generally water in Texas. It’s something that concerns me profoundly. I have an essay on water and the West coming out in Raritan soon — I’ll link to it when it appears. 

banal utopias

JC Niala:

cultivating on allotment sites has always been so much more than ‘growing your own’. As Crouch and Ward put it, ‘The allotment is a different kind of place in which different values prevail.’ These different values often seem paradoxical to the non-allotmenteer, but are precisely what ensure that allotment sites survive. In this book, one gardener tells Crouch and Ward: ‘The allotment is 51 per cent hard work, and 49 per cent disappointment.’ So why on earth do people carry on allotmenteering? When I carried out my research across numerous sites in Oxford, the words that people use to describe allotments tell us why – ‘paradise’, ‘magical’. Allotment sites are utopias. […] 

This love and generosity spills off individual plots, through the allotment fences and into the wider city. On every allotment site, there is usually a place where people put their excess crops for anyone to help themselves. This is deliberate. Gifts carry obligations, and by being able to help oneself without being seen, the taker doesn’t owe anyone anything. They can also pay it forward, placing their extra produce at another time when they have it. I met a woman who survived on this gifted food – she lost her job during the lockdowns, and because she had only just secured an allotment, didn’t yet have her first harvest. Other allotmenteers grow cut flowers with the sole purpose to give them to people (often strangers) across the city, to spread joy. Even allotment fences that have been steadily erected around sites over the last few decades, to keep produce safe, break the normal rules of a city. Instead of keeping people away, allotment fences are often social places where passers-by strike up conversations with allotmenteers about what they’re growing, as well as to get a glimpse of the inviting chaos inside. 

The idea of a “banal utopia” strikes me as a really powerful one: in some small and everyday way to “repair the world” and to, implicitly or explicitly, invite others to join you. Maybe everyone can find a place to make a banal utopia. 

public opinion

People keep talking about the Supreme Court being “out of step with public opinion.” You know when the Supreme Court was totally in step with public opinion? When it decided Korematsu. And when it decided Plessy v. Ferguson.  You know when it was out of step? When it decided Miranda v. Arizona. So some of the worst decisions ever made by SCOTUS came when the justices heeded public pressure, and some of the best when they ignored it.  This wasn’t always true; but sometimes. Often enough to be a matter of note.

Many people decry SCOTUS as “unaccountable,” which simply means that justices can’t be removed when they make unpopular decisions. But Justice Robert Jackson’s dissent in Korematsu, one of the greatest moments in the history of the Court, would probably have led to his removal if justices had been thus “accountable” — which in turn would have denied us his vital role in the Nuremberg trials and also his later SCOTUS opinions, for instance in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, a case that did much to set limits on Presidential power. Many other cases involving many other unpopular justices could be cited. 

So be careful what you ask for. Public opinion won’t always be flowing in your preferred direction. In my view, the court is already — and probably always has been — too sensitive to public opinion. I’d prefer it to make more decisions that people don’t like, and to tell those people that if they want something different they should elect representatives who, instead of auditioning for careers on TV news, will pass better laws.  

in defense of Esther Summerson

Cover Bleak House 1852 3

Esther Summerson, the protagonist of Dickens’s Bleak House – insofar as that outrageously ambitious and wide-ranging novel can be said to have a protagonist – has come in for a lot of criticism over the decades. Charlotte Brontë found her “weak and twaddling”; Terry Eagleton calls her “insipid”; examples could easily be multiplied. She’s often linked with Agnes Wickfield of David Copperfield and Amy Dorrit of Little Dorrit: exemplars, it is said, of a certain Victorian ideal of femininity — serious, responsible, endlessly patient, methodically virtuous. I agree with this reading of Agnes, who is perhaps the only tiresome character in a wondrous book, and I think it at least defensible as an interpretation of little Amy Dorrit; but Esther is a different character altogether and doesn’t deserve the criticism she gets. Dickens is doing something quite subtle with the character of Esther; when she’s properly understood I think she stands forth as one of Dickens’s greatest creations.

Let’s have some context. 

Marshalsea prison London 18th century 3

As is well-known, when Dickens was eleven years old his father was arrested for debt and sent to the Marshalsea, a debtors’ prison on the south bank of the Thames, and young Charles was removed from school and sent to work in a factory. Charles, who was already ambitious and full of hopes for himself, hated every minute of it and felt that he was wasting away; moreover, he was separated from his family and lived in lodgings near the factory. He could scarcely believe — as, decades later, he told his friend and biographer John Forster — “how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age.” This situation lasted for about a year, and even after John Dickens was released — his mother died, and his inheritance enabled him to pay his debts — Charles’s parents considered keeping him working at the factory. It was John Dickens who decided to send Charles to school, over his wife’s objections. The adult Dickens to Forster: “I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.” (We cannot know what Elizabeth Dickens was thinking, but I suspect she knew that her husband would soon be in debt again — as indeed he was — and wished to find some means of keeping him out of there Marshalsea.) 

It’s hard to overstress the influence of this experience over the thought, and the fiction, of Charles Dickens. It touched him and shaped him in many ways, but one of the chief consequences was this: he acquired an abiding interest in how children respond to injustice and suffering of all kinds — if we can use a word now common, to trauma.

Only gradually in Bleak House do we discover Esther Summerson’s story — only gradually does she herself discover it. She was an illegitimate child, the product of an affair between one Captain Hawdon and an unmarried woman named Honoria, and nearly died in her first minutes of life — indeed, Honoria’s sister told her that the baby had died, and, shocked and horrified by the gross sin that had produced this child, immediately cut Honoria out of her life, and determined to raise the child herself. Of course, Esther was never told any of this; and while her aunt — never acknowledged as such; she called herself Esther’s godmother — gave Esther physical sustenance, she gave her no love. Once, Esther’s birthday was marked by this outburst: “It would have been far better, little Esther, that you had had no birthday, that you had never been born!” And she gave Esther this advice: “Submission, self-denial, diligent work, are the preparations for a life begun with such a shadow on it. You are different from other children, Esther, because you were not born, like them, in common sinfulness and wrath. You are set apart.” And from this point on Esther never for a moment forgot that she was “filling a place in [her godmother’s] house which ought to have been empty.” Filling a place which ought to have been empty — that’s quite a phrase. 

Again, what especially interests Dickens is how children respond to trauma, and here is how Esther responded to hers: 

I went up to my room, and crept to bed, and laid my doll’s cheek against mine wet with tears, and holding that solitary friend upon my bosom, cried myself to sleep. Imperfect as my understanding of my sorrow was, I knew that I had brought no joy at any time to anybody’s heart and that I was to no one upon earth what Dolly was to me.

