R.S. Thomas

Well, I know a little more about the suspicion for the machine (that Paul Kingsnorth channels) now. I should say the literary suspicion of the machine. It depends on symbols, and these are conjured by literary means. The most powerful symbols are stories. After reading him, I have found that R.S. Thomas set about suggesting stories with his poems.

Is it just me or do others find modern poems characteristically enigmatic? My experience has been that one has to struggle to read and re-read and to apply concentration because modern poetry is in some way more grudging. There is a surliness to the thing, and something of a camaraderie of misanthropy about being a reader of a modern poem.

Why don’t they elicit attention more? In some ways it has to be a response to the saturated world of advertising and self-promotion that thinking persons shrink from. And yet when I read modern poetry first and then pick up something old I always feel a contrast. I find the old far more accessible, there is a charm and winning appeal to it. Now this is not altogether true, only mostly true–when I look at Shakespeare’s sonnets and some other things I find a density that requires persistence on my part. It is true enough, however, because what I don’t find is the enigmatic surliness that seems to me a deliberate feature in modern poetry.

I don’t mean to suggest that the fundamental character of R.S. Thomas is surly. I think more fundamental to R.S. Thomas is ambivalence and because of that a winning honesty and a persistent fortitude. The surliness is there though, often ironical and persistently featured. At the Poetry Foundation’s page on Thomas a critic is quoted describing the poet’s approach as a “cold, telling purity of language.” To me this sounds like praising him for his grudging approach.

And it makes him a grudging story teller. One who suggests stories rather than telling them. He is not sure the soil that represents the farmer’s hard and bitter life is better, but he is even more ambivalent about the machine than the soil and more persistently ambivalent about the machine, even, than the persistent dubieties of the religion which he has not the fortitude to abandon.

The Pills of the Unexamined Life

I’ve heard it many times: I just get these pills and I can eat what I want. But when I heard it offered to me as oblique advice it took on a new ring. (I am trying to lower my blood pressure by eliminating some of the excess salt.) Seriously?

Here is what I mind:

1 The expense. I hate to pay for extra things, which in this case involves not only paying regularly to big pharma, the insurance people nodding over it and calculating, and on top of that the routine visits to the doctor that being on the chain of a prescription involve. I have no desire to give them more money than I do, and a great desire to give them less money than they already get. And as you slide further into their grasp, a world of escalating pills as you have the multiplying side-effects.

2 The chemicals. I don’t like the idea of supplements and pills and all that. It is crazy to me what people are willing to ingest. Not even of natural things such as eating cloves of garlic and such moves me. Eat normally, eat with discipline, eat with intelligence, but consuming things without joy even if it is for the purpose of consuming all the rest with joy is for me to live in a disproportion. Consume fewer things. Have fewer things. I might have to become a mountain hermit.

3 The dumbness. Give me Heraclitus. All is fire! All is logos! A world in which the choice is to consider less, to mind less, to be aware of fewer things, to pretend as if thinking is some kind of burden is intolerable. It is Democritus on supplements: chemicals and the void. It is as if people go out of their way to be feckless! It is not a good. It is a world of counterproductivity and inefficiency.

And it is sold to you, all you need is an overweight doctor aided by overweight nurses all theatrically wearing pointless masks while certifiably free of all communicable disease since they are regularly tested for it. How does acquiescence not feel like a farce?

I will probably fail to stave it off. I am too old and cannot keep healthy levels of things when I live in this country. I think it is the unnatural low altitude at which one is forced to live, being a highlander by upbringing. Do I mind enough to become a mountain hermit?

Three Articles on Going to College

This article, “Moral Education and the University,” is about the purpose of going and the limits of being there. Should you go to college for moral formation? The answer provided clarifies the kind of formation that a university exists to provide and deals with the important question of moral formation. It is based on sound reasoning and provides good advice, though the advice is framed in a strictly Catholic context.

This article, “How to Find Joy in College and Life,” is about how to approach college. It is highly instructive for all of life. Instead of going to college to be safe and avoid hardship, it urges going to college to embrace hardship, sacrifice, and to learn how life is actually lived. The key insight is that avoiding discipline brings misery and embracing it brings joy. Any article that quotes Zena Hitz, A.E. Sertillanges, and Joseph Pieper for insight is going to enrich and dazzle you.

The last article has the wary title, “Is College Worth It?” The point of the article is to parse the question so that a good answer can be obtained. People are going to college in order to be part of the credentialed managerial classes, which has unfortunate outcomes. The article is good at showing why this should be avoided. It then provides considerations so that each person can answer the title’s question with satisfaction.

Paying for the Podcasts of the Unexamined Life

Have you noticed Jordan Peterson’s new stridency? I listened to his angry podcast with Rex Murphy. I thought it bordered on bitterness, but then, I don’t have to live in Canada. I have seen his message to Christian churches and to Twitter. I have heard his interview with Rod Dreher, one of the ones you don’t want to miss. I’m actually behind on his podcasts because there have been so many recently, beside all the little things he’s showering into youTube. It seems to have started around the time Twitter locked his account.

I remember thinking that Twitter had gone to far. They are locking him out for something J.K. Rowling has essentially done, and she is still there. I thought there were people that were un-cancellable, and that surely Jordan Peterson was one of them. But it happened, and it looks permanent, and he has since turned-on attack mode. Three observations shoot forth from the branch of this event.

The first is that twitter seems to be in some kind of meltdown phase. It is amusing that Elon Musk told them he was going to buy them, they said no way, he wrestled with them, he decided he was not going to buy them, and they end up saying: You have to buy us! Now they’re suing him. What comes out of that? A legal record of how many bots it has, an arbitrated and scrutinized evaluation of the value of the thing, and perhaps Musk owning it at a cheaper price, or, on the other hand, the whole experience terminating it. What would we who for a decade or more have used Twitter do if it goes? I don’t think it gets replaced, I think it moves into the past and is a part of a receding moment. And I think that if it could not be reformed, it has certainly outlived its use. I will say I’ve learned a whole lot from using Twitter.

