Textbooks: An Unnecessary Evil pt 1

It has been the great tragedy of our time that people were taught to read and not taught to reason.

– Chesterton, of course

A fascinating comment on an old post that’s been getting some attention lately (by the lowly standards of this blog, anyway) got me to thinking about textbooks.

Three questions:

  1. What are textbooks
  2. Who gets to say what’s in them
  3. Why do we need them

After some preliminaries, we’ll treat each of these questions in turn over two or three posts.

Background musings: When reading a book, one is almost always forced, alas, to rely on some intermediary person’s understanding of the materials. Most works I read and want to read are compilations from other sources (almost all history) or are translated into English, or both. Works of fiction and the occasional first hand account written in a language you read are exceptions – in novels and front line stories, the writer is free, more or less, to tell it as he sees it, and you get to interact, as it were, directly with the writer.

Translations are perhaps the obvious challenge. I read a lot of books written in other languages, and am often acutely aware of being at the mercy of the translator’s understanding and biases. The couple years I spent studying German in high school left no trace; the 2 years of Greek and one of French in college (1) had the benefit of making me aware of how difficult the translator’s job is even with the best of intentions. Read any two translations of Dante, let alone Homer, and you will in places wonder if the translators are working from the same sources. I today read very, very little French and less Greek. And effectively no German. Sigh.

The intermediary in this case is the translator, who has a whole passel of challenges and temptations to deal with, not least of which is to simplify and gloss over stuff he may or may not understand. Some of the more intense discussions at St. John’s were occasioned by why Hippocrates G. Apostle (a well known and fabulously-named translator of Aristotle) had translated the same Greek word into more than one English word according to context, whether his assumptions about context were correct, and whether it was ever OK to read into a text in that manner. Many different translations were dragged out for comparison. “Sheer fantasy” was a comment made by one of the more linguistically skilled professors.

St. John’s College is weird. It also should be pointed out that reading anything like a literal translation of Aristotle is nearly as difficult to understand as it is for somebody with two years of Greek to try to read him in Greek. So, we were all sympathetic to Apostle, but I think we, in the end, didn’t much approve.

I tell the above story merely to illustrate how challenging translation can be, and how one must always exercise some degree of caution when reading translated works. In some cases, the translator’s introduction and footnotes can be very helpful in explaining his approach and sometimes biases, and in helping explain tricky words and passages. But sometimes not.

The other main intermediary is the compilers/re-tellers. When reading history especially, the reader is unpacking a Russian doll – there are the original sources which may or may not be brought to the fore, and all the other historians who have looked at the same materials whose influence may or may not be acknowledged. Exactly what you’re getting, particularly in popular histories where the writer is unlikely to let facts get in the way of the story, is difficult if not impossible for the lay person to grasp.

History is a challenging task, where the broad strokes may not be too controversial, but everything else is up for grabs. The trick is trying to capture both the telling details – and upon what criteria is this detail or that deemed telling? – while at the same time providing some context and overarching analysis without simply steamrolling those details.

Not easy – and that’s assuming you’re honest. Some are not, or at least their criteria for selecting and recounting details are biased to the point of lying. Gibbons and Wells spring to mind, the first applying the principle that anything the Catholic Church was involved in was by that fact alone evil, and the second deciding in advance that, according to Marxist principles, everything is marching forward in a completely non-religious way under the guidance of the totally not-God History toward a totally not a paradise myth Worker’s Paradise. In either case, any detail or even higher level events that failed to confirm their narrative, as the kids call it these days, was ignored or mangled until it did. (2)

Again, introductions and notes are often helpful or at least telling. When I read A History of Private Life a few years ago (well, most of it anyway) I had to deal with both translation – it was written in French – and marked biases among the various scholars who contributed. Some were openly Marxist, which means inclined to lie and ignore stuff the moment it becomes inconvenient to their pathology, while others had an Germanic, nearly obsessive fascination with details (I liked those guys – go figure). And some had no obvious agendas. Good series. It helped me at least to have a little heads up as provided by the introduction and notes.

That said, one’s main tool or defense in understanding and getting something positive from reading is having read and tried to understand lots of different kinds of books, particulary old books that introduce one to truly different cultures. (3) That’s what the exercise of a University education used to largely consist of – the reading and struggling with the ideas in books widely recognized as important. In no particular order, you learn or should learn:

  • Many old stories are beautiful. Our ancestors really knew a good story when they heard one, and how to tell it;
  • There are very, very few really new ideas;
  • Most of the really important ideas are thousands of years old, and never go away;
  • The smartest people today are not smarter than the smartest people of the past;
  • Using big words and plenty of them, and having good things to say are not the same thing.

There is a more complicated thing one might learn, about how an educated person sees the world. This is much harder to put into words. The effect is that one becomes aware of perspective, about how the world will look a certain way to someone who has had certain experiences and accepted certain premises. Crucially, one sees the interaction between beliefs, character and action. In many ways, great novels make this more clear than other types of books, although it’s a critical part of Homer and even of Aristotle. I suppose this is what is meant by being broadminded.

What are textbooks?

Simply put, and with notable exceptions, textbooks are meant to prevent learning any of the lessons a student might learn from good books.