Dear, dear, to think how much time we passed alone together afterwards, and how often I repeated to the doll the story of my birthday and confided to her that I would try as hard as ever I could to repair the fault I had been born with (of which I confessedly felt guilty and yet innocent) and would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself if I could. 

“Guilty and yet innocent” of a life-blighting “fault.”

In George Orwell’s lacerating essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” he narrates his years at school under the tyranny of abusive schoolmaster and his wife, and describes how he was constantly being told of his inferiority — he was a scholarship boy; his parents couldn’t afford the school’s fees — and the likelihood that he was headed for financial ruin or, at best, a miserable hand-to-mouth existence.

To grasp the effect of this kind of thing on a child of ten or twelve, one has to remember that the child has little sense of proportion or probability. A child may be a mass of egoism and rebelliousness, but it as no accumulated experience to give it confidence in its own judgements. On the whole it will accept what it is told, and it will believe in the most fantastic way in the knowledge and powers of the adults surrounding it.

And you can see that for just this reason Esther believes what her “godmother” tells her: that she should not exist, that her very being is “set apart” for unique shame, that she must devote her life to the service of others not in order to make her life worthwhile — that could never be — but to reduce, if only slightly, the humiliation of her very being. Esther believes it, and acts accordingly. 

Much later on, when the adult Esther contracts smallpox — something that happens because her kindness towards others puts her in danger — she nearly dies, and emerges with a deeply scarred face. She realizes that whatever looks she might have had are gone, and feels certain that the man she can barely bring herself to acknowledge loving could now never love her in return. Then, when the infinitely kind older man who has become her guardian plans to send her to a friend’s house for further healing, here’s what she thinks:  

When my guardian left me, I turned my face away upon my couch and prayed to be forgiven if I, surrounded by such blessings, had magnified to myself the little trial that I had to undergo. The childish prayer of that old birthday when I had aspired to be industrious, contented, and true-hearted and to do good to some one and win some love to myself if I could came back into my mind with a reproachful sense of all the happiness I had since enjoyed and all the affectionate hearts that had been turned towards me. If I were weak now, what had I profited by those mercies? I repeated the old childish prayer in its old childish words and found that its old peace had not departed from it. 

The point I want to make here is simply that everything Esther does and thinks — her investment in the lives of others; her perpetual kindness; her refusal of self-pity; her determination to give endlessly while expecting nothing in return — all arises from the profound trauma of being taught, and coming wholly to believe, that she is “filling a place … which ought to have been empty,” that her life can never be truly worthwhile, that the only love she will ever get is the love she can “win” through strenuous effort. 

Esther is a wounded healer; her goodness and compassion are real and admirable, but they are also a continual testimony to an injury that cannot be cured. Esther will never be able simply to rest in the love of her family and friends; she must always strive to earn it, again and again and again. In this sense she has indeed been “set apart”; her viciously judgmental aunt ensured that. In the end, things go well for Esther; but they go well for her in large part because of the character that she develops and demonstrates; and that character, in turn, is marked but also in a sense made by a grief and a shame that goes all the way down to the bone. “Insipid”? Anything but.

Dickens’s reflections on how children are affected by trauma always circle around a great mystery: some people get trapped in their trauma, remain perpetually victimized by it, re-enact the same patterns of mean-spirited or self-destructive behavior, all their lives; but others prove strikingly resilient, and find creative ways to meet that trauma, though it always marks them in some way. Dickens saw these two paths in his own family: his brother Fred ended up simply imitating the dissolute and improvident ways of their father, while his sister Fanny seems largely to have ignored her chaotic family life and made a decent career in music (though, sadly, she died in her thirties of tuberculosis, leaving behind a husband and two children). Who can say why some of the early-wounded take the one path and some the other? Dickens, as far as I can tell, didn’t think he knew, but, as one who escaped, he seems to have striven not to judge the ones who failed to manage it. When Fred died he wrote to Forster, “It was a wasted life, but God forbid that one should be hard upon it, or upon anything in this world that is not deliberately and coldly wrong.” Perhaps the striving was not wholly successful. 

Esther Summerson is not likely to be a role model for anyone today, in part because I don’t think our book-reading culture (such as it is) admires resilience. To our cultured folk, I think, a resilient person can’t have suffered all that badly; the only way you can authenticate your suffering is to succumb to it. But this is an unfortunate attitude. Esther’s story has some powerful — and not altogether comforting — lessons for those with ears to hear. 

Bleak House is, I think, one of the two greatest novels in English, the other being George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I used to teach it regularly, but since coming to Baylor I haven’t had the opportunity, so recently I picked it up to re-read for the first time in a decade. It has kept its hold upon me. I think in the coming days I’ll write a post or two on other elements of this marvelous book. 

Cities 10: last things

Book XXI of the City of God is about Hell, and as a result isn’t very interesting. Now, you might reply that Dante certainly made Hell interesting — but, see, Dante didn’t write a poem about Hell. The Divine Comedy is an allegory, and the subjects of the three canticles are sin (Inferno), sanctification (Purgatorio), and blessedness (Paradiso). In the Inferno Dante isn’t trying to tell us what he thinks Hell is actually like, he’s trying to tell us what he thinks sin is actually like, how it works, its weird twisted logic. Hell itself isn’t interesting, for reasons noted by C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain:

You will remember that in the parable, the saved go to a place prepared for them, while the damned go to a place never made for men at all [Matthew 25:34–41]. To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’.… We know much more about heaven than hell, for heaven is the home of humanity, and therefore contains all that is implied in a glorified human life: but hell was not made for men. It is in no sense parallel to heaven: it is the “the darkness outside,” the outer rim, where being fades away into nonentity.

So, enough about Hell.

Now, the condition of the blessed is infinitely more interesting, but perhaps not totally relevant to the inquiry I have been pursuing. My self-appointed task has been to try to understand the relationship between the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, as it obtains here and now, as they are mixed together, like Besźel and Ul Qoma.

As I noted in the first post of this series, Augustine says at the outset of his great work,

I have taken upon myself the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of that City. I treat of it both as it exists in this world of time, a stranger among the ungodly, living by faith, and as it stands in the security of its everlasting seat.

In his final book, Augustine tries to describe the condition of the blessed, and his thoughts there are, or ought to be, fascinating for all Christians. Central to his concluding reflections is his claim that the blessed in heaven will possess true freedom, not because they can do anything they want, but because they cannot sin. They are free because they have been delivered from bondage to sin; their wills fully assent to the will of God; they are no longer divided selves. Dante expresses this very point at the end of Purgatorio XXVII, when Virgil, having guided Dante-the-pilgrim through his sanctification and deposited him back in the Garden of Eden (which stands at the top of the Mount of Purgatory), utters his final words:

libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio
e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:
per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio.

