Is There an Aristotelian in the House?

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.

The guy on the right.

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 The claim was that he had been superseded, and the example given was that he totally got inertia wrong.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 Because he’s ‘wrong’ about basic science, he’s been superseded, and one would do better studying somebody who got it right – a completely reasonable position, if one assumes Aristotle is primarily a scientist in the modern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…

Image result for a man for all seasons norfolk
“I trust I make myself obscure.”

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.

  1. 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.
  2. The story about how Cortez’s horsemen were at first thought chimeras by the Aztecs notwithstanding.

The Deus Vult Hymnal, part the third (a): Lord of the Dance

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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,[3] 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: 
That Guy. The One His Holy Mother is diverting her eyes from. He appears to have smiting on His Mind, and doesn’t seem too interested in excuses.
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. 

Next up: give it the Deus Vult treatment. 

Appendix: Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;


Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance.


In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Between an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.


Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard I from above,
To call my true love to my dance.


Into the desert I was led,
Where I fasted without substance;
The Devil bade me make stones my bread,
To have me break my true love’s dance.


The Jews on me they made great suit,
And with me made great variance,
Because they loved darkness rather than light,
To call my true love to my dance.


For thirty pence Judas me sold,
His covetousness for to advance:
Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold!
The same is he shall lead the dance.


Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
Where Barabbas had deliverance;
They scourged me and set me at nought,
Judged me to die to lead the dance.


Then on the cross hanged I was,
Where a spear my heart did glance;
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to my dance.


Then down to hell I took my way
For my true love’s deliverance,
And rose again on the third day,
Up to my true love and the dance.


Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance.


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!

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.

Image result for churchill
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.