Bones, Buildings and Books

Struck this morning by the discrepancy between what was, what has survived, and what is widely known. 

An obvious example is dinosaurs. We are most likely to find the remains of big, heavily boned creatures that lived somewhere where their bones could be preserved when they died. So swamp dwelling behemoths, and their predators and scavengers, whose bodies would be more likely to sink into anaerobic mud and be preserved rather than torn apart and scattered, are what we think of first when we think of the Age of the Dinosaurs. Which is why we call it that, after all. 

Meanwhile, looking at the current state of things, there would have had to have been as many or more ocean fish or inland grazers, and many, many more smaller and fragile creatures. The remains of those creatures were less likely to escape the scavengers and weather and bacteria and so on. Those  left comparatively fewer bones for us to find, or left tiny bones hard to see, and are thus little known or unknown.  

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It’s a miracle we find *any* 100 million year old remains, and a double miracle we find anything at all from plants and soft or tiny bodied creatures. 

It’s as likely as not that there were many times as many of those sorts of life than giant dinosaurs. But we don’t call it the Age of the Giant Cephalopods or the Age of Tiny Worms or the Age of Plants.  So what was is one thing, what has survived to be studied is another, and what we talk about when we consider it is yet a third thing. 

Multiple Winner, fix or tear down competition.

In a similar way, I suspect we’re not getting anything like a representative view of old architecture. Most any building more than a century old has had a lot of maintenance and repair done to it. Every once in a while, say maybe 40 or 50 years, those responsible for most non-monumental buildings face a decision: repair it or tear it down and start over. 

Given that people are often stupid, I imagine there have been innumerable times when very nice buildings that you or I would want saved got torn down and replaced with something not nearly as nice. Just look at the monstrosities built to replace the attractive old buildings in pretty much any American city. You want yet another grotesquely large glass box instead of something with a little character? Evidently, the answer is generally ‘yes’. (1)

But since people are not always stupid, and because ‘beautiful’ and ‘well-built’ tend to go together, I would expect that nicer old buildings are overrepresented in the sample that has survived to this day. 

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Quaint overdose! Yet, who wouldn’t want to live on a street like this? The charm is so smack you in the face that even city planners left it alone – for 4+ centuries and running. 

When ‘the past’ is represented by samples very possibly not representative, we need to be a little cautious of generalizing our ancestor’s sensibilities. I strongly suspect there were a lot more ugly or slapdash building in York that have not survived, compared with the Shambles pictured above that did survive. In other words, I suspect the human capacity for tastelessness and stupidity has not changed all that much over time. (2)

The counterargument for this might run: life was slower then, people were not always shooting for the next great thing, and so had more time to consider and less need to rush architectural decisions. These were people who built cathedrals that typically took more than a generation to complete. They have demonstrated that they could in fact take the log view. Based on the sample we do have, their everyday buildings incorporate the the local wisdom in a way no tract home ever will – built to be comfortable and enduring in the setting they occupy. So, on the contrary, ancient buildings that have survived are an accurate measure of the superior sensibilities of our ancestors. 

I’d like to believe that, sounds about right – but I’m not sure. I’m grateful that some of the good stuff made it through. Bones get filtered first by natural processes and then by the very human gee whiz factor that makes us thinks a 30 ton creature with 8″ teeth is way cooler than giant ferns or tiny insects and fish. Buildings start with man, and then get subjected to a combination of human and natural cullings as weather and time and the tender sensibilities of urban engineers take their tolls. In the end, in most cases, some human being decides to tear down or repair.

Then we come to Books – to History. Even books considered broadly undergo a somewhat similar process as buildings and bones: a combination of natural and human forces conspire to do some very serious culling. All paper – and vellum and papyrus and mud and even stone  – ‘books’ decay. The tear down or repair decision becomes a copy or not one. We do not have the Library of Alexandria (whatever that was in reality) or the Library of the Golden Age of Islam because Muslims in the first case and Mongols in the second burned them down. Cromwell burnt all sorts of fun stuff. French revolutionaries burnt the ancient library of Cluny, because Reason. Germans boobytrapped several French libraries and other buildings where books and record were stored as they retreated at the end of WWI.

And so on and so forth. Thus between nature’s decay, executive decisions to copy this and not that, and the wanton destruction of stuff we don’t like, we have only a couple of the many plays of Sophocles; we have Plato’s Dialogues but not his treatises and Aristotle’s treatises but not his dialogues. This does not include works we don’t even know we don’t have. Personally, I wonder if Archimedes made any shop notes – bet those would be interesting. Then there’s the Far East, with possibly much worse conditions, in general, for the survival of any cultural artifacts – conditions in  the dry and comparatively barren Middle East and Mediterranean would be easier, I suppose,  on just about any human made thing than the damp and luxuriant Orient. At the very least, if the East produced great works in wood and leather instead of the stone and clay of Egypt and Mesopotamia, those works would face a much tougher path to survival over millennia. 

