Chesterton, Dante, and the Disciplines of Lent

Here is a talk I gave yesterday, February 13, 2023. I opened with the lame excuse that my library is still in boxes in storage, and thus I had to write this mostly from the top of my head. Also, as is necessary with a talk of this sort, my historical comments are broad generalization. For the most part, I’m taking these gross generalizations from Chesterton. That understood:


The work that most defines Chesterton high schools, that most guides and inspires us, is G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. Chesterton wrote it in response to H. G. Wells’ Outline of History, which is Wells’ attempt to deemphasize, denigrate, if not out and out remove, Christianity and especially Catholicism, from mainstream history. 

Unfortunately, Wells was very successful. Only Catholics, and only some of us, seem to be willing to say much of anything positive about the Church’s role in history. The Everlasting Man is a detailed argument for why Wells and his myriad followers are wrong from the get go – they misunderstand and misrepresent man in fundamental ways, misunderstand and misrepresent man’s religious impulses, are confused about what a church is, and in general, seem baffled and confused by the common experiences of common people.  

And that’s before we even get to Jesus! If you have any interest at all in understanding  our schools and the task we have had set for us, please read The Everlasting Man. It’s not an easy book, but the payoff is high. 

I’ll circle back to Chesterton throughout this talk. For now, we take up the same challenge Chesterton did in his response to Wells: describing truly that oddest and most surprising of creatures – us. I think he would agree that the best place to look for understanding of human beings would be the poets, and that the best poets are Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante. 

An aside: some people may want to shoehorn Milton, Virgil, maybe Goethe, in there. Some people broaden the definition of poetry to include the opening of the Gospel of John, which to me is in its own class, not to be lumped in with mere human invention. But when it comes to human genius, especially as applied to understanding human  beings, I’ll stick with my Big Three. 


I chose to talk about Dante, specifically his glorious Purgatorio, because in a week we will be entering Lent. That great poem is about Lent. All of Dante, no matter how appalling or uplifting, is about people here and now, in the real world. The Purgatorio is the most beautiful account ever written about the struggles of people in the Church Militant, even though its matter is the Church Suffering. We who want to be holy, who want to be saved, who want to be able to endure seeing God face to face – the Purgatorio is our story. 

The poem takes the form of a medieval allegory. On the surface, this should be a little terrifying – allegory is usually a pretty unwieldy and blunt tool, so a long allegory about the afterlife should not be expected to be a particularly gripping tale. Another medieval example of religious allegory, written 60 years after Dante, is Piers Plowman. If you read that first, you might lack the stomach for even trying another one! Piers Plowman has all the grace of getting hit over the head with a 2 X 4, and all the art of a battering ram. 

The saving grace of the Purgatorio is Dante’s genius. In his hands, allegory is like a paintbrush or even a scalpel. He illustrates and lays bare. Not that he doesn’t whack the reader over the head once in a while, but, in general, he is more subtle and always more beautiful. 


The world out of which Dante crafted the Divine Comedy, the high Middle Ages, requires a little clarification for us modern readers. In his beautiful biography of St. Francis, Chesterton identifies the beginning of the truly high Middle Ages with the activities of the great Italian beggar. The suffering of the late Roman Empire, the darkness of what modern historians call Late Antiquity, was, in Chesterton’s view, a required purging of the evils of the late stages of Paganism. In Everlasting Man, Chesterton speaks at length about the more simple, more mythological forms of paganism, which are not in themselves particularly evil. But as time goes on, the tendency for a more practical paganism, one directed towards Getting Things Done, ends up with actual demon worship, with Carthage and the rites of Moloch. The world, particularly the civilizations built on the shores of the Sea in the Middle of the Earth – the Mediterranean – had been steeped in such horrors for millennia. Both the prophets of Israel and the sturdy peasants of Rome hated and despised this demon worship. Tyre and Sidon, lands where Jesus himself tread, were home to rites of making infants “pass through fire” – while drums were beaten to drown out the screams. Carthage, hated and ultimately destroyed by the Romans, was their independent colony, Not independent enough to abandon the demon worship of its mother cities, sadly. 

While the Empire, at peace under Augustus, had put an end to these practices, it had no way to exorcise the demons. Such evil can only be driven out with prayer and fasting. (Mk 29; Mt 21). The Church, in its penitents and saints and monks and hermits, struggled and suffered with what looks at times like a grim asceticism, from around 400 AD to St. Francis’s time in the eleven hundreds. The exorcism, according to Chesterton, was finally achieved in the Middle Ages. A new spirit of joy was bodied forth in the Little Friar of Assisi. 

Stating that St. Francis was not grim is like saying the sun is not dark. With the little beggar, the Church was dragged into a new age, the age of growingly flamboyant and playful Gothic buildings and art, of love songs and organum growing into polyphony, of study growing into recognizable sciences, of applied technology much greater than anything known to the ancients. And of a new thing under the sun – the medieval university. 


More context. The Medieval Warm period lasted from about 900 to about 1300. This is significant, because almost everything we call the Middle Ages was born and first flowered in this timeframe. With more predictable and warmer weather and longer growing seasons, and the introduction of improved technology, the population of Europe is estimated to have quadrupled over those 4 centuries. The heavy wheeled iron plows, iron tired wagon wheels, much more efficient horse harnesses, the practice of growing oats to feed to your horses so that you could work them harder and longer, and a myriad related developments – meant that the work of peasants was much more productive. Life was not as tenuous as it had always been everywhere before, where, as one English historian put it, population was “harvest sensitive” – one bad harvest, and the weak died off, and the population fell. Populations in the Middle Ages were not quite so harvest sensitive. 

