Monthly Archives: August 2014

Point of Comparison (or, Why I Am Not A Turnip)

The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has to-day all the exhilaration of a vice.  GKC

Note the essential similarity between the logic of Sartre (as discussed in a previous post) and the logic of Chesterton in the following two passages.


when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men. [… I]n choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be.

(source: Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sarte 1946)


Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

If then, I repeat, there is to be mental advance, it must be mental advance in the construction of a definite philosophy of life. And that philosophy of life must be right and the other philosophies wrong. Now of all, or nearly all, the able modern writers whom I have briefly studied in this book, this is especially and pleasingly true, that they do each of them have a constructive and affirmative view, and that they do take it seriously and ask us to take it seriously. There is nothing merely sceptically progressive about Mr. Rudyard Kipling. There is nothing in the least broad minded about Mr. Bernard Shaw. The paganism of Mr. Lowes Dickinson is more grave than any Christianity. Even the opportunism of Mr. H.G. Wells is more dogmatic than the idealism of anybody else. Somebody complained, I think, to Matthew Arnold that he was getting as dogmatic as Carlyle. He replied, “That may be true; but you overlook an obvious difference. I am dogmatic and right, and Carlyle is dogmatic and wrong.” The strong humour of the remark ought not to disguise from us its everlasting seriousness and common sense; no man ought to write at all, or even to speak at all, unless he thinks that he is in truth and the other man in error. In similar style, I hold that I am dogmatic and right, while Mr. Shaw is dogmatic and wrong. But my main point, at present, is to notice that the chief among these writers I have discussed do most sanely and courageously offer themselves as dogmatists, as founders of a system. It may be true that the thing in Mr. Shaw most interesting to me, is the fact that Mr. Shaw is wrong. But it is equally true that the thing in Mr. Shaw most interesting to himself, is the fact that Mr. Shaw is right. Mr. Shaw may have none with him but himself; but it is not for himself he cares. It is for the vast and universal church, of which he is the only member.

(source: Heretics – Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

I suggest that it is worth meditating on how such a similarity comes to be.

A Pause for Thanks

Manuscript of Handel's Messiah

As some readers will doubtless know, the last week has been eventful in the Oklahoma City area.  Not, I urge, eventful in the same register as Ferguson, Missouri, or the ever-churning region from the border of Egypt to the edges of Turkey and the foothills of the Hindu Kush range.  In a manner not one whit less real, though, there has been an important conflict playing out.

I will continue my Nihilism case study series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), which I think was made exigent by these circumstances, and in that I will explain the responses I could see as justified, and why, including the genius of this legal response.

For now, though, I want to provide some links to give fuller understanding and background information to those who may be interested.  I am, of course, a committed partisan in this matter–but I hope that all people of good will can see something of interest and of use in this confrontation with reality.

Let there be peace.  Let us make peace.  Let us understand what makes peace possible.

All in all, a most instructive episode.  Thanks be to God that the worst seems to have been averted!  And let us be concerned that it can so easily come to this, these days.

Luminous Matter

My last night in Tripoli, I had my first Internet connection in 44 days and was able to listen to a speech Tom Durkin gave for me at the Marquette vigil. To a church full of friends, alums, priests, students and faculty, I watched the best speech a brother could give for another. It felt like a best man speech and a eulogy in one. It showed tremendous heart and was just a glimpse of the efforts and prayers people were pouring forth. If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.

(source: Phone call home | Features| Marquette Magazine)

Requiem aeternamin hora mortis nostraeAll of us.

“I wish I had more time. I wish I could have the hope for freedom to see my family once again,” he can be heard saying in the video.

(source: ISIS beheading U.S. journalist James Foley, posts video –

Obama was briefed about the video, and “he will continue to receive regular updates,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.

(source: ISIS beheading U.S. journalist James Foley, posts video –

“James was an innocent civilian who was bravely performing his job as a journalist,” Ayotte said. “This barbaric and heinous act shocks the conscience and highlights the truly evil nature of the terrorists we confront, who must be defeated.”

