Politics, Culture, the Public Square
“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton
Friday, October 31, 2003 Sunny Days in Heaven has returned from a fifteen month hiatus. It’s editor, Mark Butterworth is a profound and challenging thinker, as evidenced by his essay on Truth. Welcome back, Mark. posted by Paul Cella | 8:51 AM |
Wednesday, October 29, 2003 Reprinted here, in full, is Jeff Culbreath’s profound and moving “advice to sons.” These are the kind of words men use when they are serious about being men:
posted by Paul Cella | 10:49 AM |
Sunday, October 26, 2003 The big fact that everyone despises, disparages, or just contemptuously ignores, is that some innovations will inevitably destroy the thing on which they propose to innovate. Institutions and traditions are not infinitely elastic, though some are quite remarkably so: and to demand from them certain radical reforms is indistinguishable in practice from striking them with lethal force. But most moderns insist, against all logic and experience, that they can have both the thing itself (the form) and its antithetical reform. I wrote this summer of the hoary (and perhaps resurgent) fallacy that so many have proposed; that Christianity should reconcile itself to any number of its many heresies. It does not seem to occur to the proposers of this morbid idea that the whole essence of a heresy is an alteration that destroys; whether the alteration is by a process of addition or subtraction or mere substitution is of no matter to its larger principle of destruction. To keep the fact of this enduring principle in mind requires a sort of clarity and courage that is almost heroic, and often saintly. The progressive and “open church” critics get all hung up on externalities. So, for example, they denigrate Augustine by way of the very superficially appealing caricature that he was a clericalist when in fact he fought against clericalism. His enemies the Donatists wanted a pristine unsullied clergy — mainly they wanted no bishops who had broken under the Imperial persecutions. And so Augustine, their thundering foe, is accused of defending a corrupt church hierarchy. “How can a man oppose sanctity and honor among clerics!” But St. Augustine perceived that the Donatist innovation in doctrine was inassimilable. It was to make the sacraments dependent on the personal probity and public virtue of those administering them. It was a subtle, seductive, and finally fatal alteration that would have called forth the ruin of the Faith. It would have made the clerics the Church; and annihilated the imperative distinction between the human and sinful officers of the church and the transcendent and holy Church. “One holy catholic and apostolic church” would have become “one holy catholic and apostolic clergy”: a dissonance with reality so stark and ineffaceable as to bring among the faithful comprehensive disillusionment, despair, and in the end dissolution.
The point of this crude digression is to underscore this fact: that the fatal innovation of doctrine, the heresy, need not be related to a failure in character among the heretics. It is simply truer to say that there is always and everywhere among men — heretics and orthodox alike — failure of character. In attacking them Augustine lashed out with polemical fury at every example of character failure, but as a fact the Donatists were probably most of them pious and honorable men. Recall that they had not broken under Imperial persecutions, and were understandably, even rightly furious with those who had. Their aspiration, after all, was almost a point of honor: they wanted to achieve sanctity and purity among churchmen. But their innovation was nonetheless heretical, and as the great Bishop of Hippo, the “hammer of the Donatists” comprehended, it could not stand if the Church was to stand. To make the rites and practices of the Faith dependent on the rectitude of its immediate temporal agents is to level is awesome equality, its enormous unearthly universality, its applicability to all times and all people in all circumstances. It is to collapse the great luminous differentiation between the church visible and the church invisible.
Modern error is full of righteous rejection of this kind of logic. It almost hinges on the desire to have it both ways. Every cacophonic extension of the sexual revolution has its ridiculous concomitant, declared sincerely often enough, of an assurance that the innovation will not accomplish yet greater ruin of precious liberty protected and nourished by the family. Another way of saying this is that the sexual revolutionists usually profess that they are not making a revolution in the constitution of the family, but rather liberating us from its antiquated and oppressive structures. It is somberly averred that a libertine society can still cherish the family; and that marriage is so elastic an institution as to mean anything. (I’ll note in this context the interesting fact that Burke, in his polemics against the French Jacobins, that is, against the fathers of modern political radicalism, castigated them for their reduction of matrimony to the “vilest concubinage.”)
