Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: ethics (page 2 of 3)

contractual and unconditional love


We know that when Dickens wrote David Copperfield he had not read Kierkegaard’s Either/Or – published less than a decade earlier, available only in Danish – but when I reflect on one character from that novel, James Steerforth, I find it hard to believe that Dickens didn’t know the “Seducer’s Diary.” Steerforth’s seduction, abduction, and abandonment of David’s childhood love Emily (Little Em’ly, as her family call her) proceeds precisely according to the emotional sequence outlined in that diary. Johannes the Seducer and Steerforth are both perfect embodiments of what Emile Durkheim would later call anomie – a combination of amorality and unconquerable boredom, with the boredom generated by the amorality, though seducers think that by rejecting the moral laws of their societies they can make their lives more interesting.

More on anomie later. For now I want to focus not on Steerforth himself but on his family – his, and Emily’s. Dickens regularly juxtaposes Mrs. Steerforth, James’s mother, to Daniel Peggotty, Emily’s uncle and adoptive father; this juxtaposition is one of the most important elements of the book. When Steerforth sweeps Emily away, just on the eve of her marriage to her cousin Ham, and takes her to Europe, both families are devastated, but in very different ways.

When, soon after the lovers’ disappearance, Daniel Peggotty visits Mrs. Steerforth – he hopes to learn whether Steerforth is likely to marry Emily – the lady treats him to this discourse:

“My son, who has been the object of my life, to whom its every thought has been devoted, whom I have gratified from a child in every wish, from whom I have had no separate existence since his birth – to take up in a moment with a miserable girl, and avoid me! To repay my confidence with systematic deception, for her sake, and quit me for her! To set this wretched fancy, against his mother’s claims upon his duty, love, respect, gratitude – claims that every day and hour of his life should have strengthened into ties that nothing could be proof against! Is this no injury? […]

“If he can stake his all upon the lightest object, I can stake my all upon a greater purpose. Let him go where he will, with the means that my love has secured to him! Does he think to reduce me by long absence? He knows his mother very little if he does. Let him put away his whim now, and he is welcome back. Let him not put her away now, and he never shall come near me, living or dying, while I can raise my hand to make a sign against it, unless, being rid of her forever, he comes humbly to me and begs for my forgiveness. This is my right. This is the acknowledgement I will have. This is the separation that there is between us!”

To understand this outburst fully, we need to recall that earlier in the story, Mrs. Steerforth’s companion Rosa Dartle – a shrewd and ironic young woman embittered by her hopeless love for Steerforth – had, with a malicious false ingenuousness, asked Steerforth what might happen if “you and your mother were to have a serious quarrel.” To this Mrs. Steerforth replied, “My dear Rosa, … suggest some other supposition! James and I know our duty to each other better, I pray Heaven!”

“Oh!” said Miss Dartle, nodding her head thoughtfully. “To be sure. That would prevent it? Why, of course it would. Exactly. Now, I am glad I have been so foolish as to put the case, for it is so very good to know that your duty to each other would prevent it! Thank you very much.”

Rosa’s mock-inquiry arises from her understanding that Steerforth and his mother do not perceive their relationship in the same light: his “duty” would not, and in the end does not, prevent him from acting in what he perceives to be his interest, even when that interest is merely the avoidance of boredom. Rosa also understands that Mrs. Steerforth sees her relationship with her son contractually and legalistically: he owes her obedience and deference because, she says, he is the one “whom I have gratified from a child in every wish.” Thus her outrage at his failure to meet the terms of the contract is extreme and implacable: he is banished from her presence until he (a) abandons Emily forever and (b) begs his mother’s forgiveness. “This is the acknowledgement I will have.”

After she delivers herself of this announcement Daniel Peggotty takes his leave of her; there is no more to be said; their models of parental love are incommensurable, irreconcilable.

The vastness of the chasm between them may be seen by comparing Mrs. Steerforth’s distribe with Daniel Peggotty’s response when he learns that Emily has fled with her lover:

“I’m a-going to seek her, fur and wide. If she should come home while I’m away – but ah, that ain’t like to be! – or if I should bring her back, my meaning is, that she and me shall live and die where no one can’t reproach her. If any hurt should come to me, remember that the last words I left for her was, ‘My unchanged love is with my darling child, and I forgive her!’”

Call me a normie if you want, call me sentimental, what you will – I don’t know many things in all of fiction more moving than this. Let me wipe a tear from my eye and then take a moment to unpack both the explicit statements and the implications in Mr. Peggotty’s declaration.

  1. Emily is in need of forgiveness, for she has sinned. (Emily herself knows this perfectly well; she is nearly consumed with guilt.)
  2. Mr. Peggotty offers this forgiveness completely and without condition or reservation, no matter what Emily does or fails to do.
  3. He does not wait for her to beg forgiveness – he does not wait for her to repent or return – he’s “a-going to seek her, fur and wide.” The biblical analogue here is not the parable of the Prodigal Son, because there the son returns home on his own initiative. That story is lovely enough, with the old man seeing his son “a long way off” and, as Frederick Buechner has envisioned the scene, picking up his skirts and running as fast as his old legs will carry him to the beloved boy. But what Mr. Peggotty does calls forth something more radical still: “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.”
  4. He knows that Emily will suffer for her sin; he knows that the way of the world – as exemplified, for instance, by Mrs. Steerforth – is not to forgive but rather to “reproach”; so he will do what he has to do, suffer whatever he needs to suffer, so that she will not be further wounded.
  5. His love for his “darling child” is “unchanged” – unchanged. Not altered in one fraction of a degree either by what she has done or what she has left undone, and never to be altered by anything in the whole wide reproaching world.

What most people want, or think they want, is affirmation. Indeed, many people demand it, and seek to punish those who do not give it to them. But affirmation never comes without conditions, even if they’re unstated. Thus I think it’s fair to say that Mrs. Steerforth, by explicitly indulging her son’s every wish while forever hinting that by so doing she is binding him contractually to her, is enriching the soil in which anomie flourishes. (Rosa Dartle sees all this coming, but because Steerforth does not return her love, she does nothing to avert it but merely waits for the inevitable crack-up. This may be a function of some inbuilt perversity of Rosa’s character, but I think it rather an outgrowth of her dependent status and Mrs. Steerforth’s contempt for her needs — that relationship too is contractual; it’s impossible to imagine Mrs. Steerforth having any other kind.)

What people need, whether they know it or not, is not affirmation but rather unconditional love – because only with unconditional love can there be genuine honesty. What Emily needs is not the fiction that she has done no wrong; what she needs, and what she receives, is the double truthfulness that she has indeed sinned but is wholly forgiven. It’s what she needs; it’s what we all need, and from those who genuinely love us we just may get it.

There are men who always confound the praise of goodness with the practice, and who believe themselves mild and moderate, charitable and faithful, because they have exerted their eloquence in commendation of mildness, fidelity, and other virtues.

– Samuel Johnson, Rambler 28 

I feel seen. 

keeping things on my chest

Perhaps the key theme in C. S. Lewis’s book The Abolition of Man is his emphasis on the importance, in much classical and almost all medieval thought, of the chest as the seat, the location, of our moral intuitions and convictions. Our mind cognizes and analyzes, the rest of our body simmers with passionate humors, but the chest synthesizes thought and impulse and converts that synthesis into meaningful moral action. 

One of the chief appeals of social media, for many of us, is the ease with which we can “get something off our chest.” But maybe there are feelings and convictions that ought to remain on our chest, even if their presence burns us. 

I should put my cards on the table here: In the past week we have, in multiple ways, seen the pervasive moral corruption of the socially-conservative and at-least-nominally-Christian world of which I have been a part (though an often discontented and uncomfortable part) most of my life. It is impossible for any fair-minded person to deny that that world has surrounded itself with a vast fortress of lies within which it hopes to take refuge: lies about the 2020 election, lies about immigrants to the USA, lies about its own commitments to “traditional morality,” lies about its adherence to biblical authority, lies about its embodiment of genuine masculinity. From within that fortress the cry continually comes forth, The woke libtards are trying to destroy us! — to which the most reasonable reply is: You’re destroying yourselves faster than any external enemies ever could.  

And that’s as far as I’m going to go by way of getting anything off my chest. I could certainly continue the denunciations, and continue at great length — there’s no shortage of material. But I don’t want to consume my anger and pain by shoveling them into a red-hot social-media furnace. Denunciations do no good. 

I want to keep my anger and pain close to me, inside me, even though it hurts, and find some proper outlet for them — as I say, to synthesize my thoughts and my feelings into meaningful moral action. 

On this blog I will continue to focus my attention on praising the praiseworthy and celebrating the good, the true, and the beautiful, because that’s my calling, that’s my lane. As Bob Dylan once said, “There’s a lot of things I’d like to do. I’d like to drive a race car on the Indianapolis track. I’d like to kick a field goal in an NFL football game. I’d like to be able to hit a hundred-mile-an-hour baseball. But you have to know your place.” And my place, vocationally speaking, is not to be a politician or a pundit. It is, rather, to invite my readers to join with me in a quest to repair the world — from the inside of us out, as it were. To change hearts; to heal and strengthen the seat of our affections.  

But that doesn’t mean that I can take no political or social action in response to the pervasive corruption I see and lament. I am asking myself some questions that I think all of us would do well to ask in these times: If there were no social media — no Twitter, no Facebook, no blogs even — what would I do? Whom would I seek to address and how would I address them? Would I use words only, or would I take action? And if the latter, what would proper action be? Imagine that all the familiar means of “getting things off my chest” were denied to me — what would I do then? 

In the coming days I will be pondering those questions. And meanwhile, on this blog, regular service will resume next week. 

when problems aren’t trolley problems

A brief follow-up to my earlier post on effective altruism (EA): I have a feeling that what makes EA less effective than it aspires to be is its relentless presentism. EA always looks for strictly financial means to address a given problem and address it right now. But what if the interventions that make an immediate impact aren’t the ones that make the best long-term impact? 

A decade ago Barbara H. Fried of Stanford Law School published an essay arguing that ethicists and legal scholars have a tendency to formulate all problems as trolley problems, in this sense: 

The “duty not to harm” and conventional “duty of easy rescue” hypotheticals typically share the following three features: The consequences of the available choices are stipulated to be known with certainty ex ante; the agents are all individuals (as opposed to institutions); and the would-be victims (of the harm we impose by our actions or allow to occur by our inaction) are generally identifiable individuals in close proximity to the would-be actors). In addition, agents face a one-off decision about how to act. That is to say, readers are typically not invited to consider the consequences of scaling up the moral principle by which the immediate dilemma is resolved to a large number of (or large-number) cases. 

I’m especially interested in the “one-off decision” business: What if interventions that are most effective in the short term are counter-productive in the long term? What if over the long haul attention to the cultivation of neighborliness is actually more effective? Something to consider. 

There’s a good discussion of these matters in Matt Yglesias’s most recent newsletter


In many of my courses I ask my students to explicate certain key passages from the texts we read — to dig in to the details, to see how the passages do their work. Here’s a selection from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago — the chapter called “The Ascent” — that some of my students are writing about: 

You are ascending…. 

Formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy. And you praised people with equal lack of moderation. And now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your uncategorical judgments. You have come to realize your own weakness — and you can therefore understand the weakness of others. And be astonished at another’s strength. And wish to possess it yourself. 

The stones rustle beneath our feet. We are ascending…. 

With the years, armor-plated restraint covers your heart and all your skin. You do not hasten to question and you do not hasten to answer. Your tongue has lost its flexible capacity for easy oscillation. Your eyes do not flash with gladness over good tidings nor do they darken with grief.

For you still have to verify whether that’s how it is going to be. And you also have to work out — what is gladness and what is grief. 

And now the rule of your life is this: Do not rejoice when you have found, do not weep when you have lost. 

Your soul, which formerly was dry, now ripens from suffering. And even if you haven’t come to love your neighbors in the Christian sense, you are at least learning to love those close to you.

Those close to you in spirit who surround you in slavery. And how many of us come to realize: It is particularly in slavery that for the first time we have learned to recognize genuine friendship!

And also those close to you in blood, who surrounded you in your former life, who loved you — while you played the tyrant over them….  

Here is a rewarding and inexhaustible direction for your thoughts: Reconsider all your previous life. Remember everything you did that was bad and shameful and take thought — can’t you possibly correct it now? 

Yes, you have been imprisoned for nothing. You have nothing to repent of before the state and its laws. 

But … before your own conscience? But … in relation to other individuals?

envelope please

Tom Stafford:

A slow day at the museum, and the receptionist is sitting at their desk as a stranger approaches, perhaps a tourist.

‘Hi’, the stranger begins, ‘I found this on the street just around the corner.’ He puts a wallet on the desk and pushes it over to the receptionist. ‘Somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?’. Without waiting for a response, the stranger turns and leaves.

The wallet is a clear plastic envelope, which the receptionist picks up and turns over. Inside they can clearly see a key, a shopping list, some business cards and a couple of bank notes. 

So what happens to the envelope? That’s the question asked by Alain Cohn, a researcher at the University of Michigan, and his team — who have dropped off similar envelopes all over the world. Stafford continues: 

For me, the most interesting finding is not whether most wallets were returned (they were), or whether the wallets with more money in were more likely to be returned (also true), but the differences around the world in the rates at which the wallets were returned. These differences were huge, varying from 4 out of every 5 wallets being returned (in Scandinavia, of course, and Switzerland), to fewer than 1 in 5 being returned (in places including China, Peru and Kazakhstan).

Trying to understand this range led Cohn and his team to the World Values Survey, an international research effort that polls citizens around the globe about their beliefs and attitudes. One question, in particular, asks about faith in other people: ‘Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?’. In Sweden, for example, most people agree with this statement. In Peru, fewer than 10 per cent do. Cohn’s analysis suggests that it is this generalised trust in other people that drives the cross-cultural differences seen with the lost wallets. 

Stafford, following Cohn, thinks that the key variable here is “views of human nature,” but that’s not obviously correct. What if the key variable is “views of social responsibility”? I wonder if Cohn et al. asked any questions about that

the old women of Nishapur

Talal Asad:

My point is simply that when a capability is acquired there is no longer a temporal interval between judging according to a universal rule and acting in a particular situation in the way Kant conceptualizes ethics—they are morally the same instant. Of course, the fact that a capability is embodied does not guarantee that you will act morally any more than acting according to conscience guarantees it. The act of recognizing a rule, judging how it can be applied in a particular context, and then applying it, reflects a different temporality from one where one acts according to a capability that is dependent on a collective form of life that sustains a transcendent vision. This, I think, is what Ghazali meant when he reputedly said: Oh! if only I had the implicit faith of the old women of Nishapur! Meaning: To live without having to go through the process of verification and application of moral rules, to live at once in the time of this world and the time of eternity. 

Picking up on this point, Katherine Lemons argues — in a post that’s part of a series on this trope — that the three key elements of the faith of the old women of Nishapur are: 

  • Time: “They live in a temporality of simultaneity where the eternal is ever-present in everyday life. Such simultaneity enables ethical action (that is, action oriented toward the Hereafter) without the need to weigh, to calculate, or to reason. Ethical action, that is, whose telos is immanent to it.” 
  • Indifference: “The temporality of the old women’s knowledge emerges from a faith for which doubt is an irrelevant category. It also gives rise to indifference in the face of scholarly knowledge…. Thus, [one] old woman was reportedly unimpressed by Fakhr al-Din Al-Razi’s one thousand proofs of God’s existence, inciting envy in the scholar. Asad’s mother was likewise [uninterested] in defending Islam or extolling its virtues and her ‘embodied religion did not offer itself to hermeneutic methods.’” 
  • Obstinacy: One old woman “lives with the hereafter and it informs her decisions, even when everything in worldly life hangs in the balance. Her certainty … allows her to exhibit obstinacy in the face of temporal power.” 

All this is reminiscent of what Rebecca West calls “idiocy” — something I have commended. It may also be related to another strategy I have commended, that of practicing silence, exile, and cunning. But I think I like these interlocking practices even more. I will have things to say about them in the future. I am always looking for resources to keep me committed to restoration and renewal while also protecting be from the always-present temptation of building fascist architecture of my own design

Barbara Graziosi:

Strong readings of the Iliad tend to focus on the final encounter between Achilles and Priam, and Achilles’ return of the body of Hector, Priam’s son, whom he has killed. To [Jasper] Griffin, that scene affirms the value of a human life in the face of death. To [James] Porter, it makes the Iliad a poem of war, not death: Homer, “however we understand the name,” reveals the inexplicable, violent loss of life, not just the finality of death. I agree with Porter, as it happens. But while Porter and Griffin engage in critical single combat, we may want to listen to how the Iliad actually ends. The last word does not belong to Priam or Achilles, but to the women of Troy. At the funeral of Hector, their ritual laments insist on one theme: their dependence on the deceased. He meant different things to each, we learn, but they all relied on him. This is a theme that Achilles, in his great wrath, has difficulty grasping. It is also a theme that, from the position of combative criticism, can escape attention. From the perspective of the women of Troy, however, it is painfully obvious that people can only flourish when they look after each other and, in shared ritual, take care of the dead.

Ross’s prediction and mine

Ross Douthat:

I will make a prediction: Within not too short a span of time, not only conservatives but most liberals will recognize that we have been running an experiment on trans-identifying youth without good or certain evidence, inspired by ideological motives rather than scientific rigor, in a way that future generations will regard as a grave medical-political scandal.

I think this prediction will partly, but not wholly, come true. I do believe that there will be a change of direction, but for the most part it will be a silent one, an unspoken course correction; and on the rare occasions that anyone is called to account for their recklessness, they’ll say, as a different group of enthusiasts did some decades ago, “We only did what we thought was best. We only believed the children.” But they won’t have to say it often, because the Ministry of Amnesia will perform its usual erasures; and even the children who have been sacrificed on the altar of their parents’ religion, metaphysical capitalism, may not recognize or remember what was done to them.

The same will be true of those who suffer the various derangements in what passes for the Right today. People will later briefly wonder at “all that happened to us, around us, and by us” — but then a notification will hit their phone and the wondering will cease. And the demonic realm will persist in its sleepless labor.

I’ll be back after Easter.

discounting the past

People on the left will typically be amazed and gratified by any good that has been achieved recently, and will treat any goods achieved by our ancestors as matters of course for which none of us need be grateful. Likewise, they are predisposed to see new developments as goods and are therefore unlikely to criticize them. 

People on the right will typically be obsessively horrified by any new wrong, and uninterested in wrongs that have been long embedded in our social order — indeed, they will be so predisposed to see new developments as ills that they may, by way of compensation, grow inclined to see old ills as positive goods. But even if they see the ancient wrongs for what they are, they won’t feel their seriousness; it’s the new wrongs that engage their emotions. 

In both cases, the looming power of the present moment distorts our judgment. Neophilia and neophobia alike occur because the present is so BIG that we can’t see around it; or because everything not-now seems small in comparison. 

In other words, just as there are social discount rates for the future, there are also social discount rates for the past. And in both cases, our media environment encourages stronger and stronger discounts as we move away from the present moment (something that remains true even when the media try to tell us about climate catastrophe). But because the future has not occurred and could take many forms, it remains fuzzy for us, whereas the past can be seen more clearly. So I think that if we want people to have a stronger regard for future — to discount it less heavily — then, paradoxically, we need to make people more attentive to the past, its errors and its achievements alike. 

neighbors and altruism

In my recent post on neighborliness, I quoted from a sermon by Helmut Thielicke, and I want to return to one passage from that sermon: 

Anybody who loves must always be prepared to have his plans interrupted. We must be ready to be surprised by tasks which God sets for us today. God is always compelling us to improvise. For God’s tasks always have about them something surprising and unexpected, and this imprisoned, wounded, distressed brother, in whom the Saviour meets us, is always turning up on our path just at the time when we are about to do something else, just when we are occupied with altogether different duties. God is always a God of surprises, not only in the way in which he helps us — for God’s help too always comes from unexpected directions — but also in the manner in which he confronts me with tasks to perform and sends people across my path. 

It strikes me that it is just this kind of surprise that the Effective altruism (EA) movement is determined to avoid. It’s a movement that puts givers in complete control: they rationally calculate how much to give and to whom, and are on principle unmoved by other considerations. 

My hero Paul Farmer used to say that as generous as WLs (White Liberals) can be, they tend to believe that the world can be repaired at no cost to themselves. If that’s true, then the difference between the WLs and the EAs is that the latter think the world can be repaired at no cost to themselves in anything other than money.

For an alternative model, I would suggest that everyone read this long and deeply moving story about an active, overflowing love that does not count costs — that gives all it has without calculation — that is wholly human-hearted


The epicenter of the EA movement seems to be in the Bay Area, and I wonder if that could be significant. If you are a very wealthy person who has to step over or around homeless people and drug addicts every day — or who at least has to hear regularly about your city’s crisis of homelessness and drug addiction — wouldn’t it be nice to have a Theory that explains why you don’t need to do anything about the problem? Maybe that’s too cynical, but I do wonder.

rules, consent, virtues

Leah Libresco Sargeant:

The search for the perfect rule or set of safety settings does remind me of Christine Emba’s Rethinking Sex. As she told me during our conversation, the modern culture around sex is marked by a broken promise. Many of her interviewees had a sense that, if you find the right rules, sex can only be good, and you and a stranger will never have to know each other or reveal yourselves to each other in order to feel good about what you do with each other. The rules (“two enthusiastically consenting adults”) will keep you safe.

But there’s no end run around character formation, and no checklist of consent items that lets us get around the fact that we are interacting with another human being, not a preference menu. 