So, it’s a miracle, in some sense, that we have much of any written documents from thousands of years ago. Different forces are at play now. Today, my shelves have a fairly large number of books marked for culling by librarians. A library at a small college in the southeast decided after a few decades in which no one checked it out that it could do without a biography of Henry Barnard. For example. Thus I, at least until I die, have made the ‘preserve’ decision for a few books on education history that were probably headed to the shredder or dumpster otherwise. The librarians, who use physical storage in an age of digital, are caught in a no-win situation: tying up shelf space for a dead tree edition of a book nobody had ever read, just in case, versus trusting someone somewhere has dedicated a square millimeter or two to digitally storing it. I’ve got even more education books in digital format than I do dead tree editions from some library. One supposes I’ll be one of very few people to read them in either format. 

Back to the point of all this blather: books, especially old books, are invaluable for giving us not just information, but in letting us into a different world of thought. 

But all this represents what might be called post publication censorship, using this admittedly loaded term to mean merely what is or is not available. What about pre-publication censorship? What about stuff doesn’t ever get published or even written up? At regular intervals in my Feasts & Faith group at our local parish, we talk about groups of martyrs, the Oxford University Martyrs or the Vietnamese Martyrs, for example. I remind the group that often the named people are explicitly intended as representatives of a larger group of people whose names we don’t know. The people doing the martyring – the Reformation English or Vietnamese government in these examples – have no interest in preserving the memories of the people they killed. Further, they created an environment in which it is very dangerous for other people to remember them. Thus, we happen to know about the Oxford University martyrs because each was at least a fairly prominent man or had people outside of England who knew of them – Jesuits, for example. But if you were a country priest or monastic monk, let alone just some layman or laywoman, and got murdered for your faith, who is going to write it all down, and risk being the next martyr? 

This is an extreme case. More difficult are things people don’t think are interesting at the time. The lives of kings and queens, their conquests and losses, their births and deaths – these seem important to their contemporaries. There are books, and legal and government documents,  and letters and so forth. The lives of less noble people must largely be reconstructed from peripheral documentation, or even from digging in the ground to see what they left. Dinosaur bones, mostly. 

In a sense, I’m running into this issue when I read up on education history. I’d like to know how classes where run, what the curriculum looked like, hours and days spent in class, discipline, enthusiasm or lack thereof on the part of parents, children, and teachers, when and how changes were made and how they went over with people. In the case of Catholic education in America, the few books written on the topic are all about kings and queens – the bishops, the pope, the  makers and shakers. Burns and Walsh mention the dearth of source materials, which becomes both a source and sign of the challenge: modern writers can’t give much detail, even when inclined to do so, when the people at the time didn’t record it. 

So one reads as many old books as one can, in order to fill in the blanks with a sentence here and a guess there. The goal is to get a general picture into a particular time and place in which individual pieces gleaned her and there might fit. Of course no old book – no new book, either – is truly representative of any sort of zeitgeist or culture-wide understanding of anything, insofar as any reality described by those concepts can be meaningfully said to exist. (3) But they do show us how the world at one point in time looked to a Jane Austin or an Orestes Brownson or a Fichte or a Mann, or just even how it looked to some obscure scholar or priest. The more widely we read such views, the better becomes our feel for how things were. We’ll never get it completely right, of course, but then again, we’ll never really know what it’s like to be our next door neighbor. We never really know what it’s like to be our own spouse or child or parent. 

  1. The skyline of San Francisco has only improved once in the 30+ years I’ve lived in or near it – when the Loma Prieta earthquake caused the downtown elevated freeway to be largely demolished. Addition by subtraction. The *additions*, however, starting with the Jukebox Marriott and culminating – for now – in the hulking, cancerous bulk the SalesForce building, have only overwhelmed much better buildings while adding a brutal air of domination to the city. I always enjoy walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, because of all the beautiful buildings combined with an air of openness. Chicago is much more charming than NYC in this respect. San Francisco, given the dramatic beauty of its setting, needed only not to screw it up. You can guess how that’s working out. 
  2. Read once that the iconic car of the 50s – the 57 Chevy Bel Aire Coup – got that way because of GM’s superior painting process. Seems Chevys (and Caddies, Olds and Buicks) rust out a lot more slowly than their competitors. Other makes and models were as or more popular at the time. Connoisseurs know this, but us commoners still think those huge chromed fins are the definitive statement of 1950s Detroit Iron. 
  3. I expect hardly at all. Even the idea of Culture is more than a little silly, as if there’s something independent of a bunch of ultimately individual decisions and unconscious reflexes by which certain things are valued and passed on and other things disparaged or ignored. Do ‘we’ have a culture? In what sense? Is it just a popularity contest? Our culture is some combination of what gets enjoyed or tolerated by enough people? Did American culture produce Star Wars, or did George Lucas? Did Italian culture produce La Traviata, or did Verde? The words culture and society seem useful, but when they get reified to the point where they are imagined to *do* anything, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. 

