A. For those who have served honorably in our military: thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I am well aware that it is only an accident of timing that kept me out of Vietnam (still going when I got to high school, ended, after a fashion, before I turned 18). My father spent WWII as a crack welder on the home front; some of his and my mother’s brothers did fight, but were of a generation where, mostly, it was not something you talked about much. My aunt Verna was Rosie the Riveter, complete with models and photos of the planes she help build – that she never talked about. I only found out from my cousins after she died. Uncle Louis did something with the Air Force in Korea, but all I ever heard about was his time as a voice on military radio – he had a very deep and beautiful speaking voice, bet he was good.
My father in law, may he rest in peace, got in in time for the invasion of Italy. About the only story he told was of cataloguing the weapons the Allies seized: he was struck with how beautiful Italian machine guns were, especially compared to German machine guns: scroll work, a sense of proportion. But there was no question which one you’d want to be holding if you needed to kill somebody.
He was also helped liberate some Nazi death camps. This, he never spoke of, except to tell of the dancing. Because he grew up in and near various ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago, he knew all sorts of ethnic dances. He was an incredible dancer. So, when the prisoners were freed, they – any who were strong enough – danced. And he joined in.
He paid a terrible price, even if he never, as far as I know (and I doubt I or anyone does know), had to shoot at anyone or see his buddies die before his eyes. He saw unfathomable evil up front and personal. His mother said he went to war a happy-go-lucky boy and came back a serious and sad man.
So, thank you, veterans! God bless you. And may He grant eternal rest to those who have died.
B. Read something about the comparative capabilities of American versus British WWII bombers, specifically, the B-17 and the Lancaster, which were the workhorse Allied bombers in the European theater. What was most interesting to me: the American bomber had a bigger crew and more guns, and included armour around all the crew positions. As a result, a B-17 generally carried about half the weight in bombs that a Lancaster carried, having instead invested that weight in guns and armour to defend the aircraft and its crew. The Lancaster had fewer guns and no armour protecting the crew, except the pilot – who was generally the only officer on board. But it typically carried about twice the tonnage of bombs as the B-17.
B-17s flew high and during the day; Lancasters flew lower during the night. The Americans targeted specific buildings and installations, while the British targeted cities. Once the P-51 Mustangs came on-line in force, the B-17s had really good fighter escorts. The net results: B-17s, partly because they bombed during the day and partly because they flew above where flak could reliably hit them, and because they had swarms of Mustangs with them to keep the (very, very good) Luftwaffe fighters at bay, reliably hit their targets. The British, flying at night to compensate for their comparative lack of altitude and defences, targeted ENTIRE CITIES because anything smaller was all but impossible to find and hit. Their success rate was comparable to the Americans, but only because their targets were an order of magnitude or 2 larger. I assume the British pilots and bombardiers were as good as the Americans, because British pilots in WWII were damn good. It is a matter of strategy formed by technical capabilities, coupled with a burning British desire to make the Third Reich pay for bombing British cities. And, boy, did they pay.
Underlying this, it seems to me, is another factor, one I ran into first years ago reading about Florence Nightingale. The attitude of the British military, it seems, is that commoners both expendable and of no great value. Nightingale found the British officers showed no concern to the point of contempt for the men dying under them, and it took her years to shame the government into starting to provide decent (for the times) medical care. But the attitude persisted: the Lancaster, and, I understand, subsequent British bombers as well, embodied this disdain: only the pilot’s position was armoured. Stray bullets or shrapnel was much more likely to kill a crewman than an officer on a British bomber. And the numbers seem to bear this out: both in absolute and percentage terms, casualties among British airmen were far higher than among Americans. Americans, I should think, would be shamed and outraged if their officers were provided protections denied to the crewmen.
C. Tidy segue: Reading Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis for our Chesterton Society reading group. In it, G.K. tells the story of how a young Francis, working for his father selling cloth in the marketplace, is interrupted by a beggar:
While he was selling velvet and fine embroideries to some solid merchant of the town a beggar came imploring alms; evidently in a somewhat tactless manner. It was a rude and simple society and there were no laws to punish a starving man for expressing his need for food, such as have been established in a more humanitarian age; and the lack of any organised police permitted such persons to pester the wealthy without any great danger. But there was I believe, in many places a local custom of the guild forbidding outsiders to interrupt a fair bargain; and it is possible that some such thing put the mendicant more than normally in the wrong. Francis had all his life a great liking for people who had been put hopelessly in the wrong. On this occasion he seems to have dealt with the double interview with rather a divided mind; certainly with distraction, possibly with irritation. Perhaps he was all the more uneasy because of the almost fastidious standard of manners that came to him quite naturally.
G.K. goes on to comment about the relationship between the rich and the poor in medieval Italy, something that, though imperfect and often ignored, is one of the great triumphs of Christianity:
Another element implied in the story, which was already partially a natural instinct, before it became supernatural ideal, was something that had never perhaps been wholly lost in those little republics of medieval Italy. It was something very puzzling to some people; something clearer as a rule to Southerners than to Northerners, and I think to Catholics than to Protestants; the quite natural assumption of the equality of men. It has nothing necessarily to do with the Franciscan love for men; on the contrary one of its merely practical tests is the equality of the duel. Perhaps a gentleman will never be fully an egalitarian until he can really quarrel with his servant. But it was an antecedent condition of the Franciscan brotherhood; and we feel it in this early and secular incident. Francis, I fancy, felt a real doubt about which he must attend to, the beggar or the merchant; and having attended to the merchant, he turned to attend the beggar; he thought of them as two men. This is a thing much more difficult to describe, in a society from which it is absent, but it was the original basis of the whole business; it was why the popular movement arose in that sort of place and that sort of man.
This, coming from an Englishman, one who clearly felt a great affinity to St. Francis. We Americans have, somehow, inherited, it seems to me, more from the South to which we did not belong than to the North from which we came. This brings to mind Lafferty’s assertion that, while our institutions come from the Romans, our hearts owe more to the Goths. But that’s getting far afield, even for me.
E. After I published that last bit of flash fiction fluff, I remembered that I had already written a very similar and, it seems to me, much better piece of fluff. Almost took the new story down – as low as my standards are, I do, in fact, have some. But then, remembering that authors (if only!) are the worst judges of their own work, I left it up.
To find the earlier piece, which at first I did not remember clearly, I needed to skim through the couple dozen pieces of flash fiction I’ve posted here. Distance, perhaps after the fashion of beer goggles, has made several of them look pretty OK. The ones that got the most comments were:
The most positive feedback on an individual story was on Random Writing: One Day… about a crusty old man who mooned a big rig from the back of his vintage motorcycle while crossing the Vicksburg Bridge. That one was a lot of fun.