Exceptions include attempts to condense and to some extent predigest the fundamentals of highly technical topics. Grammars, and some math and science texts fall into this class.  Textbooks of this type are sometimes highly original and creative in themselves. Euclid, for example, is sometimes considered a textbook on Greek mathematics, but the gradus ad Parnassum structure of the Elements, leading the student logically from simpler to more complex concepts and proofs, was at least perfected by Euclid, and is his greatest lesson.

Most modern textbooks are not exceptions. Consider the fundamental difference between modern textbooks versus the earliest textbooks use in America, say, McGuffey’s Readers. The Readers were literally textbooks, collections of texts written by what the compilers thought were great writers, typically expressing thoughts characteristic of the highest aspirations of the people whose children were to read them.  The readers are hard, at least much harder than the texts we expect children of similar age today to read.

Modern textbooks are not, as a rule, collections of challenging texts. Instead, the materials in them are fresh wrought. These materials tend to be very simple. This is one aspect of Pestalozzi’s methods (such as they are) that Fichte loved: all learning is to be broken down into atoms, and no student is permitted to move on to atom B until the teacher has determined that he has mastered atom A.

A child with the slightest interest in learning to read will get past the ‘See Spot run” level in at most a couple weeks. This step – giving kids simple sentences made up of easily sounded out words – seems to have, historically, been skipped. In America, large numbers of children learned to read from the King James Bible, which no one will ever accuse of being a collection of simple sentences made up of easily sounded out words.

The other feature of modern textbooks that must be noted: the answers are in the back or in the teacher’s edition. The answers are known, even in subjects such as ‘literature’ or history, where the meaning of any text or event is certainly not reducible to a single statement if it has any meaning at all. Even in math, people with any instinctual understanding of math recognize that while there may be one or one set of correct answers, there are usually many ways to get there. Yet the textbook will mark you wrong if you do not take the route described in the textbook. Even being correct isn’t good enough. Thus another defining feature of modern textbooks: by putting the acceptable answers in the teacher’s hands, textbooks place the teacher between the student and the materials, such that the materials to be learned are not allowed to speak to the student except as approved by the teacher

In general, excepting those textbooks that serve the purpose of collecting and organizing complex basics such as grammar and math, modern textbooks are collections of newly created materials, generally fragmented and simplified to some imagined lowest common denominator. They contain the often increasingly arbitrary acceptable answers to a set of predefined acceptable questions. These questions and answers are under the control of the teacher alone.

Next, we’ll discuss who gets to say what’s in them.

  1. Contrary to all expectation, including mine, I did pass the junior year French reading exam at St. John’s, so there was a brief period where I was a *certified* reader of French. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of St. Joseph of Cupertino? A man considered by his peers to be hopelessly stupid? Where, the story goes, in order to advance toward ordination, he needed to give a brief exposition on some scripture passage, and the examiner asked him about the Nativity narrative – the one point in Scripture upon which any of his religious brothers had ever heard him expound with any coherence. He passed, and ended being ordained a priest. Well, the St John’s College French test happened to be on a passage from de Tocqueville with which I just happened to be very familiar. (de Tocqueville also happens to be very easy French). As soon as I started trying to read it, I was all ‘oh, that passage!’ Luck? Divine Providence? You decide!
  2. Confession: it is unlikely I will live long enough to read Gibbons or Wells all the way through. I’m judging them here based on the snippets I have read and their reputations among people whose views on the matter I respect – e.g., Chesterton.
  3. I’ve long said that trying to understand the ancient Greeks and Hebrews is a greater and more fruitful cultural reach than trying to understand any current culture. The Greeks and Hebrews as deep beyond deep, and as alien in many ways as Martians. And yet, they are us!
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More (or perhaps Moore) on Education

Any even half serious reading into education turns up a few themes over and over again. One of these is that not only is self-education the best education, it is the only education.

This truth is obscured somewhat by the occasional accident of education taking place at a school or university. Because there is often somebody lecturing and testing us, and it is possible (if unlikely) that we will learn something in the processes of taking notes and preparing for tests, we tend to associate what we may be said to have learned in a class with the mechanics of the class, rather than in our having applied ourselves to the the ideas presented in the books and by the teacher on our own initiative. We are trained to see learning as a result of having taken the notes and passed the test, rather than seeing the notes and tests as, at best, starting points for thought. Tests and notes might be helpful in some other context, where taking the notes is not merely a means to passing the tests and therefore the class. But in the context of a modern school or university, passing the classes and getting the Document of Approval is the goal – a goal which can demonstrably be achieved without any learning at all.

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Churchill, for example:

My education was interrupted only by my schooling.

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.

I began my education at a very early age; in fact, right after I left college.

 

The text we call Aristotle’s Physics has long been supposed to be some student’s notes to some of Aristotle’s lectures. If so, these are the kinds of lecture notes that can educate, because it’s work to think about them – they are meaningless without thought. A lot of thought. Working through the Physics or indeed any of Aristotle’s works exercises the mind – educates us, in other words – more than getting a PhD’s worth of passed tests and classes under our hat bands. The point here is that you might find yourself working your way through the Physics in the course of getting a PhD, even a PhD in Philosophy – but it is hardly necessary. If you had the typical Analytic Philosopher infesting academia these days as your thesis advisor, thinking hard about the Physics would probably be a career limiting move.

But you’d learn something. If your newfound knowledge included disdain for Analytic Philosophers, all the better.