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Some Monday Links and Asides

In the too cool department: Some animated satellite orbits, with representations of speed, altitude, etc., all linked up so that if you click on anything, you get background information.  Looks like this: 

This is just a picture. The original is animated so that you can get a feel for the relative speeds involved, and has the links.  

I found it trying to research a sky-hook type element for a story, you know, to make it all sciency and stuff, and then of course burned an hour or two checking it out. (Not about to do pages of math to figure this out, but will google around a bit.) Did you know that there’s an  Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee ? I do now. If you go to the link and click on Graveyard Orbit, that’s the kind of stuff that will turn up. 

Not sure if I’m happy or sad there was no internet when I was a kid. 

David Warren is at it again, elegantly and wittily telling us we’re all so, so doomed. He pens such gems as: 

It is the policy of the High Doganate to discourage rioting, even in France.

and 

For many of the older citizens, this must bring 1968 to mind. I know that I felt a twinge (ah, to be fifteen again, and wiser than those passing through their “terrible twos”). Indeed, Paris — where I once learnt the cobbles are numbered on the bottom so they may be put back in place after they’ve been used for missiles — has been unusually peaceful this last half-century. There used to be a revolution every ten or twenty years, and lesser annual uprisings over this and that. I can understand nostalgia.

and

But, according at least to me, the French are not unrepresentative of humankind. 

I have not made it to France yet, although I have flown over it to get to Italy a couple times. Should try to make it before I die, or before Notre Dame is replaced with a victory mosque. Whichever comes first. 

The phrase “sans-culottes” is one of those many phrases or words I have to google every time I see it. Just won’t stick. So here’s an experiment: if I blog about forgetting it, will I remember it? 

If this works, you may be seeing a lot more words and phrases I can’t seem to remember. 

Life in the past is neither rosy nor relentlessly desperate, even if it did run more often than not a lot closer to the relentlessly desperate end of the scale. But just because we would panic and despair if we were forced to live as medieval peasants doesn’t mean they were panicking and despairing. Mostly, it seems their lives were pretty OK by them. They certainly had the time and energy to build a large number of very nice buildings, for example, something relentlessly starving, desperate people can’t really do. You don’t build things that take lifetimes to complete if you’ve despaired. 

Was thinking of the Battle of Towton, specifically the Towton grave. This was the bloodiest battle of the War of the Roses; the Towton grave contains a few dozen of the estimated 28,000 men who died that day. On the one hand, this battle reinforces the notion that the Middle Ages were barbarically violent. On the other hand, the 38 men who were buried in the Towton grave were, first of all, fit enough and far enough from starvation to fight. In an article I of course can’t find at the moment (my google-foo has failed me!) the writers described that the bones were of men age about 16 to 50, mostly sturdy individuals with, for example, their teeth largely intact – at least, intact right up until a broad axe to the face loosened them up a bit.

Even the healed wounds tell of a life somewhat short of total desperation. Most all the skeletons showed signs of healed over injury, many having taken – and recovered from! – blows to the head serious enough to leave evidence of trauma in the skull bones! Yikes! But this shows that wounds were not always fatal, that the Medievals knew enough to take care of them hygienically enough that the body could heal even serious wounds, at least some of the time. 

Life was hard, death was close, but not so hard or close that it was not well worth living to the people living it, it seems. These people were fighting to the death, but not killing themselves in any great numbers. Instead, they built churches. Hmmm.

Thanks to all for the suggestions for what my mother in law might want to watch next. Taking a break from watching shows where good-looking people with charming accents kill each other in beautiful locales, she has settled into watching Heartland, a multi-generational soap opera – with horses! Attractive people with, sadly, bland American accents galavant around beautiful countrysides riding, taking care of talking about horses. The horses are pretty.

The plot and subplots as far as I’ve made out walking through the living room while the show is on seem to involve a lot of dramatic confrontations and arguments. So far, nobody has killed anybody that I’ve noticed. This thing has been in production for 10 season, of which Helen has gotten through maybe 2 – so there’s plenty of time still. 