But by far the most comments and positive feedback were received on the 7 parts of It Will Work – Tuesday Flash Fiction taken as a whole. I stopped the series because it stopped being flash fiction – in order to end it, I needed to think ahead more than one episode. Perhaps this was a mistake. Perhaps I need to get off my hindquarters and finish it.
But my surprise favorite at the moment is possibly Saturday Flash Fiction (12/15/18), a story about a woman seeking healing through story therapy, which, it seems to me, displays the most craft: I set it up so that the – I hope – surprise ending carried some emotional punch, and could be read on several levels. I also like how Stanford’s storytelling came out. I’ll no doubt change my opinion in the morning.
And, thus, I’m brought to the real issue here: I can write flash fiction because, like diving into cold water, I need only pluck up my courage for a moment. A short story is like swimming the Channel to me; a novel would be swimming to Hawaii. The combination of being hypercritical, needing to plan, and being a coward is leaving me with hundreds of pages of begun, half-finished, and even very nearly finished stories. Not to mention a couple non-fiction works on education I’ve left hanging.
That this is a preposterous title for any essay I, a lightly-read non historian who would have to crawl to the starting line to even begin serious study of the subject, would write is part of the point. Spoiler: the promulgation of what now passes for history has fallen to anti-historians. It won’t do to call them non-historians, less to call them amateurs, a word that means at it root ‘lovers.’ Here’s what they hate:
History is the telling of tales. I don’t mean this in any derogatory sense. Among the most basic and characteristic activities of people is telling stories. ‘True’ stories, in the modern sense, are those where the ‘facts’ check out. Our more sophisticated ancestors would not have been as interested in those facts. In past eras and in all other cultures, stories were ‘true’ were those that conveyed something real about people. An infinite number of things happen. Few make good stories. Among those few, we love and retell those that reveal to us something about ourselves. In this sense, those who know no history have forgotten who they are.
The modern distinction between history and myth would, I think, have been a bit baffling to most people in times past. I don’t know what the reaction the children of the original Hawaiians had to the stories of Maui and his fishhook, but it is true that the Hawaiian Islands are surprising and a gift from the gods, and that it is delightful that people get to live there. That some demigod would play tricks on his brothers and yank them up from the deep is hilarious – and just about right.
Just like the ubiquitous genealogies, myths tell us who we are. More important, they tell us how we know who we are: by our relationships to particular people, places, and nature. In stories from every culture I’ve ever heard of, every so-and-so is introduced as the offspring of a string of forefathers, often pointing back to an ancestral hero or demigod. A place and social setting get named: Abram is introduced as descended from Terah, Nahor and Serug, and ultimately Adam. He is from Ur. The importance of parentage and place are illustrated by Oedipus, who doesn’t know who his parents are nor where his home lies, and is the most cursed of men, and as a direct result of his foundational ignorance, commits the greatest sins of patricide and incest.
Since there will be an infinite number of potential stories to choose from, the ‘historian’ in the sense I’m using here is the one who chooses the stories. Each generation will inherit some stories that are just too good to forget, and generate more potential stories in their own time. The good ‘historians’ will tell their stories in memorable, exciting form, and emphasize what is most telling in the stories. A little or a lot of embellishment is to be expected. Some stories survive from generation to generation, and become defining to the point where not knowing that story is a sign you are not of the tribe. Greeks memorized Homer; Jews memorized the Bible.
A famous incident (that a few minutes of web searching failed to turn up, so we’re working without a net here) concerned some anthropologist who was studying some tribe in New Mexico (I think) shortly after the kind of incident that generates History had come to pass: a party of this tribe had gone to do some official business and had strayed into the territory of an unfriendly tribe. A fight broke out, and one tribesman was killed. The factual story was relayed to the anthropologist. A couple generations later, after the participants in the event had all died, another anthropologist followed up. The story he heard was recognizable, but different: it concerned how the tribes had had to work out that territorial dispute, had retconned the dispute into a central place in the original purpose of the trip, and made the man who had died into a sort of martyr for intertribal peace.
Was this wrong, or a lie, or primitive propaganda? No. What had made the story memorable once it had passed from living memory was the resolution of the tribal territorial dispute. The myth now contained important information: at great cost – the death of a tribal leader – peace had been established and borders set with a neighboring tribe which had earlier been antagonistic. I don’t know, but I would be surprised if the actual ‘treaty’ was not included in the story, so that future generations would know the territory and the rules agreed to.
In the West, starting with Herodotus, we start to have a different set of standards. Drenched in myth from every direction, Herodotus wants to know what’s true in a typically Greek abstract sense, not merely what are the stories each people tell themselves. He finds himself in Tevye’s position: He might be able to acknowledge that the stories of People A are true, and that the stories of People B are also true, but when it is pointed out that they can’t both be true, the old Greek isn’t quite magnanimous enough to allow that they can remain true even if contradictory.
Nope – Herodotus wants to settle the differences. He turns to the blunt instrument of facts. This appeal to facts, perhaps most celebrated in the discovery of the ruins of Troy in the late 19th century, tends to obscure the truth that the stories that make up history, even or perhaps especially in our enlightened postmodern age, remain selected and embellished.
While Herodotus wanders a bit and clearly delights in the odd tall tale at the expense of more focused storytelling, Thucydides is recognizable as an historian at all points. He’s followed by Livy and Tacitus (and a bunch of guys I’ve not read – poser, remember?) who also read as history. But while these men were at least trying to tell us What Happened, the usual filters were in place. Thucydides was an exiled Athenian, writing about a war Athens ultimately lost due to horrible political stupidity. I find him very circumspect and even-handed, under the circumstances. It’s not all ragging gleefully about the fall of the people who exiled him – that doesn’t come across at all, at least to me. He seems to think the truth, and as full a record as he can manage, is important. We should all do so well.
Thus, a standard for historical storytelling was established, against which other historians might be judged and to which they might aspire. Yet, other than scholars, people still got their stories by word of mouth, and remembered, embellished and repeated those that they found interesting. The lives of the saints, especially the dimly-remembered but much loved early martyrs, are classics. Butler dutifully repeats the general lore, while always noting when there’s nothing but legend to back them up. He assumes, prudently and piously, that there’s most likely something to a story when centuries of storytellers have passed it on, even if the name and naked fact of martyrdom are about all we can be confident in. This is the way History works, more often than not. We have stories. They are almost always filtered by the preferences of the ancestors who passed them on. When available, the luxury of the written record supplies us not only with facts we may not have had, but perhaps more important, with what the more thoughtful, or at least more literate, people at the time thought worth remembering.