For example, just as the personal character of the Donatist leaders was of little consequence to the lethality of their heresy, so the folly of sanctioning homosexuality depends not on a judgment of greater sinfulness of homosexuals as against heterosexuals. It is not that homosexuals are inherently greater sinners than the rest of us; it is that the innovators seek to make a revolution in moral law. I admit that Christians (myself included) have often failed to make this important distinction, and let hang in the air, as it were, a vague superciliousness. The sanctioning of homosexuality — in particular, as in the Episcopalian case, the institutional sanction — is not mere sin; it is rebellion. It is a rejection of Law. It is an innovation of doctrine complete enough to destroy a virtue — the virtue of chastity — and thus unman one of the strategic barricades defending an approach to the hearts of men. And again, as with the other thrusts of the sexual revolution, we are told solemnly that this too will not further enfeeble the family but in fact strengthen it.
Something similar goes on among some of the cheerleaders for biotechnology. For many perceive the advance of biotechnology as just the newest incarnation of the sexual revolution: and the transformation of what was once a largely social revolution into something that is more nearly technocratic in nature comes with the vague assurance that to make first sex a commodity, and then procreation manufacture, will surely not make children property and women slaves. Not long ago I heard an assurance exactly along these lines appear in the very same television commentary where some bioethicist is quoted, apparently without irony, as talking insouciantly about “wombs for rent.” While some of us might be tempted to insist on the more accurate “wombs for plunder,” the point is this: when men start talking like that — glib in uttering barbarities — some real damage has been done the structure of custom and restraint that stands as a bulwark against barbarism; that is, some real damage has been done to civilization. And the modern error consists precisely in demanding a reform so radical as to destroy the original form, whilst desiring that the form remain solid and undisturbed. It is as if men were to grow bored with legs and begin amputating them (humanely, of course); quite at the same time as they avow their love of ambulatory recreation and sport. It is a great crowd of vegetarian legislators praising the value of a good steak. It is the celebration of a thing even as it is destroyed by innovation.
In the same essay I adduced above, the idea of Authority was examined. On that too, as I argued, there is an effort to exploit the advantages of having it both ways. As Chesterton wittily explains,
We need not only scrutinize ideas of high progressive earnestness, like heresy and biotechnology and freethinking, to apprehend the value in argument of having a cake and eating it too; many of the more mundane controversies of our politics reveal it as well. Broadly reducing taxes, which in a system of progressive taxation will perforce mean greater reductions for the wealthy, is a policy of the basest iniquity for many among our media plutocracy; but subsidizing through public funds the prescription drug costs of the wealthiest generation of people ever to walk the earth — that, by contrast, is simple justice. Wealthy conservatives contribute to charitable organizations merely to avoid taxation; but when wealthy liberals promote the ideals of the welfare state, they are discharging their duty of charity to their fellow man. The government must “stay out of the bedroom”; but it should certainly invade every other room, open every file, insist on disclosure of every financial record, on pain of incarceration, during its annual tax inquisition. Publicly financed houses and museums must sponsor ugly blasphemy and pronounce it as Art; but no hint of religious piety, especially in art, should despoil our exquisitely secular public square. Precedent should always bind judges, except when the precedent is disputed by the plutocracy; but particularly when the precedent has no articulation in the text of the Constitution.
Lest you imagine me a mere partisan, let me acknowledge without demurral that those on my side of the public debate indulge the same fallacy. Largess for the poor is disreputable; largess for the well-connected rich is commonplace, and mandatory. Large, cumbersome, stultifying consolidation in government is dreadful; but the same in private corporations is admirable. It was once left to conservatives to declare that largess from the public treasury is disreputable wherever it goes, because to take by force the property of one man and give it to another is robbery. They once boldly asserted the superiority of the small and local and decentralized to the huge and consolidated. Conservatives used to believe in the principles of small, limited government; today they seem content with big government, so long as they get to run it. And so on.
Now I do not deny that there are, in most of the above cases which I have just described rather polemically, even tendentiously, prudential considerations to consider. Politics in a democracy will forever suffer from an impression of disrepute. I do not aspire to be an ideologue. Nor do I think inconsistency or even hypocrisy unendurable. But I will insist on a certain clarity, which might be evoked by calling it the clarity of disagreement.