The few minutes of it I have watched in passing illustrate a plot device similar to the notorious Idiot Ball: drive the plot by having people wildly overreact to every challenge and situation. On my occasional forays through the living room, I’ve seen characters engaged in vein-throbbing confrontations over business ideas, whether somebody loves her horse enough, trespassing, and butting in. Like Idiot Ball, if the people would stay calm and ask and answer a few reasonable questions, life would go on – but the show would not. Every routine interaction must become an existential crisis or challenge to somebody’s manhood or something. 

I’ve not watched more than a few minutes of soap operas over a lifetime to this point. I imagine this craziness is of the nature of the beast? 

Wednesday Ramble: Predestination, etc.

(Man, gotta get back to blogging and writing. Just still not feeling well, and more than a little down about losing my job, And other things. Anyway – )

(Edit: just reread the first few sentences of this post, and – wow, I need to make sure the coffee is fully kicked in before posting. Seriously incoherent. Here’s what I think I was trying to say:)  Woke up this morning musing about Hegel. I was getting angry. People take this guy seriously? His more direct followers – Marxists – cut to the chase and apply his ‘reasoning’ in such a way that its inherent nihilism, which Hegel dresses in the sheep’s clothing of the sweetness and light of Christian eschatology, gets exposed to anyone willing to see it. Just not so exposed that Marxists and all the little people who have absorbed their methods and assumptions while being somewhat unaware of the origins, can’t pretend otherwise. (whew! That’s better, I think.)

Hidden under Hegel’s haystacks of verbiage is essentially an angry narcissism, the soul reacting to the hopelessness evident in, for example, Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Sola – alone – is the rallying cry. Schola – together – is the largely unspoken enemy.  Luther (and Calvin) puts it simply, Hegel buries it under of mountain of words: We are not actors in our own salvation, not even in the tiny yet cosmic Catholic sense that God’s great good gift to us is a sacred freedom, vouchsafed by God’s Will alone, which grants to each of us the mysterious and paradoxical ability to give our ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to That Will. Instead, we suffer alone. We cannot act.

Stripped of its religious trappings, predestination is determinism. The soul does not exist in any manner different from how a rock exists, inert and passive. The soul, as conceived by the Greeks, Christians and a myriad other cultures, does not exist. We, however we chose to conceive of ourselves, don’t matter.

The sanest reaction is to reject the premise. We all, from the most callow Pelagianist to the most hubris-ridden materialist, reject determinism whenever we do anything at all. We can then explain to ourselves how the whole cycle of intellection and choice is an illusion, but we are of course incapable of behaving as if it were true.

Once the religious sheep clothing is yanked off and Hegelianism’s superficial reliance on God/Spirit is bled out, we’re left with a ravening wolf. Even this wolf dresses down, in gutted Christian mysticism, promising us the pie-in-the-sky Worker’s Paradise, codename: Progress, for which all sacrifices (of others) are immediately justified beyond question.

(If you personally are called upon to sacrifice, that’s a sure sign you are not of the Elect, not of the Vanguard, and are probably a useful idiot. The absolute Calvinist-style sign that you are among the Revolutionary Chosen is that you have the power to make others do the sacrificing. See, for reference, HISTORY.)

Thus my fevered mind, stuffed full of Hegel and Marx and with a couple decades to stew on them, concludes. The issues Hegel presents to Reason, even apart from the religious context, even without any sort of Christian faith, should cause all men with any claim of being or desire to be rational and logical to reject his vile nonsense, especially as distilled by Marx, especially as clothed (see a trend here?) in academic robes. Critical Theory, which – you can look it up – is merely Marxism reformatted for dissemination through all available academic channels, must be denounced by any who claim to be rational and have any shred of integrity.

First: the rejection of the Law of Noncontradiction is not, as some imagine, a subtle criticism of the hubris of rigorous logic, a valid criticism in some deep philosophical sense even if nonsensical in all practical senses. No law of noncontradiction = no science and no law, for example. No – it is a rejection of even the possibility of communication between people. Without the Law of Noncontradiction, everything I say and everything you say can both mean and not mean whatever the words themselves might suggest. Any and no understanding of what you or I may mean or not mean is equally invalid, or valid. The Tower of Babel prevails.

Nihilism, again. Sola, again. Every man is an island, surrounded by unbreachable reefs of confusion.

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An NPC in a Che hat, evidently.

Whenever we say Gender or Science or Class Consciousness is a social construct, we are  simply putting a Che hat on the  meaninglessness of nihilism. This is an intellectual ouroboros; this is turtles all the way down, except the existence of the turtles is simultaneously denied. It all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is – and, by definition (which is of course simultaneously impossible) is means isn’t. Is means nothing.