The second is that Jordan Peterson has been spooked by social media in the past. He’s had a beta version of his own platform for years and years now. When will that be up and running? He has gone to the Daily Wire, the consolidated and growing corporation of the old Intellectual Dark Web. It may be the answer to what happens to Twitter and youTube and all free services. If you want quality content, you have to pay. I think some kind of consolidation of bundled services makes sense. Why shouldn’t something as recent as the internet go through all kinds of iterations and changes? To have a paywall is the logic of the streaming service, after all. Once a service has a reputation, once it is of known quality, it makes sense to charge and deal with willing customers, not all and sundry. Free services are for the mendicant until they no longer have to beg. Will this eventually issue into a less open internet ruled by the gatekeepers who run fiefdoms within their protective paywalls?

The third thing issuing from the Twitter lockout is that maybe Peterson is working himself up to something. He goes through throes in all kinds of public and unusual ways and afterward comes out of some great pile-on stronger by orders of magnitude. That is the pattern. What is he working himself up for this time? I understand that, like his daughter, he’s relocated or relocating to Nashville. What is going on in Nashville? The Daily Wire is there, is that all? Is Nashville another Austin, a new gathering place and refuge for people with determination to accomplish what is elsewhere banned?

Returning to the subject of podcasts, I’m also behind on John Anderson podcasts. Two observations there. One is that he is so sane and sensible. The other is that he’s so low-key that I can see him having to go away if youTube censored him. So what happens to people at that level, the small, good gifts of the open internet? What happens to lower-profile fountains of enlightening conversation? These are people talking about books. But they are not people whose books you would always read. It is like Abigail Shrier or Douglas Murray. I don’t need to read these books once I’ve heard them talk about it. I tried, and they had no grip on me because I had the gist already. I think the podcast gets to the point of certain kinds of books about current events in a better way. The book is necessary to garner the research and organization necessary to make observations. We need Murray to write it, but we don’t need to read it: we have the podcasts. Of course, no book, no incentive for him to research.

So does that drive us back to the paywall for the podcast?

Why go to Mexico City?

One of the great things about Mexico is that it retains its identity. American cities can be generic and hold small pockets of attraction. They are sometimes so clean and orderly they are just bare collections of sidewalks and skyscrapers. Even when they are trying to be bare collections of sidewalks and skyscrapers in Mexico, they do not succeed. If you have enough sidewalk space, you will have people swarming it. If there is no public transportation, they rig some, and people will pool and eddy in and out of vehicles and buildings. Said sidewalk space will get squatters: stands will flourish, mysteriously acquiring electricity, supplied with propane. Food will arrive on motorcycles, onions will be diced, salsas set forth, cooking will ensue and smells allure. Women will mix cornmeal, men will scrape the griddle and shift steaming vegetables. The cooks will never make eye contact, but they will call to you: gorditas, flautas, huaraches, gringas, tortas, tacos, que se le ofrece? Churros are common nowadays too. What’s next, empanadas? Friers will bubble and mounds of onions steam and sizzle. That sidewalk will be transformed into a tourist destination.

You don’t want to eat at a stand that has no running water, of course. Oh they have ways to get water, but if you don’t have natural immunities, you should only smell and see. How they all manage to be brightly illuminated, where they store things overnight, how the propane tanks are safely delivered, let alone all the perishable food, remains sometimes a mystery. It would be interesting to stalk one of the vendors and see how they do it. Perhaps it comes from a nearby indoor market, because you can always find everything–including the roadside stand–in there.

Speaking of how it all works, you know what a garbage truck is? Cab, compactor body, back end where the trash is loaded? They have those in Mexico, just they turn them into a complicated warren of trash activity. The cab has decorations and looks sometimes like a living room, the back is a platform where you can see guys sitting inside of it, besides all the others hanging on in the more usual fashion. You have bags hung all around, an actual tunnel through the truck behind the cab is to be discerned, along with a person manning it. The whole things is more like an ambulating trash processing platform than a means of swiftly gathering up the trash. The vehicle has to park, not just pause. What exactly ensues, how much of the trash gets compacted, when the compacter even runs is a mystery. I doubt very much that a closed bag is ever deposited inside. Nothing is hurled. All is gently received or gathered, opened, examined, sifted with almost meditative care. I bet someone could do a whole documentary about it. This is just one example of Mexican appropriation of something we do otherwise.

One of the strengths of Mexico is that they have a cult of plants. I doubt there is a greener city in all the world than the old central districts of Mexico City where at unpredictable angles tree lined avenues with middle, shady walkways connect the splashing fountains in the chaotic roundabouts. And they have so many parks. And they have so many fountains. And they have so many shaded walks down the middle of a busy avenue, accentuating in the busy traffic the imperative of leisure. And they have so many places for people to linger, and so many people to do the lingering at all odd hours. What I don’t understand is why there’s not more grass, but what there is plenty of is shade, shrubs, trees of all description, palms, cascading leaves, park benches, etc. Nowadays the thing is even to fill the lower stories of newer skyscrapers with walls of growing plants. Much more interesting than glass! There are hot and dusty places you can go in Mexico City, believe me, as long as its not raining. But if you are there, you might think of moving over a street or two and going beneath the shade of trees and by the hanging leaves of growing things, even if the sidewalk is more narrow.