Christine’s book sounds absolutely brilliant, and I very much look forward to reading it. Leah’s conversation with Christine — I know both of them, thus the first names — is fascinating also. Such vital voices! 

universal neighborliness

Re: my earlier post on an Ezra Klein column, I want to add that the universality of Christianity takes a very peculiar form, because it is a universality that also emphasizes neighborliness, a particular care for those who are nearby. Thus Matthew Loftus:

We cannot love “the whole world” except in abstraction, nor work for the mutual benefit of everyone in the same way that we can take care of our children or our sick neighbor. We must not fail in our duties to those close to us, even if our love ultimately does not stop there. Only by honoring the relationships that we have with others based on our common humanity and our common interchanges of trade and culture can we honor the God who created those people and places. Our local affections will have universal implications for how we use technology, farm the land, and execute trade. And in the global realm as well as the communal, love and sanity require limits.

I have forbidden the use of the EMR [Electronic Medical Records] in my mental health clinic at the hospital, at least for now. As I scribble my notes on paper, I look to the parent, sibling, child, or friend who has accompanied the patient to the clinic. When I ask how well the medications are working, sometimes the patient will say they are fine while their companion smiles and tells me the truth. Rarely do patients come alone; some friends or family members pay a day’s wages for an hour-long bus ride to the hospital to accompany their suffering loved one. I like to think that no one in our hospital suffers alone because the cultural ethos here forbids it. 

Please do read the whole thing. But this is key: “Our local affections will have universal implications.” And, conversely, our universal commitments will necessarily have local instantiations. 

I think Charles Dickens understood this paradox very well, as we see in the greatest of his novels, Bleak House. There we note Mrs. Jellyby practicing her “telescopic philanthropy” — meditating always on the suffering of the people of Borrioboola-Gha while utterly neglecting her own children — and the “business-like and systematic” charity of Mrs. Pardiggle. As Esther Summerson says, “Ada and I … thought that Mrs. Pardiggle would have got on infinitely better if she had not had such a mechanical way of taking possession of people.” When pressed by Mrs. Pardiggle to join in her “rounds,” Esther has a profound response (even if Mrs. P can’t grasp the import of it): 

At first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself. 

Words to live by, say I. And let me conclude with words still wiser, from Helmut Thielicke’s great sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan: 

You will never learn who Jesus Christ is by reflecting upon whether there is such a thing as sonship or virgin birth or miracle. Who Jesus Christ is you learn from your imprisoned, hungry, distressed brothers. For it is in them that he meets us. He is always in the depths. And we shall draw near to these brethren only if we open our eyes to see the misery around us. And we can open our eyes only when we love. But we cannot go and do and love, if we stop and ask first, “Who is my neighbor?” The devil has been waiting for us to ask this question; and he will always whisper into our ears only the most convenient answers. We human beings always fall for the easiest answers. No, we can love only if we have the mind of Jesus and turn the lawyer’s question around. Then we shall ask not “Who is my neighbor?” but “To whom am I a neighbor? Who is laid at my door? Who is expecting help from me and who looks upon me as his neighbor?” This reversal of the question is precisely the point of the parable.

Anybody who loves must always be prepared to have his plans interrupted. We must be ready to be surprised by tasks which God sets for us today. God is always compelling us to improvise. For God’s tasks always have about them something surprising and unexpected, and this imprisoned, wounded, distressed brother, in whom the Saviour meets us, is always turning up on our path just at the time when we are about to do something else, just when we are occupied with altogether different duties. God is always a God of surprises, not only in the way in which he helps us — for God’s help too always comes from unexpected directions — but also in the manner in which he confronts me with tasks to perform and sends people across my path. 

P.S. I meant to schedule this to post tomorrow – sorry for all the stuff in one day. If I don’t post anything for the next day or two, just read this post several times. It’ll do you good. 

Gary Saul Morson:

“You have Putin’s Russia and Pushkin’s Russia,” Krielaars observed. To blame a whole culture, past and present, for a current political action implies that everything about that culture contributed to that action. If Germany succumbed to the Nazis, don’t listen to Beethoven; because of Mussolini, cancel Dante and Raphael; if you reject American actions in Vietnam, the Middle East, or anywhere else, no more Thoreau or Emily Dickinson. Could there be a better way to encourage national hatred than to treat a whole culture and its history as a unified whole, carrying, as if genetically, a hideous quality? […]

If Russian history teaches anything, it is that such “moral clarity” has no limits. If all right is on one side, then anything — literally anything — one says or does is justified. Indeed, to stop short of the most extreme measures is to indulge evil, which means risking the charge of complicity. When Stalin sent local officials quotas of people to be arrested, they responded by demanding still higher quotas. It was the safest thing to do to prove one’s loyalty. No one ever secured his position by calling for less severity to enemies. When everything is black and white, sooner or later everyone is at risk.

civil heart, disinterested charity

Well, it was very odd what Mr. Sammler found himself doing as he lay in his room, in an old building. Settling, the building had cracked its plaster, and along these slanted cracks he had mentally inscribed certain propositions. According to one of these he, personally, stood apart from all developments. From a sense of deference, from age, from good manners, he sometimes affirmed himself to be out of it, hors d’usage, not a man of the times. No force of nature, nothing paradoxical or demonic, he had no drive for smashing through the masks of appearances. Not “Me and the Universe.” No, his personal idea was one of the human being conditioned by other human beings, and knowing that present arrangements were not, sub specie aeternitatis, the truth, but that one should be satisfied with such truth as one could get by approximation. Trying to live with a civil heart. With disinterested charity. With a sense of the mystic potency of humankind. With an inclination to believe in archetypes of goodness. A desire for virtue was no accident.

New worlds? Fresh beginnings? Not such a simple matter. (Sammler, reaching for diversion.) What did Captain Nemo do in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? He sat in the submarine, the Nautilus, and on the ocean floor he played Bach and Handel on the organ. Good stuff, but old. And what of Wells’ Time Traveler, when he found himself thousands of years in the future? He fell in square love with a beautiful Eloi maiden. To take with one, whether down into the depths or out into space and time, something dear, and to preserve it — that seemed to be the impulse. Jules Verne was quite right to have Handel on the ocean floor, not Wagner, though in Verne’s day Wagner was avant-garde among the symbolists, fusing word and sound. According to Nietzsche the Germans, insufferably oppressed by being German, used Wagner like hashish. To Mr. Sammler’s ears, Wagner was background music for a pogrom. And what should one have on the moon, electronic compositions? Mr. Sammler would advise against that. Art groveling before Science.

— Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet

Injured Parties

I have an essay in the new Hedgehog Review — behind a paywall, but shouldn’t you subscribe? Yes indeed you should. The essay is called “Injured Parties,” and it begins thus:

In 1923, the American movie star Dorothy Davenport lost her husband, the actor and director Wallace Reid, to an early death resulting from complications of morphine addiction. After the tragedy, Davenport took up the job — an unusual one for a woman in Hollywood in that era — of film producer. Starting with Human Wreckage, a movie about the dangers of drug addiction that appeared just months after Reid’s death, Mrs. Wallace Reid, as she now called herself, oversaw a series of films on pressing social issues. For instance, the third one she produced, and which she personally introduced in a prologue, The Red Kimono (1925), portrays the dark personal and social consequences of prostitution.

All of Davenport’s moral-crusading films were popular, but also controversial: Some were banned by the British Board of Film Censors and by the guardians of public morals in many American cities. The Red Kimono had other problems, though, problems related to one Gabrielle Darley. Darley was a young woman who in the second decade of the twentieth century had worked as a prostitute in Arizona for a pimp named Leonard Tropp. She fell in love with him and they moved to Los Angeles, where she gave him money to buy a wedding ring — for herself, she thought, but in fact Tropp planned to marry another woman. When Darley discovered this, she shot Tropp dead. In 1918, she was put on trial for murder, but had the great good fortune of being represented by an exceptionally eloquent defense attorney named Earl Rogers — a close friend of William Randolph Hearst — who presented her as having been, before meeting Tropp, “as pure as the snow atop Mount Wilson.” The jury couldn’t get enough of this kind of thing and enthusiastically acquitted Darley.

One of the journalists covering the trial was Rogers’s daughter, Adela Rogers St. Johns, who was already well on her way to earning her unofficial title as “World’s Greatest Girl Reporter.” (For many years she worked for Hearst newspapers, and may have reached the height of her fame in her reporting on the 1935 trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for kidnapping and murdering the young son of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.) She wrote a short story, based on the trial, called “The Red Kimono.” It caught the attention of Dorothy Davenport, who immediately commissioned a screenplay and started filming. The name she chose for the film’s protagonist? Gabrielle Darley. 

I describe Darley’s claim to having been defamed by the film — to being injured reputationally — and the ultimate decision of the Supreme Court of California in her favor. 

From there I go on to explore the meaning of defamation and how it has changed over time, with a particular focus on the early modern period, during which, as I learned from reading that wonderful scholar Debora Shuger, defamation was very differently understood. I indulge my suspicion that we — immured in a social-media environment for which defamation is more or less the coin of the realm — might have a few things to learn from that era, and also from Erving Goffman. Yeah, I know it sounds weird, but trust me, it all holds together. I think. Ultimately I am trying to imagine charity as both a legal and a social concept. The point of the essay is not to settle any current issues but rather, by looking into the past, to discover alternative and superior moral vocabularies with which to address our disagreements. 

Subscribe and read, please! 

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, from Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away

Socrates was probably the first to identify aretē with what is — in terms of a person’s moral makeup or moral character — analogous to the health in that person’s body. A person doesn’t have to be recognized as healthy in order to be healthy, and so it is with Plato’s Socrates’ aretē. In the myth of the Ring of Gyges, presented in the Republic, Plato argues that even if a person could get away with all manner of wrongdoing while maintaining a good reputation because of a magic ring that renders him invisible, still he should not do any of these awful things, since by destroying his aretē the man will destroy himself. Aretē then is entirely independent of social regard. And in the Gorgias, Socrates is presented as asserting something so radical that his hearers think it has to be a joke. He would, he says, rather be treated unjustly than treat others unjustly (469c). But if aretē is conceived of as analogous to the health of the body, then Socrates’ statement is hardly absurd. The injustice that we do involves us far more intimately than the injustice that we suffer.

Martha C. Nussbaum:

Behind these biases lies a more general failing, which the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal calls “anthropodenial”: the denial that we are animals of a certain type (the anthropoid type), and the tendency to imagine ourselves, instead, as pure spirits, “barely connected to biology.” This mistaken way of thinking has a long history in most human cultures; it remains stubbornly lodged in people’s psyches even when they think they are examining the evidence fairly. Anthropodenial has led, until recently, to a reluctance to credit research findings that show that animals use tools, solve problems, communicate through complex systems, interact socially with intricate forms of organization, and even have emotions such as fear, grief, and envy. (This is a bait-and-switch: emotions have long been denigrated on the grounds that they are not pure spirit, and yet humans also want to claim a monopoly on what they despise.)

A fascinating and provocative essay on several levels. 