Sometimes, the importance of self education is emphasized through disparaging of classroom education. Sometimes, the writer will retain the (vain) hope that the classroom could, if properly managed, impart some education, but despairs of what it is used for today.

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C. S. Lewis, from That Hideous Strength, on the effects of “education”:

Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles….He’s our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.

The Greeks believed that true education was a form of and a result of true friendship. A friend, out of love, could educate his friend one on one. This individual encouragement is meant to inspire and aid the efforts of the student in self-education. (1) In other words, as in a platonic dialogue, the elder friend/teacher acted as a Socratic midwife to the younger friend/student, not as a lecturer in a classroom or even as a tutor of this or that subject. He would show the younger student what it was that the student needed to know, and guide and correct him – but as a friend. The younger student, out of love and gratitude (and ambition!) would study. That’s how you get a small town like Athens (less than half the size of the California suburb I live in) producing dozens of geniuses, building timeless monuments, writing hundreds of classic plays, poems, works of mathematics and philosophy, achieving a greatness seldom matched in human history, all over the course of a couple centuries. These United States have been around that long, have 500 times as many people, have vast technological advantages – have we done as well, proportionally? (2)

G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton, a self-educated man, takes a dim view of modern schools and their standardized outputs.

When learned men begin to use their reason, then I generally discover that they haven’t got any.

The purpose of Compulsory Education is to deprive the common people of their commonsense.

There is something to be said for teaching everything to somebody, as compared with the modern notion of teaching nothing, and the same sort of nothing, to everybody.

 

Catholics believe that each child is created in the image of God and is infinitely valuable in and of himself. This has tempered to some degree the evils inherent in classifying and controlling students through classroom schooling. The friendship model of education is much closer to the nature of the Catholic teacher/child relationship than graded classrooms, which defeat friendship and indeed personal relationships at every turn.

David Warren – and you should read him if you don’t already – yesterday made some comments that bear on this topic, so we’ll end with those:

I think of beloved old J. M. Cameron, who took me up as friend, mentoree, and “unregistered student” at Saint Michael’s College, back in those days. I once asked him directly, after he had been driven out by mandatory retirement, if there was anything all his best students had in common. He answered directly, “They were all self-taught.” In subsequent conversation I received a few mould-juicy anecdotes about how unwelcome they were in the universities, and how quickly most dropped out.

I think the reason our universities were so easily captured by the Leftist filth, was that they had already become institutes of planning; as opposed to education, which is risky and hard and in the fullest Platonic sense, personal.

  1. That this older successful men educate the younger promising men thing got competitive, where older men would vie to be the friend of the most beautiful (in the complete Greek sense of beauty) younger men and that these relationships sometimes became sexual was possible only because the Greeks believed such education based on friendship was essential to men becoming ‘excellent’ in the classic Greek sense. The whole sexual thing is probably overblown, and at least cannot be correctly understood within Freud’s insane and fraudulent schema.
  2. The Founders, who as a group are at least comparable to a generation of Peak Athenians, were also educated in what would today be considered a slapdash manner: little school here, some tutoring there, a whole lot of reading, and a huge dose of practical experience. Hey – let’s do that!

More “Progress”

Surfing for job related reasons, came across this article (which I link to be polite; life is too short to read such things unless you’re paid to do it). I was lead to ponder: A related idea to Chesterton’s  point about classrooms – it’s what the schools assume that the students will learn even as they ignore what the teachers say – is the notion that it is the assumptions underlying an essay such as the article linked above that carry any message that might stick.

What message would that be?

Peter Drucker, the management guru, is often credited with the all-too-true saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In a later era, tech guru and investor Marc Andreessen famously said that “software is eating the world.” Now … there’s a growing realization that culture is eating software for breakfast, and perhaps lunch and dinner as well.

The challenge for IT executives and developers alike is addressing corporate culture and organizational issues that complicate even the best intentions.

There’s more along a similar vein. In fact, there really isn’t anything else in this essay.

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This man has the world at his feet! Or by the feet. Something like that.

I suppose a Cobbler’s Guild, faced with the daunting challenge of filling blank electronic pages, might publish articles about how nobody’s going anywhere without shoes, and there must be a meeting of minds between the shoemaker and the shoe wearer. People wear shoes at breakfast, lunch and dinner! We have a shod culture! Imagine the solemn duty, the awesome dignity we, the shoemakers, have to lead the culture – in comfortable, stylish footwear – into a glorious future.

Note the relationships implied in these short sentences quoted above. Culture, which we might think of here as simply the conventions honored by people when they function together, eat strategy. The implication – Peters is a *management* guru, after all – is that the culture should be *managed* in order to better facilitate acceptance of strategy.  Andreessen, an alpha geek, stands Peters on his head and says software is eating the world. (Software assumes the rhetorical position held by culture in the previous sentence – hmmm.) I suspect he might not see this world-consumption by bug-ridden and ephemeral tech as an entirely bad thing, or at least see it as an opportunity of some sort. Sounds like a horror movie plot to a sane person.

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An artist’s impression of Software.

IT people face ‘challenges’ in addressing corporate culture that complicate ‘even the best intentions’. Who, then, would be having these intentions? Would it not have to be the people in charge of the corporation, who have more or less intentionally shaped the culture?