And birds. The mornings before 9AM when things start to happen seem to be loud with birds. Before the birds, there’s silence in the residential neighborhoods. Then come the birds around dawn, then people start walking through, perhaps around 7, bundled up against the chilly air. At 8 employees start preparing for the opening of the day, which takes place at 9 or so, and then the surge of untamed traffic. The pace of Mexico City is not the pace of American cities. They start late, they have lunch late, and they stay up late. Seldom will you see somebody rushing, except that they are slow to stop for red lights. Often you will see people waiting. Waiting in the fine weather by a splashing fountain on a park bench not far away from where they need to be . . . eventually. Or waiting in a long line at a place of official reckoning. It is a good place for slowing down, especially since they love restaurants and are rather exuberant about food. No shortage of options: traditional places, chains, foreign cuisine, upscale, down market, street food. Just the coffee shops run the whole gamut. And in Mexico City the cafés and restaurants have taken to spilling out of small spaces onto the sidewalks in a big way. The weather lends itself. Even for some reason Starbucks, which is really geared toward people rushing to work, manages to thrive there. I have the feeling Mexicans appropriate it in far less stressful ways. I never tried it, I went to a few of the many alternatives crowded into all kinds of interesting buildings, bookstores, courtyards, and of course sidewalks.

Waiters never give you the bill until you ask for it. They are prompt with everything else: taking your order, bringing it, bringing extra things, jumping solicitously, whisking finished plates away. But they will never suggest that you should ever leave your table. I watched a group do lunch and then supper, from about 1PM through 9 or 10 or so at the same table at a popular and busy restaurant. There was a restaurant where boardgames were provided, along with a full menu.

And there is where the other contrast with all the other leisure taking place in Mexico City lies. People doing food work quickly, deftly. People serving food walk briskly and are as efficient as it gets. That is where the pace picks up: in the service. That is how they run things. The service is never substandard, because there are always those standing by to take the laggard’s place. High unemployment has that effect. As well as the effect of vendors all over the sidewalks, accosting the outdoor tables, calling out constantly. And the sounds of those who solicit funds otherwise: roving musicians. There are parts of the city you can walk from the overlapping sound of one street musician to the next, on and on.

Go to their markets, go to their restaurants, go to the museums, go see the shop-lined streets. Go on the double decker bus, go on the double-jointed bus, go on the modern electric trolley bus or the antique, dingy subway, just get a taxi, or rent a bike or a scooter. They put the stamp of their identity on it all. Everything is characteristic, even the way a flagger stands at what would otherwise be an ordinary gas station, waving people into the bays. It has to be one of the best cities on this planet, and it costs nothing like what our northern cities do.

Brisbane: A Novel, by Eugene Vodolazkin

Brisbane has to be Vodolazkin’s most ambitious work so far (at least for those of us who have to use translations). It centers on an artist, a musician who plays the guitar. As the story opens, the two themes Vodolazkin wants to think about are presented: life and art. We encounter them as problems, and this creates the novel’s tension. The artist is developing physical problems that take the edge off his art. We begin with life’s problem: old age. And we see that the end of art as the beginning of the end of life.

The problem of life is, of course, how to live it–art being one of the more important aspects of the solution. We make art because we want to live. Art exists for the sake of life, and not the other way around. Right from the start Vodolazkin gives us a stark statement of his theme in the mouth of Gleb, the protagonist, who as he meets his biographer, complains of former biographers that: “There’s no understanding that the musical stems from the human.” In other words, the problem of art, the theme of all art, the purpose of art is fundamentally the quest of life. Life is anterior to art.

In order to twine his two themes, Vodolazkin raises two questions: who is this guy and, what will he do? And so the story is interleaved, leaping back in time to the fortuitous development of the artist while interspersing the deliberative approach to the problem of the present. As we get to know Gleb, he deals with the greatest intersection of life and art: the way one faces death.

Vodolazkin shows that just as life must surrender to God’s providence, art must surrender to life, and be of it and in it. He builds a pyramid that way, an integrated hierarchy at the top of which is that worship which in Soviet Ukraine Gleb acquired from his grandfather. Vodolazkin knows how to put God into a book rightly, rather than in a forced or propagandistic way. He knows how to dramatize the quiet transmission of tradition; it is one of his greatest strengths. I think Vodolazkin has always succeeded most at neither avoiding nor exaggerating the inevitable presence of the incomprehensible in life. In a way, divine incomprehensibility manifested in creation is a fundamental theme for Vodolazkin. Divine incomprehensibility integrates all the mysteries that make life mysterious and without which it would not be life or, as he desires to point out particularly, have art.

Brisbane is a great novel, perhaps eclipsing Laurus. Even the title of the book contains the mystery, artfully played to great effect, the way he did with The Aviator. I have no doubt that Vodolazkin belongs with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn in the pantheon of great Russian literature.

The Naivete of Pietism

I think when Carl Trueman described George Whitefield as “celebrity, preacher, saint,” he was saying that there are both concerns and examples to be found in the man. I do not know if he would associate Whitefield with Pietism, as I do, but since I do, and providing Trueman agreed with me, then he would be saying at least two cheers for Pietism. I think that there are good things to seek out in Pietism. I am not against it; I’ve read Spener, Francke, Arnold, and Tersteegen, to mention the most Pietistic Pietists I’ve encountered and enjoyed. I think Whitefield was of that spirit. Two cheers for it all. But not three.

Pietism is at least sincere. There is a lot to be said for sincerity. There are other virtues, but any virtue is better than none and this virtue is superior to, for example, the virtue of punctuality. Sincerity, however, is not the kind of thing which can stand alone. The problem that Pietism has is that it can sometimes be naively sincere, and naïve sincerity can be deceived. It can be self-deceived. When that happens, it is a very poor sincerity indeed. It is not the sincerity that is degrading the Pietism, but it is the naivete. Resolving the naivete is the cure. Resisting, therefore, the sophistication of distinctions, of inquiry, of historical research, all those things which mitigate naivete, is a refusal to relinquish the naivete, as if naivete were sincerity.

Often when someone expresses reservations about Pietism he is met by Pietist reproach. It is a reproach not of reason but of sentiment. Can there be clearer evidence that Pietism is sometimes naïve rather than truly humble? Sentiment has its place, but not as the arbiter of that which is in the realm of demonstrable fact and argument. Things, after all, are not always as we wish them to be. The reaction of humility is to consider whether the reservations are valid. Are there correct premises? Is the argument sound? Humility deals in reality and desires the actual truth, rather than distorting reality by simply projecting arbitrary (as opposed to ordinate) sentiment or by privately selecting what it will consider.