Juliette Kayyem, who among other things is a security consultant:

But what if the essence of a place is that it is defenseless? What if its ability to welcome others, to be hospitable to strangers, is its identity? What if vulnerability is its unstated mission? That is the challenge I hadn’t considered….

In security, we view vulnerabilities as inherently bad. We solve the problem with layered defenses: more locks, more surveillance. Deprive strangers of access to your temple, I urged the committee members [at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh], and have congregants carry ID. They would have none of it. Access was a vulnerability embedded in the institution, and no security expert could change that — we do logistics, not souls.

The standoff in Colleyville ended with the attacker dead and the hostages unharmed. But all around the country, synagogues are no doubt convening their security committees, wondering what more they can do to defend their members without losing their essential vulnerability. A synagogue is not like an airport or a stadium. When it becomes a fortress, something immeasurable is lost.

formation and martyrdom

Continuing here to lay the groundwork for future reflection, opening questions rather than answering them….

Lately I have been musing over something the great Fleming Rutledge wrote a month or so ago: “I don’t like the word ‘practices.’ We have a mighty, implacable, shape-shifting Enemy so we need strategies.”

I agree with this emphasis wholly, except … what if the central practices of the Christian faith themselves constitute a strategy, indeed are the essential strategy? Mightn’t those practices be like the ones that Daniel learns from Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid – seemingly pointless or trivial habits and skills that turn out to be the most important ones to have in a time of great need?

I think this is the point that Lessle Newbigin makes in that essential book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society:

Because Jesus has met and mastered the powers that enslave the world, because he now sits at God’s right hand, and because there has been given to those who believe the gift of a real foretaste, pledge, arrabōn of the kingdom, namely the mighty Spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity, therefore this new reality, this new presence creates a moment of crisis wherever it appears. It provokes questions which call for an answer and which, if the true answer is not accepted, lead to false answers. This happens where there is a community whose members are deeply rooted in Christ as their absolute Lord and Savior. Where there is such a community, there will be a challenge by word and behavior to the ruling powers. As a result there will be conflict and suffering for the Church. Out of that conflict and suffering will arise the questioning which the world puts to the Church. This is why St. Paul in his letters does not find it necessary to urge his readers to be active in evangelism but does find it necessary to warn them against any compromise with the rulers of this age. That is why it was not superiority of the Church’s preaching which finally disarmed the Roman imperial power, but the faithfulness of its martyrs.

The question then is: How to form Christians in such a way that they are capable of undergoing martyrdom? (In any of its forms: red, green, or white.)

I am convinced that this is indeed a matter of cultivating the proper practices – which include words and deeds alike, by the way, or rather speech and writing understood as deeds: as Newbigin goes on to say, the fact that the witness of the martyrs was so exceptionally powerful does not abrogate the need for faithful preaching – indeed, faithful preaching was surely one of the means by which the martyrs were formed: “The central reality is neither word nor act, but the total life of a community enabled by the Spirit to live in Christ, sharing his passion and the power of his resurrection. Both the words and the acts of that community may at any time provide the occasion through which the living Christ challenges the ruling powers. Sometimes it is a word that pierces through layers of custom and opens up a new vision. Sometimes it is a deed which shakes a whole traditional plausibility structure. They mutually reinforce and interpret one another. The words explain the deeds, and the deeds validate the words.”

Preaching and praise, fasting and penitence, reading and serving – all are core practices of the Church. But as Lauren Winner has convincingly and troublingly argued, that may be more complicated than it sounds. More on the difficulties in a later post, I suspect.


In his great essay “Literature as Equipment for Living,” Kenneth Burke argues that proverbs may be described as a kind of purposeful realism (my phrase, not his):

Here there is no “realism for its own sake.” There is realism for promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling, instruction, charting, all for the direct bearing that such acts have upon matters of welfare.

Then Burke suggests: What happens if we think of all literature that way? “Proverbs are strategies for dealing with situations” – maybe all works of literary art do the same, just in different and more complex ways. If so, you need sociological categories for thinking about literature:

What would such sociological categories be like? They would consider works of art, I think, as strategies for selecting enemies and allies, for socializing losses, for warding off evil eye, for purification, propitiation, and desanctification, consolation and vengeance, admonition and exhortation, implicit commands or instructions of one sort or another. Art forms like “tragedy” or “comedy” or “satire” would be treated as equipment for living, that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes. The typical ingredients of such forms would be sought. Their relation to typical situations would be stressed. Their comparative values would be considered, with the intention of formulating a “strategy of strategies,” the “over-all” strategy obtained by inspection of the lot.

What Burke calls “the ‘over-all’ strategy” might be a synonym for the “general theory” I described, with reservations, in a recent post. But let’s set that aside for now, and think about equipment.

In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes,

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

This is an astonishingly rich passage, but let’s begin exploring it by looking at one phrase: “to equip the saints.” The relevant word there, katartismon (καταρτισμὸν), appears in this one biblical location only, but it’s related to a whole complex of words that are dispersed throughout the letters of the New Testament. You’ll probably recognize the two parts: kat (down) and artisimon (shaped, formed, adjusted). The meaning is “adjusted just so” or “shaped just right” – which is why you sometimes see it translated “perfected,” though I don’t prefer that meaning. Throughout ancient Greek you see versions of this concept:

  • ἐναραρίσκω (to fit or fasten in, to be fitted in)
  • ἐπαραρίσκω (to fit to or upon, fasten to, to fit tight or exactly)
  • προσαραρίσκω (to fit to, to be fitted to, firmly fitted)
  • συναραρίσκω (to join together, to hang together)

The core idea is that of good workmanship, of something well-crafted. Closely related (thematically though not etymologically) is a passage from earlier in the letter to the Ephesians in which Paul says that we are the craftwork of God – esmen poiēma ktisthentes en Christō lēsou epi ergois agathoispoems made in Christ Jesus for good works.

The particular craft that seems to be contextually lurking behind all these terms is carpentry, and more specifically joinery – making the joints snug and tight and the surfaces smooth, so that the work thus crafted will hold together when it’s stressed or buffeted. That said, in the long passage quoted above Paul moves easily from the image of a well-made case to the image of a well-knitted body – because a body, being organic, will be not just soundly made but also capable of increasingly varied and challenging actions. A healthy body is more capable and adaptable than a well-crafted case because it can grow in size and strength, and improve in dexterity. (A body as old and decrepit as mine can still learn a new trick or two; even now I can through exercise increase not just my muscular power but even the density and strength of my bones.)

Still, it’s impossible not to remember that the art or craft in which the young Jesus was trained was that of a builder, a tekton.

To be equipped, then, in Paul’s sense, is not a matter of “the things we carry” but rather the formation we have undergone. (The German word Bildung doesn’t refer to building, rather to imaging — Bild means image — but the correspondence of the two words is a lovely accident.) Christian formation is equipment not in the sense of having the right tools but rather of being properly built, which means, chiefly, having the right habits – but no: the right habitus. The whole panoply of customary actions and perceptions located in one’s body, and one’s mind, and one’s social surround. (My brothers and sisters in Christ are part of my habitus.)

To return to Kenneth Burke: What if we were to think of literature and the other arts as a kind of repository of habitus, a motley collection of practices and strategies? “Motley” because we can never adopt them simply and straightforwardly – we have to accept the inevitability of bricolage. But still: experiences not just to admire or appreciate but to use. Edward Mendelson’s idea of “literature as a special form of intimacy” seems relevant here – literature, and the other arts, as equipment for living, equipment shared by fallen mortals, thinking reeds, puzzled people in the process of being formed. An improvised sociology for wayfarers.

the cross-pressured self

In a key passage of A Secular Age, Charles Taylor writes: 

Although we respond to it very differently, everyone understands the complaint that our disenchanted world lacks meaning, that in this world, particularly youth suffer from a lack of strong purposes in their lives, and so on. This is, after all a remarkable fact. You couldn’t even have explained this problem to people in Luther’s age. What worried them was, if anything, an excess of “meaning”, the sense of one over-bearing issue — am I saved or damned? — which wouldn’t leave them alone. One can hear all sorts of complaints about “the present age” throughout history: that it is fickle, full of vice and disorder, lacking in greatness or high deeds, full of blasphemy and viciousness. But what you won’t hear at other times and places is one of the commonplaces of our day (right or wrong, that is beside my point), that our age suffers from a threatened loss of meaning. This malaise is specific to a buffered identity, whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won’t “get to” it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it.

There was indeed, a predecessor condition with some analogies to this one, and that was “melancholy” or “acedia”. But this was, of course, enframed very differently. It was a specific condition, one might say, a spiritual pathology of the agent himself; it said nothing at all about the nature of things. It cast no doubt on the ontic grounding of meaning. But this ontic doubt about meaning itself is integral to the modern malaise….

Meanwhile, this malaise, and other similar ones, speak to the condition of the buffered identity. This condition is defined by a kind of cross-pressure: a deep embedding in this identity, and its relative invulnerability to anything beyond the human world, while at the same time a sense that something may be occluded in the very closure which guarantees this safety. This is one source … of the nova effect; it pushes us to explore and try out new solutions, new formulae. 

A very basic traditional Christian account of the cross-pressured self would probably look something like this: 


But of course a “very basic” account is not what we need. And this is where literature and the other arts come in. Great works of art offer non-schematic, finely-grained accounts of how people navigate these cross-pressures. (A phrase that Martha Nussbaum borrows from Henry James, “finely aware and richly responsible,” seems apropos here.) Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Auden, Pynchon, Percy, Bach, Caravaggio, Vermeer, and many others — these artists collectively shape my understanding of (a) the complexity of the cross-pressuring forces and (b) the multifarious ways we humans respond to those forces. 

Such complexity and multifariousness make me wonder whether we can ever come up with a valid general account of the Cross-Pressured Self. And yet we need one … I think.  

I’ve written before about the value of moderation in consistency, of the need when cross-pressured by countering winds to tack back and forth. Similarly, there’s the need, when trying to understand one’s world, to alternate between specificity and generality. I do a lot better with specificity, because I have seen the ways that the embrace of a Big Theory tends to shut down people’s minds. But lately I have been feeling the absence, in my thinking, of a more general account of who we are, how we got here, and how we might navigate the prevailing winds of the future. 

Or is that feeling merely a temptation? — Is the “general account” rather a snare and a delusion? Last month I had a stimulating conversation with Tal Brewer, a philosopher at UVA, in which Tal made the point that practical rationality is not a matter of calculating the means to a given end but rather acting in such a way as to instantiate that end right now, as best you can. (I think he explores the distinction, which is largely a distinction between a Kantian and an Aristotelian model, in this essay, but I haven’t yet acquired and read it.) I like that idea in part because it resonates with my understanding of Daoism. Daoism is big on doing the immediate right thing — and thus, in turn, rhymes with biblical ethics, focused as it is on obeying God (i.e., following Jesus) this day, and being held by God this day. Which is the special focus of Franciscan spirituality, and as I have said before, St. Francis is a kind of Jesus-loving Daoist sage. 