More and more land was put into production – those strong, well-fed horses could pull those heavy wheeled plows through dense muddy soil, and grow more and more food and feed more and more people. Other horses could pull heavy wagons loaded with foodstuffs and rolling on iron tires, into the towns and villages. More people living more secure lives allowed for the development of commerce and social orders more human and stable. The whole great and highly varied set of systems known as feudalism flourished. 

Francis died in 1226; his slightly older contemporary, friend, and fellow mendicant Dominic Guzman died in 1221. Each founded religious orders. While Francis had little interest in and even less talent for organization, the Spaniard was an organizational genius. Thus, the various offshoots of St. Francis’s orders quickly strayed from his humble vision and fierce orthodoxy, requiring papal intervention and reorganization, and even condemnation of certain of Francis’s followers as heretics, St. Dominic’s orders still to this day largely follow his original rule. 

Both Franciscans and Dominicans figure strongly in Dante’s story, by the way. I will bring this digression back around to the point in a minute. By the time St. Dominic died, his first great intellectual disciple was somewhere between 16 and 27  years old. Brother Albert, known in his own time as the Universal Master and in our time as St. Albert the Great, took Dominic’s passion for learning in the service of God and wed it to his native intelligence, to become the most formidable intellectual of his day. Until he was overshadowed by his star pupil. 

St. Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225. After his harrowing escape from his family and their well-intentioned desire to keep their well-born son away from these new, rather gauche mendicant orders – see Chesterton’s The Dumb Ox for details – he fell in with Albert in Paris. By 1250, young Thomas was already a famous teacher who soon eclipsed his own master. 

Now that the demons had been exorcised by centuries of prayer and fasting, a scholar could safely dive into pagan literature without too much fear for his soul. Thomas famously baptized Aristotle, following here the lead of his teacher Albert. For centuries afterwards, every educated man and woman (and the universities trained hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of women) would have to know his Aristotle to participate in any learned discussion. The properly educated student could make rigorous arguments, spot the logical flaws in his own and others’ arguments, and weigh the degree of certainty any proposition warranted. 

Dante was born into this world in 1265, and thoroughly educated in it. St. Thomas died in 1274 when Dante was 9; St. Albert in 1280 when Dante was 15. The shadows, or more properly, the daylight,  of these two giants most definitely fell across Dante’s life. The Purgatorio and indeed the whole Divine Comedy is imbued and enlightened by Dante’s Dominican education. His constant references to the stars and geography and geometry, which might seem pedantic to us moderns, gave verisimilitude to his contemporary audience, who likewise had fallen under the grace or spell of the great Dominicans. 

But much more important and telling, Dante chooses Reason in the person of Virgil to be his guide through Hell and Purgatory to the threshold of Heaven – very Thomistic choice. Virgil’s explanations and expansions on their journey are little examples or extracts of the Questions Method used by the Dominicans, where a question is stated, all the arguments against laid out, and au contraire issued, and then the counter arguments presented, The master would then wrap it up with a concluding statement. Virgil teaches Dante and us using what might be called the Questions Method Lite, but the bones of the full Method still show through.  

Yet while Dante is fully a product of Dominican education, in his religious life, one might even say in his emotional life, he is expressly a Franciscan. Dante joined the Franciscan  third order. There is even a curious scene in the lower levels of Hell, where, in order to summon the monstrous embodiment of Fraud and use it to catch a ride to the bottom of the Pit, Virgil instructs Dante to undo the rope around his waist – the belt symbolic of his membership in the Franciscans – and cast it in. No commentator I’ve read makes a convincing argument about what this is supposed to mean. The drama is real enough – Dante meant something by it – but exactly what is unclear. 

One can truly say that both the great founders of the two great mendicant orders are present on every page of the Divine Comedy. Virgil, as Reason itself, speaks mostly for the Dominicans; but Dante’s soul is formed and honed by the joyful yet stern asceticism of Francis. His empathy or horror, disgust or sorrow, at the fates of the souls he meets in the Purgatorio and especially the Inferno seem to me to more strongly reflect the Heart of the little beggar. Two stories from the life of Francis will have to do as illustrations, where Francis and Dante would perhaps most agree on an emotional level. Peaceful, loving Francis spared no disgust at priests who would let their altar linens get dirty – the very idea that one would call down Our Lord and Savior in the Eucharist without having done everything in his power to prepare a proper reception infuriated him. And the better known story about Francis returning from a trip to find his brothers had built a very nice building for themselves, much nicer than he thought appropriate. So the saint climbed up on the roof, and began in a fury tearing off roofing tiles with his bare hands. 

I think Dante would be in solid agreement with these actions. 


Dante was a minor, relatively impoverished Florentine noble. He nonetheless took a very active role in Florentine political life. When his faction fell out of power in 1301, he was exiled. He spent the rest of his life living on the generosity of others, and writing his Divine Comedy. After the first book, the Inferno, came out, many in Florence were eager to welcome the now-famous poet back home. But the leaders of his beloved city put conditions on his return that Dante, proud son of Florence that he was, simply could not comply with. He never again returned to his home. 