IT people, who are legendarily among the least socially clued in people on the planet, are to see trivia like other people’s intentions and culture as mere obstacles to their intentions, which they summarily and conclusively presume are the *best* intentions. IT intentions contain, as an island inside another circle in a Venn diagram, any *worthy* intentions of the customer.

I wish this were exaggeration. Instead, it’s not the half of it. Man with a hammer style, IT people tend to more or less consciously believe that, always and everywhere,  top-down, expert-driven, we know what’s best for you solutions are not only the best solutions, but are, definitionally, the entire set of possible solutions.

And it gets worse! Because of various tech booms and consumer gadget-lust, technology leaders are often rich, insulated by money from those factors in the real world that stood a chance (however slight) of smoothing off the jagged edges of their hellish ideas. AND that money allows them to ACT on those unpolished ideas.

Woe unto us, and our children! Those ideas will fail in the long run, as all ideas untethered from reality eventually fail. But the damage inflicted as they thrash in their death throes would be something to behold – if we weren’t the folks getting thrashed.

Our heartfelt appreciation of a good, solid, comfortable pair of shoes does not, I should hope, incline us to appoint the cobbler God-Emperor. Our humble gratitude is what is due, and should be enough. IT is glorified cobbling, no more the fount of wisdom than any other rather narrow craft. But try telling that to the tech billionaires.

Let’s paraphrase Heinlein:

“Throughout history, ignorance and hubris are the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be ameliorated — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from enlivening the culture, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject ignorance and hubris, and recommence killing each other with appalling gusto.

This is known as “bad luck.”

 

 

Inspector of Nuisances

Taking deep breath. Just coming up for air after a plunge down the rabbit hole discovered by googling “quiet enjoyment”.  English common law, “hundreds”

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An inspector of nuisances. Nice beard! 

and Wapentake, frankpledge, court leet, and, among a dozen more fascinating tidbits, the inspector of nuisances.

The issue that triggered my research is this: the idea that people have a right to the quiet enjoyment of their lives. English common law recognized that right, breaking it into two parts: common, where some activity or failure to act impairs the ability of the people in general to quietly enjoy their lives in public, and private, where some private persons are deprived of the quiet enjoyment of something, such as leased property, to which they have specific, privately contracted rights.

Thus, the office of Inspector of Nuisances. Somebody has got to check out claims that, for example, somebody is making too much of a racket in the commons or that the neighbors are burning trash upwind.

Inspectors of nuisances eventually became public health inspectors, charged with dealing with sewage and slums and trash. Wonder if this delightfully named office could be resurrected and repurposed to deal with the messes people make when they dump their personal garbage on the intellectual and moral landscape?

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Evidently, problems with cat ladies can be a nuisance, and go way back. The guy on the left looks like a bobby, so I’m guessing guy on the right is the Inspector of Nuisances. 

That the modern intellectual and moral landscape more and more is a dump and open sewer only becomes an issue for our newly-commissioned Inspector of Nuisances if it infringes on our quiet enjoyment. While it is still conceivable that a private person might simply ignore what goes on in public, never opening a browser or newspaper or turning on a TV, the situation is such that that they’d need to shield their eyes whenever out and about. If one were generous and dedicated enough, that might work, for now.

But, we are told, politics is everything. Part of the dumpster fire we’d be attempting to ignore is the claim that we can’t ignore it, that there’s no such thing as a private life. Thus, even if we were determined to not let the garbage into our private lives, there are demonstrably those unwilling to let us do so, that even our claim to have a private life is wrong and must be crushed.

Examples: Private businesses are now subject to the rules of modern intolerance; social media are increasingly censored for politically unacceptable speech; schools are used (as designed) for inculcation of the latest, most modern ideas, and attempts to free our kids from this outrage are treated as practically treason, which, under the rules of the champions of  education, they are.

(This gets back to the problem of toleration discussed briefly in the last post – a ‘consensus’ that includes the idea that the state always knows better than the parents cannot tolerate dissention, while the old pseudo-convention could. The Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters agreed that, while parents have the ultimate duty and consequent right to educate their own children, the state also has a duty and right to see to it that those children are educated. I fear it is not in the nature of things for the state to settle for having shared rights whenever it could have sole rights.)

If my business, my conversations and my decisions on how to educate my children are not private, the sphere of ‘private’ has shrunk drastically.

Chesterton repeatedly makes the point that the only place one can truly be free is with family and friends. In public, you are only free to conform. Even protests are conventional. By trying to make all things political, victims of post-modern ideas insist on public and private (because those are the same thing!) acceptance of those ideas. The very idea of quiet enjoyment, where what I do is my own business for my own pleasure but only on the condition that I honor the same rights in others, is an outrage, and in any event cannot be tolerated – it is a threat to the whole post-modern house of cards.

The Benighted Rich

Several topics obsessively addressed on this here blog have walked together luminously over the last few days.

“Among the rich you will never find a really generous man even by accident. They may give their money away, but they will never give themselves away; they are egotistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it.”  ― G.K. ChestertonA Miscellany of Men

I here point out the dominance of the tech industry by obsessive college dropouts, each brilliant in his own very narrow way. While many – Jobs, Gates – are literally drop outs, others – Page, Brin – merely dropped out in spirit, after the fashion described by Chesterton above.