So maybe a “general account” is not what is needed so much as equipment for acting wisely and lovingly — in a Christlike way — this day. A Franciscan-Daoist ethic for a surveillance-capitalist hate-media world. What that might look like is something I plan to think about a lot in the coming year. Please stay tuned.  

There will be more soon on the specific notion of “equipment.” 

Weil and justice

Jacqueline Rose:

As Zaretsky points out, there is no one thread running through [Simone Weil’s] writings, a difficulty he responds to by picking out the five themes he considers most representative of her thought: affliction, attention, resistance, roots, and “the good, the bad, and the godly” (the last referring to her version of mysticism, in which spiritual apprehension was the one true source of a viable ethical life). This has the advantage of focus but, as he is aware, compartmentalizes her ideas, creating distinctions and separations whereas, more often than not, her concepts slide into and out of one another in a sometimes creative, sometimes tortured amalgam or blur…. Nonetheless, the absence of “justice” from the list strikes me as a strange omission in what I read for the most part as an informative and attentive book. Weil’s heart was set on justice. It was her refrain. A recurring principle in pretty much every stage of her writing from start to finish, the concept of justice renders futile any attempt — though many have tried — to separate Weil the mystic from Weil the activist, or Weil the lover of God from Weil the factory worker, who felt that the only way to understand the wrongs of the modern world was to share the brute indignities of manual labor, which reduced women and men to cogs in the machines they slaved for.

In a sense this is clearly true, and yet … it is odd how rarely Weil uses the word. It turns up occasionally but (to my recollection anyway) is never emphasized. She is much more likely to speak of “the needs of the soul,” the “obligations” we have to meet those needs when we see them in others, the affliction (malheur) that people experience when deprived of their most elementary needs. I think “justice” is too abstract a term for her, too denuded of relational human context, too bloodless.

And if I am right about this, then Weil by avoiding the language of justice makes an important point about how impoverished our usual understanding of justice is. It’s common today to think of justice (or the word that now often replaces it, “equity”) as a condition, a state of affairs, whereas Weil — despite the shocking anti-semitism that defaces her character, something I write about at some length in The Year of Our Lord 1943 — is clearly profoundly influenced by the Jewish understanding of justice (tzedek) and charity (tzedakah) as commandments. One must act justly and charitably. Similarly, in New Testament Greek dikaiosuné may be translated as “justice” but also as “righteousness” — a virtue, a divine virtue.

(It’s interesting that in common parlance today “equity” is treated as a synonym for justice, and is implicitly or explicitly contrasted with equality, which while giving the appearance of justice may in fact, so the argument goes, be a means of denying justice. In ancient Greek, equity [epieíkeia] is typically seen as a kind of moderation of the demands of justice [dikē] — in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says we need equity to judge individual cases rightly, because all laws are defective insofar as they are, necessarily, general and therefore not ideally matched to every individual case. In New Testament Greek to be epieikés is to exhibit mildness, gentleness. Paul instructs the Philippians to “Let your moderation [epieikés] be known unto all men.”)

So maybe there are reasons why Weil doesn’t often speak of justice, but rather of our obligations, and the virtues or dispositions that make it possible to carry out those obligations; also of the guilt we ought to feel when we do not offer to people what they are owed — when we fail those who suffer. All of this is miles and miles away from how people speak of justice and equity today.

Rose 2 011322 jpg

One of Simone Weil’s notebooks, in the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris


This is related, in a way, to my previous post: After reading yet another invitation-disinvitation story, I think every university should – in the interests of full disclosure, honesty, and charity – prepare a list of Topics On Which Dissent Is Not Permitted and send that list to everyone who is invited to speak. That way prospective lecturers will know in advance whether they hold views that are not tolerated at those universities and can decline the invitation immediately rather than having to be canceled later on.


For more than 20 years now, I’ve been writing occasionally on the theme of motives, always making the same points:

  1. Because, as Rebecca West famously said, “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive,” it’s very hard to tell what anyone’s truly dominant motives are;
  2. What people actually do is more important than what you think their motives are;
  3. There’s no reason to think you can understand the motives of others if you don’t have a firm grasp on your own.

I was thinking about that third point especially last night while listening to the most recent episode of FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast. The hosts prided themselves on looking into the motives of the people who make polls, but it never occurred to them that their own project might be motivated also.

Some writers in the so-called “rationalist community” will preface their posts or essays with some statement of “confidence interval” or “epistemic status” – Scott Alexander does this, for example. I think everyone who writes about the motives of others should append to their discourse a “personal motive estimation” – an account of what they believe their own motives to be. In the spirit of full disclosure.

Christians and the biopolitical

Matthew Loftus:

Christians must develop and encourage practices of suffering that accompany those in pain, like Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross during Christ’s passion. The ethical imperatives of the Church are only intelligible to a watching world to the degree that Christians are willing to walk alongside those who suffer and bear their pain with them. Without these practices of accompaniment, Christian moral teaching about issues like abortion or assisted reproductive technology is a cold set of rules enforced by people who have the privilege of not having to bear their cost. It is through these experiences — and not just experiences with those who forsake an accessible but immoral technological intervention, but also accompaniment with the poor, the imprisoned, and those whose suffering cannot be relieved by any human means — that Christians are able to experience growth through suffering and acquire the perspective from below that shapes their advocacy for those who need the work-towards-shalom the most. 

A powerful essay. 

The themes of that essay do not immediately seem directly related to the themes of this interview with Loftus, but I think they are. Responding to claims by some doctors that we should ration Covid care to favor the vaccinated and disfavor the unvaccinated, Loftus, himself a physician, says, 

I think it is a matter of justice not to ration care away from the unvaccinated, because to do so, I think, is to pass a judgment on someone’s other personal health decisions that we would never apply in any other case. All health care is a mixture of trying to provide justice while also being merciful to others. It’s impossible to be a good health-care worker and not be willing to be merciful with people who, quite frankly, got themselves into the trouble that they’re in and had many opportunities not to do so. But it’s also a matter of justice in giving that person what they need to survive or, if not to survive, to die in a way that honors the person they are. 

Loftus is pointing here to a version of what Scott Alexander, in one of the more useful ethical essays I have read in the past decade, calls “isolated demands for rigor.” When doctors treat people for health problems that arise from obesity, they don’t withhold care until they learn whether those people have some kind of genetic predisposition to obesity or are fat because they eat at McDonald’s every day — they just treat the patients. Oncologists don’t give better treatment to lung cancer patients who smoke less or don’t smoke at all. We only think to subject the unvaccinated-against-Covid to that kind of strict scrutiny because the discourse around Covid has become so pathologically tribalized and moralized. 

But Christians in particular have a very strong reason not to employ such strict scrutiny: We believe in a God who sought out and saved “people who, quite frankly, got themselves into the trouble that they’re in.” In an earlier reflection on this general subject, I mentioned Eve Tushnet’s wise comment that “mercy to the guilty is the only kind of mercy there is.” The rationing of medical care away from the unvaccinated is structural mercilessness. It is anti-shalom


David French:

A conservative doctor recently told me that after January 6th he “unplugged.” He stopped watching cable news. He stopped listening to talk radio. And lest he be tempted to engage in political arguments online, he deleted social media apps from his phone. He described the change as wholly positive for his life. He was happier, and his blood pressure was lower.

I had two immediate thoughts. Good for him. Bad for us. Here’s a good man who has good things to say who simply decided, “It’s not worth it.” No, not because anyone could cancel him. (He has a thriving independent practice). But because speaking his mind carried with it an unacceptable emotional cost.

As my friend Russell Moore put it in a recent newsletter, “What then ends up happening is a kind of self-cancel culture as the emotionally and spiritually healthiest people mute themselves in order to go about their lives and not deal with the pressure from those for whom these arguments are their lives.”

I hear what David and Russell are saying here, but I think there is an important unacknowledged assumption in their comments: that these emotionally and spiritually healthy people would bring their health to social media — that they would somehow change Twitter, say, without themselves being changed in the process. But as I said a few years ago, “I left Twitter because I watched people who spent a lot of time on Twitter get stupider and stupider, and it finally occurred to me that I was probably getting stupider too. And after some reflection I decided that I couldn’t afford to get any stupider.” And I could have noted not just Twitter users’ increase in stupidity over time but also their corresponding decrease in charity.

I think when we decide whether or not to invest time on a social media platform, we need to ask Michael Sacasas’s questions about technology, some of which are:

  1. What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?
  2. What habits will the use of this technology instill?
  3. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of time?
  4. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of place?
  5. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?
  6. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to the world around me?
  7. What practices will the use of this technology cultivate?
  8. What practices will the use of this technology displace?
  9. What will the use of this technology encourage me to notice?
  10. What will the use of this technology encourage me to ignore?

When we use technologies, those technologies change us, for the better or worse — or, sometimes, both at once. And often they change us because the people who make them want us to be a particular kind of person — the kind of person they can monetize. The kind of person on whom they can be parasitic, for their own financial benefit. Once more with feeling: social media companies need engagement, and hatred creates engagement like nothing else, so the regular Two Minutes Hate on Twitter and the incessant “hate raids” on Twitch are, for those companies, features rather than bugs. I’m sure that if they saw an easy way to get engagement solely from peace, love, and understanding, they’d intervene, but if hate gets engagement, and we can sell ads against engagement? — Then bring on the hate!

You think you can resist those technological affordances, simply decline to become the kind of person the social media companies want you to be? Maybe you can. But the Greeks called that kind of confidence hubris, and understood that what follows hubris is Nemesis.

We have countless ways to communicate with one another that do not involve the big social media companies. Let’s use them!


Sarah Perry is trying to be good: she trained as a vaccinator, sought to help. But being good is hard, and there is a lot of anger about. 

This is not to say that we should simply abdicate – toss away the mask, fill our homes with plastic – only to warn against resting easy in our own virtue, assuming malignancy and folly on the part of others. Recently, it has seemed to me that nothing said or done is personal: it is all abstract, representational, showing the colours of a fixed character and tribe. So a man, once wrong, is wrong for ever. He cannot apologise and alter, since that would be nothing but hypocrisy, and he must remain always beyond redemption. This assumption of bad faith has poisoned the public discourse, and caused such deep entrenchment of opposed positions that nobody can hope to see the land. A trench is a comfortable place when the battle’s on, bolstered about by those assuring us of our virtue, and agreeing the unseen enemy is incomprehensibly wicked – certainly I prefer it myself. To take a wider view – to sit, as they say, up on a high horse – is troubling, because here we see the territory, and not the map. From such a vantage we may find our own motives are ignoble, or our position not as wise as we thought, and are available to be shot at from all points. This is a position demanding a kind of subtlety that risks endearing you to nobody – yes, you may say, it is deplorable to protect the economy above lives, but then again a severe and lasting depression may be counted not in pounds and pence, but in vertiginous rises in homelessness, drug dependence, sickness and suicide. Certainly, this is not the flu, but there may come a time when it is something like it; yes, we have to learn to live with it, and there is no life without the risk of death, but living with it may consist of universal basic income, and affordable housing, and so on. Who’d risk expulsion from the trench with these slow negotiations? I blame no one for preferring the sandbags.

orbital obliquity

SciTech Daily:

Planets which are tilted on their axis, like Earth, are more capable of evolving complex life. This finding will help scientists refine the search for more advanced life on exoplanets. […]  

“The most interesting result came when we modeled ‘orbital obliquity’ — in other words how the planet tilts as it circles around its star,” explained Megan Barnett, a University of Chicago graduate student involved with the study. She continued, “Greater tilting increased photosynthetic oxygen production in the ocean in our model, in part by increasing the efficiency with which biological ingredients are recycled. The effect was similar to doubling the amount of nutrients that sustain life.” 