Dante died in 1321, shortly after completing his Paradiso, the final book in the Divine Comedy. A few years earlier, In 1315, the Medieval Warm Period came to a dramatic end. Europe north of Italy and Spain suffered one of the worst famines in recorded history. For almost 2 years, it rained in what is now Germany, France, and England. It was three years before any crops were grown, Anything like normal productivity did not resume until 1322. While millions starved to death, the more disheartening damage was an almost universally weakened population – even the survivors were likely near death. Farms were washed away; work animals were eaten or starved to death themselves. A weakened, impoverished population was forced to rebuild. 

Northern Europe never quite recovered. A mere 25 years later, in 1347, the Black Death swept through Europe, killing from 50 to 60% of everybody, perhaps as many as 200 million dead. 

The rich commercial and political culture built over the previous 400 years did not survive. Local population numbers often did not recover to pre-plague levels for many centuries. In place of complex local loyalties and duties, war and unrest spread. New, less human and humane structures took their place. Heroic efforts were made to restore the old order, and the Middle Ages did, according to some accounts, limp forward for another century and a half. 

But the world of Dante had died. 


On that depressing note, we return, finally, to the Divine Comedy. 

Dante was the first writer, prose or poet, to give a thorough and coherent account of Purgatory. Christians from the beginning, and even Jews back at least to the Maccabees, had believed in the importance of prayers for the dead. Once you accept that the dead can benefit from our prayers, the question arises: where are the souls of the dead? Over the centuries, a concept of a purgatory developed: the souls of the dead who escaped damnation yet are still trapped by the effects of their sins undergo sufferings to purge them of those sins. Our prayers can help them, just as our admonitions and prayer could help them here on earth. 

But there it sat for centuries. If forced to describe Purgatory, a typical response from before Dante wrote would have been something like ‘just like Hell, except the souls eventually get out.’

Such a description was completely unacceptable to Dante. Comparing the state of saved but not perfected souls to the fate of the damned offended both his Dominican and Franciscan sensibilities. One can almost imagine his fist slamming down on the table at the very thought, like St. Thomas Aquinas in intellectual battle with the Manichees. As a man educated by Dominicans, the irrationality of imagining Purgatory as a kind of Hell offended him. As a third order Franciscan, the lack of Divine Love in such an understanding of Purgatory was unacceptable. No, the souls in Purgatory are saved! The must – MUST – be filled with a joy beyond anything any of us who is not a great saint can imagine. 

Souls in Purgatory are saved! Therefore, they joyfully accept the Will of God, and embrace their sufferings, that they might see Him face to face. In Purgatory there will be none of the wailing and despair of Hell; none of the hatred of one damned soul for another. Instead, the saved but impure souls love and support one another, and sing the praises of God! 

In addition to Catholic traditions, Dante had before him a couple pagan descriptions of the afterlife, most centrally Virgil’s account of Aneas’s visit to the underworld in the Aeneid, book VI.  Virgil becomes the obvious choice to lead Dante through Hell and even Purgatory, as he’s theoretically been there, as the author of Aneas’s journey. 

The afterlife crafted by Virgil, the virtuous pagan, bears little similarity with Dante’s Christian understanding, except perhaps in the idea of Justice. In Virgil’s underworld, the punishment more or less fits the crime; those pagans who are virtuous after their fashion, are reincarnated. The suicide Dido, for example, suffers nothing like what the suicides in Dante suffer, as killing oneself is not the horror to pagan Romans as it is to Catholics.

Reincarnation is right out for Dante. But Virgil’s image of the souls waiting for reincarnation has some slight echo in the souls in Dante’s ante-Purgatory, waiting for their true cleansing to begin. 

In building his Purgatory, Dante begins with the story from Revelation 12,  where Satan and his angels are swept from the sky. Dante imagines Satan flung with such force that he is embedded in the earth at its exact center, leaving a conical crater above him. The circles of Hell are along the inside of this cone. Dante’s journey through Hell takes him down to the center of the earth from one circle to the next.

This cosmic impact of Satan is imagined to have taken place where Jerusalem sits now; thus Jerusalem sits above Hell, buried deep in the earth. On the direct opposite side of the earth, in the vast ocean Dante imagines covering the Southern Hemisphere, the material displaced by Satan and the cone of Hell raised up a mountain. This mountain is Purgatory. The Pit is for the damned, but God brings good even from the fall of Satan by creating from that fall the mountain by which repentant sinners can climb to Heaven. 

The symbolism is clear: the damned descend into the pit until the worst sinners are near the Father of Lies and farthest from the Heavens; on the diametrically opposite side of earth, a mountain is raised by which repentant souls might climb toward Heaven. The central part of Medieval cosmology that is often confused here: the earth is imagined as the center of the Universe, yes, but much more importantly, earth is imagined as the farthest point from Heaven. The center of the earth, the very center of the universe, is occupied by Satan! Climbing a mountain takes one both closer to God and further from Satan. It is not pride that imagines the earth as the center of the Universe, at least to Catholics. 

The mountain of Purgatory is surrounded by hilly plains and ocean shores. The repentant are delivered to Purgatory on a boat driven by an angel, just as the damned were carried into the heart of Hell on a boat driven by Charon, conceived by Dante as a demon. The repentant must ascend to a gate guarded by another angel in order to enter Purgatory proper. Above the gate are seven terraces, one for each of the Seven Deadly Sins. On top of the mountain, nearest to Heaven, is the Earthly Paradise. 

While the top and the bottom of the mountain are very interesting, here we will focus on the active repentance taking place on the terraces of the Seven Deadly sins. 