That is: “Your will now is free, upright, and sound, and not to heed it would be wrong: Lord of yourself I crown and mitre you.” Dante-the-pilgrim is his own king, his own bishop; purged of sin, he is able to follow his own inclinations because those inclinations are perfectly sound. So Dante-the-poet here, and Augustine in Book XXII of the City of God, both depict the citizens of the City of God as they “stand in the security of [their City’s] everlasting seat.” Their wayfaring is over; they’re home to stay.

But that’s not where we are. We’re in the midst of our pilgrimage, living among — and often being friends with, often loving — neighbors whose citizenship is elsewhere and whose great city (figured in Scripture as Babylon) will, we believe, someday fall. They of course think that our City is imaginary, an illusion that will eventually dissipate. But in the meantime, here we are, all mixed up together, working in the same businesses, attending the same sporting events, voting in the same elections — for all the world looking like we’re citizens of a single city, which we are not.

In China Miéville’s fictional world, the citizens of Besźel and Ul Soma alike deal with the mysterious Cleavage in the same way: by ignoring one another, and when ignoring is impossible, unseeing. By and large, we in our world do not; instead, we practice a series of variable and ad hoc negotiations, often speaking of one another in ways that contradict our actions, often worrying — all of us — about the problem of divided loyalties. A hundred years ago many Americans found it axiomatic that a Roman Catholic could not be a true American because he owed loyalty to the Pope; today many fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals declare that America is a Christian Nation down to its bones — thereby declaring the Cleavage null and void, and perceiving non-Christians as, in effect, stateless vagrants. It’s a mess.

I began this series with a suspicion: that what many Christian thinkers call the “theology of culture” is misnamed and therefore misconceived, and that we need instead a theology of the Two Cities. I now feel more strongly even than I did then that “What is the proper relationship between Christ and culture?” is a fruitless question, one doomed to lead nowhere (not least because, as I have noted, I can’t figure out what theologians mean when they talk about “culture”).  I am convinced that the much more fruitful questions, and ones more grounded in the biblical story and the Christian account of the world, are: How do we live charitably and justly with our neighbors whose citizenship is other than ours? What is the common good that we share with them? What are the instruments — the tactics, the tools, the arts, the practices, the dispositions — by which we might pursue that common good? And, finally, when and how must we make it clear that, while we are all neighbors and owe one another love, we do not belong to the same city?

As I’m continuing to think about these matters, I will certainly draw on Augustine, but I will also — no surprise here for those who know my work — draw on the poetry of W. H. Auden. Perhaps it is no accident that I am reflecting on these themes just as I am concluding my work on a critical edition of Auden’s The Shield of Achilles, which contains his poetic sequence “Horae Canonicae” — one of the most profound exercises in political theology I know. So I will draw this series to a close for now, but continue to meditate on these matters, and when The Shield of Achilles comes out — sometime next year — that might be a very good opportunity to revisit these themes.

It’s possible, of course, that I will issue occasional interim reports; but for the time being, this is a wrap. Ciao!

not for me

My buddy Austin Kleon and I have often discussed the point he makes in this post: the value of responding to a book (or a movie, or TV show, or whatever) simply by saying: It wasn’t for me. I like this framing because it leaves open the question of whether there’s a problem with the writer, or with the reader, or with neither — because, after all, no one is capable of valuing everything. No one writer can write every kind of book, and no one reader can appreciate every kind of book. That’s just how the cards are dealt. We are all finite. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the days since Cormac McCarthy died, because the hosannas of praise for him have been something really extraordinary — but his work is … well, not for me. I have read four Cormac McCarthy novels, which feels like about three too many, and there is no way I’d ever read another one. People quote passages from his books meant to illustrate his excellence, and my response is: “You think that’s good writing? I don’t think that’s good writing.”

Given that some of those praising McCarthy are critics whose views on other writers I much value, the odds are pretty good that in this case I am lacking some quality as a reader that would enable me to appreciate what McCarthy did. But I’m okay with that; I may be missing out, but everyone misses out on some things. All I know about McCarthy’s fiction is: It wasn’t for me.  

Cities 9a: the City of God coming down

One brief comment about Book XX: in XX.17 Augustine comments on Revelation 21:2-5: 

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them; 
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” 

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”  

Augustine makes the provocative point that throughout history, as the City of God has made its way along its pilgrim path, drawing others to join it, it has always been coming down out of heaven. What happens at the end is mere the completion of that ongoing descent. 

Cities 9: ends and means

One of the most distinctive elements of Augustine’s method in the City of God looks like this: Now I wish to explore Z, but I cannot explore Z until I first explore X and Y. Thus in Book V he wants to ask why Rome ruled so widely and for so long, but he knows that many Romans — including his nemesis Virgil — believe that it was simply Rome’s destiny (fatum) to rule the world, and he has to refute that; but then he also knows that the belief in fate is buttressed by the belief in astrology, so he has to refute that. Only after all that preparatory work can he then explain why he thinks Rome became so dominant. As we saw in an earlier post, he thinks it was because of the virtues of the greatest Romans. It takes him a long time to get there, though.

(By the way, T. S. Eliot’s essay “Virgil and the Christian World” is still really useful on Virgil’s understanding of fatum and how it relates to the Christian understanding of God’s Providence.)

So here we are at the beginning of Book XIX, where we see that same methodological strategy at work. I’ll add in brackets some of the relevant Latin terms:

It is clear to me that my next task is to discuss the appointed ends of these two cities, the earthly and the heavenly. Hence I must first explain, as far as is allowed by the limits I have designed for this work, the arguments advanced by mortal men in their endeavour to create happiness [beatitudinem] for themselves amidst the unhappiness [infelicitate] of this life. My purpose is to make clear the great difference between their hollow realities and our hope, the hope given us by God, together with the realization — that is, the true bliss [beatitudo] — which he will give us; and to do this not merely by appealing to divine authority but also by employing such powers of reason as we can apply for the benefit of unbelievers [infideles]. Now the philosophers have engaged in a great deal of complicated debate about the supreme ends of good and evil; and by concentrating their attention on this question they have tried to discover what it is that makes a man happy [qui efficiat hominem beatum]. For our Final Good [finis boni] is that for which other things are to be desired, while it is itself to be desired for its own sake. The Final Evil [finis mali] is that for which other things are to be shunned, while it is itself to be shunned on its own account. Thus when we now speak of the Final Good we do not mean the end of good whereby good is finished so that it does not exist, but the end whereby it is brought to final perfection and fulfilment. And by the Final Evil we do not mean the finish of evil whereby it ceases to be, but the final end to which its harmful effects eventually lead. These two ends, then, are the Supreme Good [summum bonum] and the Supreme Evil [summum malum]. The search to discover these, and the quest for the attainment of the Supreme Good in this life and the avoidance of the Supreme Evil has been the object of the labours of those who have made the pursuit of wisdom their profession….