Before the written, then recorded, then broadcast, then videoed, word displaced the spoken as the conveyor of stories, it would have been difficult, I suppose, to tamper with history as the term is used here. Things might have changed in the telling over time, but not too much, when the hearers were as familiar with the stories as the tellers. Long after the invention of writing, it would still be the case that most people in just about any culture would learn the stories from hearing them.
Theological issues in the West are inseparably entangled with history, since any Christian theology must deal with real, named people in real, known physical and historical places. The stories about Jesus and His companions and Apostles were literally sacred, written down and copied and told with great care; the writings of the early Fathers and the hagiographies of early saints were also nearly as sacred. To dispute a dogma all but requires, at minimum, a repackaging of history; to refute the Church calls for a major rewrite.
The serious, conscious rewriting of history in the West seems (for I am not an historian) to have begun with, maybe, Wycliffe? Certainly, he didn’t like the history/stories he’d received, and proposed a hermeneutic of Bad Clergy, Monks, and Pope! Bad! as the filter to use on his revisionism. Not sure if he adopted a Great Apostasy theory, but such a moment of presumed fracture is required, as was recognized within a century or so.
The Protestant Reformation represents the first major attempt at rewriting history, both in the formal sense of drafting new texts that tell a different story according to new selection and embellishment criteria, and in spreading new stories among the people. Ever since 1517, a second set of stories parallel to the existing set have been developed and told, with written histories revised accordingly. The old set, dating back to at least Ignatius of Antioch if not the Apostle Paul, tells of Jesus founding a Church and commissioning very fallible Apostles to spread and maintain it, so that the history of the West consists of stories about very human men taking boneheaded if not out and out evil actions over and over again AND of a Church nonetheless effecting the conversion of the known world from India to Ireland and Russia to Ethiopia within a couple centuries of the Founder’s birth, despite 300 years of secular persecution and zero political power. The newer second set tells of Jesus founding a church which quickly all but vanished, to be replaced by evil men enforcing vile lies as dogma, only for a 16th century German Augustinian monk and a couple of other firebrands, building on Wycliffe and Hus, to reestablish the original Church, bring it out of (presumed) hiding and fight the Antichrist, which is the Pope, and his horrible church.
“To be deep in History is to cease to be a Protestant.” Newman may be overstating it a little. To have any grasp of history at all is to cease to be a Protestant, because the essential claims, such as the Great Apostasy and Sola Scriptura are historically unsupportable: no one ever imagined them, until Protestantism required them. I have great sympathy with people raised as Protestant intellectuals, who have inherited and personally invested in the second set of stories with the hope that they might thus be saved. That’s powerful stuff, and not to be denigrated. But on a simple, logical level, I have to fight off the ‘Oh, come on!’ response to patently nonsensical historical positions.
This theological division not only lead to the historical division described above, but to a corresponding philosophical division. The mundane, work-a-day, logical process described by Aristotle and greatly enhanced and developed by Aquinas and that crowd, was hopelessly tainted by its association with the Antichrist. Therefore, and, evidently, because of something like boredom (Descartes, I’m thinking of you!), new or at least recycled philosophies were developed.
These philosophies, like Protestantism itself, quickly metastasized. As I’ve mentioned before, the difference in Philosophy results from or at least reflects the theological division: Sola versus Scola. Catholicism and the Perennial Philosophy are team efforts, with the archetype of St. Thomas leading students through the Questions Method, where different views are expressed and refined before being being challenged, and the result is almost always a ‘given what we know now’ conditional truth. Protestantism’s end point is a man, a plow boy even, alone with his Bible, enlightened without the mediation of church or priest. The final authority is the Good Book itself, trumping anything a priest or scholar or anyone else might say. Similarly, Descartes, Hume, and Kant speculate not in a classroom with their fellow man, but in their own private rooms, alone, with the shades drawn. TRVTH must be found looking inward; the rough and tumble of the Schools is not for them.
A function of their protests against the Church, the one thing that unites our Protestant brethren no matter how fragmented their theologies, is a dismissal of the Church’s history. But as Belloc points out, the history of Europe IS the history of the Church. Awkward.
A little timeline:
1781 – Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason
1800 – Age of Enlightenment ends (more or less)
1822 – Hegel begins delivering his lectures the Philosophy of History at the University of Berlin
Busy time. Kant pushes reason, in the sense of reasoning alone within one’s own head, to its extreme. He famously states that “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” What could go wrong with that? Note that Catholic doctrine, the Scholastics, as well as pretty much every Catholic thinker back to St. Paul and back on into the Old Testament writers, states that, while God is beyond our mind’s grasp, we can know His existence by very straightforward use of reason. Kant denies this. After him, the non-perennial philosophers seem to have had enough with reason. Today, such lines of thought are labeled metaphysics and largely shoved under the rug.
Hegel changed the way people talk about history. The emphasis is taken away from recounting What Happened as honestly as possible, and even away from telling a good story, to deciphering what the Spirit is unfolding ™. History is seen as having a direction and goals; the historian’s job is to get himself aligned with the Spirit such that he knows that direction and those goals.
Hegel considered himself a good Lutheran. Luther was an Augustinian. Augustine developed the idea of Salvation History as the hermeneutic for understanding Scripture. So the God of History, in the sense of history as the stories that tell us about ourselves, informs our lives and aides our salvation through the story of salvation as told by Him in Scripture.
One catch: the God Who Is becomes, under Hegel, the God Who Becomes. Being, far from the ultimate reality, is illusion. What is real is Becoming. Since logic depends on statements of being, and the Law of Noncontradiction upon which all logic hangs is a statement about being, logic in the form everyone had understood it up to that point must be jettisoned.
Again, what could go wrong? The filters used from the beginning of mankind to select what stories would be told are now replaced by a filter that selects stories, and how they re to be told, for how they best illustrate the historian’s idea of what man is Becoming, to best show Progress.
In the hands of a really humble and honest historian, this might not be too bad; in the hands of a Marx, it becomes a blunt object with which to beat people. In the hands of his even less stable followers, it was used to beat 100 million innocent women, children, and men to death.
The switch from the primacy of Being to the primacy of Becoming leads, with an irresistible logical gravity, to a dismissal of the past. This switch is clear in the now-fashionable formulation of Marxist dogma: everything is a social construct. Under this rubric, nothing *IS*. Everything is no more than an evanescence of some mystical social consciousness, as real as a dream and in any event merely a meaningless and mutable moment along the way toward Progress.