The price of admission to the academic cool kids club is not pointing out the idiotic nakedness of these non-ideas. The price of secular intellectual salvation is to keep pointing it out, to never bow to it, to challenge it whenever presented. I am reminded of the words Robert Bolt puts in Thomas More’s mouth as he talks to his daughter: Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.

 

 

Halloween, Hieronymus Bosch & Ephesians

This morning, had a discussion about slavery in the Roman Empire triggered by the Epistle to the Ephesians read this morning at Mass:

Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling,
in sincerity of heart, as to Christ,
not only when being watched, as currying favor,
but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,
willingly serving the Lord and not men,
knowing that each will be requited from the Lord
for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
Masters, act in the same way towards them, and stop bullying,
knowing that both they and you have a Master in heaven
and that with him there is no partiality.

The usual commentary here goes something like: here is a revolutionary Christian proposal by Paul, that slaves, who have no rights under Roman law, must still be treated as brothers, and that masters will be judged by God on how well they treat them.

And, of course, this is true, and this new understanding in fact set the stage for the elimination of slavery wherever Christianity held sway. (Of course, given human nature, slavery pops right back up whenever we take our eye off the ball, but one or the other – slavery or Christianity – must prevail.)

I was making the point that understanding slavery under the Romans is a little tricky for Americans, as we have this history of racial slavery, where, because Americans were nominally Christians, they could not justify enslaving other men. Therefore, black Africans had to be thought of as less than men at least to some degree in order to keep the guilt and cognitive dissonance at bay.

The Romans, while as arrogant and bigoted as any conquerors, did not necessarily consider slaves as inferior men just from the fact of their slavery alone. A brave and noble man might just get unlucky, might be cursed by the gods, and simply be on the losing side of a war, and end up a slave through no real fault of his own. This is not to say that Romans didn’t look down on slaves, or treat them terribly – they did – but they did not imagine them a different, fundamentally inferior species. In general.

Also, a vast gulf exited between household slave and agricultural slaves. Sometimes, free men would sell themselves into slavery to a patrician, in order to have some hope of upward mobility – perhaps the nobleman had business interests that he might put the slave in charge of, if the slave proved himself dependable and talented. Then, if all went well, the slave could then buy or have given to him freedom for his children. At least, he probably wouldn’t starve in the meantime.

Agricultural slaves, on the other hand, seem to have been largely treated as animals. I have not run across any stories of agricultural slaves, who made up the vast bulk of slaves under the Empire, working their or their children’s way to freedom. But again, my reading in this area is slight.

Anyway, the only point, and it is a small one, is that it might have been lass shocking to the Romans and their Greek subjects to hear that a slave must be treated as a brother than it would have been for a Southern slave owner. In fact, the American slave owner just refused to hear it.

And this discussion lead, in that ineffable way my mind works, to consideration of Hieronymus Bosch, and why there are not more Halloween costumes and parties based on his works. The connection is that slavery isn’t the only thing that the Romans thought very differently than we do. Their sense of honor doesn’t map exactly to ours, for one thing, and the same noble Roman who would die unflinching for his Republic had most likely a deep and abiding affection for scatological humor. It’s a mistake to think of them in our terms. They inhabited a very different emotional and esthetic universe, it seems.

Hieronymus Bosch inhabited another very weird universe, one that – thankfully, I think – is very different from ours. It’s not just that his work is bizarre and often obscene – that might just be a personal quirk – it’s that his work was enormously popular. For a century after his death, people came to admire it. There are hundreds of copies drawn, painted or sculpted from that time. His work was hung in public places for people to see, and people traveled to see it. People really dug this stuff.

So I hit the web. And the answer is that first, there are plenty of Bosch themed costumes out there, if Google images is to be believed, and, second, that even a few parties along those lines have taken place. So, OK, even in these modern times Bosch has some appeal.

Then, for the first time in years, I looked, like really looked, at some Bosch.

Yikes.

 

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And this is kinda tame. There’s stuff I won’t even put up here. 

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The ice skate/funnel/red cape/yoyo combo really sets off the cross beak/letter look. 

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As a costume, you’d need the right attitude to make that fish head with butterfly wings cape, sword and shield look work. 

And these are some of the less disturbing ones.

As Halloween costume inspirations, it seems to me Bosch would not be very appropriate, at least, under what I hope are modern American sensibilities. For Catholics, we dress up as scary or even evil characters in order to mock them, to show them we no longer fear them. Oh Death, where is thy sting? after all. Bosch does seem to be mocking something. The mockery has a hard time cutting through the disturbing, at least for me.

Conclusion: the 15th and 16th century Netherlanders, and the Germans, Spaniards and Italians who admired and copied Bosch, did not look at the world the same way we do. At least most of us. And I’d frankly like to avoid the ones among us who do.