“Orbital obliquity” is one of those scientific terms — like “persistence of vision” and “angle of repose” — that just cries out for metaphorical application.

All of the writers and thinkers I trust most are characterized by orbital obliquity. They are never quite perpendicular; they approach the world at a slight angle. As a result their minds evolve complex life. 

P.S. Another of those metaphor-generating terms: “impact gardening.” 

three characters in search of forgiveness

In his online notebook, my friend Adam Roberts is reflecting on a certain kind of fictional character, the Murderbot kind, the Winter Soldier kind, and reflecting also on a certain intensity of fascination with them. I have to say that I’m not totally sure I understand Adam’s account, but if I do understand it I don’t think I agree with his conclusion. That is, I don’t think people who stan for Murderbot and Bucky Barnes are associating their own sins with those of the characters. I think they’re trying out a little thought experiment to answer a question: Under what conditions might forgiveness of great sin be possible?

And I think this is an important question because, as I never tire of saying, our society “retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.” In my reading, the interest of characters like Murderbot and Bucky is that their stories outline the conditions for forgiveness, which may be stated briefly thus: You may be forgiven for something if you can show that it wasn’t really done by you. When Murderbot killed 57 people, it did so under commands it could not have overriden; ditto with all the killing that Bucky did. You have to be able to redefine yourself not as acting but as acted-upon.

Here’s another fictional character who fits this description: Hamlet. When in Act V he confronts Laertes — Laertes who is hot for vengeance because this man murdered his father and drove his sister to insanity and perhaps suicide — he has a story for him:

Give me your pardon, sir: I’ve done you wrong;
But pardon’t, as you are a gentleman.
This presence knows,
And you must needs have heard, how I am punish’d
With sore distraction. What I have done,
That might your nature, honour and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness: if’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.

That is, Laertes should pardon Hamlet precisely because Hamlet has done nothing that requires pardoning. His will was overriden by his madness. Like Murderbot programmed by nasty human beings, and Bucky Barnes re-programmed by Communists, Hamlet has had his executive center taken over, in his case by madness. Therefore: “poor Hamlet.” Not “Poor Polonius” or “Poor Opehlia” — poor Hamlet. He’s the real victim here.

So, four hundred years avant la lettre, those are the circumstances in which our culture can most easily imagine forgiving people: When they can spin the story, accurately or inaccurately, to cast themselves as victimized. But if they can achieve that, then they can be forgiven anything.

What happens, though, to those of us who performed our wrong while in our right minds?

UPDATE 2021–04–28: My friend Leah Libresco points to this excellent and extremely relevant essay by Eve Tushnet

If someone genuinely did not choose to do wrong then compassion for that person isn’t mercy — it’s justice. And conversely, if you can only have compassion on someone if you believe she did not choose her misdeeds, then you’ve defined mercy out of existence. You’re not forgiving — you’re saying there was never anything to forgive.

And I think this narrative, in which addiction destroys the will, exists precisely because we don’t trust others to have mercy on us or on those we love. A lot of people get jumpy when conservatives start talking about “personal responsibility” not because they think it’s awesome to be a self-centered overgrown infant, but because they think “personal responsibility” is code for a) conflating all forms of personal failure — mistakes, bad luck, a bad hand dealt at birth, inability to overcome massive societal injustice, misunderstandings, petty idiocy, and grave sin; and then b) punishing personal failure with contempt and cruelty.

Adam Smith had this cute little tagline, which I admit I am taking out of context, “Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.” Now first of all, mercy to the guilty is the only kind of mercy there is, see above for details. But we might also add, “Cruelty to the guilty creates pressure to declare everybody innocent.”

three lessons

I’ve known Erin Kissane virtually for around a decade now — our IRL paths almost crossed a few years ago when she was still living in New York City and I gave a talk at Vassar, but that’s as close as we’ve come — and I have always had enormous admiration for her kind heart and steel spine. I was reminded of that admiration when I read her summing-up post for her year as the managing editor of the Covid Tracking Project. I strongly encourage you to read it all, and pay particular attention to these three sentences:

I suspect that intentional constraints on scope and scale allow for deeper, more satisfying, and ultimately more useful work. I suspect that a disciplined commitment to messy truths over smooth narratives would also breathe life into technology, journalism, and public health efforts that too frequently paper over the complex, many-voiced nature of the world. And I suspect that treating people like humans who are intrinsically motivated to do useful work in the world, and who deserve genuine care, allows far more people to do their best work without destroying themselves in the process.

I would love to see more institutions, whether in crisis time or in “normal” time, think long and hard about those three lessons, so beautifully articulated by Erin. Now I hope she can get some rest!

This by Oliver Burkeman is exactly right:

The confused public conversation about [Jordan] Peterson arises, if you ask me, from the fact that there are two main kinds of suffering. There is the kind that results from power disparities between groups: racism, sexism, economic inequality. Then there is the universal kind that comes with being a finite human, faced with a limited lifespan, the inevitability of death, the unavoidability of grief and regret, the inability to control the present or predict the future and the impossibility of ever fully knowing even those to whom we’re closest. Modern progressives rightly focus much energy on the first kind of suffering. But we increasingly talk as if the second kind barely counts, or doesn’t even exist – as if everything that truly matters were ultimately political. Peterson, by contrast, takes the second sort of suffering very seriously indeed.


IMG 0206

I wrote a post about love and death.

UPDATE: A helpful comment from my friend Tim Larsen about people  who think as Ezekiel Emanuel does: “They also don’t seem to mention that an awful lot of people have worked very hard, quite unpleasant jobs their whole ‘active’ lives and have earned a bit of play and rest.  Maybe if your career is being a cultural critic you think it would be a step down to give it up to play shuffleboard or dominos, but if you cleaned hotel rooms for 47 years, it presumably looks rather different.”

a time of reckoning

This essay by my dear friend James Davison Hunter is absolutely essential for our moment:

It is important to remember that times of crisis are always times of reckoning. Whether one admires [MLK] or agrees with his politics is not the question. In his day, public opinion was overwhelmingly against him, and even against today’s idealized and sanitized version of King, there are those who disparage the man and his achievements. The question, rather, is whether we have the requisite moral resources to reckon with our nation’s internal flaws and external challenges. King modeled a disposition, a voice, and a moral authority that could credibly compel such a reckoning in his own day, but in ways that made it possible for opponents to imagine a way forward together.

Although incomplete, his life and witness, his words and deeds, brought about constructive change in large measure because they were grounded in metaphysical and theological sources that transcended tribalized identities, prejudices, and shibboleths. King’s critique of America was radical, more radical than many today remember. But so too was his humanism. Dissent and solidarity were welded together — and could coexist precisely because they came from the same place. Both were rooted in an equally radical theological anthropology that demanded justice, refused ideological purity tests, and recognized the yearnings, fears, flaws, weaknesses, capacities, and aspirations that all human beings share — and, finally, obliged each of us to forgive our foes.

The particular moral resources that animated King and the clergy that surrounded him are certainly less available to us today. Their renewal is not impossible, but it is far from likely. But this only heightens the urgency of the question: What moral resources are available to us to come to terms with the crises we face?

That last question is the essential one. If you’re not meditating right now on your answer to it, you’re not serious about the challenge that faces us. James’s essay points us in the right direction. I am so grateful for his work and his witness. 


Dostoevsky’s Demons is often read as a denunciation of a spineless liberalism that makes way for a nihilistic radicalism. But the fundamental problem with Stepan Verkhovensky, the father of the revolutionary Pyotr Verkhovensky, is not that he’s a naïve liberal — though in fact he is that. No, what Dostoevsky ruthlessly exposes is the sheer effete frivolity of Stepan Trofimovich and people like him. Stepan Trofimovich loves playing at being a dangerous figure: pretending to explore radical ideas, enjoying his sense of himself as a fearless intellectual unrestrained by convention and tradition. He delights in the pretense because he has the serene confidence that it’s all a game: No one would ever take such ideas seriously, the existing social order could never be disrupted, his peace and comfort would remain untouchable. And the little frisson of self-delight at saying something risqué would always be available to him.



That’s Senator Josh Hawley this morning expressing his solidarity with the crowd that would soon storm the Capitol building, trash it, and parade around inside it with Confederate flags. (Yes, they’re patriots all right — but of what patria?) I’m sure he never saw it coming. Nor did my own Senator Ted Cruz. It was all a game to these senators, an enjoyable and rewarding game, to connive at the frothing-at-the-mouth rage of the Trumpistanis, to cheer them on, to pose as their advocates and spokesmen. What harm could come of it?

Trump, he loves this. He loves the bile, the wrath, the mockery. It’s a well-done steak to him, with extra ketchup. But Hawley and Cruz? I bet they are befuddled and mystified. How could it possibly have come to this? They are, then, our own Stepan Trofimoviches. It was all a game to them, until it wasn’t. They are, like him, utterly frivolous. If they had any dignity, any moral backbone, they would resign their offices. But the very frivolity that led them, and us, to this pass is the vice that will prevent them from acting honorably. I hope I am wrong, but I expect they will go to their graves thinking How could we have known? 


Freddie deBoer: “That you should never feel guilty is a commonplace in this world; guilt is never an appropriate response to something wrong that you’ve done but always a dysfunction, a failure to see the hidden righteousness in everything you’ve done. But please take a look at the last entry on the first line, ‘Saying No to Others,’ and the second on the second line, ‘Asking For Your Needs to Be Met.’ The immediate question is, what if what one person is saying no to is the other person asking for their needs to be met? What resolves the tie?” (The whole post is excellent.)


This essay by Joshua Rothman has a lot to say about “unlived lives,” lives we think we might have, or could have, lived.

We have unlived lives for all sorts of reasons: because we make choices; because society constrains us; because events force our hand; most of all, because we are singular individuals, becoming more so with time. “While growth realizes, it narrows,” [Andrew H.] Miller writes. “Plural possibilities simmer down.” This is painful, but it’s an odd kind of pain—hypothetical, paradoxical. Even as we regret who we haven’t become, we value who we are. We seem to find meaning in what’s never happened. Our self-portraits use a lot of negative space.