While Protestants had practiced historical revisionism to move the Church from a white hat to a black, they all still very much wanted Jesus at the center of the story. The philosophical giants – Kant and Hegel – certainly wanted not just God, but a recognizably Christian God, playing the central role, and remaining in some sense the eschaton. When Marx came along and set Hegel upright, God Himself was cast into the dustbin of history into which the Protestants had long cast the Church.
The sheep must be lead gently at first. When the Fabian communist H. G. Wells wrote his Outline of History in 1919, all he did (so I am told – not an historian) was remove Christianity from the center of the story, where it had appropriately been since the time of Christ. The story remained recognizable in outline, naturally, it just now made different points and punchlines.
Wells was not an historian, but that hardly mattered. To write this work, he needn’t do any beyond reading what historians had written, and then apply his Marxist hermeneutic to it: History is unfolding itself, leaving behind outdated concepts such as God and personal responsibility and the individual as more than a bee in a hive. We are where we are as the result of huge, irresistible forces. History will lead us inevitably into the future, where outdated ideas (and the people who hold them) will be excised. The eternal God and the poor saps who worshipped him didn’t really do anything, they were just along for the ride, at best an expedient used and now discarded by History.
Belloc, a real historian, promptly wrote a long essay in rebuttal. He traces how the West is the Church and the Church is the West, in that it was in the Church that all the good new ideas were developed, the good old ideas were preserved, and both old and new were promulgated and physically expressed. The story of the West – of Christendom – is the story of martyrs and missionaries, monasteries and monks, who, inheriting a Roman social order, spread order and rational hierarchy and learning with the Good News. Bloodthirsty tribal cultures, admiring the Romans and drinking deep of the Christian ideals, became feudal societies where rights and duties bound peasant, priest, and prince to each other and to God. These Europeans built the great cathedrals, the first universities and hospitals, invented modern science, saved ancient learning, and slowly and imperfectly turned barbarians into civilized peoples. The Church forbade divorce and the bartering off of daughters into marriages against their wills: she condemned the endless cycles of revenge murders; she placed the mother and father in the center of the home, with rights and duties no king could justly violate.
Likewise, Chesterton wroteThe Everlasting Man, in which he, tongue firmly in cheek, thanks Wells for have removed the barrier to non-historians writing history. (1) Thus justified, Chesterton lays waste to Well’s underlying and unspoken assumptions, destroying the idea that we know the history of prehistory, for example, or that cosmic generalizations somehow reduce individual men to dust grains in a breeze, or that ‘comparative religions’ is comparing like things.
In a broader sense, Belloc and Chesterton were assuming their customary good cop/bad cop roles, each taking Wells to the woodshed. Much of educated society, however, was on the side of Wells, including specifically the Fabians, who saw no need to play fair (what is ‘fair’ anyway, in a world of becoming?) when working for something as noble and desirable as the Worker’s Paradise.
Thus, Well’s approach of setting Religion, by which he meant Christianity and most especially Catholicism, aside, and teaching history as if it were a string of inevitable developments under the guiding hand of (the totally not a god!) Progress, has won the day. That’s the history taught K-18 to this day. Any attempt to acknowledge the role of the Church in history in a positive way is shot down before it can arise. By now, with our education system in the unchallenged hands of Marxists for at least 30 years, there will be very few with credentials able to even raise the issue. It would be career suicide.
Since before Wells, but evidently much accelerated since, the rewriting of history, of the stories that tell us who we are, where we belong, and what is important in life, have been a major academic endeavor. As time has gone on, as academia has been more and more taken over by Marxists and their Useful Idiots, history as taught is a slate upon which to expound Marxist dogmas. No longer is history an art meant to convey important information about what has happened, what the people involved did and thought, what lead up to events and what followed. History as the stories that help us see who we are has been denied to almost everyone. The individual is nothing, the collective everything. What is truth?
History is today taught in America to convince our children that they are victims of vast forces of oppression who can only be overthrown by a revolution. Nothing they do matters for good or ill: the only cause of unhappiness is oppression. Therefore, the only valid academic exercise is to search out the oppression that causes any particular unhappiness and oppose it with activism designed to bring about the revolution. The Useful Idiots may not know this – dear God, I hope not! – but the true believers do.
As Chesterton say about dragons: children don’t need to be told they exist. Kids already know that. Children need to be told that dragons can be defeated. A history in which personal action is pointless, in which all victories and defeats are inevitable or meaningless, and in which the only goal is destroying a ‘system’ without the faintest understanding of what that system is: such a history leaves the heart terrified and the body petrified. Here be dragons, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Belloc and Wells were at the time engaged in a rather heated public exchange over Well’s playing fast and loose with the facts. Chesterton enters with: “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. ” – intro to the Everlasting Man
Me? No. All the history I know comes from having read a fairly slap-dash set of books, and, in recent years, watching a few interesting videos on Youtube. Vast areas of history are a complete or near complete mystery. Yet, because I’ll chime in with some tidbit of history once in a while, I’ve been called a history guy. This mostly shows how low the bar on historical knowledge has become.
At St. John’s Santa Fe back in the 1970s, Charles G. Bell was a tutor, the universal title there for people who everywhere else are called professors. He was a character, to say the least: born in 1916 on the Yazoo Delta in Mississippi and picking up degrees in Virginia, and Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, then teaching all over the place and doing research in physics at Princeton, Chuck, as we referred to him (not to his face) had the most confusing accent you’d ever hope to hear. He told colorful stories about his time in Oxford, where he would switch from a thick Yazoo Delta drawl to something like an Oxford don’s English, but, usually, he spoke in an ineffable accent all his own. From anyone else, it would have come off as an insufferable affectation; from him, it was just Chuck.
He was also just about the most widely read person anyone would ever hope to meet. The Mississippi Encyclopedia entry linked above says: “In a time when academic specialization is the rule, Charles G. Bell’s career as a physicist, poet, novelist, philosopher, historian, art and music historian, and professor was a dramatic exception.”I visited his home on occasion – wall to ceiling bookcases in virtually every room of a two-story house, and he’d read them all, and then some.
“Bell’s masterwork, Symbolic History through Sight and Sound, is a sixty-hour video cultural history of the world that brings alive history, art, music, politics, philosophy, and literature using thousands of images of art and architecture.” Back in the late 70s, it was a slideshow with a recorded voiceover. Chuck would run segments of them at school. I sat through a few. Somebody threw about 45 minutes of it up on Youtube. (Chuck either toned down the accent for these videos, or, more likely, he was toning it up for us kids.)