These men, who found fabulous success at ridiculously young ages, did consume enough conventional schooling – Stanford! Harvard! Can’t get any more conventional than that! – to embrace two notions without which much of their current behaviors and attitudes would be nearly incomprehensible: that you, the students, are the best, most well-educated, open-minded and moral people to ever walk the earth, and that the foundational virtue is to be one with the group we assign you to. These poor souls therefore believe both that they are wise, good and open to new ideas and that the tribe they find themselves a part of is, definitionally, the font of all virtue and right thinking. The comfort that comes from establishing themselves among only people who agree with them is only exceeded by the evident panic induced by the vigorously resisted realization that that little group is immersed in an ocean of people who don’t.

If a new idea was so reckless as to wander into their purview, an idea new enough (to them, anyway) to challenge the established, visceral idea feeling dogma that they are on the good team, and that they hold the right beliefs, their lack of meaningful education and their bullet-proof self-esteem has no way to accommodate it.

It is a sign of a cultivated mind that it can entertain an idea without accepting it.        – Aristotle

It is likewise the sign of an uncultivated mind that it cannot entertain an idea it has not already accepted. Modern schooling assiduously lets young minds remain fallow – they are not cultivated, not tilled nor sown nor reaped. The ‘A’ in the SAT stands for ‘achievement’ – in the eyes of the schools, the SAT tests achievement, the specific achievement in view being the ability to do well on the SAT. That’s why there are SAT classes and sample tests, and existential panic over the results.

Actual achievements – fluency in a foreign language, say, or mastery of calculus or welding – don’t get anywhere near the emphasis the SAT does. Given the years and hours dedicated to schooling, often an order of magnitude greater than was typical 100 years ago, one might expect 10 times the actual achievements to be achieved. We should be flooded with multilingual kids who play several instruments, can design and build in many different media, who can manage a business and build relationships and laugh and love. Instead, the pinnacle of achievement is to be the sort of crippled adolescent who, sitting atop a mountain of money, has a good cry with his friends when the wrong candidate wins an election.

And then fires people whose agreement with his positions isn’t sufficiently enthusiastic.

I’ve written on how the vast increases in wealth over the last century allows for the survival of many people whose fundamental beliefs and behaviors would otherwise get them killed. In the past, you could not be detached from all family relationships and expect to get fed and housed; someone who railed against the foundations of society – family, for example – would at best be shunned and, if he kept it up, banished or even killed in an act of societal self-defence.  No responsible father, at least, was going to marry his child off to such a one.

Now, we are ruled to a growing extent by people who believe their suicidal nihilism is sweetness and light itself, that if we only flatten the moral universe enough, we will see that surrender is victory and life is death. Any defense of the virtues of each man’s hearth is a vicious attack on someone who hates that hearth, who hates the idea that a man and a woman might find their deepest human happiness gathered with their parents and children and friends before the fire in their own home.  All ideas that surround and support such a vision of happiness offend, while any that celebrate its destruction are a cause of rejoicing.  That our society was built by men who shared that vision of family specifically to support that vision only means that society must be destroyed.

I take some comfort in the realization that the rich tend to fall fast and hard. When considering how I might speed that process along in my own small way, saw this instant classic of an ad:

So, see? I can still laugh. Think I’ll go sit with my wife and children tonight and watch an old movie.

The Everlasting Man: Bay Area Chesterton Society Reading Group

My beloved and I have been driving to San Jose or thereabouts to attend these monthly meeting for the last few years whenever we can – good people, and, hey! Chesterton! I thought my regular readers, who, to my surprise, are well into double digits these days, might find our current reading interesting.

Reading groups of the local instantiations of the American Chesterton Society have often, I’m told, focused on shorter works, as they are trying to have a discussion over dinner involving people of quite varied ages and backgrounds. So Fr. Brown Mysteries and selections from this awesome and highly recommended collection of essays and similar shorter readings have most often been the works under discussion.

However, enough of us wanted to read Everlasting Man, and the indomitable John Rose had a reading plan already in hand that broke it into suitable segments, that we were able to jump right in! Thanks, John! We’ll be taking it a dozen or 2 pages at a crack.

July, first meeting: Prefatory Note & Introduction, about 14 pages. You can find it online free here or here.  In this short 14 page introductory section, Chesterton calls out H. G. Well’s Outline of History, which can be found here (I have not read it yet).

As I have more than once differed from Mr. H. G. Wells in his view of history, it is the more right that I should here congratulate him on the courage and constructive imagination which carried through his vast and varied and intensely interesting work; but still more on having asserted the reasonable right of the amateur to do what he can with the facts which the specialists provide.

Amusing side story: when Well’s work was first published, Belloc, who is the bad cop to GKC’s good cop as far as smacking down nonsense goes, reviewed it rather harshly, Wells responded with a piece titled “Mr. Belloc Objects to “The Outline of History.” Belloc then responded to the response with “Mr. Belloc Still Objects.”  Apparently the exchange got rather heated, various partisan publications wouldn’t print the responses, names got called. Belloc was an actual historian, and took umbrage at Well’s playing fast and loose with the evidence. Belloc’s Europe and the Faith. which takes a view very much opposed to Wells’, was first published in 1920, the same year as Outline.

So Chesterton starts by praising Wells for being an amateur – in other words, highlighting Belloc’s central claim. He’s charmingly paradoxical about it, as is his style, but there’s little doubt whose side he’s on.