So: What is the end, the telos, of the City of Man? Well, naturally, it wants to achieve happiness — by which, as you can see above, Augustine means something far more than what we usually mean by happiness, and maybe even something stronger than the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia: he means a condition of blessedness, absolute bliss. Such happiness is our Final Good, the thing most desired, and to experience that is to attain or possess the Supreme Good. So what, exactly, for citizens of the City of Man, is the nature of the Supreme Good that they want to attain and the Supreme Evil that they want to avoid? That’s where Augustine has to begin.

Spoiler alert: Augustine doesn’t think any of the philosophers are correct. But the one that he seems to have the most respect for, in these matters anyway, is Varro. Varro, Augustine claims, says that the supreme good for human beings “consists in the combination of goods of both his elements, of soul, that is, and body” (CD XIX.3). But one also must possess virtue, because it is virtue that enables you to enjoy the goods of soul and body properly and not to dissipate or destroy them. Philosophers like Varro also agree that the happy life for human beings is social.

Augustine devotes some considerable time to demonstrating that a mortal being in this world can never be secure in either goods of the body or goods of the soul, that misfortune can come to people at any time, and that virtue itself is no guarantee of happiness because virtue is constantly warring with, and often losing to, vice. Because of the inevitable vagaries of this life — because of the unexpected and the unpredictable, including our own internal unpredictability — we can never rest secure in our possession of any this-worldly goods. By contrast, Christianity perceives that “eternal life is the Supreme Good and eternal death the Supreme Evil, and that to achieve the one and escape the other, we must live rightly. That is why the scripture says ‘the just man lives on the basis of faith’” (CD XIX.4). This, Augustine says is a secure inheritance that we can count on even when the goods of this life, whether of the body or the soul, fail us – even when virtue fails us. (Remember here that Augustine says in the previous book that the citizens of the two cities have many of the same experiences — they are differentiated merely in how they respond to them, and in what they hope for. The sun shines on Besźel and Ul Qoma alike. The instability of human fortune is a topic he returns to in XX.3, where he invokes the wise words of Solomon, primarily in the book of Ecclesiastes, in support of this view.)

But all of this is, effectively, boilerplate. What Augustine is really interested in is this matter of the social character of happiness. That’s relevant to everyone, since we are all involved in a shared existence, a common life. Augustine writes that the better and more reputable philosophies “hold the view that the life of the wise man should be social [socialem]; and in this we support them much more heartily. For here we are, with the nineteenth book in hand, on the subject of the City of God; and how could that city have made its first start, how could it have advanced along its course, how could it attain its appointed goal, if the life of the saints were not social?” (CD XIX.5) So the identity and character of the City of God is bound up with this conviction that the good life is inevitably social.

Augustine then spends a lot of time considering the afflictions that beset our social life. It is being attacked at all times by a wide range of forces — even “the friendship of the holy angels” is troubled by the deceits of demons (CD XIX.9). So under what circumstances is it possible for social life to be what it supposed to be, to bring the blessings it is meant to bring? This happens, Augustine says, only when we experience peace. And Augustine insists – this is one of his most essential ideas, it seems to me – that all rational beings seek peace. We should never forget that those whom we think of as our enemies desire peace just as much as we do. What Augustine would say then about the citizens of the City of Man is not that they don’t seek peace — even war, he says, is engaged in for the purpose of achieving peace – but rather that they misunderstand what peace actually is and the means by which it can be achieved (CD XIX.12).

This is where Augustine gets into some of his deepest questions about what a commonwealth is, that is: Under what circumstances may we live in a society in which there is a genuine common good? Augustine thinks that the City of Man can never experience peace, and it can’t experience piece because it cannot achieve a common good, a common weal, because it doesn’t understand what the Supreme Good actually is. Therefore he wants to argue that according to Scipio’s definition of a commonwealth – “he defined a ‘people’ as a multitude ‘united in association by a common sense of right, and a community of interest’” (CD XIX.21) — no earthly city can ever actually be a commonwealth. Because it worships false gods and because it doesn’t understand what our Supreme Good really is, it will always be mistaken in its “sense of right” and its “interest” will always be in the wrong things, on things that do not in fact lead to peace. (No genuine peace can ever be achieved through the unloosing of the libido dominandi.)

So Augustine says that a better definition of commonwealth is “the association of a multitude of rational beings, united by a common agreement on the objects of their love” (CD XIX.24) – but if you love something other than God, then your city will not have true justice, and if it does not have true justice, it will not have true peace, and if it does not have true peace, it will not make possible a social life conducive to the Supreme Good. To return to a theme from earlier posts in this series: the City of Man will get what it asks for, but it will not ask for the right things. It does not possess the orientation required in order to ask for the right things; it is not walking along the street of love, but rather motoring down the superhighway constructed by the libido dominandi. And so, in the end, the Great Divorce will be effected.

This is the subject of Book XX: the Last Judgment and what the Bible tells us about it. Reading that book is quite a bit like reading Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye. Not my primary interest. As I keep saying, we live in-the-midst and must decide how to dwell charitably and wisely with these citizens of another city — and that is what I’m trying to figure out.


Cities 8: parallels

In Book XVIII of The City of God, Augustine writes a kind of parallel history of the two cities, drawing on the best sources available to him at the time to show simultaneous developments in the City of Man (Assyria, Babylon) and the City of God (Israel, Judah). It’s a fascinating exercise in comparative ethnography.