The slideshows themselves, with Bell’s weird, intellectually dense, if not out and out pretentious, voiceovers, were all but unendurable for me. But his introduction and Q & A were good, or at least, left a much stronger impression. For Chuck’s whole point, which came up repeatedly in those talks, was that all this stuff – history, philosophy, art, music, science – was not separable, at least not if you wanted to really understand any of it.
In this way, Symbolic History is nearly the antithesis of the Great Books Program taught at St. John’s. The Great Books throws a bunch of ignorant 18 year olds (but I repeat myself) into the intellectual deep end with nary a life-preserver in sight. Of course, you have to start somewhere, and it’s much more respectful to just have the students dive in than to treat them like children who need their food predigested.
And it wasn’t entirely fragmented. Herodotus and Thucydides do give one a little flavor for Greek history, and the Greek playwrights and poets help with cultural background, so Socrates and Aristotle aren’t totally untethered from their culture and time. But once you leave Roman times, you’re screwed. We students had no real context for the Middle Ages, Renaissance or the Enlightenment. I don’t think the Counter-Reformation came up much if at all, for example, nor did we discuss the absurdity of the Enlightenment writers dismissing Medieval art, architecture and philosophy as ‘Gothic’. Our sole sort of framing works for the Middle Ages were maybe Dante and Chaucer. Not bad, for sure, but not sufficient for such a cataclysmically important age. From then on, you get the occasional Don Quixote or War and Peace, and insufferable French poets and such, which do provide some flavor of the age, but hardly enough to qualify as context.
Bell’s talks left me dissatisfied. I knew nothing of history, little of art and music. I was getting a very good smattering of philosophy and literature but, again, without the context for the most part. It was up to us to notice Hegel’s (and Kant’s, and, indeed, everybody from Descartes on) near-total silence on the Schoolmen. Clearly, they were of the opinion that St. Thomas & Co. simply didn’t matter to the discussion. But having just read a bunch of Thomas, it was pretty obvious that, if somebody was irrelevant, is was much more likely to be the largely untethered and arbitrary Enlightenment philosophers than the broad and careful schoolmen.
But a lot of history had happened between 1200 and 1630 – not that we students had much of a clue at the time. And it continued to happen, and those Enlightenment thinkers found themselves riding shotgun while Thomas and Aristotle weren’t even on the stagecoach. Rather than have our country founded explicitly on the notion that rights were the flip side of duties, which the Founders might have made a lot more clear had they been precise Thomists instead of muddle-headed children of Rousseau and Locke, they set the stage for today’s collapse, where rights are discovered and invented daily based on who is whining most loudly at the moment, with no thought that duties (other than ‘bake the cake’ duties imposed on others) must accompany them, or rights become arbitrary and tyrannical.
For example. We could have at least argued about it, would have been enlightening.
So I’ve read some history, studied a little art and music, not a lot by any means, not as a real scholar, but enough to get at least an outline of the vast sweep of things. Thus, in conversation, I’m often the guy pointing out what else was going on at the time that lead to or colors what we’re talking about.
It’s a little scary, as I’m no doubt leaving off 10 other things that might be pertinent. But it’s still better if people are told that Galileo died of old age in his own bed; that Islam conquered about 2/3 of the Christian world between 634 and 732; that the Gothic building boom began in the time of Sts Francis and Dominic and was going strong when St. Thomas and Dante were writing – and there’s a connection; that in Les Miserables Jean Valjean was stealing bread at a time of famines, exacerbated by revolutions and social unrest, which meant that him feeding his meant somebody else’s were going hungry and perhaps starving to death; that Lincoln did not win the popular vote and was a very controversial figure right up until his secular canonization; that Nazism gained power not so much because thugs signed up as because the professional classes, who always love the idea of somebody controlling everything, got on board; and that the KKK was coextensive and staffed identically with the democratic Party over most of its range.
And a million other things. The main difference between me now and 18 year old me is that, slowly, I’ve gotten enough bits of history to start to see longer term stuff and repeating patterns, and am able to draw some conclusions. For example, knowing that Wells’ Outline of History (1920) occasioned responses by both Belloc and Chesterton – Europe and the Faith (1920) (1) and Everlasting Man (1920), respectively, helps frame the intellectual disputes current as of the end of the Great War. Which in turn makes the years leading up to WWII more interesting, and puts WWII itself in a different light. While there no doubt are many causes of such a great war, you can see the issues that gripped the two great Christian writers playing out in blood.
I wish I knew more history, which is in some sense is an indication that I’ve learned a little history. Only someone who knew no history could find it boring.
Among other works – as a real historian, Belloc was clearly appalled and angered by the amatuer Wells’ Progressive, anti-Christian take, and wrote a number of works to counter it.
“date for fig” – idiom, to get more than bargained for.
“Ptolomea” – the third and penultimate zone of the bottom circle of Hell, where traitors to guests are punished. After Ptolemy, a captain of Jericho who murdered Simon Maccabeus and his sons at a banquet, as recounted in Maccabees..
“Atropos” – the Fate who determines time of death.
After having promised his cousin that he would wake him when he left to speak to Parliament, Lord Ivywood, in order to avoid having discussion on an amendment he was to propose, leaves him sleeping:
Phillip Ivywood raised himself on his crutch and stood for a moment looking at the sleeping man. Then he and his crutch trailed out of the long room, leaving the sleeping man behind. Nor was that the only thing that he left behind. He also left behind an unlighted cigarette and his honour and all the England of his father’s; everything that could really distinguish that high house beside the river from any tavern for the hocussing of sailors. He went upstairs and did his business in twenty minutes in the only speech he had ever delivered without any trace of eloquence. And from that hour forth he was the naked fanatic; and could feed on nothing but the future.
When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.
Charming, odd, surprising book. If you like Chesterton at all, you’ve probably already read it. If you’re just getting into him, put this on the list. If you’re wondering what the fuss is about, The Man Who Was Thursday is as good a place to start as any what is likely to become a life-long Chesterton project.
No spoilers, which means I’ll be brief. The chief feature of the book is that once every chapter or two, everything you thought was going on gets stood on its head. It starts in a newish London neighborhood, where a Mr. Gregory, a pessimistic poet, an anarchistic poet, is holding forth. A young man named Syme is also a poet, but a poet of Order, for whom nothing is more poetical than a train arriving exactly on time, and so the two naturally have at each other. Syme asserts that Gregory is not serious about his anarchism. Gregory sets out to show him that he is serious. Dead serious. Promises are extracted, for a poet, even an anarchist, may be an honorable man. These promises are put sorely to the test.