Dante describes rules for the repenting souls: 

  • Only in the light of day can the souls move up the mountain. 
  • Once through the gate, looking back will land you back outside, and you must start the whole process over. 
  • The penitents decide when they are cleansed, and then move on to the next terrace. Nothing other than their own knowledge of their sins keeps them on any particular terrace. 

Dante hammers home the first point above by falling asleep as night falls on the slopes outside the gate to the terraces. He dreams an eagle lifts him to the fiery realms of heaven, only to set him back down on earth. He awakes to find himself at the gate. Virgil explains that, as the morning started to break, St. Lucy – her name means Light – came down from heaven and carried him to the gate. For we can make no progress in our repentance without the light of Grace, but must wait out the inevitable periods of darkness. 

The second point above recalls Lot’s wife. Under the new dispensation, those who look back are not turned to pillars of salt, but merely need to start over. 

The final point emphasizes that repentance is an act of our wills – stirred and aided, of course, by divine grace. The Divine Wisdom is not punishing penitents in Purgatory, but helping them reach the point where they could endure the full glory of heaven! 

The angel guarding the gate holds from Peter the two keys, one of gold, the other of silver. He has been instructed to err rather in opening than in keeping shut. This angel uses the point of his sword to mark the forehead of Dante with 7 wounds in the shape of the letter ‘P’ – for pecatta, or sins. He is told that he must do penance until he has healed the wounds symbolized by the letters cut into him. 

In a scene as close to humor as Dante usually allows himself to get, the angel uses the keys of Peter to unlock the gate to Purgatory proper, which groans and screeches on its hinges. As the Esolen translation puts it: 

And as the sacred portal’s pins and bolts,

Forged of strong metal, of a booming tone,

Were twisting in the hinges no such groan

And stubborn grinding came when Caesar forced

The good Metellus to give up the vault 

On the Tarpeian Rock…

So seldom do we fallen humans commit ourselves to repentance that the gates to Purgatory are practically rusted shut. Here Dante uses, as is his habit, stories from history or mythology to illustrate his point. Caesar was on campaign and out of cash, and raided an old temple treasury, whose gate had not been opened in many years. Then, following the practice of Virgil, he asserts that what’s happening in his story is *greater* than what happened in history and legend – the groans of those rusty temple treasury gates are as nothing compared to the screeching of the neglected gates of Purgatory.  

Of course, there’s a deeper layer. There always is with Dante. Just as Caesar raided a temple to get treasure for his war, each repentant sinner who enters the gates of Purgatory has discovered the treasure needed to win his war against sin.  

Once through, Dante hears – barely – unseen voices singing the Te Deum – the ancient prayer sung at Matins, the liturgical office prayed in the morning before sunrise. The hymn begins: 

O God, we praise you; O Lord, we acclaim you.

Eternal Father, all the earth reveres you.

All the angels, the heavens and the Pow’rs of heaven,

Cherubim and Seraphim cry out to you in endless praise:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts,

heaven and earth are filled with the majesty of your glory.

For a Catholic, repentance is fundamentally liturgical – the work of the people of God. The souls in Dante’s Hell hate and curse each other. Part of their punishment is being stuck with other people they don’t like. But souls in Purgatory, repentant souls seeking mercy and healing, rejoice in the company of their companions. Prayer is a constant in their lives; praying together, especially praying the Church’s formal liturgical prayers, is not just natural, but makes up the solid core of their repentance. 

The Te Deum is a hymn of God’s glory sung just as the sun begins to bring light to the sky. It is only in the light of God’s grace that the penitent can hope to make any progress. The souls beginning their purification join with the whole Church in thanking and praising God, and walk in his light. 

Now Dante and Virgil are properly on their way. Each terrace, or step of repentance,that they encounter shares these characteristics: 

  • Upon first reaching the terrace, a scene from the life of Mary illustrates the virtue that lies opposite the sin being purged.  
  • Then follows a scene from secular history or mythology also illustrating the virtue
  • A liturgical prayer is being sung by the penitents or unseen voices
  • The purifying act is introduced – the penitents are shown to be repenting
  • Examples of the sin and its destructive power are witnessed as Dante and Virgil make their way counterclockwise around the terraces. 
  • Finally, an angel guarding the climb up to the next level uses the tip of his wing to gently erase one of the letters P from the penitent’s brow. Penance for that sin has been completed; the symbol of the damage done by that sin is removed, and the penitent is ready to attempt the next terrace. 

The terraces are arranged such that sins are tackled in a logical order. The first and last terraces, for purging the sins of Pride and Lust, respectively, mirror the arrangement in Hell, where Satan’s pride is punished at the very bottom of Hell, and the lust of Paolo and Francesca is punished at the very first and highest circle of Hell proper. Pride separates one from God and neighbor in a profound way, making one’s self a god, and so must be beaten down first before any other sin can be overcome. The ever popular sin of Lust, on the other hand, is at its roots near to Love – a perversion of a good thing, and therefore a lesser sin and easier – not easy, by any stretch, but easier! – to correct. It can wait, in other words, while Pride has to be dealt with before any progress can be made. 

Here’s the full batting order: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice and Prodigality, Gluttony, and Lust. 