Some Historical Context: This dispute about how history is to be understood is just a tip of a particularly large iceberg, one still very much afloat today. For the century leading up to 1920, popes and other leaders had been descrying the threat of Modernism, the relevant aspect of which is stated in bold below:

Wells published his Outline in 1920 as a universal history – one that deals with more than “reigns and pedigrees and campaigns”.[1] Wells had embarked upon his Outline as a result of his work with the League of Nations[2] and a desire to aid world peace by providing the world “common historical ideas”.[3] The Outline proved to be an expansive, all-encompassing work. Wells had a panel of specialists at his disposal to review and check his work. Although the panel revealed many inevitable “gaps, misjudgments and misproportions”,[4] Wells reserved the right to “maintain his own judgments”.[5] As a result, The Outline contained what were alleged by Belloc to be a number of biased statements, intolerant statements and false assumptions. Materialistic determinism was viewed as a central philosophy underlying the Outline, with Wells portraying human progress to be both a blind and inevitable rise from the darkness of religious superstition to the light of scientific utopia. (my emphasis) Unfortunately, Wells’ judgments and perceived bias left his work open to heavy criticism.

Wells was a Fabian Socialist for a while, at least, right around the time he wrote this book. The Fabian’s coat of arms:

Wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Fabians, like Gramsci and Alinsky and all their spawn, believe in doing whatever it takes to promote the agenda. Truth be damned in the name of Progress.

To Wells and his besties, the League of Nations was an obvious means to promoting Communism, if only as a tool to bring about destruction of the status quo. If you believe that materialistic determinism is true, and human progress is a blind and inevitable rise resulting therefrom, you will feel (I daren’t say ‘think’) that any steps may be taken to destroy the current system – because something better will *inevitably* result! There is no going back, it’s forward all the way! The magic fairies of materialistic determinism say so! The larger truth of inevitable progress forgives in advance all the little lies perpetrated in its honor. And also forgive the murder of many tens of millions by the Communists, history’s sterling example of blind faith in Progress, for the sake of a glorious future.

In 1920, the battle between the Hegelian/Marxist faith in Progress (differing chiefly in what, if any, role one gives religion) and sanity (the understanding that progress is a highly contingent and often intermittent result of individual human actions) had been raging for almost a century. Pope St. Pius IX had issued his Syllabus of Errors in 1864, containing a number of anathemas against modernist ideas. Pope St. Pius X had issued Pascendi Domini gregis and Lamentabili sane exitu in 1907, and his Oath in 1910.

This is the environment in which Chesterton published Everlasting Man in 1925. Similarly, his essays collected in  In Defense of Sanity are defending, under the name ‘sanity’ the notion that ideas and the free choices of men matter, that the understanding of what is true, beautiful and good by a common man is to be valued, and that preposterous preening and self-importance of the Progressives are empty, futile yet dangerous.

The chief characteristic of progressive thought is that it doesn’t have to make sense. This is the fruit of Hegel, who in turn is best understood in this context as a Lutheran theologian more so than a philosopher. Certainly, he tries to describe an intellectual universe where discontinuity and contradiction are not signs of intellectual failings, but rather clear indications of intellectual progress. The Spirit (Hegel found ‘God’ too loaded a term) unfolds itself through History. Being is too limiting.  A real philosopher must consider Becoming.  What the Spirit is Becoming can be seen in the world in His actions – History. It will make sense when and to the extent that the Spirit has unfolded itself, but not before, and only to the enlightened. Inconsistencies and contradictions are just par for the course.

Hegel could not – no one can – hold the field against the Thomists when the game is reason and logic.(1) Therefore, Hegel begins by attempting to discredit ‘propositional reasoning’ (in Phenomenology of Spirit) and logic as understood since the ancient Greeks (in Logic). He substitutes for reasoning and logic insight and enlightenment.  He dismisses the Law of Non-Contradiction, and replaces it with the notion of contradictory ideas being suspended in a fruitful opposition within a synthesis. (As with most of Hegel, that last statement makes as much sense as it sounds like it does. Which is, after all, the point.)

In the hands of lesser(?) intelligences such as Marx and Freud, the idea was quickly shed that there’s a Spirit revealing itself in History, and instead it was just assumed History is moving itself forward – making Progress. We also lose Hegel’s charming humility in disavowing any knowledge of the future, since such foreknowledge would require guessing how the Spirit was going to unfold next – which is as close to sacrilege and heresy as an Hegelian can get.  Marxists and Progressives in general know where we’re going: some flavor of a worker’s paradise. That’s why it’s so important to ‘be on the right side of History’ and not to ‘turn back the clock’.

Marx is the poster boy for that materialistic determinist Wells was getting on about. He knows what he knows not through reasoning, but rather through Enlightenment. He is woke. Any attempts to reason with him are in themselves conclusive proof that you don’t get it, are laboring under false consciousness, and need to be educated.

Wells knows there is no God. Yet he also knows there has been progress. Therefore, to provide a mechanism by which this observable progress has been made, he has to make a god out of Progress itself.