Thus the adventures begin. There is a secret anarchist council; there is a secret anti-anarchist police force. Each is lead by a secretive man, one flamboyant and larger than life and thus inscrutable; the other invisible. The clash of world views personified in the two poets allows Chesterton to expand on the nature and importance of a man’s philosophy, for lack of a better word. Philosophical digressions are often the death of a story; Chesterton very nearly makes them the life of his.
An introduction to this book I saw somewhere says that, when a bunch of spies and secret agents were asked which work of fiction best captured their world, The Man Who Was Thursday was acclaimed most life-like. Since it is a typically Chestertonian broad and almost cartoonish work, this at first seems odd. What the spooks identify as life-like is, I think, the sense of uncertainty, of not knowing who your friends and enemies are, indeed, of running the constant risk that an enemy may be a friend, or a friend an enemy; that at one moment the man you have to kill might in the next be he who saves your life. Another true to life aspect: you never know what, exactly, your superiors are up to, or even whose side they’re on. You are always acting on imperfect information, sometimes on deliberately misleading information.
Short and sweet: A wonderful story, full of startling Chesterton prescience and hitting on his favorite themes of the common man versus the aristocracy, the joys of simple, concrete life and the insanity of the modern age.
I’d never heard of this novel before it was suggested for our Chesterton Reading Group last month. First published in January, 1914, The Flying Inn is set in some slightly future England, where, due to the support of the aristocracy, specifically a powerful Lord Ivywood, Islam is making serious inroads into English life.
Let that sink in: Chesterton, writing in 1913, before the Great War, has Islam threatening normal English life, aided by muddle-headed English Progressives and other rich people. Chesterton does this kind of crystal ball gazing all the time. It is a little unnerving.
The story begins with Joan Brett, a lovely, melancholy young woman, walking along the beach, half listening to an array of quack street preachers, each with his spot from which to harangue the holiday crowds. She eventually stops before a colorful Turkish quack, who, like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding showing how every word has a Greek origin, claims that all English inns – think pubs – are really derived from and named according to things found in Islam.
She is the only one listening to his heavily accented expostulations, although he carries on as if speaking to a vast crowd. As tea time approaches and the crowd thins out, just as the Turk begins trying to formulate an Islamic etymology for the local pub, The Old Ship. The quack admits that the old ship presents a challenge to his thesis, so has spoken with the proprietor, a Mr. Pump, in an effort to overcome this. The Old Ship had been named in anticipation of the return of a Captain Dalroy, a good friend of Pump, who was expected any minute to arrive – from Turkey.
Joan, it appears, is also a friend of Mr. Pump and is also awaiting the return of Captain Dalroy.
Captain Patrick Dalroy, a very large and redheaded Irishman, left the English navy due to England’s treatment of Ireland, and became, as the result of numerous adventures, the King of Ithaca. This little kingdom consisted of all the Christian rebels still holding out against the Turks, as the Great Powers had decided that peace with Turkey was worth the sacrifice of any number of small Christian nations in its sphere.
Dalroy, following the wishes of his people to end the war, first appears negotiating surrender on a little Greek island with representatives of the Great Powers: Lord Ivywood “the English Minister, was probably the handsomest man in England,” and Dr. Gluck, “the German Minister, whose face had nothing German about it; neither the German vision nor the German sleep…. his scarlet lips never moved in speech,” as well a representative of the Turks, Oman Pasha, ” …equally famous for his courage in war and his cruelty in peace; but who carried on his brow a scar from Patrick’s sword, taken after three hours’ mortal combat—and taken without spite or shame, be it said, for the Turk is always at his best in that game.”
Dalroy knows that he cannot fight all of Europe as well as the Turks, and has resigned himself to the surrender his people had accepted, even if the terms – the Turks will keep all the women and girls they’ve captured and enslaved, an issue Lord Ivywood sees as just a quibble – enrage him. The whole scene shows the state of affairs under the realpolitik of the Concert of Europe: the little people are willingly sacrificed by the powerful in pursuit of the appearance of peace. Dalroy does what his people want, but first, while the horrible terms to which he cannot object are being read, he rips from the ground the olive trees at hand and tosses them into the sea. He ignores the diplomats, shakes hands with Pasha, and heads back to his ship and to England, to the inn named the Old Ship.
Eventually, the Turkish quack and Lord Ivywood unite, after a fashion, to impose Prohibition on England, and ban all inns. When the authorities arrive to impose this new law on the Old Ship, Patrick rips the inn’s sign out of the ground, and he and Mr. Pump escape with the last barrel of good rum and a large wheel of cheese.
The new law allows for an exception: inns displaying their sign may sell alcoholic beverages, on the presumption they have gotten some sort of exemption. Dalroy and Pump proceed to create the Flying Inn, arriving unannounced at some out of the way place or other, Dalroy sticking the sign of the Old Ship into the ground. A crowd of thirsty commoners soon gathers; the police don’t know what to do, and Dalroy and Pump, after dispensing a little rum and cheese, make their escape. Lord Ivywood, an ambitious and hard man, makes it his crusade to stop them.
In other words, classic fabulous and slapstick Chesterton. Any more detail would be spoilers. We have ambition and hypocrisy exposed, battles fought, songs sung, the working man rising up, Islam revealing itself, and true love – a wonderful, outrageous story. Highly recommended. You can download it free or read it on line here.
Or a Thomist, certainly. Somebody who could help me out with some basic philosophy.
Woke up thinking about a certain epistemological issue, thought the readers of this blog might find this entertaining.
Background: a few months ago, at our Chesterton Society Reading group meeting, there was a fun discussion with two people who had dropped in to visit, (incidentally, the son and grandson of a famous economist) about the importance of Aristotle.
My boy Aristotle was being dissed. The claim was that he had been superseded, and the example given was that he totally got inertia wrong.
I was stunned into silence (doesn’t happen often, but it did this once.) I felt a little like the man Chesterton described, asked to explain why he prefers civilization – where do you even start, if it’s not obvious already?
Now, upon reflection, I should not have been surprised. That these gentlemen knew enough Aristotle to even know what he says about inertia shows a very much higher degree of knowledge of Aristotle than is typical. They knew enough modern science to draw the obvious conclusion that Aristotle was ‘wrong’. Because he’s ‘wrong’ about basic science, he’s been superseded, and one would do better studying somebody who got it right – a completely reasonable position, if one assumes Aristotle is primarily a scientist in the modern sense, or that philosophy depends for its validation upon such science (the position of the Analytic philosophy taught in universities today), or both.