While I  had originally planned to touch upon each sin and its cleansing, that is probably too much detail for a talk like this, and – would you look at the time! Instead, I will focus on three sins, and encourage you to read the Divine Comedy over Lent. 100 Cantos of between 130 and 160 lines each. Read 2 to 3 Cantos a day, 15 to 20 minutes of reading, and you’d get through the whole thing in 40 days. Or just focus on the Purgatorio, get a translation with good notes – I like Sinclair’s excellent notes – and spend some time learning who all these Italians were, what all the classical references refer to, and what the battles of Dante’s day were all about. Less than 1 canto a day! 

Although I haven’t done so for the last few years, for many years I reread the Divine Comedy as my Lenten reading. I won’t kid you – it’s not an easy book, especially at first. It is full of obscure – to us – historical and mythical figures, and features Thomistic digression about once every other Canto. It assumes a familiarity with medieval Italian politics few possess. So you will need an edition with good notes, and a willingness to spend the time reading them. Beach reading it is not. But I think it’s worth it. 

Moving on – 


After Dante and Virgil pass through the gate, they must climb up a steep and treacherous path in order to simply get to the starting line. Virgil in his role as Dante’s reason, must cajole and encourage Dante to keep moving. The path is compared to a needle’s eye, an uncertain zig-zag, no straight shot. Thus the path looks to those suffering from pride.

Finally, exhausted, Dante reaches the first terrace. It is as lonely as a desert path, so little do men repent of their pride. He sees carved into the path, with art so great the images appear to Dante to move and speak, the Annunciation, the ultimate act of humility and surrender to the Will of God: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Repentance from Pride begins with the great drama of Mary’s fiat. 

Stories of pride and humility from the Old Testament follow, and then a legend about the Emperor Trajan, who humbly gave in to the pleadings of an old woman for justice. The Old and New Scriptures, as well as secular history, are brought to bear. 

Dante is delighted at the images, and needs Virgil to interrupt him to point out the penitents themselves. They are reciting the Our Father, praying that God’s will, not theirs, be done. Not for themselves do they pray – that blessing was lost when they died – but for us, the living!

The penitents of this terrace each carry a huge rock on their backs that cause them to be bent double. Instead of standing proud and tall, their sin makes them bow nearly to the ground. Dante, who was a very proud man, also bends until he can talk face to face with the penitents. This is the first example of Dante revealing his own sense of his sinfulness – in this canto, he clearly identifies with, and assumes the posture of, the penitents. 

The exhausted penitents, weighed down by their sin, plod along, forced to see as they walk the images carved into the floor – the Annunciation, Trajan’s humility, and many illustrations of the wages of the sin of pride. One penitent notes that he must carry this weight here because he would not carry it in his earthly life. 


After talking with a couple of his proud fellow Florentines, Dante and Virgil are directed to the next stairs to the next terrace. Dante cannot bear to look directly at the angel guarding this passage – the reflected glory of God in this member of the heavenly household is too great for his sinful eyes. Virgil assures him that the strength of his vision will grow as he repents. 

The touch of the angel’s wing wipes the first P from Dante’s forehead. The climb to the next terrace is much easier, now that he’s been healed from his pride. 

As they reach the next terrace, hidden voices fly by and cry out: “They have no wine!” and “But I am Orestes!” Mary, always selfless, feels for the poor host of the wedding at Canna suffering the embarrassment of running out of wine. According to the myth, Orestes was about to be condemned to death for the revenge murder of his mother and her lover, when his friend Pylades stepped forward and declared he was the real Orestes. The two friends fought for the honor of dying for the other. Selfless love is the opposite and antidote to envy. 

The sin of envy is close, in some ways, to the sin of pride, and thus comes second. The twisted inability of the envious to take any pleasure in the blessings bestowed on others is a poison that soon spreads. The sinner grows more and more isolated and bitter. 

The penitents on this terrace are weak and immoble, sitting leaning against the cliff wall and each other. They cannot even so much as sit up without the help of other people. Their eyes have been sewn shut with iron wire, a practice used by falconers when taming their birds. They envied what the saw in life, and so have lost that power until the sin is purged. Their livid clothing blends in with the stone of the terrace and cliff. All are one. They are forced into companionship and away from any individual show. 

Blind, unmoving, weak, but now part of a community precisely as they could not be in this life because of their envy, the penitents recite an endless Litany of the angels and saints! Everything on the terrace of the envious moves them to recognize and praise and be thankful for others! 

Here Dante merely mourns for the suffering of the sinners, but does not share in it much. He remarks that he will be little detained on this terrace, but he’s seriously worried about that last one! Not too envious, but very proud. 

Another angel heals another P, and the climb to the next terrace is easier still. 

Dante and Virgil move on through Wrath, where the penitent must live in a blinding smoke, Sloth, where they never stop moving, Avarice and its twin Prodigality, where the sinners lie face down on the pavement, admiring the dust that so occupied them in life, and gluttony, where the souls fast while being tempted by delicious fruit. None of these sins hits Dante very hard personally – then we come to Lust.


“All around this ring,” Virgil warns Dante, “You’d better keep a tight rein on the eyes. One small misstep, and you’ll have gone astray.”  Right. On this circle, the repentant sinners walk in a fire that hugs the cliff face, leaving only a narrow path along the precipice. Dante must either plunge into the fire, or walk a narrow and dangerous path. 

As they quickly move through the fire, the sinners sing Summæ Deus clementiæ, God of Greatest Clemency, a hymn sung at Saturday matins – again, like the Te Deum in the circle of Pride, sung just as the sun begins to light the sky. The most relevant section: 

Do Thou in love accept our lays

Of mingled penitence and praise;

And set our hearts from error free,

More fully to rejoice in Thee.