Here’s a passage (XVIII.27) that shows what the exercise looks like:

Michah also records this period, after the reign of Uzziah, as the time of his prophecy. For he names the three following kings, named also by Hosea: Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. These men are found by their own statements to have prophesied simultaneously at this period. To them are added Jonah, also in Uzziah’s reign, and Joel, when Jotham, Uzziah’s successor, had by now ascended the throne. The dates of those two prophets can be found in the Chronicle, not in their own books, since they say nothing about their times. Those times extend from Procas, king of Latium, or his predecessor Aventinus, to Romulus, now a king of Rome, or even to the opening of the reign of Numa Pompilius, his successor, seeing that Hezekiah, king of Judah, reigned up to that time. So we see that those men, two springs, as it were, of prophecy, gushed out together, at the time when the Assyrian Empire failed, and the Roman Empire started. It was obviously designed that, just as in the first period of the Assyrian Empire, Abraham made his appearance and to him were given the most explicit promises of the blessings of all nations in his descendants, so in the initial stages of the Western Babylon, during whose dominion Christ was destined to come, in whom those promises were to be fulfilled, the lips of the prophets should be opened, those prophets who in their writings as well as by their spoken words gave testimony to this great event in the future. For although there was scarcely any time from the beginning of the monarchy when the people of Israel had been deprived of prophets, those prophets had been solely for the benefit of the Israelites, with no message for the Gentiles. However, when a beginning was made of writings with a more openly prophetic import, prophecies that would be of value to the Gentile nations at some later date, the appropriate time for that beginning was when this city of Rome was being founded, which was to have dominion over the nations.

The key point here is that, while the City of Man is hostile to the City of God, is devoted to its own ambitions and the false gods it worships, nevertheless the true God providentially oversees the course of the City of Man in such a way as to bring blessings to His people. The development of prophecy in Israel and Judah is synchronized with the decline of Assyria and the rise of Rome. When a great city arises that will “have dominion over the nations” and will therefore have the power to disseminate knowledge to those nations, then at that moment God inspires the prophets to speak words that will show that he cares for and seeks to save all the nations, not just Israel. And this synchronization of the development of the two cities can be seen as early as the simultaneous rise of Assyria and appearance of Abraham.

Here’s how Augustine concludes Book XVIII:

But now at last we must bring this book to its close. In it we have brought our discussion to this point, and we have shown sufficiently, as it seemed to me, what is the development in this mortal condition of the two cities, the earthly and the Heavenly, which are mingled together from the beginning to the end of their history. One of them, the earthly city, has created for herself such false gods as she wanted, from any source she chose — even creating them out of men — in order to worship them with sacrifices. The other city, the Heavenly City on pilgrimage in this world, does not create false gods. She herself is the creation of the true God, and she herself is to be his true sacrifice. Nevertheless, both cities alike enjoy the good things, or are afflicted with the adversities of this temporal state, but with a different faith, a different expectation, a different love, until they are separated by the final judgement, and each receives her own end, of which there is no end. And those different ends of the two cities must be the next subject for our discussion.

As I’ve previously noted, each city in the end gets what it wants — just as individual human beings do. Augustine’s teleological imagination applies at every level, from the personal to the imperial: a person, or a city, may be oriented to caritas — which Augustine defines as “the motion of the soul towards God” — or cupiditas, which is self-love, self-gratification. The person moved by cupiditas becomes, Augustine says, incurvatus in se, curved in on himself, growing ever more crabbed, ever smaller. Think of the Tragedian in Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

But this happens on a cultural level too, the level of the City or Empire: any given society may be growing towards God or seeking its own gratification. The latter kind of society inevitably becomes both sclerotic and isolated — it is always playing a zero-sum game with other societies. (It is not enough that Rome should succeed, Carthage also must fail. Carthago delenda est.) But the City motivated by caritas, like the person motivated by caritas, will grow more expansive — will find and welcome companions along the way, along what Augustine in De Trinitate wonderfully calls “the street of love.” (Cf. the companions — Faithful, Hopeful — that archetypal wayfarer Christian finds in Pilgrim’s Progress.)

I also find myself thinking here of the opposite of Christian’s finding of companions, the breaking of fellowship — which is the theme of one of Cavafy’s finest poems, “Myres: Alexandria, A.D. 340.” The poem is narrated by an Alexandrian pagan, whose dear friend (and perhaps lover) Myres has just died. The speaker goes to Myres’ house to see his friend for the last time, but “the dead boy’s relatives kept staring at me / in strange astonishment and displeasure” — so he remains in the vestibule, he dare not enter. The relatives do not wish to have a pagan interrupt their Christian mourning.

Some old women near me spoke in low voices
of the last day of his life —
that the name of Christ was constantly on his lips,
that he held a cross in his hands. —
Then into the room entered
four Christian priests fervently saying
prayers and supplications to Jesus,
or to Mary! (I do not know their religion well.)

Myres’ friend reflects that he had always known that Myres was a Christian, though he had not thought about it much; now various reminders of that difference between them, events little noticed when they had occurred, return to his memory. He watches and listens to the prayers, then:

And suddenly a queer impression
seized me. I had the vague feeling
that Myres was leaving my side;
I felt that he was united, a Christian,
with his own people, and I was becoming
a stranger, a total stranger; I also sensed
a doubt approaching me; perhaps I had been deluded
by my own passion, and I had always been a stranger to him. —
I flew out of their horrible house,
I left quickly before the memory of Myres should be
snatched away, should be altered by their Christianity.

Obviously we are meant to feel for this man who loved Myres; obviously we should, we should grieve with him. But — this is why Cavafy is great — we are also forced to consider the possibility that this doubt that assails him marks something real, substantial: that Myres is indeed separated from this pagan man who loved him and united instead “with his own people” — the people with whom he shares a citizenship in the City of God. “Myres was leaving my side.”

I have often wondered whether this poem was inspired by the great story in the fourth book of Augustine’s Confessions about the illness of the young Augustine’s dearest friend, a friend he had managed to turn aside from the Christian faith:

When he was sick with fever, for a long time he lay unconscious in a mortal sweat, and when his life was despaired of, he was baptized without his knowing it. To me this was a matter of no interest. I assumed that his soul would retain what it had received from me, not what had happened to his body while he was unconscious. But it turned out quite differently. For he recovered and was restored to health, and at once, as soon as I could speak with him (and I was able to do so as soon as he could speak, since I never left his side, and we were deeply dependent on one another), I attempted to joke with him, imagining that he too would laugh with me about the baptism which he had received when far away in mind and sense. But he had already learnt that he had received the sacrament. He was horrified at me as if I were an enemy, and with amazing and immediate frankness advised me that, if I wished to be his friend, I must stop saying this kind of thing to him. I was dumbfounded and perturbed; but I deferred telling him of all my feelings until he should get better and recover his health and strength. Then I would be able to do what I wished with him. But he was snatched away from my lunacy, so that he might be preserved with you for my consolation. After a few days, while I was absent, the fever returned, and he died.

And so they too were separated … though, Augustine came to believe, only for a time.