And so I say two cheers for Pietism. Sentiment is important–as long as the inner is corresponding to the outer and not the other way around. I am for sincerity, entire devotion, making explicit the radical nature of the claims of Christ and the real cost of following him. The true costs can only be borne by the radically dedicated heart, one that is being transformed by an agency that is no less than supernatural. I am for a religion in which there is true inwardness, one that ordinately corresponds to a demonstrable outwardness. But Pietism can be unsophisticated, naïve, anti-academic, and in some cases too much affect rather than posses humility. It exhibits something deplorable when it is contemptuous of precise theological formulation, contemptuous of painstaking research, and contemptuous of accurate historical evaluation. No cheers for that.

Protestants and Dominican Friars

The Church Grammar podcast’s interviews of Thomas Joseph White, a Dominican friar and an eminent Roman Catholic theologian, are worth listening to if you are interested in advanced theology. So, for that matter, is The Reformed Forum’s interview of Dominic Legge (who can be described exactly as White is). These Dominicans are impressive theologians. They take difficult questions, use very precise language, and provide answers that satisfy not just in terms of the information provided, but also terms of the skill and wisdom with which they handle them. And I marvel that the vision of Domingo de Guzman from way back in 1216 for coherent, clear teaching is still flourishing 900 years later. No doubt a whole lot of it is owing to the gifts that the Spirit of God bestowed on Thomas Aquinas. But what a remarkable institution-building power emerged from the roots of that tumultuous 12th century of Europe!

I wonder if our age could learn from it. We do have the internet, where you can get tweets that lead you to podcasts in which you hear what you otherwise never would. It has to be one of the greatest gifts of the internet that a schmuck such as myself gets to listen in on these kinds of conversations—that they can be instantly broadcast to hundreds and over time to thousands and in some cases millions. That is probably one factor that makes it seem as if new possibilities are opening up, where in fact these conversations may only be something that has been going on all along.

This engagement may also be owing to a healthy development from the Trinitarian controversies of 2016. Some people really are looking for more precise language, and it is no wonder that Dominicans can provide it; they are, after all, the right heirs of Thomas Aquinas, king of scholasticism! They are Thomists: defenders, explainers, proclaimers, and above all else, his most devoted students. They translate and publish his works as Cistercians proudly publish Bernard of Clairvaux and as Franciscans so diligently publish heresy. And no wonder, Aquinas was one of the greatest theologians Christianity has ever had! It is silly to pretend otherwise, though people, it must be said, feel that they have to try. It is very silly or something worse to try to debate the king of the disputatio. It is an error that could be fixed by teaching church history less casually than protestants sometimes do. You need a remedial course: Aquinas in Context. Or just a good course on the Medieval Church that did some justice to 1000 years of the building power of Jesus Christ.

Whenever there is controversy in the doctrine of God, or of Christ, or the Holy Spirit, Thomas Aquinas is going to be a source of clarity. It is due to his mastery of the necessary philosophical tools as well as his mastery of preceding Christian theology, and of course his mastery of the pages of Scripture. He had some sharp distinguishers with which to draw crucial distinctions. He had Aristotle, that whetstone of taxonomic variety and precision. And Aquinas learned, in the formation of scholastic disputation, to make necessary distinctions, to reason carefully, to classify accurately, and in short, to shine a light into difficult matters.

While Re-reading Edwin Muir

Two things which ought not to be together are happening to Tim Keller right now. One is that he’s dying of pancreatic cancer. The second is that he’s getting raked over the coals for a tweet. I don’t disagree with the point at issue in the raking that he’s taking. I do wonder about the moment in which it is done.

I would usually not care, but I also read Keller’s chapter on the essence of marriage this week. I think it is profound. Perhaps what he says is commonplace, but I don’t remember hearing it before. He clearly drank deeply of C.S. Lewis and of many other good things. I wish everything he said were consistent with that chapter.

I don’t know how to account for it. But I can take a warning from it, can’t I? The warning is to beware of departing form the deep sources. I obviously don’t have a way nor at present a reason to find out if this is what Tim Keller has done. Perhaps it was today’s cool, windy sunlight after all the recurring rain that suggested to me the need to return constantly to those deep sources. One needs to return to those fountains no matter what one has assimilated. It is the only way to stay anchored in them. Past nourishment settles into one, but present nourishment can relativize it all.

I regret that Tim Keller is drawing fire on twitter in his last days. He has deserved it though he deserves better, oddly enough. There is something about the situation that perhaps Edwin Muir could have made use of. When I read Muir, I have the sense of understanding something profound while at the same time missing most of what is going on.

It is probably because in Muir you have a man who was in constant contact with some very deep sources. And it makes me think that there is no time in life in which we can be distant from the deeps, if deep is going to call to anything in us. You cannot be like them and be distant.

Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn wants to identify the problem with various contemporary approaches to life. Philosophy is the art of living, after all. It is not so much a way of thought as a way of thought that is espoused because it offers best way of life. She begins with all kinds of examples and summaries of contemporary approaches in the introduction. Then the book proceeds with a chapter on Gnosticism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and finally Platonism, before drawing a conclusion that handily dismisses Aristotelianism. (Aristotelianism is, as any true Platonist will tell you, a kind of truncated Platonism. I love how neatly she does it.) She is concerned that contemporary society is in the disarray it presently manifests because we have lost the art of living, and believes the solution is for it to be informed by the best philosophy.