Background 2: I am a pathetic poser when it comes to Aristotle. I only really studied the Physics, dabbled in everything else. One can’t just read Aristotle – one would be lost within a page or even paragraph. Dense doesn’t do it justice, not bafflegab dense like Hegel (1), but dense because each phrase has been formulated down to its rock-hard minimum, and builds carefully on the last. Each sentence and phrase needs to be understood before moving on, or it quickly becomes a mish-mash.
I breezed through a bunch of Aristotle, which has left me muddleheaded. More muddleheaded, I mean. There may well be people – Thomas, I suppose – who could just read Aristotle like a novel and get the gist. I am not one of those people. Which is why I’m pondering here.
So, on to the issue. Richard Feynman tells this story:
He (Feynman’s father) had taught me to notice things and one day when I was playing with what we call an express wagon, which is a little wagon which has a railing around it for children to play with that they can pull around. It had a ball in it—I remember this—it had a ball in it, and I pulled the wagon and I noticed something about the way the ball moved, so I went to my father and I said, “Say, Pop, I noticed something: When I pull the wagon the ball rolls to the back of the wagon, and when I’m pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon,” and I says, “why is that?” And he said, “That nobody knows,” he said. “The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving and things that are standing still tend to stand still unless you push on them hard.” And he says, “This tendency is called inertia but nobody knows why it’s true.” Now that’s a deep understanding—he doesn’t give me a name, he knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something, which I learnt very early.
Having a name by which to discuss a thing is a powerful aid and channel for thought. (This issue of how having names reflects and influences thought has been laid out very ably by Mike Flynn on his blog, most recently here – check it out.) It’s tempting to say that one cannot even think about something without first naming it, but, as a musician – I have musical ideas – I know that’s not quite right. There’s a lot of brilliant thinking going on in a Bach fuge, but the words come well after the thought has been completed.
But I digress.
Aristotle didn’t have a name for inertia, and we do. Aristotle had a name for horses, and we do, too. I will now fumble around trying to spell out the differences between the class of things such as inertia, and the class of things such as horses.
Aristotle has the concept of a thing that, by its nature, separates itself out from the background, a thing that presents itself to our understanding, a ‘this’ as in the case of ‘this horse’. A horse is full of life and meaning, and is not at all blurry around the edges. (2) Any individual horse will yield a whole bunch of information to the senses and understanding without us having to do much of anything except observe and think. Studying several horses quickly yield an understanding of horseyness in general. Horses have a nature, in other words, and we bring our understanding to that nature, which will always be greater than our understanding – there will always be things about horses which any horse embodies yet remain outside or even beyond our understanding.
Natural objects are like that. They have natures, intelligible forms, to which our minds are suited and directed, but which are not necessarily things our minds can completely grasp. We don’t really directly study Nature in any sense beyond studying natures. It’s definitional – a ‘this’ is something with a nature that can be understood at least to some extent, otherwise it would lack that ineffable something that makes it a ‘this’.
Inertia is not a ‘this’. We never say except in jest ‘See that inertia over there?’ Feynman’s dad was indeed a deep thinker, recognizing that having named inertia was not the same as knowing what it is. In some sense, inertia does not leap out of the background like a prancing horse, presenting itself to our senses and understanding. Instead, we see, if we are paying very close attention, some things which happen consistently over a wide range of experiences: the ball keeps rolling, the stone block doesn’t want to move, I am thrown from the horse if it pulls up too sharply.
It is indeed an act of human brilliance to find the common thread, and to name that thread ‘inertia’ and then to come up with rules and math that describes how inertia ‘behaves’ in useful ways. Newton is the man! But he is a man standing on the shoulders of very many more men all the way back to Aristotle, who laid the groundwork.
So, do I have that right? Epistemologically speaking, I guess I’m claiming that inertia is not knowable in the same way as horses, to stick with the example. One might argue that, as a mental abstraction best described by math, inertia is *more* completely knowable than horses, which, because their nature is not a mental abstraction, will never be understood as completely as inertia. Or it might be argued that inertia is not real, that it is only the name we give to a bunch observations, a handy receptacle for all our useful math. (I’m not arguing that, because that seems a path to insanity. Hasn’t stopped others from going there.) I’m a moderate realist (I think), so there’s *something* to the notion that inertia is real insofar as it is a characteristic of real things – of ‘this’ or ‘that’ thing – and thus as real as they are. It’s just not a ‘this’ in itself…
Getting over (well, more over) my head. What bugs me is that I’m certain Aristotle talks this issue through somewhere in great detail, and I’m not remembering where.
Anyway, back to that Chesterton meeting. I tried to point out that it’s Aristotle’s logic and method that have never been superseded, that all science today (excluding, of course, Science!) is built upon them. Didn’t remember the Feynman story fast enough. Left it in an unsatisfactory state.
Aristotle’s examples are of the essence of his philosophy and method. They are simple and direct. Hegel’s examples, when he deigns to give them, are complex and generally fail to make his point, rather, they assume his point. Thus, Aristotle will talk about how ‘white’ is always in another thing and never present by itself, and give the example of a white horse; Hegel will give Art History (as understood by Hegel) as an example of the Spirit unfolding through History. If you don’t already believe that the Spirit unfolds itself through History, the supposed upward progress of art through stages of spiritual enlightenment will, alas, not be visible to you.
The story about how Cortez’s horsemen were at first thought chimeras by the Aztecs notwithstanding.
Proposed by aetherfilledskyproductions. Amazing, but I don’t think this tune has yet come in for brotherly correction on this blog. We will need to fix this oversight before giving it the Deus Vult treatment. Thus, Part the Third (a) shall review this song; we shall see what can be done to properly weaponize it in (b).
Lord of the Dance: This needlessly long song suffers from a couple obvious flaws:
Speaks in the person of the Lord. Whether we like it or not, whether we can intellectually justify it or not, on a direct simple level we have a hard time thinking or feeling like we are praying when we speak in the person of the Lord all song long. We may be charmed, or even inspired, but this practice all but prevents prayer. For a song used at Mass, this is not a good thing. (Before you mention the ‘thus sayeth the Lord’ parts of the psalms, merely note that the Lord sayeth his peace, and then the psalmist gets on with it.)
It is too cute by half, and is trying too hard. It would take far deeper poetic gifts than are on display here to make this work.