More Polanyi: Mysticism & Fantasy

Part II of my review of this book.

I’m well into the second half of Polanyi’s Great Transformation, and, while I’m getting a crash course in 18th & 19th English history through looking up all his references to events and people I’ve never heard of or that are just names to me, tedium is setting in. Late last night, while plowing through a few pages, I broke down and did something I almost never do and advise against doing until after you’ve read the book for yourself: looked at what other people say about this work. Read what the authors themselves say as much as possible, to avoid the inevitable biases and lacunas that predigested takes contain by their nature. In my frustration, curiosity about who, if anyone, takes Polanyi seriously got the better of me. Yes, I am weak.

Criticism fell into two distinct groups, with no one in the middle: Marxists critical theorists who love, love, love Great Transformation and consider it the seminal work on economics of the last 100 years, and non-Marxist economists – real economists, in other words – who would hurt themselves if they rolled their eyes any harder.

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Some kula in a museum. Subsistence farmers on remote islands make and trade these as part of a complex social ritual intended to reinforce social ties and thus avoid war. When all you got is yams, fish, palm fronds, and no realistic hope for anything more, the perennial human hobbies of sex and murder come to dominate your thoughts and rituals. Even more, I mean. 

The criticisms I laid down in my preliminary comments here and here were echoed and reinforced by his negative critics. For example, one critice makes a point Chesterton also made a couple of times in other contexts: primitive peoples alive today are not our ancestors. Rather, they are as much modern people as we are, except that for whatever reasons they have not made much technological or cultural progress. While our actual European ancestors were  inventing science and technology and cities and architecture and experimenting with complex social relationships, the Trobriand Islanders were cultivating yams and developing ritual trading designed to reinforce social relationships to keep the peace.

To point to tribal peoples living today as examples of man in nature is to ignore that our actual ancestors, who did develop what eventually became the modern world, were every bit as natural in the sense ‘natural’ is used here. Our actual ancestors, despite what Rousseau may think, were also natural men who did whatever they did by nature – they eventually developed the gold standard and international trade just as naturally as islanders grow yams and murder each other.  A ‘primitive’ Italian like Marco Polo, for example, clearly did engage in international truck and barter – around the time the Trobriand Islanders first arrived in their little paradise and started building grass huts. Polo is an ancestor to the West. The islanders are not.

Enough. Returning to my reading, here is a paragraph from the second half of the book I find quite revealing of how Polanyi thinks:

Let us return to what we have called the double movement. It can be personified as the action of two organizing principles in society, each of them setting itself specific institutional aims, having the support of definite social forces and using its own distinctive methods. The one was the principle of economic liberalism, aiming at the establishment of a self-regulating market, relying on the support of the trading classes, and using largely laissez-faire and free trade as its methods; the other was the principle of social protection aiming at the conservation of man and nature as well as productive organization, relying on the varying support of those most immediately affected by the deleterious action of the market—primarily, but not exclusively, the working and the landed classes—and using protective legislation,
restrictive associations, and other instruments of intervention as its methods.

Notice anything odd? How about the odd use of the word ‘personified’? Polanyi is here saying that two competing ‘organizing principles’ are – persons?

It would be easy to explain this away, a little goof in the midst of a long book, something a good editors maybe should have caught, but clearly I don’t think so. I think that this personification of abstract forces is exactly what this book is about. The individual is nothing, the masses everything, after all. And the masses is a seething, suffering – abstraction.

To Polanyi, great lumbering forces, abstractions that manifest themselves in Capital, or the Gold Standard, or the Labor Market are the persons of History, while people are just at best the raw material History acts upon. These persons, these gods-who-are-not-gods, correspond to Hegel’s Spirit, in that History is not made from a cumulation of millions of little decisions by millions of little people, but rather History acts upon the little people, with their decisions merely reflecting the gradual expression of Historical forces.

History, then, is always inevitable, even if we can’t see it until our illusory choices have slipped into the past. Marx’s claim to see the future is a claim that History is as deterministic as a wind-up clock. In 3 hours it will be 5:45; in the fullness of time it will be the Worker’s Paradise.

Hidden here is the perennial bait and switch, or perhaps motte and bailey: our sympathies are engaged by the very real suffering (usually) of the Little People, but the analysis and proposed solutions are always about presumed inevitable forces. The Polanyis of the world flip from one to the other with greater or lesser skill: questions about the framework are answered by implied or, increasingly, shrill accusations that you don’t care about the little people; focus on practical steps directed at the little people, get reminded that it’s the system, man.

I’ll try to get this finished off and post a final review soon.