What is unusual about a book explaining and evaluating ancient philosophies is how much of contemporary culture of all sorts it contains. If you come to the book for the philosophy, what you have to get through in the introduction and early part of each chapter can be a chore. She describes books and films, but in a measured, scholarly way that is as lively as that approach can be expected to be, but no more. And there is always the problem that classifying movies and books according to ancient philosophy shows how much the former have to be stretched so that they can usefully be explained by the latter. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is easily representative of the gnostic mindset, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) is used for Stoicism, Ryan Murphy’s Eat Pray Love (2010) for Epicureanism (along with other cooking-oriented movies and shows), and Zach Snyders’s 300 (2006) along with an awful lot of Foucault for Cynicism. A contemporary Aristotelian (a Thomist, say) reading the book might be relieved to see there is really no movie pairing for the Peripatetic school (Babbete’s Feast springs to mind). Pairing Platonism with Nolan Ryan’s Interstellar (2014) leaves this Platonist with mixed feelings. Is the fifth dimension in the wormhole love? That is quite an allegorical reading of the film. But if you allow it, the rest flows. Why do it, why include these artifacts from the popular culture of this new millennium? Because she wants to point out how these ideas live on. This is not a book about how these ideas are distorted, though there is some of that, but about how the territory of philosophy was mapped out in ancient times. Those maps are still more reliable, and reliable enough to locate even such recent artefacts.

The strength of the book is the concise description of each approach. There are far too many takes, for example, on the gnostic phenomenon which approach it with an agenda. There is some modern phenomenon that people want to have labeled gnostic, and so the ancient phenomenon is described with that target in view so that the label can be affixed and the trigger immediately pulled. Lasch-Quinn approaches each option correctly, and her evaluation and critique of Gnosticism is informed and accurate (she has, after all, read Plotinus). So is her much briefer critique of Aristotelianism—but I may have mentioned that already. In fact, they all are, and as the chapters continue, the book makes an interesting argument for the last standing philosophy, that of Plotinus.

Unusually prominent in a book of this kind are Foucault and Plotinus. That Foucault should figure so prominently is off-putting but, in the end, necessary. Foucault as the found of endless cynicism is not that hard to accept. Lasch-Quinn is not an admirer. My only complaint here is why did she not just deal with him Aristotle-wise? As if proving that Foucault were a copious fount of cynicism were a difficult thing. But she fixes the balance by talking long and hard about the great and admirable Plotinus. This is as unusual as it is welcome. More Plotinus will do this world a world of good. If to read so much about Plotinus one has to wade through equal parts on Foucault first, I will always in the end accept this somewhat Stoical method. The result is that clear views of Platonism that distinguish it from Aristotle’s truncations, the Gnostic distortions (she approaches some of this through Albert Camus’ rejection of Harnack’s Hellenization thesis, which approach was entirely new to me), from Cynical substitutions, Stoic swerves and reductions, and from the Epicurean delusion.

If all you want to do is find out why each of the discarded approaches should be discarded as a way of life, this is your book. If beyond that you want some useful philosophical distinctions and worthwhile mental stimulation while being exposed to a nearly overwhelming variety of research in every sort of library from the most academic there is to Netflix, this is decidedly a book for you.
Material complaint: I wish that Notre Dame had not bound this book quite the way they did. It is bound with undergraduate library consultation in view. Sturdy, heavy, unwieldy, at over 350 pages it is best read at a table. You can hold it, but when your chapters are clocking it at 50 pages, and you have philosophical content, you will find yourself wishing they had used lighter paper and bound it in covers somewhat less-than-bulletproof. Perhaps they believe most people will simply read an electronic copy.

My Life Is Full

The voice of experience and authority has decreed for me a rest. It has been suggested that I only work one job till the end of March and only then to take up again all of my labors. I have most willingly accepted the suggestion and submitted to the advice of counsel.

Too little of that voice in my life, to tell you the truth.

Already I can feel my life unclenching.

And so the question of Aristotle’s pragmatic Nicomachean Ethics arises. With what activity shall we occupy our leisure? Wisdom suggests two projects. Hampton and Kenney’s Christian Platonism and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s Ars Vita. What could be better? Thanks to the Guthrie Library of Hanover, PA, I can borrow them from Temple and Villanova without charge.

Ars Vita has been briefly described as Platonism Wins. So both are Plato all the way down. And that is why my life is full.

Of Plato.

A Platonist Dilemma

I broke out in a rash about a week ago. Red dots came out on both wrists covering the area you would see if you look down when you’re typing. I attributed it to stress.

What is there in my life to stress me out?

After turning in the dissertation whole in December, I was informed in January that it would not do, precipitating, for me, a crisis. After meeting with my advisor for two hours, I came away with no clear idea of what I had to do but nevertheless resolved. Resolved to work steadily and to have no days off. I would work every day except the Lord’s day, and on that day I only teach Sunday School, and lead worship and preach twice. Resolved to have to forego any vacations other than snatching a few days here and there. Resolved that the only way forward was to work as hard as possible until I got out from under the burden. I no longer enjoy researching my dissertation, I do not enjoy the subject of my dissertation, and I think the argument is trivial and its contribution to knowledge insignificant. I resolved to wade into it nevertheless, and I hit a wall. I was paralyzed. I realized I have no idea what to do next, and then I got the rash.

There are of course a whole bunch of factors. I do live the writer’s life. I write 300,000 words (at least) every year because I don’t have the confidence to get up and preach without writing down everything I’m going to say. I have a series of lectures I’m giving for a friend in Colombia on Christianity in the Middle Ages. That’s going to require 60,000 words. I have to do it especially when I speak in Spanish: knowing all the vocabulary you are going to need requires some advanced exploration. That is hard work, but it is work I enjoy. I love the research. I did the same thing last year and it was a highlight. Neither thing was the cause of the rash.

The thing that I think is behind the rash is the rewriting of the dissertation. Is my body telling me it is not going to go along? Why a rash on the wrists, of all places?

You know what galls me the most about having my dissertation turned down like that? The thousands of dollars in continuation fees. I have the knowledge, mostly. Can I really bring myself to care enough about the degree actually to pay for this? I think my own body is saying no.

That would sound unambiguous, except that for a Platonist to listen to the body when it acts up that way poses a dilemma. Is it the lower part of me, or is it a deeper part of me?