(source: ISIS beheading U.S. journalist James Foley, posts video –

Compare and note well:

I applaud for the Academy for wanting to honor the life and work of Robin Williams. By all accounts, this comedic genius was also an incredibly gentle and giving soul, and will be missed immensely.

But consciously or not, that image of a freed Genie calls to mind these pessimistic and ultimately dangerous conclusions – not only that suicide can be a valid escape, but that the world itself may be an invalid snare.

(source: Gnostics in the Bottle | Word On Fire)

The difference is clear.

Reasonable People Stand Up When Irrational Evil Acts Out

The general indifference to ISIS, with its mass executions of Christians and its deadly preoccupation with Israel, isn’t just wrong; it’s obscene.

(source: Who Will Stand Up for the Christians? –

Good people must join together and stop this revolting wave of violence. It’s not as if we are powerless. I write this as a citizen of the strongest military power on earth. I write this as a Jewish leader who cares about my Christian brothers and sisters.

(source: Who Will Stand Up for the Christians? –

Thank you.

(what’s on your agenda, folks?)

The Problem of Nihilism in Public Discourse: A Case Study (Part 3)

You have the words of life.

(continued from Part 1 and Part 2)

Bakunin’s most notable freethought essay is “God and the State” (1883). In it, Bakunin called Jehovah, of all gods, “certainly the most jealous, the most vain, the most ferocious, the most unjust, the most bloodthirsty, the most despotic, and the most hostile to human dignity and liberty.” In this article, later published in English by Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth Publishing (1916), Bakunin wrote: “All religions, with their gods, their demigods, and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the credulous fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties.” Bakunin called the concept of Satan “the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds.”

(source: Mikhail Bakunin – Freedom From Religion Foundation)

Neutral Is Not A Thing

defenda nos in praeloWhen spiritually and metaphysically real conflict erupts in our community, many people persuade themselves that they can retreat into their private lives, distinguish their profession from their person, and appeal to only secular standards in public discourse. Provided that they don’t see any violence that affects them, many people–public officials especially–consider the situation on par with a dispute over the bar tab or an academic debate.

And, of course, when specific criminal acts–or conspiracies to commit criminal acts–or collusion with terrorism or espionage or racketeering–when something that registers with us as a breach of the peace or an actionable injury emerges, it is perfectly natural for us to see that situation as more immediate and urgent. Were I in Ferguson, Missouri, right now, I would likely not be writing this.

But failing to take the measure of a threat because it does not seem immediate does not protect us. Believing that Islamic terrorism was a fading problem did not protect the Twin Towers in 2001 or the Benghazi consulate in 2008; knowing that Titanic‘s compartmentalized hull made her harder to sink did not protect her officers from bad judgment about speed and icebergs. Moreover, in many cases, the threat is designed to set a trap for us.

[Take, for example, policies requiring “non-discrimination” in membership and leadership of student organizations. Such policies do not allow any group to thrive or fail based on its own organizing principles and their capacity to attract at least some number of people to make common cause on those principles, whatever their other differences may be. No, such policies ensure that a group’s very survival is wholly dependent on its most aggressive opponent’s whim. The second someone determined to eradicate any group’s principles can force the choice between abandoning those principles (and continuing to exist as a group) and disbanding the group (and continuing to hold those principles in isolation), the integrity of all groups and the legitimacy of the system that encourages or subsidizes their existence is seriously undermined. At this point, the conscientious participant in public discourse is placed in a dilemma that leaves no principled option except defiance or defeat. To make it worse, the exemption of certain egregiously arbitrary and exclusive groups makes it quite clear that many administrators are not compelled to adopt these policies, nor eager to ameliorate their impact.]

The case of nihilism is both more and less subtle than such blatant yet banal acts. Continue reading »

Some Burke for an idle hour….