Theology: Developed versus Evolved

Image result for famous fossilsI’m part of a team at our local parish doing RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults – the 6-9 month process an adult who wants to become Catholic goes through prior to 1st Communion, Confession, Confirmation and, if needed, Baptism).  I’m sort of the philosophy/history person, although the director and a couple of the other people on the team are perfectly capable of covering it. I talk too much.

We use a variety of materials from a couple of sources, of varying depth and quality. One, addressing what exact topic I’m not recalling the moment, used the word ‘evolve’ regarding Catholic dogma.

I probably don’t need to point out to many of the readers of this blog that ‘evolve’ is exactly the wrong term to use when discussing Catholic theology and dogma. ‘Develop’ is the right word to use.

First, evolve is used in (at least) 2 senses: the technical, biological sense, meaning changes to characteristics of a population over generations; and, more commonly, to mean ‘changing in a direction I like’.

The second sense is fundamentally dishonest, although I hasten to add that most people who use the word this way are most likely completely unaware of the dishonesty. They just picked it up from the way college-educated (“smart”) people talk, and would no doubt be baffled to discover educated people who object to that usage. What is dishonest is the replacing of ‘what I like’ with ‘what is obviously true’. Changes I don’t like are never said to be examples of evolution, but are instead given a pejorative label like ‘regressive’. This substitution takes place below the level of conscious thought almost all the time, I will generously believe for as long as I can.

Starting in the mid 19th century, Hegelians and their idiot children the Marxists met up with Darwin and his less clear-thinking offspring, the Darwinists, and discovered a happy (to them) marriage: the inevitable forward march of the Spirit/History was exactly like, nay, was perfectly embodied in, Darwinian evolution. Just look at how modern, more recent creatures are superior to ancient, outdated creatures! Why, it’s *just like* how modern, progressive ideas replace old, counter-revolutionary ideas by weight of their sheer luminous awesome superiority! It’s not a matter for argument, it’s a simple observation: just as dogs and elephants and canaries are obviously superior to velociraptors, diplodocuses and pterodactyls, democratic, scientific economics is superior to the primitive, competitive ‘free’ market.(1)

One remarkable thing in the history of ideas is how much effort, sometimes, the father or champion of a particular idea puts in to saying exactly what he does and does not mean, while later champions steamroll any subtilty in their hurry to use what they see as the gist of the idea for their pet projects. Thus, Hegel is careful to say that the forward march of the Spirit as revealed in History does not by its very nature admit of its use as a crystal ball – that the whole point of this gradual revelation is that we *don’t* know the future. We require Revelation, which doesn’t depend on and is not subject to human reason. Marx, finding Hegel’s disposal of logic useful but having no use for the divine revelation in History that take its place, immediately claims to know the future by virtue of his understanding of the Dialectic. It’s turtles all the way down, sure, but Marx has thrown out the top few layers of turtles and stands in midair. Charles Sanders Peirce, the father of Pragmatism, goes to great lengths to say Pragmatism is not merely the idea that the ends justify the means, only to have his great pragmatic successor, John Dewey, say exactly that.

Darwin himself does not use the word ‘evolution’ once in the 1st edition of the Origin of Species, and uses ‘evolve’ exactly once, as the last word in the last sentence of the work. (2) In the 12 years after publication of the Origin of Species before publication of the Descent of Man, followers of Darwin got labeled ‘Evolutionists’, so evolution does show 30 times in the later volume. Darwin claims that the ideas he presents in Descent will no doubt result in establishment of a scientific footing for psychology, since it’s clear (!) that consciousness and all other human mental characteristics and capabilities evolved from more primitive precursors in the lower animals from which man evolved.  Somewhere in there, evolution, which is at its roots akin to a simple observation, just one small inferential step removed from looking at related living species and the bones of what might be their ancestors, became the fundamental characteristic of EVERYTHING.(3)

And Darwin was more restrained than his followers. We end up with the second meaning of evolution as describing ‘change I like’ as little more than a Hegel-light or Marxist/materialist clarification of what Descent is talking about.

Image result for valley oakDevelopment is something much more organic and even ancient, having philosophical roots in Aristotle’s idea of Nature. A natural thing has within its nature principles of motion distinct from the accidental causes that might move it or, more generally, change it. An oak tree grows from an acorn. The principles of growth from acorn to oak tree are contained in – are the nature of – the acorn. The acorn might grow to be a majestic valley oak or a stunted oak among rocks or, indeed, get eaten by a squirrel. Those outcomes are at least partly the result of accidents. Growth from acorn to oak are by nature.