There must be a great divorce between the two cities, then, because they are driven by “a different faith, a different expectation, a different love.” Thus they must be “separated by the final judgement, and each receives her own end, of which there is no end.” Each receives, that is, the end which it has chosen.

But that final judgment of the two cities, that great divorce, is yet to come, and in the meantime — for the time being — “both cities alike enjoy the good things, or are afflicted with the adversities of this temporal state.” To return to a comparison from my first post in this series: the rain falls on Besźel and Ul Qoma alike. We are eschatologically two opposing cities, but topologically linked and paired. If we must be separated one day, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have common cause to make today. Temporary alliances are not as meaningful as eternal fellowship, but they are not meaningless either. We live within this tension and cannot, except through illusion, escape it.

absolutizing (slight return)

Jon Askonas has responded to my earlier post, and his response deserves a fuller counter-response than I can give it right now. These are matters worthy of deeper reflection! I appreciate the slight parting of the curtain Askonas gives late in his post, the peek at his positive vision, and that may provide matter for discussion later. I just want to make a few brief notes right now and then use this post as a bookmark — I’ll return when I have more bandwidth.

  1. I didn’t accuse Askonas of the “absolutizing of fright” — that was my comment on Michael Anton in his “Flight 93 Election” essay. My claim is that I’m seeing — really everywhere, but because of my own political and religious convictions I’m focusing on my confrères — the escalation of a rhetoric that absolutizes and abstracts. What Askonas absolutizes, I think, is not fright but rather defeat. For someone who holds any tradition dear, the declaration that “Tradition is over” is both absolute and defeatist — “defeatist” not in a pejorative sense but in a strictly descriptive one. 
  2. Askonas: “One of the frustrating things about the line of criticism Jacobs undertakes is that it is highly personalist and individualistic, as if it was within the power of any individual to always conserve the things that he loves.” Successful conservation is not within my power, but the practice of conserving is my responsibility. And to say that I have this responsibility is not to say that I must (or even should) pursue it alone. The question What then should I do? is not the only question to ask; but if not sufficient, it is necessary; I can’t evade it by decrying “individualism.” And if (as Askonas does) you’re asking me to join you in a brand-new endeavor, and I wonder what exactly you have in mind, and your primary response to that is Dude, you’re so individualistic! — that’s … not very reassuring. 
  3. Askonas: “Selection effects drive a local increase in virtue and faithfulness. The strength of the tradition in these unique, rare local places masks the global decline…. The question is not whether these, the best men and women, may pass on their traditions, but whether their number are increasing or decreasing in society on the aggregate.” (I think by “global” Askonas means “in the West.”) As far as I can tell, Askonas here has conceded my point and abandoned his own. For if tradition thrives anywhere, then tradition is certainly not “over”; and ”decreasing“ is not a synonym for ”over.“ And if tradition is not over, then the question becomes, not “What will we do instead of practicing our dead tradition?” but rather “How can we who are blessed by a living tradition share that blessing with others?” or “How can we who are missing a living tradition draw on resources that have been well-conserved elsewhere?” (All this applies to the Black community also, as Albert Murray well understood. He was so passionate an advocate of the best traditions of Black American life precisely because he saw them embattled and endangered. This is a constant theme in his work.) 
  4. But I don’t think Askonas believes he has abandoned his point, because he makes a strong contrast between ”organic outgrowths of tradition” and “intentional projects of retrieval or revival from the long-dead past.” (Thus on his reading the classical school movement, which he likes, does not count as an example of living tradition, or a practice of conserving, because, remember, “We can no longer conserve.”) The idea that tradition isn’t really tradition unless it is unselfconsciously inherited and inhabited is one of the classic errors of Romanticism, an error prompted by the inevitably fruitless longing to reverse what Harold Bloom, among others, called the “fall into self-consciousness.” No; Eliot, again, was right when he said that “Tradition … cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor.” This may be the single most crucial point of disagreement between Askonas and me, and the one from which all the others flow. 
  5. Askonas tells me the questions I should be asking instead of the one I asked him, under the apparent assumption that I haven’t asked them. That is, as it happens, not a safe assumption, though I don’t expect Askonas to know that. But for the record, this blog — not to mention dozens of essays and a few books — is full of my attempts to answer them.  
  6. Finally, it seems to me that Askonas replies to my critique of his tendency towards vague but alarming imagery by doubling down on that tendency. Anton had his plane crashing, Kingsnorth has his ocean liner sinking, and now Askonas gives us Troy burning. (It’s disasters all the way down! There are no gradual changes in the cosmos of this mentalité, just crises requiring instant and extreme action.) Troy is burning, he says, though I don’t know what it means to say that we live in a conflagration, nor do I know what the contemporary equivalent of sailing to Italy by way of Carthage might be. He is annoyed with me for not knowing “what time it is” — but I think I do know. It’s time to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. It’s time to seek the good of the city in which we live as pilgrims. It’s time to preach the Gospel in season and out of season. All these metaphors of disaster are just distractions from our undramatic daily calling. “The rest is not our business.” 

More later; maybe quite a while later. I need to get back to the City of God — posts on that topic will resume next week. And in a way they’ll be continuations of this debate. 

UPDATE: It occurs to me, looking at this again, that I probably don’t need to say any more on this subject. By acknowledging that tradition isn’t over (only under challenge in many places) and that we can conserve (but conservation is not sufficient), Askonas has retracted the chief points that I wished to dispute. And anyway, I just realized that his is yet another version of the “negative world” position that is impervious to evidence and that I promised myself I wouldn’t respond to any more. (Why can’t I remember my self-promises?) 

absolutizing and abstraction, conservation and piety

Some years ago I wrote a post on what I called “the absolutizing of fright”:

I have the same questions about the notorious “Flight 93 Election” essay, which says “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die.” And also says, “a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.” And also says, “we are headed off a cliff.” Later our pseudonymous author says that conservatives will be “persecuted,” will be “crushed,” and under a Hillary presidency America will be “doomed.” But what precisely is he talking about? It’s absolutely impossible to tell. He doesn’t give even a hint.

Under a Clinton presidency, would socially-conservative evangelical Christians like me have been fired from our jobs, driven from our homes by the military, and sent to re-education camps? Would we have been forced to sign some sort of Pledge of Allegiance to the Sexual Revolution, under threat of imprisonment? What? 