Edmund Burke

But where popular authority is absolute and unrestrained, the people have an infinitely greater, because a far better founded confidence in their own power. They are themselves, in a great measure, their own instruments. They are nearer to their objects. Besides, they are less under responsibility to one of the greatest controlling powers on earth, the sense of fame and estimation. The share of infamy that is likely to fall to the lot of each individual in public acts, is small indeed; the operation of opinion being in the inverse ratio to the number of those who abuse power. Their own approbation of their own acts has to them the appearance of a public judgment in their favour. A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world. As it is the most shameless, it is also the most fearless. No man apprehends in his person he can be made subject to punishment. Certainly the people at large never ought: for as all punishments are for example towards the conservation of the people at large, the people at large can never become the subject of punishment by any human hand. It is therefore of infinite importance that they should not be suffered to imagine that their will, any more than that of kings, is the standard of right and wrong.

Continue reading »

The Problem of Nihilism in Public Discourse: A Case Study (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

Syme sprang to his feet, shaking from head to foot.

“I see everything,” he cried, “everything that there is. Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe? For the same reason that I had to be alone in the dreadful Council of the Days. So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter. So that the real lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, ‘You lie!’ No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, ‘We also have suffered.’

“It is not true that we have never been broken. We have been broken upon the wheel. It is not true that we have never descended from these thrones. We have descended into hell. We were complaining of unforgettable miseries even at the very moment when this man entered insolently to accuse us of happiness. I repel the slander; we have not been happy. I can answer for every one of the great guards of Law whom he has accused. At least—”

He had turned his eyes so as to see suddenly the great face of Sunday, which wore a strange smile.

“Have you,” he cried in a dreadful voice, “have you ever suffered?”

As he gazed, the great face grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”

(source: The Man Who Was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton)

You Become What You Assent To

Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.

(source: Nihilism [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy])

Of course, I had to cut my letter about the planned sacrilege at the Oklahoma City Civic Center to the bone to get it under the Letters to the Editor word count (any shorter and you’d have to chirp, er, whistle, er, tweet it). The original version, still only about 400 words, had a slightly clearer explanation of my objection to civic facilitation of this particular class of sacrilegious acts. In addition to the obvious spiritual consequences, there were important civic considerations that should concern even those who are not yet persuaded of the religious facts in the matter:

We understand, as all civic-minded people should, that public life involves a give-and-take of constructive and corrective expressions. This act, however, is an act of sheer nihilism, at best, and demonism, at worst.

Whether you believe it or deny it, there really are powers of good and evil that go far beyond human imagination and will. Even those who do not accept this reality, however, live in a world whose understanding of good and evil is wholly conditioned on this understanding. Civil society can profit by lively debate among different ways of accounting for these basic understandings; as an English professor, this lively exchange is precisely what I promote in the classroom daily. Civil society cannot, however, thrive in an environment where mere destruction of meaningful distinctions and cultural institutions becomes mainstream.

Nihilistic outbursts and sacrilegious demonstrations are not part of civic discussion; they are an assault on the very possibility of civil society. They intend to exclude the faithful from public life without offering any social benefit in return.

If this event takes place, it will mar this wonderful city; and it will damage the souls of all who facilitate it.

To understand the difference between the “sheer nihilism” which is, in the best case, what civic officials are facilitating here and the general give-and-take of culture-making social behavior and discourse, we will first need to understand nihilism a bit better.

Continue reading »

The Problem of Nihilism in Public Discourse: A Case Study (Part 1)

I am quite glad to see that libertarian law professor and uber-blogger Eugene Volokh has weighed in on the discussion surrounding the scheduled Black Mass in Oklahoma City.

I am glad Volokh weighed in because I know his history of carefully considering the legal principles surrounding First Amendment issues–and because I think, at least up until The Volokh Conspiracy moved to the Washington Post website and became harder to follow, I had read pretty much every post he’d written on any related subject since about 2003. I am also pleased because I think that, as regards only the specific point of legal understanding he comments on, he is probably correct.  That correction will help us all to clarify the situation considerably.

In fact, when I wrote my letter, I imagined Volokh and his confreres in order to test my words–not because I expected Volokh to be wholly sympathetic to Archbishop Coakley’s objections, but because I was confident that Volokh’s response would be accurate, to-the-point, and respectful.  Here is his post, shortening his extract from the Archbishop’s remarks:

“I’m disappointed by their response,” Archbishop Paul Coakley of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City told Friday. “If someone had come to them to rent the Civic Center to stage a burning of the Koran or to hold an event that was blatantly and clearly anti-Semitic, I think they might find a way to prevent it.