That gigantic digression out of the way, we now get back to theology. To understand that theology and church teaching in general might develop from what is already there should cause no one any heartburn. Any new understanding must point back to and be consistent with older understandings. An eternal God is impossible for us limited humans to fully understand, but as He is unchanging and internally consistent, so too must be our theology. People who want to contradict previous teachings must hope theology can evolve, meaning, as explained above, change in a direction they like, never mind logic or consistency. They hope, however unclear they are about it, for Hegelian revelations in history that are not subject to human reason and have no need to be consistent with what came before.

God is a God of Being – “I AM” – not a god of becoming.

  1. Unless we’re social Darwinists, in which case the same argument is made to support the opposite outcome of Übermenschen perhaps wiping a tear of passing weakness from their superior eyes as they witness the inevitable suffering and death of the less fit, before returning to their world-conquering ways. Beware theories that can be easily used to explain contradictory outcomes.
  2. “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
  3. In writing this, it occured to me that my love of The Origin of Species has blinded me to the mess that is much of Descent: the overly-cautious Darwin of Origin, fresh, no doubt, from lying in a field watching bees pollinate clover, is always willing to acknowledge criticisms and admit of lacuna. The more mature Darwin of Descent will talk about consciousness as being of the same species, as it were, as a bird’s colorful feathers. Both exist in the natural world (he assumes) and thus are subject to the same set of evolutionary explanations. It’s like I turn to the baby pictures of a beloved child who is now doing hard time, and pretend my baby is still innocent.

Histories of Catholic Education, a Note

Setting aside Parish School by Timothy Walch (1997) and returning to The Catholic School System in the United States,  by James A. Burns, C.S.C. (1908) in order to catch up chronologically.  I read today about French efforts to establish schools in New Orleans.

Burns notes that from its founding, the leaders of New Orleans sought to bring teachers from France to found schools in the tiny colony, and were answered by the Capuchins, who set up a boys’ school in 1725, and the Ursulines, who set a girls’ school in 1727.

Image result for The Place d’Armes Hotel, located on St. Anne Street
Site of the Capuchin School in the French Quarter

Site of First Louisiana School Marker

The Capuchin school is no more, but a very New Orleans style hotel stands on the spot where it used to be. The Ursuline School is still in business.

So we have here physical evidence of not only French settlement in America, but of French concern for education. Burns describes the heroic efforts of the Capuchins and Ursulines in trying to educate children; he mentions the worry of the sisters when control of Louisiana passed to the Spanish and then back to the French and then to the US. Relations with the Spanish were of a culture class nature but things got worked out. Much more worrisome was post revolutionary and ferociously anti-Catholic France resuming control. Most of the Ursuline sisters fled to Havana, leaving only nine to work on the school.

Then America took over. The French experience with Republican government did not inspire confidence in the remaining sisters, who fired off a letter to President Jefferson, who assured them that the new government would not seize their property nor interfere in the school. Andrew Jackson’s wounded troops were cared for by the sisters after the Battle of New Orleans. He returned later as President to show gratitude.

I mention this merely to point out that that’s a lot of history for one little school in a city of a few thousand people. None of this is mentioned by Walch. It is not clear what selection criteria Walch is using here. A single missionary’s school in Arizona that died when he died warrants a paragraph or two; a couple of centuries of schools in New Orleans do not.

I mentioned Walch’s dismissal of the California Missions. Here is his conclusion:

For Spain and for the Church, the California Missions were an economic wonder. The use of native labor and the favorable climate allowed the missionaries to cultivate a vast quantity of land. The fruit, wine, and beef from California were among the best in the world, but the price was high. The hard labor killed off the the native population, and the decline of the mission system in California followed the demise of the native population.

I just skimmed through the notes of the chapter in which this above quotation occurs, and, unfortunately nearly all references are to modern historians and history books. Therefore, I’d need to dig through a library in order to find actual source materials instead of having them noted in the text, which is what Burns does.

It’s a huge question: what source materials justify the movement from the position of Burns, who calls Junipero Serra a saint and the California missions a miracle that only died, along with the more than 30,000 Indian Christians. as a result of the direct action of Mexican government – and quotes and otherwise references sources to support it – to Walch’s position above? Were there not 30,000+ Christin Indians in the missions when they were seized and destroyed by the Mexican government? If the missions were dying out because forced labor was killing off the Indians, how did the mission population grow to 30,000 in the first place? That might work over a short term or given a comparatively huge population of Indians to start with, but neither of those conditions prevailed.

Or did they? A source or two could clear this up. Instead – and I don’t know Walch is doing this, but he’s failed to provide any evidence he’s not – are we going to jump on the band wagon diparaging Fr, Serra and all things Catholic in California, that was all the rage when Serra was up for canonization? Are we just buying the Fabian program of rewriting history so that it matches ideology?

I don’t know. But I’ve read enough over a lifetime to know that a modern historian is not proved more reliable simply by virtue of being modern.