Chesterton’s goal:

There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place; and I tried to trace such a journey in a story I once wrote [Manalive]. It is, however, a relief to turn from that topic to another story that I never wrote. Like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I have ever written. It is only too probable that I shall never write it, so I will use it symbolically here; for it was a symbol of the same truth. I conceived it as a romance of those vast valleys with sloping sides, like those along which the ancient White Horses of Wessex are scrawled along the flanks of the hills. It concerned some boy whose farm or cottage stood on such a slope, and who went on his travels to find something, such as the effigy and grave of some giant; and when he was far enough from home he looked back and saw that his own farm and kitchen-garden, shining flat on the hill-side like the colours and quarterings of a shield, were but parts of some such gigantic figure, on which he had always lived, but which was too large and too close to be seen. That, I think, is a true picture of the progress of any really independent intelligence today; and that is the point of this book.

The point of this book, in other words, is that the next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it.

Hegel and especially Marx are in some real sense heretics. They are not pagans, but people who have left aside some parts of Christianity while still clinging to its central claims of redemption from a fallen state through the intervention of the Divine. They are too close to see how much their beliefs are still Christian, no matter how twisted, like how a human form can still be recognized in the rubble of a ruined statue. But they are too close, and do not want to see.

Next month: 2. the first half of The Man in the Cave up to “Art is the signature of man.”

  1. What about scientists and mathematicians? They make progress, insofar as they do, by deploying exactly the musty old reasoning and logic familiar to and beloved by the Thomists. Hegel consigns them to the philosophical outer darkness: their work is OK, as far as it goes, but not exalted like what real philosophers do!  Irony alert: the very fields that give Wells the most ammo for his claims of self-propelled Progress are those Hegel had to toss out in order to make his claims that enlightenment trumps reason. Ouroboros.

Chesterton: Two Essays

In last night’s Bay Area Chesterton Society’s Reading Group meeting (at Mimi’s in San Jose, if you’re interested) we discussed If I Had Only One Sermon To Preach and Scipio and the Children, both of which are evidently later essays published posthumously in 1950 and 1964, respectively.  Both are available in In Defense of Sanity.

Chesterton’s one sermon would be on Pride.  Usually, G.K. is astoundingly prescient. This one time, did he miss the turning tide? A couple of the opening paragraphs, very much classic G.K.C.:

Now the first fact to note about this notion is a rather curious one. Of all such notions, it is the one most generally dismissed in theory and most universally accepted in practice. Modern men imagine that such a theological idea is quite remote from them; and, stated as a theological idea, it probably is remote from them. But, as a matter of fact, it is too close to them to be recognised. It is so completely a part of their minds and morals and instincts, I might almost say of their bodies, that they take it for granted and act on it even before they think of it. It is actually the most popular of all moral ideas; and yet it is almost entirely unknown as a moral idea. No truth is now so unfamiliar as a truth, or so familiar as a fact.

Let us put the fact to a trifling but not unpleasing test. Let us suppose that the reader, or (preferably) the writer, is going into a public-house or some public place of social intercourse; a public tube or tram might do as well, except that it seldom allows of such long and philosophical intercourse as did the old public house. Anyhow, let us suppose any place where men of motley but ordinary types assemble; mostly poor because the majority is poor; some moderately comfortable but rather what is snobbishly called common; an average handful of human beings. Let us suppose that the enquirer, politely approaching this group, opens the conversation in a chatty way by saying, “Theologians are of opinion that it was one of the superior angelic intelligences seeking to become the supreme object of worship, instead of finding his natural joy in worshipping, which dislocated the providential design and frustrated the full joy and completion of the cosmos”. After making these remarks the enquirer will gaze round brightly and expectantly at the company for corroboration, at the same time ordering such refreshments as may be ritually fitted to the place or time, or perhaps merely offering cigarettes or cigars to the whole company, to fortify them against the strain. In any case, we may well admit that such a company will find it something of a strain to accept the formula in the above form. Their comments will probably be disjointed and detached; whether they take the form of “Lorlumme” (a beautiful thought slurred somewhat in pronunciation), or even “Gorblimme” (an image more sombre but fortunately more obscure), or merely the unaffected form of “Garn”; a statement quite free from doctrinal and denominational teaching, like our State compulsory education. In short, he who shall attempt to state this theory as a theory to the average crowd of the populace will doubtless find that he is talking in an unfamiliar language. Even if he states the matter in the simplified form, that Pride is the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins, he will only produce a vague and rather unfavourable impression that he is preaching. But he is only preaching what everybody else is practising; or at least is wanting everybody else to practise.

Let the scientific enquirer continue to cultivate the patience of science. Let him linger — at any rate let me linger — in the place of popular entertainment whatever it may be, and take very careful note (if necessary in a note-book) of the way in which ordinary human beings do really talk about each other. As he is a scientific enquirer with a note-book, it is very likely that he never saw any ordinary human beings before. But if he will listen carefully, he will observe a certain tone taken towards friends, foes and acquaintances; a tone which is, on the whole, creditably genial and considerate, though not without strong likes and dislikes. He will hear abundant if sometimes bewildering allusion to the well-known weaknesses of Old George; but many excuses also, and a certain generous pride in conceding that Old George is quite the gentleman when drunk, or that he told the policeman off proper. Some celebrated idiot, who is always spotting winners that never win, will be treated with almost tender derision; and, especially among the poorest, there will be a true Christian pathos in the reference to those who have been “in trouble” for habits like burglary and petty larceny. And as all these queer types are called up like ghosts by the incantation of gossip, the enquirer will gradually form the impression that there is one kind of man, probably only one kind of man, perhaps, only one man, who is really disliked. The voices take on quite a different tone in speaking of him; there is a hardening and solidification of disapproval and a new coldness in the air. And this will be all the more curious because, by the current modern theories of social or anti-social action, it will not be at all easy to say why he should be such a monster; or what exactly is the matter with him. It will be hinted at only in singular figures of speech, about a gentleman who is mistakenly convinced that he owns the street; or sometimes that be owns the earth. Then one of the social critics will say, “’E comes in ’ere and ’e thinks ’e’s Gawd Almighty.” Then the scientific enquirer will shut his note-book with a snap and retire from the scene, possibly after paying for any drinks he may have consumed in the cause of social science. He has got what he wanted. He has been intellectually justified. The man in the pub has precisely repeated, word for word, the theological formula about Satan.