Miller’s point has been made more vividly by Robert Nozick in his book Philosophical Explanations:

The problem of meaning is created by limits, by being just this, by being merely this. The young feel this less strongly. Although they would agree, if they thought about it, that they will realize only some of the (feasible) possibilities before them, none of these various possibilities is yet excluded in their minds. The young live in each of the futures open to them. The poignancy of growing older does not lie in one’s particular path being less satisfying or good than it promised earlier to be — the path may turn out to be all one thought. It lies in traveling only one (or two, or three) of those paths. Economists speak of the opportunity cost of something as the value of the best alternative foregone for it. For adults, strangely, the opportunity cost of our lives appears to us to be the value of all the foregone alternatives summed together, not merely the best other one. When all the possibilities were yet still before us, it felt as if we would do them all.

But what Rothman’s essay doesn’t mention is how we might, after reflecting on lives we didn’t get, live the one that has actually been given to us.

Because I think that matters, when I have, over the years, shared Nozick’s brilliant paragraph with my students, I have always juxtaposed it to this one from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue:

We live out our lives, both individually and in our relationships with each other, in the light of certain conceptions of a possible shared future, a future in which certain possibilities beckon us forward and others repel us, some seem already foreclosed and others perhaps inevitable. There is no present which is not informed by some image of some future and an image of the future which always presents itself in the form of a telos — or of a variety of ends or goals — towards which we are either moving or failing to move in the present. Unpredictability and teleology therefore coexist as part of our lives; like characters in a fictional narrative we do not know what will happen next, but nonetheless our lives have a certain form which projects itself towards our future. Thus the narratives which we live out have both an unpredictable and a partially teleological character. If the narrative of our individual and social lives is to continue intelligibly — and either type of narrative may lapse into unintelligibility — it is always both the case that there are constraints on how the story may continue and that within those constraints there are indefinitely many ways that it can continue.

Emphasis mine. There is considerably more interest, and infinitely more value, in considering how out story might best continue than in speculating about what might have been.


Goodness, this post from Noah Millman is challenging. It’s about those complicated situations when we mute, unfollow, or otherwise disengage from our friends who have become overly unpleasant online. It’s a two-way street, Noah says.

On the one hand, we as a society have become far too ready to shame, harass, disown, expel, and otherwise punish people who transgress lines that often didn’t exist until the moment the mob attacks. On the other hand, our provocateurs themselves are far too ready to get high on their own supply, indifferent to whether they are actually provoking thought in those they see as complacent or oblivious, or whether they are just making those who already agree with them less thoughtful, less worthy of anyone’s time and respect.

In the end, Noah wants to make two points to those of us who disengage (as opposed to those who are disengaged from). The first is this: “We need to be clear to ourselves that our disengagement is something we’re doing for ourselves, and not for any greater good, much less for the people we’re disengaging from.” And the second: “That’s no way to be a friend. And it’s no way to be a citizen either.”

I want to take these ideas on board, but I think I also want to dissent, at least in part.

First, when I have disengaged in this way I have indeed, and absolutely, done it for myself — but I don’t think that’s necessarily a reason not to do it. I find the online direhose of wrath and contempt and misinformation immensely wearying, and indeed depressing, and especially given the damage I have sustained from the unavoidable depredations of the Year of Our Lord 2020, I think there can be good reason for avoiding the depredations that are not necessary.

Second, I think that how you disengage matters. On many occasions I have decided to unfollow or mute or just ignore people I know IRL, and when these were just acquaintances it was a simple thing to do. But on the rare occasions when they were genuine friends it was complicated. In all such cases, I began by telling them that I had problems with their online self-presentation and that I wished they would behave differently. Memory may fail me, but I can’t at the moment remember an occasion when that intervention had any effect whatsoever. So eventually I unfollowed/muted/ignored — and I told them I was doing that, also.

Before you tell someone you’re muting their online presence you take a deep breath because you don’t know what the consequences will be. In one case, my friend was a bit hurt, but our friendship is as strong now as it ever was. In another, the friendship ended.

Why the difference? It may have something to do with the character of the people involved; about that I’m not sure. But two major factors were certainly in play. One: In the first case, I had a much longer and stronger history of face-to-face connection, so that a rejection of his online persona obviously did not mean a rejection of his whole being. Two: in the second case, the friend was much more deeply invested in his online presence — maybe to the extent that he couldn’t have accepted the rejection even if we had a stronger face-to-face history.

Looking back on these situations, I am not sure what lessons to draw — Noah’s column has got me reflecting and I don’t know where that reflection will lead. But at the moment I am thinking that in all the cases where I disengaged I was right to do so — some degree of self-preservation made it necessary. But maybe I should have done so silently, and not spoken of the disengagement unless asked. I thought at the time that friendship required honesty; but maybe there’s a place for reticence in friendship also, or at least more reticence than I demonstrated.

the Qoheleth of Austin

Texas Monthly has a terrific podcast called “One by Willie,” each episode of which features a musician talking with the host, John Spong, about one Willie Nelson song. The second episode’s guest is Lyle Lovett, and at one point in the conversation Lyle discuses Willie’s decision in the early 1970s to leave Nashville — which had turned into a quasi-Taylorized songwriting and hit-making factory — in order to return to his native Texas and start a new life in Austin. And that was when Willie became Willie – or, as Willie himself might put it, that was where and when he was able to really be himself. Lyle goes on to say that in his experience Willie’s most consistent and admirable trait is his acceptance of other people — not just his willingness to let you be you but his encouragement to you simply to be you and not what someone else expects you to be. He wants others to feel the freedom that he himself enjoyed when he traded factory life in Nashville for his own life in Austin.

It’s hard to imagine anything more clichéd than the language of “being yourself.” And yet, thanks to our moment’s everyone’s-a-cop policing of every minuscule deviation from every imaginable orthodoxy, as I listened to Lyle Lovett’s praise of Willie Nelson this hoary old cliché felt to me like a breath of cool clean air. I reflected that clichés become clichés for a reason: because they express something true. Of course, the time comes when that true point has been made so many times that it becomes a truism, and further repetition of it feels pointless and tiresome. And yet, like Fortuna’s wheel in the Middle Ages, the social world continues to turn and eventually that worn old nostrum that had become something to roll your eyes at takes on bright new life.

Be yourself. Don’t worry about what other people think. Don’t be terrified by the perceptions of others, by the judgments of others, the demands of others that you conform oh-so-precisely to their way of understanding the world. Just be yourself. I don’t really believe that life works that way. I don’t believe in individualism. I think that our selves, our persons, are made up of our interactions with others, are dialogical all the way down. Yet there’s something in it, something about the value of a life not lived in fear, not determined by the thirst for others’ approval regardless of who the others are. In this tiresome era of relentless policing, the admonition to be yourself suddenly sounds like something from the Bible’s wisdom books, an ancient proverb or the counsel of sagacious old Qoheleth.

“not living merely for himself”

In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Tom Bertram — the feckless, selfish, wayward elder son of Sir Thomas Bertram — becomes very ill. It starts with a fever, but even after the fever diminishes he lingers on in a bad state. “They were apprehensive for his lungs.” (I was teaching the book yesterday and asked my students, “What does that sound like?”)

Near the end of the book we learn that Tom’s recovery is a source of reassurance to his father in difficult times:

There was comfort also in Tom, who gradually regained his health, without regaining the thoughtlessness and selfishness of his previous habits. He was the better for ever for his illness. He had suffered, and he had learned to think: two advantages that he had never known before; and the self-reproach arising from [his earlier bad behavior] made an impression on his mind which, at the age of six-and-twenty, with no want of sense or good companions, was durable in its happy effects. He became what he ought to be: useful to his father, steady and quiet, and not living merely for himself.

That’s what we should most hope when we hear that a thoughtless, unreflective, self-centered person has contracted a serious illness: that he learns to think; that he experiences self-reproach; that he emerges from the illness steadier, quieter, and more useful to others. We should surely pray for such an outcome.

fascist architecture

Continuing my recent habit of seeing The Lord of the Rings as the, um, One Analogy to Rule Them All….

I’ve been invoking the Gandalf Option, and I want to return to the passage from The Lord of the Rings that generated that phrase, but to explore a different aspect of it. Here are the words that Gandalf utters to Denethor, Steward of Gondor, when Denethor accuses him of wanting to rule Gondor himself:

“The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”

What interests me today is Gandalf’s concluding question: “Did you not know?”

What do we know about Gandalf, at least if we have read the appendices to LOTR? We know that he is not a human being but rather one of the Maiar, an order of immortal creatures somewhat less powerful than the Valar who shaped Middle Earth, but still considerably more powerful than human beings. Five of these Maiar were sent by the Valar to Middle-Earth to aid in the struggle against Sauron, and these were known as the Istari, the Wise Ones — or, in the common way of speaking, wizards.

And what do we know about Denethor? Gandalf at one point says of him that “he is not as other men of this time … by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him, as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir. He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those that dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.” Tolkien writes in one of his many letters filling out the history of Middle-Earth that even Sauron could not “dominate” Denethor through the Palantir, the seeing-stone that Denethor keeps in his chambers, and had to content himself with attempts at suasion and deceit.

So here’s my question, a slight revision of Gandalf’s question: Does Denethor really not understand who Gandalf is? The history of the Istari is not known to the hobbits, for instance, so they wonder what exactly Gandalf is; but surely it is known to this long-sighted and powerful Steward of Gondor. Or rather, was known. For I think the import of Gandalf’s “Did you not know?” is, “What have you done to yourself that you have forgotten what I truly am?”

One of Bruce Cockburn’s best songs is “Fascist Architecture,” which begins with this line: “Fascist architecture of my own design.” It’s a song about building an impregnable fortress around yourself, a structure meant to frighten others and protect you, but which ends up becoming your prison. You made it, you live in it — and you cannot now escape it. Cockburn says only love has the power to break the Cyclopean walls of your mental/emotional/spiritual fascist architecture.

The last conversation between Gandalf and Denethor occurs as the Steward is about to take his own life and, if he can manage it, the life of his surviving son as well. In desperation Gandalf asks Denethor what he wants, what he would have if he were free to choose it, and Denethor replies,

“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life … and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.”

He built his fascist architecture to protect himself from all change — including, among other things, the kind of change that occurs when a son becomes a man with his own will and judgment; and when that did not work, he chose death (naught) rather than risk the hope of renewal. He sealed himself off every voice that might have challenged the sovereignty of the one voice he continued to entertain: that of Sauron. And eventually he forgot much that he once had known, and came to perceive as an enemy and a threat the figure who could have been his best counselor, and to whom he himself could have been a great ally: Gandalf.

“Did you not know?” Yes: once he did. But not any more.

I’m seeing a lot of people, these days, following Denethor’s example: forgetting what they once knew about their neighbors and fellow citizens, practicing the fear of change and difference, responding to that fear by building fascist architecture of their own design.

tolerating corruption, or not

Everyone knows that professional sports around the world are utterly and unfixably corrupt. Was there ever a chance that Manchester City’s ban from the Champions League would be upheld? I doubt that anyone in the whole wide world thought so. Corruption is baked into the system, and no reasonable person could think otherwise.