Our reins and hearts in pity heal,

And with Thy chastening fires anneal;

Gird Thou our loins, each passion quell,

And every harmful lust expel.

When the souls reach the end of this hymn, they all cry out “But I have not known man,” acknowledging Mary’s holy virginity and the proper ordering of sexual desires to the divine Will. Then, 

Returning to their singing, 

they would cry of wives and husbands who were chaste and lived 

as virtue’s laws and marriage both demand.

Dante was after all a married man and father. The next moment, a group of people come from the opposite direction from which the first group came. When the two groups of souls meet, they greet each other with a holy kiss, and then get on their way – the souls must practice proper physical contact in order to defeat their desire for sinful physical contact! The souls then shout Sodom! Gomorrah! before continuing their way.  

Dante puts those who repent from *any* kind of lust on the same level – all are sinners who need to reorder their desires in accord with God’s Will. This is in keeping with the Church’s ancient understanding – we all need to repent. No one is beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness. 

An angel appears, singing “How blest are they, the pure of heart!” He advises Dante and Virgil: 

Holy souls, you pass no further on, 

Unless you are bitten by the fire. Come, enter, 

And turn no deaf ear to the hymns beyond.

Virgil pleads at length with Dante – the fire may be painful, but it won’t hurt you. It is for your own good! Do it! Finally, Virgil plays his trump card: you want to see Beatrice again? Then you must endure the flames. 

Dante finally plunges in. 

The blazes there inside did so surpass

All measure, that to feel the cool again,

I’d have flung myself into boiling glass

The angel eventually wipes the last letter P off his forehead. Dante is now free from sin and ready for Heaven. 

Concluding remarks

The formula Dante lays out for repentance and purification in the Purgatorio, although expressed with great art, is not much different than what one should expect from a solid confessor: turn to Mother Mary, practice the opposite virtue, pray with the Church in her Liturgy (the sacraments are implied here, but, since they are no longer available to the Church Suffering, Dante doesn’t expressly mention them). Do penance! Be constantly aware of the evil of your sins so as to avoid temptation! Dante gives this wise guidance a beautiful poetic and theological foundation. 

The Purgatorio is not just a masterpiece of poetic imagination. It is also a great theological achievement. As Chesterton describes it in a number of places, particularly in Orthodoxy and his biography of St. Francis of Assisi, penance had taken on a rather grim aspect in the last days of Rome. In the lingering shadow of the more demonic late stages of paganism after the decline and fall of Rome, the Church’s saints and other leaders tended to emphasize the evils of the world and seriousness of repentance. It took centuries, but the demons were exorcised from a natural world that had grown unnatural. Starting in the 12th century, a great blossoming of the Church and human culture spread across Europe. The greatest example and engine of this flowering was St. Francis. After he had called the Sun his brother and the Moon his sister, after he had tamed the wolves and preached to the birds, Christians were brought back to the joy that God intended for us. To be sure, the little barefoot beggar prayed hard and always, and subjected himself to disciplines that would make most hermits blanch. But – here’s the thing – he embraced his mortifications with endless, irrepressible joy. 

At the same time, the followers of another great saint helped reestablish the Church’s ancient intellectual traditions. Dominic’s great followers – Alburtus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas – looked at the same freshly scrubbed world as Francis, and saw that it was good. They found the Joy of God lurking in every detail and argument. 

Finally, Dante Alighieri, son of minor Florentine nobility and a proud and ambitious poet, the intellectual son of Dominic but a Franciscan at heart, set out to write that new world. Of course, evil had not miraculously vanished, but, as Chesterton might put it, the mirth of God had finally managed to peek through. So Dante first describes the evil in the world – his Inferno, which is much more about this world than the next. But that is only one third of the Divine Comedy. Fully 2/3rd is about salvation and glory. In particular, the Purgatorio lays out for us what true repentance looks like. True repentance is a source of great joy! We lean on and sing with our brothers and sisters, we support each other with prayer, we rejoice in the light of God. We see the world, for the first time, as it is. 

Art Appreciation & Hegel

This week, in the art history/art appreciation class I’m teaching, we were going over cave art and the materials and techniques they might have used. I threw this picture up:

And then this picture:

And had the students discuss them side by side using the elements of art and the principles of design. We all had a blast.

A while ago, Caroline Furlong posted and linked about the Pylos Combat Agate from the Griffin Warrior’s Grave at Nestor’s Palace in Pylos, Greece. Mind blown:

Pylos Combat Agate. This thing is under 1.5 inches wide!

To recap: 15,000+ years ago, somebody could paint that buffalo on a wall in a dark cave using such things as powdered rock mixed with grease and pieces of moss. Then, 3,500 years ago, somebody could carve a detailed battle scene into a pebble, displaying a da Vinci level appreciation of human anatomy and with details too small to really see with the naked eye. Nothing approaching this level of artistry is found anywhere else before about 500 BC.

The Griffin Warrior’s Grave was discovered and excavated in 2015. Alta Mira cave first became widely known in 1880. Hegel was long dead before either of these masterpieces were discovered.

I really don’t want to get into the details and caveats in Hegel’s history of art, but any idea of a more or less linear awakening of artistic expression as the Spirit came to know Itself in History is patent nonsense in light of these two works, without enough caveats and retconning to choke a horse.