I have since concluded that the Platonic lesson is that I need detachment. You do what you can, but you contemplate, mainly. You take it one step at a time. You are not anxious or stressed out about it. Who cares about temporal rewards such as having a degree when I already have the learning in my indestructible soul, mostly? This is the Platonist way. Perhaps I can avoid also having a rash. It is kind of like Balaam, who was driven by temporal achievements and vain glory: he was forced to listen to brother ass, wasn’t he?

Hour-long Podcasts Seem So Short

You have to think we are climbing our way out of the TV attention span with the lengths which the better podcasts are taking on. I don’t know what their actual impact is, but podcasting now seems a huge, substantial phenomenon. Is there a revolution going on in which the glitz and interruption of the old broadcast and commercials TV becomes to people more and more bizarre? If you don’t regularly watch TV, it is bizarre to see what they do on it from time to time. In the realm of podcasting and online video, UnHerd’s Freddy Sayers is doing something excellent very deliberately. Can’t imagine that being on TV. John Stossel and though I don’t listen to her, I expect Megyn Kelly are examples of people bringing their skills to a new format and thriving. And then there is the whole Joe Rogan apparatus.

I think you have to consider these things in terms of networks and figure out the network. They appear online because they’re networked already, and that is important. The better podcasts are elites networking with elites. I don’t know that much about Joe Rogan (he seems to be the next iteration of what Rush Limbaugh was doing), but he encourages other people to podcast. Jocko Willink is one, Michael Malice is another, and then there is Lex Friedman. All excel at at least one thing, and usually more. And then they all appear on each other’s podcast and you see the nodes of the network corresponding. Jordan Peterson of course bulks large, and he opens up networks for me. The podcasters on the whole seem to be spinning networks and further networks.

I just started on Lex Friedman. 5 or 6 hours of three of his podcasts so far. I took a day off to clean up my room and listened to him along with the self-described anarchist Michael Malice say a lot of interesting things. He did Elon Musk, which is where I started with him. Musk is central to a very interesting network in all this, and that is of course all part of the Joe Rogan network. There is something about discipline, about hyperproductivity, about independent thinking that defines that network. Pushing back on all the rot cheerfully. I am interested in Lex Friedman’s long interviews of elites. You learn about how these people eat, which is extremely peculiar, a kind of repudiation of traditional cuisine, and geared toward hyperproductivity. People have always had diet fads. Lex Friedman tells you in a video about his, which appears to be somewhat based on a robotic approach to shopping, trial and error, and the ideas of this all-conquering keto diet (Atkins 2.0?). Exercise is very central to it all. All these people prepared for action. Is it like the proliferation of Jeeps? A kind of prepper mania? And then you hear about their goals, aspirations, beliefs. What is also interesting is how they are fighting the moment. Mental and emotional toughness is important to them. The cold showers, the punishing routine, reading Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky and the concentration camp literature, thinking about it.

What I have most misgivings about is how therapeutic they sometimes sound. That is one of the things I wonder about with Jordan Peterson. We live in a therapeutic age; we want it perhaps like others in the past have not. But should we? We are focused on wellbeing so much. Should you care so much about your own productivity, your own contribution, your own wellbeing? Is this why they talk so much about depression and fighting their own demons and keeping happy? They visualize and have goals. It is not because they think they will have to give an account. But it is because they have something inside that tells them they ought to live as if they will.

I don’t want news as much as I want to understand what is happening. News is a part of it, a small part. There are facts, there is the bare statement of something going on. But without understanding why it is often trivial. In the case of an invasion, just knowing it is happening to your country is enough to go on. It becomes pressing to know why, and highly useful to know why, but just the bare knowledge that it is happening is something one would be grateful for, as opposed to not knowing.

And that is what I find interesting about these long-form podcasts. They are trying to understand a whole lot of things, and they are in a position to know. Now that they’re networking this way, they are also in a position to ask and to have conversations, and they’re just doing it. What an interesting development it is turning out to be.

Natural Theology

Part of the spillover of the Trinity debate is into the area of natural theology. The tension between presuppositionalism and classic apologetics that R. C. Sproul insisted on maintaining and is now being maintained by J. V. Fesko has to do with that. Classical Theism requires natural theology, and attempts to deny it are going to continue from presuppositionalists because that is predicated on the hard rejection of natural theology. I haven’t gotten into the debate and am the last person anybody should consult on apologetics, but I understand the difference to be thus.

The approach of classical apologetics is to address the atheist and the agnostic in terms of natural revelation and natural theology. The atheist has to be refuted, the agnostic persuaded of theism. But not on the grounds of special revelation. They can be reasoned with using general revelation. One can use the five ways to demonstrate that there can’t not be a God. The second step of classical apologetics is to use the evidence of special revelation for Christian theism as the only true alternative. It is where the evidentialist begins, so that the difference is that the evidentialist always begins here, and the classical apologist finds the toolkit the evidentialist uses unnecessarily limited. (I wonder if the evidentialists don’t confuse clarity with authority, and on those grounds dismiss the theology of natural revelation. But I don’t know, apologetics only being an interest of mine in the effort to get away from the presuppositionalism which annoys me.)

Presuppositionalism rejects both natural theology and evidentialism. It is about affirming a perspective, the perspective that presupposes God, and then shows that no other perspective is adequate. I don’t think this is an approach so much calculated to persuade as to assume its triumph merely. I find presuppositionalism disagreeable to me for two reasons: one is that it has always struck me as condescending to any position that doesn’t share its perspective, especially pagans and, alas, C. S. Lewis; the second is that it works too much like an ideology.

An academic discipline, Roger Scruton has somewhere said, is a set of questions. In order to master that discipline you master a set of questions, and the conversation that has resulted in search of answers. Because the questions are fundamental in nature, and because the answers they seek are not simple, there is an openness to an academic discipline, a development and also something constantly unfinished about it. It is an exploration that could continue indefinitely. Of course, it develops a substantial body in the ensuing conversation, but there is room for the conversation to continue down through the ages. An ideology, on the other hand, is a set of answers. It masquerades as an academic discipline but is not really inquiring and not fundamentally honest.