Go read the whole thing, it’s not long.

Two issues here that make his insights less easy to apply in this case than in many others: England is not America, and the 1930s are not the 2010s. The English have legendary reserve, and so may be supposed to react more strongly to braggarts and bumptious fools than we less reserved Americans. Maybe.

Be that as it may, even 50 years ago in America when I was a child, puffing yourself up and putting on airs was pretty sternly frowned upon. There is a difference over time in how Americans view pride, even if the cultural differences turn out to be negligible.

I grew up in a world where, in sports, you were very careful not to show up your opponent. Part of being a good sport was taking success and failure, winning and losing, in an even, generous way. My, times have changed.  Rules have been passed to reign in taunting at all levels of sports, merely meaning you have to taunt more quietly and subtly. Guys who act like they just single-handedly won WWII when they sack a quarterback or hit a homerun are not viewed as pompous jerks, but as men for children to imitate.

Later, Chesterton mentions the Lady Killer as a particularly despised man, that the common man can understand and sympathize with weakness in sexual matters, but cannot tolerate a man who flaunts his successes in indulging in such weakness. As discussed in the comments to my review of Guardians of the Galaxy II, that is ancient history as well. Only *literally* killing the mothers you impregnate and the children that issue therefrom is bad. The slaughter of hearts and the strangling of love is a-ok, as long as you’re up front about it.

In the second essay, Chesterton tells a charming story about a trip he took to the Spanish town of Tarragona:

I was sitting at a cafe table with another English traveller, and I was looking at a little boy with a bow and arrows, who discharged very random shafts in all directions, and periodically turned in triumph and flung himself into the arms of his father, who was a waiter.  That part of the scene was repeated all over the place, with fathers of every social type and trade.  And it is no good to tell me that such humanities must be peculiar to the progressive and enlightened Catalans, in that this incident happened in a Catalan town, for I happen to remember that I first noticed the fact in Toledo and afterwards even more obviously in Madrid.  And it is no good to tell me that Spaniards are all gloomy and harsh and cruel, for I have seen the children; I have also seen the parents.  I might be inclined to call them spoilt children; except that it seems as if they could not be spoilt.  I may also remark that one element which specially haunts me, in the Spanish Peninsula, is the very elusive element called Liberty.  Nobody seems to have the itch of interference; nobody is moved by that great motto of so much social legislation; “Go and see what Tommy is doing, and tell him he mustn’t.” Considering what this Tommy was doing, I am fairly sure that in most progressive countries, somebody would tell him he mustn’t. He shot an arrow that hit his father; probably because he was aiming at something else.  He shot an arrow that hit me; but I am a BROAD target.  His bow and his archery were quite inadequate; and would not have been tolerated in the scientific Archery School into which he would no doubt have been instantly drafted in any state in which sport is taken as seriously as it should be.

I was reminded of a trip I took to Italy when in art school. We were in Fiesole near Florence on Easter. I had attended the Vigil Mass at the Cathedral in Fiesole, being warned that getting into the Duomo in Florence would be involved. So, the next morning I headed down to see about the noon Mass, as I’d been told about the Explosion of the Cart, and wanted to see it.

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The soon-to-be-exploding cart, being pulled by two very lovely white oxen with gilded horns.

(I suspect this is one of those ‘Only in Italy’ things: a beautifully-decorated metal cart is pulled into the plaza between the Duomo and the Baptistry by two lovely white oxen with gilded horns. The oxen are lead away, a door in the cart is opened and a wire running back into the Duomo is hooked inside.

At the conclusion of the last mass of Easter Sunday, a paper mache white dove with a small fireworks rocket inside is ignited near the high altar and launched down the wire into the cart – which slowly explodes into a fireworks/sparkler display, the the cheers and applause of the assembled throng.

The Holy Spirit is going out into the world to set it on fire, you see. Very fun and cool.)

So, I get to the plaza plenty early, and find a spot where I, a tallish man, can see. Gradually, the plaza fills up behind the safety barriers, with many dads with their children.

I got the see the wagon come in and the oxen lead away. I had a nice view. Then, at some signal i didn’t catch, the Dove was ignited inside – and a thousand small children were lifted up upon the shoulders of their dads, completely blocking my view.  The dove flew, the cart ‘exploded’. All in all, seeing all that father-child bonding was as good a show as sparklers on a cart!

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Explosion of the Cart, in front of the Baptistry. This more recent picture seems to show a more complicated and dramatic ‘explosion’ and a fancier cart than what I remember from 35 years ago.  But you get the drift.