This kind of rhetoric — featuring an undefined alarm and an undefined response to that alarm — has if anything escalated and spread since then. For instance, in a recent essay Paul Kingsnorth talks about allowing the concept of “the West” to die: 

Maybe we need to let this concept fall away. To let it crumble so that we can see what lies beneath. Stop all the ‘fighting’ to preserve something nobody can even define, something which has long lost its heart and soul. Stop clinging to the side of the sinking hull as the band plays on. We struck the iceberg long ago; it must be time, at last, to stop clinging to the shifting metal. To let go and begin swimming, out towards the place where the light plays on the water. Just out there. Do you see? Beyond; just beyond. There is something waiting out there, but you have to strike out to reach it. You have to let go.

I have never been sure what people mean by “the West” either, so I hold no brief for the term. But Kingsnorth’s counsel? I have absolutely no idea what he might mean. I can’t even guess. It’s in the same disaster-porn mode as “The Flight 93 Election,” though Kingsnorth features a sinking ocean liner rather than a crashing plane. But I don’t understand the image. I don’t know how it translates into beliefs or actions, though whatever it means, it’s consistent with having a Substack, I guess. Might it also be consistent with preserving and transmitting the best ideas and the greatest achievements of those cultures that we typically identify with “the West”? 

Along similar lines: last year Jon [not Josh, as I earlier wrote] Askonas published an essay called “Why Conservatism Failed,” in which he wrote, “We can no longer conserve. So we must build and rebuild and, therefore, take a stand on what is worth building.” I don’t understand this either. If you’re rebuilding something aren’t you conserving some elements of it — or at the very least the memory and the idea of it?

And can we really “no longer conserve”? To conserve is surely to inherit or discover something of value and then attempt (a) keep it in good condition when you can, (b) repair it when it needs repair, and (c) pass it along to the next generation. I’ve been doing that my entire adult life, in a thousand ways. I’ve tried to teach my son the manners, morals, and convictions that I learned from the family I married into. I hope he’ll teach them to his children. I have taught and written in defense and celebration of the great books that previous generations preserved for me; of certain strenuous but also illuminating and life-giving ways of reading; of the rich inheritance of liturgy and hymnody that the churches in my life have introduced me to; of the world-centering and world-transforming story of Jesus Christ. I hope that those I have taught will receive all this as their inheritance and in their turn preserve and transmit it. Many, many others I know have done the same work. Is this not conserving? 

Askonas writes that “we are living after tradition” — but are we? I have received rich and wonderful traditions, have been blessed by them, and work for their perpetuation. Askonas also writes, “Those who look to build a human future have been freed from a rearguard defense of tradition to take up the path of the guerrilla, the upstart, the nomad.” Again: what does this mean? Like me, Askonas is a professor at an American university. How is this being a “nomad”? How is this being a “guerrilla”? Those seem like better descriptors for these guys.

Like Paul Kingsnorth, Askonas is speaking an imagistic language that strongly resists translation into specific beliefs and practices. Even when he suggests the possibility of “wild new technological practices,” it’s impossible to tell whether he’s referring to biotechnology, information technology, architecture, infrastructure — it could be anything, or nothing. The sheer abstraction is stultifying. 

Are our circumstances difficult? In some ways, sure. I’m sympathetic with T. S. Eliot’s view: 

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

But at many points in the history of the traditions I have gratefully received, the conditions seemed (indeed were) even less propitious. And yet the faithfulness of those who loved those traditions was not exercised in vain. 

My friend Tim Larsen speaks of the cacophony of new faiths that sprang up in America in the first half of the nineteenth century as “do-over religions.” Some of the language in the pieces I have been quoting sounds like the rhetoric of a do-over religion, and I fear that to think in this way is to despise the great work of our faithful elders and faithful ancestors. My concern is that writers like Kingsnorth and Askonas have not tried conservation and found it impossible, but found it challenging and left it untried. 

On the Netflix series High on the Hog, in the episode “The Rice Kingdom,” the food historian Michael W. Twitty makes a crab and okra soup — okra of course being a vegetable that slaves brought from West Africa — and comments, “Despite the fact that we were in hell, that we were being worked to death, we created a cuisine.” And note that that cuisine depended on elements of old food traditions that they had conserved — conserved in the most unpropitious circumstances imaginable. I concluded my recent essay on Albert Murray by quoting the great man on just this point: 

And man prevails through his style, through his elegance, through his control of forces. Not through his power, but through his control. People who confuse art with attack forget that what art is mainly concerned about is … form, and adequate form, and the artist is the first to know when a form is no longer as serviceable as it was. You see? And that’s what innovation is about. He’s trying to keep that form going, and he finds it necessary to extend, elaborate it, and refine it; to adjust it to new situations. That’s what innovation is about. It’s not to get rid of something simply to be getting rid of it, or to turn something around. It’s to continue something that is indispensable. 

A people who underwent centuries of slavery could think this way, could create all that they have created, but we can’t conserve? Tradition is over? Give me a break. 

But maybe this rhetoric not what it sounds like. Maybe it’s more constructive than it sounds. But because of the relentless vagueness of the imagery, the hand-waving abstraction, I can’t tell. So what I wonder is this: By the lights of this new do-over religion, what, specifically, should I be doing instead of what I have been doing? Until I find out, I’m going to keep practicing piety

Forthcoming: The Shield of Achilles

I will be returning soon to my posts on Augustine’s City of God, but maybe not for another week or so, because I need to devote my full attention to the final edits of my forthcoming critical edition of Auden’s collection The Shield of Achilles — my most recent contribution to Princeton University Press’s Auden Critical Editions series. I will admit to being very excited about this project. Though things may change, below please see my Preface in its current form.  

The Shield of Achilles appeared in 1955, which for Auden was right on time: he tended to publish a collection of poems every five years or so, and the previous book, Nones, had appeared in 1951. The poems of Nones indicated the beginnings of a major transition in his work. Through the first half of the 1940s he had written long poems in which he worked through the implications of his newfound Christian faith for politics and history (For the Time Being), for art (The Sea and the Mirror), and for the psyches of people devastated by war and by the various dislocations of modernity (The Age of Anxiety). But in the major poems in Nones Auden began a reckoning with certain themes that, he came to realize, he had neglected: the embodied life that humans share with all other creatures, and the character of genuine human community.

That he spent much of his time in these years living on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, around people whose language he knew imperfectly and whose habits he struggled to share, in a country that reminded him constantly of the complex relationship between Rome’s empire and the great claims of the Christian faith, exercised a powerful influence on the course of his thinking. To Ischia he wrote, in 1948 when he was new there,

                    How well you correct
Our injured eyes, how gently you train us to see
               Things and men in perspective
          Underneath your uniform light.