Salvation is likewise portrayed as a dance. In the hands of a great mystic, this might work. In the hands of Sydney Carter, not so much.
This concept – Jesus as Lord of the Dance – possibly traces back to a song written in the Middle Ages. Based on internal evidence, it is supposed to have been associated with mystery plays. This is believable. Tomorrow Is My Dancing Day, which I append to the end of this post, is a masterpiece after the fashion of the didactic purposes of mystery plays. Each verse lays out in 4 lines some fundamental teaching, yet frames it as completely personal. the refrain is:
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love, This have I done for my true love.
…where we, each one of us, is the beloved of Christ, Who expresses his love AND explains what His Dance entails through the example of His life, death and resurrection. He is Crucified for us – AND that Crucifiction is part of the Dance that He is inviting us to!
In other words, as you will see when you peruse the medieval text, quite a bit deeper and more challenging than Sydney Carter’s Lord of the Dance.
Speaking of Mr. Carter, it seems Shiva, the original Lord of the Dance, was as much an inspiration as Jesus:
In writing the lyrics to “Lord of the Dance” in 1963, Sydney Carter was inspired partly by Jesus, but also partly by a statue of the Hindu God Shiva as Nataraja (Shiva’s dancing pose) which sat on his desk, and was partly intending simply to give tribute to Shaker music. He later stated, “I did not think the churches would like it at all. I thought many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian. But in fact people did sing it and, unknown to me, it touched a chord … Anyway, it’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.”
The sort of Christianity Mr. Carter believes in is not what the Church believes – it is a sort of syncretist Jesus-light Hindu flavored Arianism. So, in the last song, we had a Church of Christ heretic, not to put too fine a point on it, teaching us about the Eucharist. Here, we have a syncretist teaching us about how Hinduism and Christianity are a lot alike, especially Hinduism.
What could possibly go wrong? It’s not like he’d be inclined to equivocate on Jesus’ unique divinity or anything….
[Aside: a perhaps unintended consequence of Vatican II was the driving out of many folk devotions in favor of ALL devotional activity needing to be included in the Mass. Thus, while previous ages had songs for pilgrimages and processions, oratories, and devotional activities such as the mystery plays explicitly for use outside the Mass, we seem to think it essential that any and all devotional fervor find expression in the Mass itself. Much of the less heretical stuff we do today at Mass, from rock bands and their goofy songs, through liturgical dance, to many of the more scripturally based St. Louis Jebbies songs would be perfectly fine things to do – outside of Mass – for the people who like that sort of thing. Indeed, this extending of our personal devotional lives to our time outside Mass is one of the good things to come out of the Charismatic renewal, it just has as yet to spread far enough. Lord of the Dance might be acceptable accompanying a mystery play or sung on a pilgrimage. It just doesn’t really belong at the Eucharist.]
It is set to a modified Shaker tune, perhaps best known from Simple Gifts. Shaker tunes do have a certain charm, and are not as utterly inappropriate for use at Mass as many other styles, but – maybe I’m a snob – they are not great music. We can do better, but, hey, we can and certainly do do much worse. In the folk tradition, the tune is merely beaten into submission whenever the text doesn’t quite fit it.
Let’s go verse by verse again.
Lord of the Dance
I danced in the morning When the world was begun, And I danced in the moon And the stars and the sun, And I came down from heaven And I danced on the earth, At Bethlehem I had my birth.
Dance, then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance, said he, And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be, And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said he
This has a rustic charm to it, and is not strictly heretical. He echos the first chapter of John, except that Jesus here dances in creation, instead of *creating* creation. The world was not just passively ‘begun’. Weak. His Divine Nature is omitted, as one would expect from a syncretist.
I danced for the scribe And the pharisee, But they would not dance And they wouldn’t follow me. I danced for the fishermen, For James and John They came with me And the Dance went on.
Ever wonder why pharisees don’t enter into our Mass songs much? As Chesterton brilliantly points out in The Everlasting Man:
We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering. That popular imagery is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct. The mass of the poor are broken, and the mass of the people are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to carry the conviction of the incredible compassion of God. But nobody with his eyes open can doubt that it is chiefly this idea of compassion that the popular machinery of the Church does seek to carry. The popular imagery carries a great deal to excess the sentiment of ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’ It is the first thing that the outsider feels and criticises in a Pieta or a shrine of the Sacred Heart. As I say, while the art may be insufficient, I am not sure that the instinct is unsound. In any case there is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath. There is something insupportable even to the imagination in the idea of turning the corner of a street or coming out into the spaces of a marketplace, to meet the petrifying petrifaction of that figure as it turned upon a generation of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hypocrite.
Here we have the interjection of the gentle side of Jesus that the Church rightly presents to her children the vast majority of the time into a situation in which He was not gentle. A modern pharisee or hypocrite, confident that he is unlikely to run into the “petrifying petrifaction” of Christ’s face in wrath just around the next corner, might very well comfort himself with the idea of Christ merely dancing an invitation to the pharisees, rather than rebuking them and – gulp! – judging them.
Can’t have that. It is too horrible to contemplate. The nice syncretist Jesus of our cowardly imaginations would never rebuke us! He is our brother! Our Friend!
Our ultimate Judge, too:
Verse 1 has watered down Jesus of the Scriptures to an acceptably tepid level.
I danced on the Sabbath And I cured the lame; The holy people Said it was a shame. They whipped and they stripped And they hung me on high, And they left me there On a Cross to die.
In a similar vein, note how it’s not the hypocrites who “said it was a shame” but the holy people. We needn’t stretch too far to see the blanket condemnation of anyone even trying to be holy in any conventional manner in favor of those who are simply willing to dance – as equal partners, of course – with Christ.
I danced on a Friday When the sky turned black It’s hard to dance With the devil on your back. They buried my body And they thought I’d gone, But I am the Dance, And I still go on.
While the ‘devil on your back’ image is certainly evocative, I note that this lyric does the opposite of what the Church does when it commends the Crucifiction to our contemplation: we are urged to focus on our role in Christ’s death, how He died for our sins.
But that would be, like, a total buzz kill. Better to redirect attention to the devil.
They cut me down And I leapt up high; I am the life That’ll never, never die; I’ll live in you If you’ll live in me – I am the Lord Of the Dance, said he.
“Cut”? Odd word.
In general, this is just not a good song, not overtly heretical, but subtly so. I would find better things to complain about if it were sung around a campfire or as part of a procession, even though even then we could do better. But as part of Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – no. Just no.
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 Lifea 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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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!