“Atheists are not our preachers; madmen are not our lawgivers,” declared Burke, commending sober England in contrast to the frothing turbulence of Revolutionary France. Such sobriety is slipping from our grasp. Disagreement, even, eludes us. A man who proposes that Christianity simply jettison core dogmas is no friend of Christianity; in fact, in a strict but not necessarily malicious sense, he is its enemy. If “tax cuts for the rich” are fiscal profligacy, then entitlements for seniors are a fortiori the same, because most of a society’s wealth will always repose among its aged, who have naturally had more time to accumulate it. If the State should rigidly abjure all promotion of sectarian opinion, then it must also (somehow) abjure promoting the sect of irreligion. The family orbits around several huge and almost terrible principles — things like the vow and sacrifice and that almost reckless commitment of faithfulness in the unknowable future. When people assail and denigrate these principles, fancying that they might be replaced, it is fair to call those people abolitionists of the family. When wombs can be “rented” like rooms, and their unwanted contents discarded on a whim, then it is simply not hyperbole to worry aloud that human beings might again be property. I know that I am, as it were, walking all around the issue with extravagant language and gestures, but I beg the reader’s patience, for my point is perhaps vague but very real. It is that a disagreement in our age is often an achievement; for no one seems willing to call things by their real names. The modern world has forgotten how to argue. It prefers the catchphrase or the calumny.
Just recently I was idly talking about weddings with several colleagues. One mentioned that at a Catholic wedding he was in, the priest rather diligently stipulated on sobriety among the men of the wedding party — he would not have a ceremony full of drunks. Another colleague, herself Catholic, scoffed at this as silly prudery. How dare a Roman Catholic priest ask that attendants be sober at a sacrament! Now this is exactly as if one were to bring non-kosher meat to a dinner party at the home of an Orthodox Jew; and then contemn his resulting alarm. No one is forced these days to be married at a Catholic church, or any church; flights to Las Vegas are quite cheap. But instead of rejecting the church, we moderns want the church without its rules. We want the sacrament without its discipline. Our hostility will not even rise to the level of disagreement.
There is a clarity of disagreement that the modern world has a hard time arriving at. One almost longs for Voltaire, who hated the Church and made no bones about it. Instead we suffer a kind of vague and almost craven prejudice that is hardly even self-aware.posted by Paul Cella | 8:32 PM |
Saturday, October 25, 2003 SUB SPECIE AETERNITATIS: “For the average person, all problems date to World War II; for the more informed, to World War I; for the genuine historian, to the French Revolution.” — Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism Revisited posted by Paul Cella | 1:43 PM |
Wednesday, October 22, 2003 If you enjoy the work of Kevin Michael Grace (“Canada’s only paleoconservative” —- Mark Steyn) as much as I do, please consider helping him out. posted by Paul Cella | 3:48 PM |
I am adding Mr. Peter Sean Bradley’s blog Lex Communis to my links on the strength of two first-rate essays: on Andrew Sullivan’s Catholic travails and the Culture of Death. A sample from the latter:
posted by Paul Cella | 1:02 PM |
Tuesday, October 21, 2003 A new essay of mine ran on TCS yesterday. Its subject is a . . . persistent one. posted by Paul Cella | 11:50 AM |
Saturday, October 18, 2003 The more I read of Sir John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, or simply Lord Acton, the more I am impressed with him as a historian. He has his deficiencies as a writer—-Richard Weaver was right in judging that he was not a great narrator—-and his Whiggish vision of history is in my view flawed in crucial ways; but as a historian, in his ability to make readers and students think historically, his work approaches the level of genius. Consider, for example, his lecture describing the influence of American ideas on the French Revolution. He begins thusly:
It is no mean learning, or meager talent, that allows a man pack into one paragraph so many portentous threads of analysis. Acton’s project was genuinely to educate men, not to advance an idea, unless that idea was the simultaneous grandeur and basic decency of Liberty; and he was scrupulous in presenting the various drifts and clashing opinions of thinking men. Acton’s admiration for Burke was unabashed, yet Burke was not really of his tradition; for the former was always a Liberal, while the latter, though a Whig in his lineage, became ultimately the founder of modern conservatism. Burke was nearer to Cardinal Newman, who was Acton’s antagonist.