Last year, when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, expressed support for democracy in Hong Kong and thereby brought the wrath of the CCP down upon him, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver mumbled a bit about free speech — but since then, as far as I can tell, the only person associated with the NBA who has expressed support for Morey is Shaquille O’Neal — and even Shaq acknowledged the need to “tiptoe around things” when commerce is involved. What are the chances that anyone employed by the NBA says a critical word about China from now on?

Senator Josh Hawley’s suggestion that ESPN — as a theoretically journalistic enterprise, at least sometimes, though the “E” in ESPN stands for “entertainment” — ought to cover the NBA’s Chinese entanglements received a now-notorious two-word response from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Which was interesting, if readily comprehensible. Woj gets paid by ESPN, ESPN gets paid by the NBA, the NBA gets paid by China; Woj was outraged by the merest hint that his own personal gravy train should be looked into. But the fact that he made that response using his ESPN email account suggests how invulnerable he thinks he is, and he has been proven correct. ESPN “suspended” him, which only means that they gave him a few days of vacation. Meanwhile, the league has decided that it’s better to disallow any custom text on the jerseys they sell rather than allow someone to have “FreeHongKong.”

As I said in the first paragraph of this post: this is all par for the course. And yet for some reason, some reason I can’t quite grasp, it has stuck in my craw, and I have decided — or rather, I haven’t decided, I just feel — that I don’t want to have anything to do with either ESPN or the NBA. Is it the brazenness of Woj’s contempt for elementary journalistic ethics? Is it Adam Silver’s jaw-droppingly hypocritical simultaneous embrace of (a) racial justice and (b) “mutual respect” with China? (As Garry Kasparov noted, “China has Uyghur concentration camps and is preparing to crush Hong Kong and he talks of ‘mutual respect’? What a joke.”) Could be either, or both. But is the NBA any more brazen or hypocritical than Manchester City’s petrodollar-laden ownership group and the system that enables them? I think not.

And yet I expect to keep watching the Premier League — even Manchester City. And I think the real reason for that decision is this: right now Premier League soccer is a better game than NBA basketball. It may be as simple as that.

In any case, I am writing this post not to complain about corruption but rather to point to this curious trait I have — one I am sure I share with you, dear reader: extreme moral inconsistency. Continuing to watch the Premier League while turning up my exquisitely sensitive olfactory organ at the NBA makes no moral sense. Yet it looks like that’s what I’m going to do. I suppose I should think of it this way: One step at a time. Make a tiny and mostly insignificant moral stand today, and maybe that will enable me to make another one next month. And then I’ll progress from strength to strength, and by the time I’m 275 years old I might be a decent person.

the emotional intelligence of long experience

Reading this for reasons unrelated to our current kerfuffles, I came across an interesting passage:

As it turns out, scientific research bears out this Confucian insight: “One thing is certain: Emotional intelligence increases with age.” Fredda Blanchard-Field’s research compares the way young adults and older adults respond to situations of stress and “her results show that older adults are more socially astute than younger people when it comes to sizing up an emotionally conflicting situation. They are better able to make decisions that preserve an interpersonal relationship…. And she has found that as we grow older, we grow more emotionally supple — we are able to adjust to changing situations on the basis of our emotional intelligence and prior experience, and therefore make better decisions (on average) than do young people.” Other research shows that older adults seem particularly good at quickly letting go of negative emotions because they value social relationships more than the ego satisfaction that comes from rupturing them. In short, we have good reason to empower elderly parents in the family context — to give them more voice, and let them decide in moments of emotional conflict — because they are more likely to have superior social skills.

This may help to explain why cancel culture is driven by the young: perhaps they don’t have enough life experience to understand the long-term costs of “rupturing” relationships. Maybe not even the short-term costs either.

Samuel Johnson had a young friend named George Strahan, who at one point thought he had said something to offend Johnson. The older man’s reply is one of the most glorious things he ever wrote:

You are not to imagine that my friendship is light enough to be blown away by the first cross blast, or that my regard or kindness hangs by so slender a hair, as to be broken off by the unfelt weight of a petty offence. I love you, and hope to love you long. You have hitherto done nothing to diminish my goodwill, and though you had done much more than you have supposed imputed to you my goodwill would not have been diminished.

I write thus largely on this suspicion which you have suffered to enter your mind, because in youth we are apt to be too rigorous in our expectations, and to suppose that the duties of life are to be performed with unfailing exactness and regularity, but in our progress through life we are forced to abate much of our demands, and to take friends such as we can find them, not as we would make them.

These concessions every wise man is more ready to make to others as he knows that he shall often want them for himself; and when he remembers how often he fails in the observance or cultivation of his best friends, is willing to suppose that his friends may in their turn neglect him without any intention to offend him.

When therefore it shall happen, as happen it will, that you or I have disappointed the expectation of the other, you are not to suppose that you have lost me or that I intended to lose you; nothing will remain but to repair the fault, and to go on as if it never had been committed.

Maybe something of this wisdom applies not just to friends, but to fellow citizens, co-workers — in short, our fellow human beings.

why death is bad: a primer for Christians

It has come to my attention that some among you don’t believe death is a very bad thing; or at least that there are many things more precious than life. This is in fact not true; life is the greatest of the gifts of God, because it is the one that makes every other gift possible. This is why we often honor those who sacrifice their own lives in order to save others. They give up something of unique value to themselves; we think of this as the greatest of sacrifices for a reason.  

This is also why people who refuse to compromise their strongest commitments even when it leads to their own death are so greatly praised and long remembered. When people do this for their Christian faith we call them martyrs — witnesses to that faith — and we give them the highest praise, because of how much their obedience and faithfulness cost them. We never expect people to be martyrs, and have compassion for those who fail to rise to that height.

But when people do give up their lives in such praiseworthy ways, why do they do so? They always do it for life: they give up their own so that others may have life and have it more abundantly. “Ah,” some of you may say, “but that refers to spiritual life.” That, my child, is an error. It is certainly true that we may distinguish between bios and zoe, but in this created order you cannot have the latter without also having the former. We are made embodied creatures and will remain so: this is why the resurrection of the body is the penultimate item of our Creed. This is also why Christians have historically practiced burial rather than cremation, as a sign that we love and treasure the physical body and hope to see it filled with life again, just as the dry bones in the valley Ezekiel saw regain sinew and then breath. 

Now, some of you have already perceived where I am going next. If life is so very good, does it not follow that death is proportionately bad? Yes, my child, you have rightly discerned the logic! Death, let us remember, is the curse laid upon Adam and Eve, and all of us since, for disobedience — and it is a mighty curse. When Jesus sees a gathering at Bethany weeping for the death of Lazarus, he too weeps; he too “is greatly disturbed.” (Les Murray: “he mourned one death, perhaps all, before he reversed it.”) Death is our great enemy — indeed, as St. Paul tells us, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” 

Our lives are not our own — as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches me, my only comfort in life and death is that I am not my own, but belong body and soul to my faithful savior Jesus Christ — but stewardship begins with our physical lives. We are to care for them, treasure them, take great pains to preserve them — and we are to do the same for the lives of our neighbors. And if we are ever called upon to give up our lives, we should do so only for the sake of the lives of our neighbors. We should certainly take greater care for their lives than we do for our own; but that is saying a lot, for we are accountable to God for the lives he has given us. 

All this is so elementary, so basic to Christianity that it should not need to be spelled out. But apparently it does. 

the post-truth thought leaders at work

Giorgio Agamben

The other thing, no less disquieting than the first, that the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity. 

Rusty Reno

That older generation that endured the Spanish flu, now long gone, was not ill-informed. People in that era were attended by medical professionals who fully understood the spread of disease and methods of quarantine. Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death. They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives. 

I find this convergence quite interesting, and wish I had the time to trace the intellectual genealogy that led a post-Heideggerian, quasi-Foucauldian continental philosopher and a traditionalist Catholic to make precisely the same argument. Reno’s contemptuous dismissal of the value of “physical life” echoes Agamben’s “purely biological condition,” his famous concept of “bare life,” while Reno’s attack on “a perennial state of fear and insecurity” echoes Agamben’s “perennial crisis and perennial emergency,” his equally famous “state of exception.” (One common ancestor, I think: Carl Schmitt.)

But for now I’ll just note that perhaps the strongest obvious link between them is indifference to the truth of their historical claims. What Reno got wrong about the American response to the Spanish flu I mentioned in an earlier post; for a refutation of Agamben’s claim that a sense of emergency in plague time is a new phenomenon, see, for instance, this post by my friend and colleague Philip Jenkins, and Anastasia Berg’s critique. When the facts get in the way of the narrative, print the narrative. 

UPDATE: One brief thought: We see here an excellent example of what happens when you over-extend a plausible thesis. For both Agamben and Reno technocratic modernity is really really Bad — that’s the plausible thesis! — so when they see uncomfortable social constraints occurring in the reign of technocratic modernity they think that technocratic modernity must, perforce, be the cause of those uncomfortable social constraints. So they instantly assume that earlier societies did not respond to plagues in the way that we do. But, it turns out, the primary factor shaping social behavior in time of plague is not technocratic modernity but rather the actual transmission of infectious disease. Imagine that: human behavior shaped not by ideology but by plain old, unavoidable old, biology. 


Rusty Reno

That older generation that endured the Spanish flu, now long gone, was not ill-informed. People in that era were attended by medical professionals who fully understood the spread of disease and methods of quarantine. Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death. They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives. 

Richard J. Hatchett, Carter E. Mecher, and Marc Lipsitch (2007): 

We noted that, in some cases, outcomes appear to have correlated with the quality and timing of the public health response. The contrast of mortality outcomes between Philadelphia and St. Louis is particularly striking. The first cases of disease among civilians in Philadelphia were reported on September 17, 1918, but authorities downplayed their significance and allowed large public gatherings, notably a city-wide parade on September 28, 1918, to continue. School closures, bans on public gatherings, and other social distancing interventions were not implemented until October 3, when disease spread had already begun to overwhelm local medical and public health resources. In contrast, the first cases of disease among civilians in St. Louis were reported on October 5, and authorities moved rapidly to introduce a broad series of measures designed to promote social distancing, implementing these on October 7. The difference in response times between the two cities (≈14 days, when measured from the first reported cases) represents approximately three to five doubling times for an influenza epidemic. The costs of this delay appear to have been significant; by the time Philadelphia responded, it faced an epidemic considerably larger than the epidemic St. Louis faced. Philadelphia ultimately experienced a peak weekly excess pneumonia and influenza (P&I) death rate of 257/100,000 and a cumulative excess P&I death rate (CEPID) during the period September 8–December 28, 1918 (the study period) of 719/100,000. St. Louis, on the other hand, experienced a peak P&I death rate, while NPIs were in place, of 31/100,000 and had a CEPID during the study period of 347/100,000.

Let’s be clear about this: Reno thinks the city of Philadelphia got it right, while the city of St. Louis “lived under Satan’s rule.” 

UPDATE: I just read Damon Linker’s column on Reno’s essay, which is outstanding.