An academic discipline can be hijacked to a lesser or greater degree by something like an ideology or on the way to ideology. For example, you can ask a historical question and then limit the answers to those which contain women. You can still get accurate history, but you are limiting the discipline. That has a very limited usefulness, and is more of a way of sorting results, assuming you have achieved a meaningful result. An ideology is when you pretend that the only valid questions are the ones whose answers only contain, for example, women, or mostly women. To the degree that you control by means of the answers, you are being ideological.

Presuppositionalism is perspectival. It is one of these worldview things. A pox on worldviews! Perspectives tend to limit the answers. They are used under a guise of humility, like sheep’s clothing, but they are about controlling more by answers than by proper questions and the diligent integrity of the conversation. The open-endedness of something controlled by the search for honest answers is unwelcome to the ideological mind. And what presuppositionalism does must be that way if you foreground the noetic effects of sin so that natural theology is altogether impossible.

I think the problem there is that the noetic effects of sin, while distinguishable from the moral effects of sin, are not separable and not quite as preponderant as presuppositionalism makes them out to be. What hinders a person’s mind from grasping natural revelation? A lack of truth is caused by a lack of honesty, which is a lack of integrity, which is a matter of the heart. A lack of truth may be cause by a lack of boldness, by a refusal to persist in some adversity because it is right to persist. Persistence is courage, and clarity of mind requires courage. Courage has the word heart in it! Courage is moral. So moral that God says that all cowards will burn in hell, and hence so noetic that the Rabbis said that the timid student will never learn. But there are degrees of integrity and certainly of courage in the unconverted. So, they achieve partial degrees of knowledge of God by natural theology. Of course, they need the second step that the evidentialists are so good at, because natural revelation is only adequate for establishing theism.

What I find that the present debate has established clearly for me is that without natural theology you will struggle to have a proper grasp on Classic Theism. Natural revelation is not as clear as special revelation in terms of redemption, but it is authoritative. Authority, after all, depends on the source. Treat it otherwise and you will have a problem with God.

Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism, by Craig A. Carter

I think Carter’s second step in hermeneutics, after exegesis contemplation, is the one that we are not trained for. That’s when most read commentaries, isn’t it? We have been told to avoid things like allegory and sensus plenior, and Carter’s argument is that by doing so we forfeit the inheritance of theological interpretation. The problem with that is that we erode the inherited theology that rests on the hermeneutics of theological interpretation. I can tell you his argument is right having lived it.

The argument Craig Carter makes is that interpretation must be wiser than simply to function on the basis of modern prejudices, that you need to learn to meditate. And this is a skill that Carter is urging on us, in one way, by consulting the more ancient commentaries.

Because that is what they did.

The problem is that in order to meditate, you need a grasp of metaphysics, because that is the realm of meditation, and you need the guidelines of theological formulation because there is a cumulative reserve of correct interpretation. It is a problem because metaphysics are nowadays considered irrelevant, and we are trained to approach the text without that cumulative reserve of correct interpretation.

He further believes the problem is a problem with our whole civilization and traces it back to nominalism and voluntarism, and he believes these bring on the anti-metaphysical posture of the Enlightenment, which leads to an inadvertent recovery of the mythological pagan cosmology, which, as theologians adapt to that attitude, leads to theistic personalism and theistic mutualism, which is being taught in Evangelical seminaries such as the ones I have attended. (In the first seminary I attended, we were required to read both Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences and told that God might actually be in time. Fortunately, though I resisted him early, Richard Weaver won out. I must say that in that unexpectedly compendious place I was encouraged, with the aid of A. W. Tozer, into the reading many works of mystical devotion, which opened for me a more contemplative approach. In the second seminary I attended, in some ways less compendious, they used God with Us as a textbook till, I understand, they more recently were buying up the remaining copies to pulp it due to the ecclesiastical controversies it caused.)

Modern exegesis is about letting the meaning arise naturally from the text, rather than using the text as an entrance to a higher reality, as it was for Origen of old. The problem that Carter sees is that meaning does not arise. It is more accurate to say that we need to ascend through the text to a meaning to be found above. Or we supply it from dubious sources, smuggled in.

Modern exegesis foregrounds the mind of man, and Craig Carter argues that hermeneutics should be about understanding the mind of God, contemplating God. Not just the mind of God as a man of the 6th century BC understood it (although that may be better than the mind of God as a man of the 21st century AD understands it) but the mind of God as God reveals it beyond the temporal and cultural limitations of each writer’s circumstances, beyond any devising that from man arises.

I think he is strongest on his sections on Isaiah, and I think, while I don’t too much disagree with him, that he is weakest in his broad descriptions of the history of Western Civilization. He quotes the great Christopher Dawson, a man who was a great historian because he read and thoroughly digested exhaustively the primary sources for the history he was doing. Craig Carter has not done quite the same. But he has done a great deal, and there is a great deal of good in this book. I wonder if he isn’t doing something similar to but deeper than what David Wells was doing way back in his trilogy from the 90s. I look forward to the final volume.

Supernatural but Not Miraculous

I am enjoying Craig Carter’s latest book. I think his argument that our contemporaries are reverting to pagan metaphysics makes sense, and his suggestion that evolution is their mythology really explains a few things. Now I’m reading where he is arguing that the pagan gods were real spiritual beings and that there were real supernatural powers associated with pagan religions.

The other thing I was reading recently was the Doctor Angelicus on angels ( in De Potentia). And he was answering the question whether angels do miracles. It would seem that they do: they are greater beings than we are. But Aquinas answers the question in the negative: angels do not, in fact, do miracles. How does he get there?

He gets there by how he defines a miracle. A miracle is an effect the cause of which can only be from beyond the created order. By defining a miracle as an effect in creation that only its transcendent Creator can cause, he ingeniously covers a lot of theological ground. And he answers the question about angels, because however we define natural and supernatural, they are part of the created order. Nothing created does miracles of its own unaided agency: created things only do the things for which God made them and gave them the power to do.