But again: Acton was a great scholar and historian. Burke was a polemicist, though a polemicist of such power and sagacity as to expand the very word. His province was rhetoric, and in that realm he was king; whereas Acton moved in the world of dialectic, before the late moderns made dialectic the province of pettifoggers. In this sense we might almost say that Burke was the polemicist. I fear that I digress here, but it also strikes me as somehow inexpressibly significant that Acton, in addition to naming Burke a “teacher of mankind,” also wrote that “there is very little doubt that as Burke was our greatest statesman, so he would have been the first of our historians” if he had ever completed his projected History of England. That is really an astonishing compliment, paid by an eminently cautious and even painstaking writer.
I will quote at length some more passages from Acton Lectures on the French Revolution; observe his robust objectivity in writing history.
In those paragraphs, Acton lets a whole panoply of views and philosophical tendencies speak for themselves. He is, in simple truth, writing history. But on balance he seems to judge in favor of the Revolution. No so fast.
That conclusion is the product of reflection and natural insight, of the deliberate sense of a historian of profound erudition. Acton’s was a mind alive to history; to engage it is to imbibe a deeper appreciation for all that came before us.posted by Paul Cella | 9:04 PM |
Friday, October 17, 2003 Characteristically provocative, Gary North avers that “You are not significantly better off economically than your parents were in 1973, and you are significantly worse off culturally.” The second proposition should be basically uncontroversial to most conservatives, but what about the first? Well, Mr. North is an espouser of some unorthodox economics, many of them laid out cogently here; but this fact alone should not lead us to dismiss him. Adam Smith was unorthodox in his day, as were F. A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises more recently. He concludes,
Much of Mr. North’s analysis rests on the importance of oil, and therefore October 1973, the beginning of OPEC’s use of oil as a weapon, is hugely significant. Indeed, over at the Paper of Record, the great Fouad Ajami draws out the implications of that momentous date in a powerful and poetic essay.
Mr. Ajami quotes Henry Kissinger: “Never before in history has a group of such relatively weak nations been able to impose with so little protest such a dramatic change in the way of life of the overwhelming majority of the rest of mankind.”
posted by Paul Cella | 11:12 AM |
Thursday, October 16, 2003 SUB SPECIE AETERNITATIS: “The It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects —- military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden —- that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.” —- C. S. Lewis posted by Paul Cella | 5:08 PM |
Wednesday, October 15, 2003 A dispatch in the race to acquire Victim Status. The New York Times reports that some Germans “led by a conservative member of Parliament” are proposing
But the proposal has vehement opponents, particularly among the Poles. One Warsaw magazine protested with a front page cartoon depicting “the most prominent advocate of the proposed center, Erika Steinbach, as an officer in the Nazi SS, sitting astride a submissive Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor.”
At issue, at least according to the Times, is the grand question of who will hold the coveted modern feudal title of Victim.
What modern feudalism aims at, facts notwithstanding, is elevating certain classes or groups to exulted status by virtue of their historical grievances.
Meanwhile the Times article, aside from its mild genuflecting to this ideology, is actually quite good. It traces briefly but thoughtfully the many drifts and pressures of history, with the twin monsters of the godless Modern Age, National Socialism and International Communism, looming always nearby.posted by Paul Cella | 3:15 PM |
The injustice being perpetrated in the case of Terri Schiavo, by her husband in his apparent malice and unutterable cupidity, his lawyers in their servility, and the legal system in its callousness, is positively unspeakable. What these people have together undertaken is judicial murder. And the denial of pastoral care is a cruelty that defies the imagination. Hang your head, American. Hang your head, son or daughter of Adam. posted by Paul Cella | 11:27 AM |
Tuesday, October 14, 2003 There is no question in my mind that Pope John Paul II has been the greatest man of my lifetime. David Brooks is right: Karol Wojtyla is too big a man for the Nobel Prize. posted by Paul Cella | 1:18 PM |
An interesting interview with Fr. James Schall on Hilaire Belloc is here. A sample:
Via Mere Comments.posted by Paul Cella | 12:40 PM |
Mr. Jeff Culbreath is indeed on the front lines. Bravely. posted by Paul Cella | 11:21 AM |
Monday, October 13, 2003 For some unaccountable reason, of all my many subscriptions The New Criterion is the one which is most likely to find itself dismissed to the bottom of the reading pile. I cannot explain so mysterious a pattern; and almost without exception, when I finally get around to reading it (sometimes months after an issue has arrived in the mail), I shake my head in wonder: “Why did you not devour this fine magazine the moment it came?”