“Not all speech is protected if there is hate speech and it is intended to ridicule another religion,” he said. “I don’t believe it is a free speech matter.”

No, speech intended to ridicule or insult another religion is entirely constitutionally protected, as the Court has held since 1940. Under the First Amendment, people are free to criticize, ridicule, parody, and insult religious belief systems, no less than other belief systems — whether they are Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Satanism, atheism, capitalism, Communism, feminism, or fascism.

And this remains true even as to government-owned auditoriums that have been generally open for public rental. The government may not exclude speech from such places, whether they are called “designated public fora” or “limited public fora,” on the grounds that it’s blasphemous or “hateful” or “intended to ridicule another religion.” (It’s an open question whether the government may sometimes exclude all religious worship services from particular kinds of government property, but I’m unaware of any such across-the-board exclusion as to the Civic Center Music Hall, and indeed at least one church apparently regularly conducts services there.)

(source: The Volokh Conspiracy) Continue reading »

The Metaphysics of Undergraduates

Robert Royal recently referenced a line from Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution that delighted me, especially as I warm up for another semester teaching Rhetoric to my freshmen. Royal’s point is as follows:

The radical Enlightenment–the part that Edmund Burke discerned in the French Revolution as operating “with the metaphysics of an undergraduate and the mathematics and arithmetic of an exciseman”–is with us still and often provides the background music to our lives. We see it in public figures who seem to believe that there are known remedies for all social ills, which have been “blocked” because of the ill will of the privileged or the ignorance of the underprivileged, both of whom it’s okay to ignore and perhaps even to eliminate from the conversation.

I think Royal is not only right, but is pointing us in the right direction, when he refers to this passage from Burke. “The metaphysics of an undergraduate” is an important jibe; it signifies far beyond mere detraction. I think something very similar is at work in passages Greg has posted recently in two different articles:

Across both these broken relationships (with God and with family) the appeal of pornography is the illusion of power. It is not primarily the physical senses that pornography stimulates, but the imagination. Pornography helps the user enter and remain within an illusion of his own creation. Within that illusory world, he is all-powerful. Everything bends to his will; even the most outrageously implausible scenarios become easy.

(source: Pornography and Power | Greg Forster | First Things)

Few people improve their behavior much strictly on their own initiative, through self-awareness and self-discipline. Our moral development comes much more from our response to other people’s prompting, encouraging and restraining us. While the basic principle here is ancient wisdom, Haidt backs it up with an impressive collection of empirical data, and shows that to some degree this social basis of morality is hard-wired in human physiology.

(source: They Know Not What They Do | TGC | The Gospel Coalition)

Triumph of Thomas

What all of these seem to be suggesting is that humans today have a reality problem. Describing that problem philosophically pretty surely won’t solve it, but it may well help us devise correctives that are more useful. To that end, I urge you to read the entire passage from Burke (below), but to note especially the argument he makes about bad metaphysics, here.   Continue reading »

Speaking of Silence….

Catholic has just posted a review I wrote earlier, a profoundly mixed review of Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Here is the conclusion:

Given the nature of the critical literature surrounding Silence, the example of Endo’s own trajectory through Deep River, and the most obvious reading of the story itself, no one should recommend Silence as an exemplary Catholic novel without qualification.  Teachers and parents who share it should be careful to surround it with good literary instruction and sound catechesis; where this is not possible, it may be better to leave Silence for later.  For those who seek a novel indelibly marked by the baptismal faith of the author, and who are prepared to struggle and pray their way through a gripping and tragic confrontation between a faith shaped by martyrs and a world full of collaborators, Endo’s work has much to recommend it.  Artists should seek to emulate Endo’s mastery of narrative style; and anyone interested should turn from the portrayal of Garrpe’s martyrdom to the many historical accounts of the Japanese martyrs, and pray for the souls of their kinsmen.

(source: Silence)
What are your thoughts?