If in Nones Auden inaugurated his new quest to “see / Things and men in perspective,” in The Shield of Achilles he provides a powerful report on the fruits of that quest. It is the boldest and most intellectually assured work of his career, an achievement that has not been sufficiently acknowledged, in large part because its poetic techniques are not easily perceived or assessed. It is the most unified of all Auden’s collections, and indeed — once its intricate principles of organization are grasped — may be seen as the true successor of those long poems of the 1940s.   

Cities 7: a digression on reading

I’ve heard from a number of people, via email, about this series, and almost all of the responses have been negative. This has surprised me. 

Most of the criticism is based on a misunderstanding of the project. My critics seem to think that I am seeking to describe “the Augustinian view of X” or “the Augustinian position on Y,” and so they want me to talk about something that Augustine writes in one of his other books or in a sermon. But I’m just trying to read a book, you know? Just read one book, a big complicated book. 

There may be another misunderstanding at work in these critiques. The assumption seems to be that for any X there’s one “Augustinian view,” on any Y there’s one “Augustinian position.” But maybe he changed his mind about some things, or framed some complicated issue differently in one book than he had in another. Maybe also — I’m speaking from experience here — when you write millions of words over several decades you kinda forget some of what you’ve said. There’s a funny moment in CD XVIII.41 where Augustine contrasts the disagreements of the philosophers with the unity of the authors of Scripture, and when I came to that I made a little marginal note that this reminded me of his earlier statement that Babel/Babylon mean “confusion” (XVI.4). But then a couple of pages later he writes, “For ‘Babylon’ means ‘confusion’, as we remember having said already.” Oh right, I said that already. (It me.)  

Maybe people are always this way, but I think in our own moment — I wrote about this in How to Think — the stream of information and misinformation so overwhelms our sensorium that we crave fixity, we like being done with something. Encountering a writer as prolific and various as Augustine, we perhaps look to manage the torrent of words by finding “the Augustinian position on Y” and putting it in our pocket for later use. 

However valuable that might be, it’s not what I’m doing here. I’m just trying to read a book, and I think the reading of books — especially big complicated books — is pretty much a lost art. You read and you think, and then you read more and you decide that you thought wrong, you reflect and revise your interpretations — and you do so over a fairly lengthy period of time. (I may be adding second and third thoughts to this project a decade from now.) It’s a good intellectual exercise, I commend it to you. 

Also: that’s why I’m organizing these posts in a Zettelkasten style: Every time I introduce a new topic I use a new number, but when I go back to revisit an earlier topic I create an appendage. So I might have topic 3 and then follow-ups I designate as 3a and 3b. Later I might add 3a1 and 3a2. Eventually I’ll create a page that lists all the posts in the proper reading order. 

I’m traveling this week; posting will resume soon. 

Cities 6: causes

In a previous post I wrote, “The Pax Romana is not a telos, it’s merely an event among other events, subject to varying interpretations and to the power of change.” But it’s it at least curious that Rome grew so powerful. What led to that power?

Here we have to invoke the idea of multiple causes. For Augustine, of course, God is the Final Cause of everything. In CD IV.33 he writes,

It is therefore this God, the author and giver of felicity, who, being the one true God, gives earthly dominion, both to good men and to evil. And he does this not at random or, as one may say, fortuitously, because he is God, not Fortune. Rather, he gives in accordance with the order of events in history, an order completely hidden from us, but perfectly known to God himself. Yet God is not bound in subjection to this order of events; he is himself in control, as the master of events, and arranges the order of things as a governor.

Though he says here that “the order of events in history” is “completely hidden from us,” a little later he wonders whether at least some of these divine purposes, and the order of events emerging therefrom, might be readable by humans. In the Preface to Book V he writes, “Let us therefore proceed to inquire why God was willing that the Roman Empire should extend so widely and so long.” And then he lays (at least some of) his cards on the table:

The cause of the greatness of the Roman Empire was neither chance nor destiny, in the sense in which those words are, somewhat arbitrarily, employed, when ‘chance’ is used of events which have no cause, or at least no cause which depends on any rational principle, and ‘destiny’ of events which happen in an inevitable sequence, independent of the will of God or man. Without the slightest doubt, the kingdoms of men are established by divine providence.

But then Augustine has to do things like discredit astrology — which is often used to show that human affairs are predestined — and it’s not until V.12 that he returns to the question: “Let us go on to examine for what moral qualities and for what reason the true God deigned to help the Romans in the extension of their empire; for in his control all the kingdoms of the earth.“ At this point we should remember that Augustine is replying to pagans who say that Rome flourished because of its devotion to its gods, and when Rome ceased to worship its gods, those gods withdrew their patronage. And Augustine has already demonstrated (to his satisfaction anyway) that those gods were either sheer fictions or weak and ineffectual demons, in either case unworthy of any devotion and incapable of assisting humans in their endeavors.

No, Augustine says, the real explanation for Rome’s success lies altogether elsewhere, and you can see where he’s headed if you note the phrase “moral qualities” (mores). Briefly, Augustine makes this remarkable argument: Rome flourished because, and insofar as, its citizens loved it. When Romans loved their city and sacrificed their personal interests to its needs, then it flourished. Yes, many Romans did this in order to gain the praise of their neighbors, which is not ideal — only the praise of God should really matter to us, and even pagan poets like Horace understood the dangers inherent in the love of praise (V.13) — but it is better to want to be praised for virtuous acts than to pursue vice.

Augustine has several points he wants to make about all this.

  1. Those who sacrificed their own personal interests out of love for their city “received their reward” (V.15). They got the earthly happiness they wanted.
  2. But they did not get, because they did not seek, eternal life and true happiness (beatus). This is a constant theme of Augustine’s writings: In the end, we pretty much get what we want.
  3. And the Romans succumbed to the libido domanandi — you can see in the Aeneid, as I noted in an earlier post, this gradual shift from (a) wanting one’s city to flourish to (b) wanting one’s city to rule.
  4. And this lust for political domination leads to a lust for personal domination. The infection spreads. In the days of the Republic, before the mania for imperial conquest set in, it wasn’t unusual to find virtuous Roman leaders, virtuous by the world’s standards anyway; now, at the fag-end of Empire, vice rules all. There could be no fifth-century Cato. 

At IV.28 Augustine writes of the Romans, “though they could not have exercised dominion without the consent of the true God, still, if they had ignored, or despised, that multitude of false gods, and had recognized the one God, and given him the worship of sincere faith and pure lives, they would have had a better dominion – whatever its size – here on earth, and would have received hereafter an eternal kingdom, whether they had enjoyed dominion in this world or no.“ But instead they got what they asked for; they have their reward. So it is always with the City of Man.