Anyway, September’s issue includes a characteristically brilliant essay by Roger Kimball on the writer John Buchan. Mr. Kimball’s method is to select a literary figure of interest and discourse at length on his or her achievements. Recent subjects have included Kierkegaard, John Burnham, Malcolm Muggeridge, Charles Peguy. This newest one reveals a man (Buchan) of positively astounding energy and manliness. Kimball quotes the English wit Sydney Smith: “The meaning of an extraordinary man is that he is eight men in one man.” Read the essay and you will see why the epigram justly applies to Buchan.posted by Paul Cella | 7:42 PM |
Friday, October 10, 2003 In my judgment the New York Times has already made appreciable progress in the four months since the egregious Howell Raines resigned. A good example is today’s front page News Analysis by Ian Fisher on Iraq, which stands out for its level-headed intelligence. And then there was this article. How often does Edmund Burke make an appearance in the pages of the Old Gray Lady? Not often, I’ll wager. posted by Paul Cella | 1:19 PM |
Wednesday, October 08, 2003 It is not good for one’s blood pressure to read too many of Michelle Malkin’s columns. An example of why is here. Read and seethe.
The contrast, of course, is with Capt. James Lee, now charged with sedition, aiding the enemy, spying, espionage and failure to obey a general order. “The Muslim convert, who studied in terror-sponsoring Syria and attended an Islamic cultural center run by the terror-friendly Saudi government, was given free rein by the U.S. Army to administer to the souls of al Qaeda and Taliban enemies at Guantanamo Bay.”
Mrs. Malkin concludes,
posted by Paul Cella | 10:37 AM |
Tuesday, October 07, 2003 Orrin Judd has a fine review of a recent book of essays on the political philosopher Willmoore Kendall, about whom I have written several times. An original thinker of contagious brilliance, Kendall’s touchstone was the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and the six goals it elucidates as guiding American politics:
Mr. Judd comments, shrewdly:
Also noted in the review is Kendall’s correspondence with, and instruction by, rather late in life, the suddenly-infamous Leo Strauss. What stands out is Kendall’s remarkable broad-mindedness in adjusting his views to comport with facts and arguments; in other words, his willingness to pursue the truth at the cost of long-held views. Leaving aside the contemporary controversy surrounding Strauss’s students, what is important to remember about him is that his project was to elevate the ancients (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas) against the moderns (Machiavelli, Hobbes) in political philosophy. Kendall had been emphatically a modern, and his encounter with Strauss in part led him to reconsider the ancients. As one contributor to the book explains, “Kendall is, to my knowledge, the outstanding, and perhaps the only, example of a mature thinker established in his profession who undertook a thoroughgoing revision of his point of view as a result of his exposure to the efforts of Strauss and Voegelin to reform the discipline.”
Today everyone seems to know the name Leo Strauss, and know it as a catchword: the enigmatic and sinister father of the neoconservatives. Far fewer know the name Eric Voegelin, who strikes me as the greater thinker. Anyway, that Kendall commenced to assimilate the work of both these profound and difficult theorists, after his own thought had matured, is indeed an impressive comment on the suppleness of his mind.
In my experience, Kendall’s writing, his public mode of thought, is invigorating and quite unlike anything else I have ever seen. Professor Jeffrey Hart rightly calls him “touched by genius.”posted by Paul Cella | 10:57 AM |
Friday, October 03, 2003 Texas Representative Ron Paul’s speech in opposition to a Federal vouchers problem in D.C. is enough to make one rethink one’s support for the program. His conclusion is that vouchers will lend themselves to a degradation of primary education similar to what has happened with higher education.
The modern State has enfeebled so many private enterprise over the years —- by its essential rapacity, by its vulnerability to plunderers and energumens, by its allure to the power-hungry and the avaricious —- that we ought to think very hard about any legislation that opens yet another channel to its machinations. Rep. Paul is right to issue a grave warning.posted by Paul Cella | 9:44 AM |