And so the pagan gods which could do things, can be called supernatural. They are part of the invisible realm, if Craig Carter is right then they are angelic beings, higher than man who is lower than the angels, with powers exceeding what we can do. But not with anything that exceeds the power with which God made them and ordered to the purposes for which they were created. That power is God’s alone, and it is the power of the only Agent capable of signs which are wonders: miracles.

And if you want a text that is working on that distinction, try the account of the shepherds in Luke chapter 2.

Calvin’s Prayer, concluding his lectures on Malachi

Grant, Almighty God, that as nothing is omitted by thee to help us onward in the course of our faith, and as our sloth is such that we hardly advance one step though stimulated by thee, — O grant, that we may strive to profit more by the various helps which thou hast provided for us, so that the Law, the Prophets, the voice of John the Baptist, and especially the doctrine of thine only-begotten Son, may more fully awaken us, that we may not only hasten to him, but also proceed constantly in our course, and persevere in it until we shall at length obtain the victory and the crown of our calling, as thou hast promised an eternal inherence in heaven to all who faint not but wait for the coming of the great Redeemer. — Amen.

Craig Carter and the NatCons

I was glad to see Craig Carter criticizing the NatCon panel. Not because I agree with him, but because I think criticism will make any undertaking robust. I like a lot of what I see the NatCons doing. Personally, I’d rather have Trump back, but you can’t have it all. I thought it was a bit silly of Carter to complain that the panel included no evangelical Protestants. There could be several reasons for doing so. Perhaps they only wanted minorities like Jews, Integralist Catholics, and gays represented. Or it could be that they could not think of any evangelical Protestants who would have actually contributed. I can’t think of any evangelical Protestant who commands my attention more that Murray, Hazony, and Ahmari regularly do.

I do think the point about homosexuals that Carter made is an interesting one. It is no wonder they didn’t invite him to the panel! Apparently there are those who believe a homosexual cannot be a conservative. I am on the fence. Doesn’t it depend on what it is you want to conserve? Obviously thy are not conservative of marriage or the family, but they might conserve art, literature, the constitution, great buildings, other such ephemera. It seems obvious to me that if such an alliance prevailed, then it could fall apart afterward, the circumstances being entirely different.

It is interesting because Yoram Hazony was taking shots at the new U of Austin. I think he was basically accusing it of what Carter is accusing him, of lacking a core. I’m glad he does, even though I don’t agree with him. They of the U of A are being entreprenurial, Hazony was being entreprenurial on the panel. Entrepreneurs try all kinds of things to see if they’ll stick. There is something to be said for being empirical rather than endeavoring to noodle it all out, isn’t there? In an age of ideology, isn’t the resistance going to be otherwise?

Which is why I’m glad for the back and forth. I think it bodes well. There are times when the noodles win and times when the entrepreneurs score. Douglas Murray was very skeptical of the whole thing too. I was glad he was on the panel and enjoyed his expression.

Paul Kingsnorth and Premonitions of Doom

I was very glad last year to discover Paul Kingsnorth’s remarkable novel, The Wake. I was actually disappointed that he didn’t write all his novels in the same adapted old English. That was a triumph, and the book was a triumph in many ways, though as a story it is somewhat lacking in a sense of completeness. Nevertheless, the literary powers are clearly there. All honor to him for that achievement as well as the rest of the trilogy.

Paul Kingsnorth was clearly thinking his way toward something in it all, and last year it emerged that he was making his way toward Christianity, having started as an environmental activist. And it is with the environmental activism that I get my first pause when it comes to Kingsnorth. He is still pretty alarmist about the environment though he has given up on the activism. And it is his alarm which sucitates misgivings in me because I think Michael Shellenberger and Bjorn Longberg are more factual environmentalists who believe the alarm is not only misinformed, but damaging. So I wonder if Kingsnorth has correct information, and why he seems to persist.

Kingsnorth has just come out with a substack which is full of a different kind of alarm. I subscribe. I read it. I enjoy Kingsnorth and what he does–with my annoying misgiving. He has some very interesting observations about vaccination and Africa and Australia. I can understand that part of the alarm has to do with where you live. In the more rural portions of the USA most of us are and have been back to normal for a long time. If we don’t fly, if we don’t go to cities, if we are not in the nursing profession, if we stay where we are, then we read about all the crazy stuff they’re doing in the unfortunate parts of the world that are not America, and we think, that’s life in the rest of the world. But if you live in the considerable portions of the habitable parts of this planet not considered the USA then you may have more cause for alarm. It is like the environmental question: not a big one in spacious green places such as many in the rurs rather than in the urbs inhabit. I think what Kingsnorth is seeing is alarming, and the symbols he puts together make sense. But is he drawn to doom because it stimulates the creative process? One hopes there is more, but would not blame him if that is all. Just . . . misgivings.

I also think that Kingsnorth is an artist and expresses himself in stories, and I wonder if it is not so much discursive thought as it is another story that he is wrestling with in his present writing. Just as a musician expresses things in music, or a painter who doesn’t write about things because he expresses himself through the visual medium and can’t explain the painting because the painting is what he is saying, so a writer like William Golding or, perhaps, Paul Kingsnorth. I am skeptical of Kingsnorth when it comes to logical analysis and argumentation and marshalling facts correctly. He tells stories, he knows he tells stories, he has a good reason to be confident in that ability (though I think the story of his trilogy isn’t finished, but then, it took J.K.Rowling 7 books; I certainly hope Kingsnorth continues with the fiction).

So I wonder if perhaps Kingnorth’s alarm is something caused by the place in which he his and by his gravitation toward alarm. I don’t say he’s not on to something. Perhaps he is more of a prophet than I judge him. I have misgivings. I also remember that George Orwell did not live 1984, what he did was to get a good book out of his misgivings that has been more valuable than much of his other writing.