Micro Book Reviews (the reviews are small, not the books)

Haven’t written up any book reviews in forever. Have been doing some reading, however. Time is tight: prepping for my 8th and 9th grade history & lit classes set to start in September, trying to schedule a boatload of deferred maintenance for the house, and writing some books and composing a Mass (what’s a fellow to do, to avoid a feeling of helplessness?).

So let’s take 3:

Combat Frame XSeed, by Brian Niemeier

This is fun book. Jumps right in with dramatic escapes, last-second rescues, and battles to the death, with moral questions about exactly how far one is justified to go in war. The story features a bunch of well-drawn characters who unfold and gain depth over time. And giant punchy mechs with swords and stuff!

Niemeier creates a world of space habitats, supermen, a sort of technological tyranny, freedom fighters, genius inventors, fem fatales, and daring soldiers, with enough political intrigue and plot twists to keep the reader on his toes. I particularly liked how each of the main characters has a distinct personality and motivations. Some are loyal to a fault, some have learned to function under an oppressive regime, some are eeeevil.

And mechs! Loving attention is lavished upon them, detailed descriptions, with blow-by-blow fight scenes and epic battles against impossible odds. They punch each other, sword fight, blast each other, fly in space, cruise under water. Very cool. Reminded me of this:

Except there actually are a plot and characters and stuff in XSeed. Fun stuff, check it out.

Here’s a truly irrelevant aside: mechs, and, indeed, any sort of relatively small, heroically-piloted military equipment – fighters, tanks, Imperial Walkers, guys in armor – tend to take me out of any sci fi story, and put me into fantasy right away. 40 years ago, dogfighting was replaced with pilots firing their missiles at a blip on a screen, then turning tail and trying to outrun the missiles similarly targeted at them. Similarly, tanks have become what they originally were: rolling artolatry, not armored cavalry dueling other tanks. It can happen, but that’s not what they’re for. (I await correction by people who know what they’re talking about.)

One can come up with a theory of battle where individuals in suits of really, really cool hi-tech armor are how you need to do things. It’s not like there are rules, exactly, but it’s just another thing to account for – and, it usually isn’t accounted for in my limited experience. You have your Dune conceit, where the standard defensive measures stop all the high-tech weapons, but not swords, so people can get all Erol Flynn on each other. Something like that.

All that said, twice now in stories I’ve worked on I’ve stuck in mechs – stupid, since I don’t know the tropes and clichés. Once, I ignored the issue (to me, at least) of why there were mechs in the first place; the second time, they are part of an ancient military tradition by an alien race that hasn’t fought any real wars for millennia. I really shouldn’t go there.

A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsey.

I dunno. This is a classic, and I sort of get it, but – not my cup of tea. It sold about 600 copies back in 1920 when it was released, and only gained status as a classic after the author had died. Like a lot of modern art, it’s more interesting than good, IMHO.

What’s interesting: Going back to Gilgamesh and Job, at least, is the problem put by Milton as the need to ‘justify the ways of God to men.’ Classic literature from the Iliad and the Old Testament, through Dante, Milton and on and on are stabs, in one way or another, at addressing this issue. It might reasonably be claimed that it’s difficult to be great literature unless it at least touches upon these themes. Lewis’s Space Trilogy and the Silmarillion are more modern examples, and the Oracle Wikipedia says that both Lewis and Tolkien were fans of Lindsey’s masterpiece. So we have here an exploration of the eternal questions about God and man explored by a very capable writer, as part of a long and noble tradition of such explorations.

Lindsey displays an amazing imagination. His planet Tormance orbiting the twin suns of Arcturus is a constant stream of dazzling images and creative flourishes. He imagines it a young world still in a sense being created, where the battle between reality and illusion is being fought out every moment in every creature and feature. It’s a bit like Gulliver’s Travels, in that every new place on Tormance presents new sights and rules. It’s a wild ride, and almost worth reading just for the fabulous craziness of it all.

What’s not so interesting: Now suppose you’re a Nihilist, as Lindsey certainly seems to be. A modern Gnostic, who picks up the task, as he sees it, of debunking all pleasure, all love, all noble feeling, indeed, all material existence, as lies and frauds.

That doesn’t make for a very attractive story. Indeed, there is no plot, no real character development except that the protagonist, Maskull, simply changes and acts under the influence of the latest ‘delusion’ he is in the process of having peeled off. He at first falls in among rather too pure and saintly aliens, who are just straw men to be blown away. Maskull’s enlightenment takes the form of murdering people – or worse. He is described as a sort of giant of a man. The people he murders are always no physical match for him, a good many are women. He leaves a trail of bodies in 5 days that would make a serial killer proud.

And, at the end, he’s a nihilist, so it all doesn’t matter.

I read this book because it is on John C. Wright’s list of essential Sci Fi. He even wrote a book about A Voyage to Arcturus, which I got from Amazon a couple hours ago. (Wright’s Eschaton Sequence may have been inspired by Lindsey’s book, and is a much better (and vastly longer) exploration of the modern philosophical ideas under which we labor. Plus, Menelaus Montrose is a much better protagonist and a gas.)

Soooo – if you want to read a book demonstrating how out there a human imagination can go, give Voyage to Arcturus a try. Otherwise, not so much.

Mentioned a while back that I was rereading Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. Finished it up. Now, we’re almost done with it as family reading out loud after dinner. I want my 17 year old son, who evidently tuned it out when read out loud years ago, to hear this book.

It’s good. Buy several copies. Reread it often. With Benson’s Lord of the World, That Hideous Strength is about a timely a book as you could read.

A Few Threads

Returning to a topic discussed previously:

The unexamined acceptance of the inevitability of Progress as an obvious unassailable fact is under discussion at Rotten Chestnuts. Starting with the Enlightenment, the notion that Change, in the form of Progress, is, so to speak, the only constant, took over polite society. So understood, Progress is not, in any rational sense, a conclusion. Progress can only be a framing devise, a filter, a way to pre-process information.

It might seem odd that an age that produced wave after wave of increasingly insane skepticism about just about everything would accept and vigorously promote as obvious the notion that Progress is a positive force governing Human Development through History. Descartes claims to doubt everything except his own existence; Hume claims to doubt cause and effect; Kant throws out the entire idea anyone can know anything about objective reality (although he says he doesn’t – he says a lot of contradictory things); Fichte simply states that all reality is subjective; Hegel denies the law of non-contradiction and all logic while claiming to be ‘scientific’.

John C. Wright speaks of how unserious philosophy became starting with the Enlightenment. A Socrates might die for his philosophy; a St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that it is in fact necessary to be willing to die for a correct philosophy. Hume famously decides to go shoot some billiards when it all becomes too much. How would anyone from Descartes on know that dying for one’s philosophy is a good thing? Severian has a page dedicated to the worst argument in the world, of which there are many variation sharing the same skeleton. This argument boils down to: we cannot know anything about things in themselves.

Yet we are to assume universal Progress, except insofar as reactionaries of one flavor or another have temporarily turned back the clock on the wrong side of History.

Here’s the thing: the only area where it can be confidently asserted that humanity has steadily progressed over the last, say, 1,000 years, is technology. Technology is undoubtedly better today than it was 10 years ago; it was better 10 years ago than it was 20 years ago; and so on, back to maybe 900 AD in the West.

Everything else? People can and have made arguments in favor of these following examples, but – clear? Beyond dispute?

  • Government “progressed” from a peak of some semblance of liberal democracy to – Pol Pot? Stalin? Mao? That’s progress?
  • Art “progressed” from Rafael to Pollock? Let alone a crucifix in a jar of urine?
  • Architecture “progressed” from Gothic to Brutalism?

And so on. Sure, there are reasonable people who will argue that Van Gogh is an improvement on Bouguereau, but they’re basically arguing on taste alone. On every technical and aesthetic basis, Bouguereau is the superior artist (and I love Van Gogh!). There are people- damaged, sad people, for the most part – who will and have argued that Brutalist architecture is superior to Gothic. There is no aesthetic of technical basis for such a claim. Rather, it seems that Progress, acting as filter, simply demands that the products of modern minds is definitionally better than the products of less progressive minds.

So, one might imagine the great Enlightenment philosophies start with technology as the basis for their claims. There is quite a bit of that early on, as where Francis Bacon says:

I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave. … [S]o may I succeed in my only earthly wish, namely to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds.

Francis Bacon, The Masculine Birth of Time, ch. 1. (from Mike Flynn’s essay on the Masque of Science, which you all would be better off reading instead of this post.)

Bacon wants to put science -materialist science as he understood it – in the driver’s seat for pretty much all human activities. The distinction we sometimes make between science and technology seems less clear here. Nature was something to be conquered and put to use by man. In this sense, science – the study of nature in order to understand it – and technology – using that scientific knowledge to conquer and control nature – are separate only in concept: for Bacon, it would be pointless to talk of one independent of the other.

So: Bacon saw himself and other natural philosophers (scientists) as clearly progressing from his (weird caricature?) of Aristotle to the starting line of modern science. Bacon saw his efforts as the beginning of the true program of science – understanding nature so as to control it – with nothing but Progress from there on out indefinitely.

And progress was made – eventually. Bacon lived in the late 16th and early 17th century. Life expectancy in England was around 35 (high infant and young people mortality) in 1600. As a result of the Bacon-lead scientific and technological revolution, life expectancy shot all the way up to around 40 – after a mere 200 years. (The population in England in 1600 is estimated to have been about 85% of what it had been during the high middle ages 250 years earlier, before plague, famine, and increasing political unrest cut in by around 60%. It nearly doubled from 1600 to 1800, to about 50% larger than it had been in 1290.)

Maybe this conquest of Nature thing and all the improvements to human life that would follow upon it wasn’t so obvious to the little people? Who seemed to be dying as readily as before, up until the late 1700s, at any rate? But it was very striking to the better off, who could not get over it. Still can’t. Of course, technological progress kicked in like crazy once the 19th century got going, and life expectancies began to rise, to around 50 by 1900 to around 80 by 2000. That’s progress anyone who prefers not to be dead can readily see.

Our self-appointed betters seemed to have extrapolated from technological improvements, and made the categorical error of thinking that the obvious progress in technology proved that other fields, such as politics and philosophy, must also have made similar progress. Hegel, who lived from 1770 to 1831, in what was at the time the most technologically advanced culture on earth, went to far as to write a book telling us that logic, as that term was understood by everyone else, had failed to progress and was therefore clearly insufficient. Logic had remained essentially unchanged since Aristotle, unlike all other fields (besides basic arithmetic and geometry, ethics, and writing – he doesn’t mention those, IIRC) and therefore, by that fact alone, was no longer valid.

Savor this: classic Aristotelian logic, the application of which was at the core of all the scientific and technological progress made since Bacon, needed to be rejected – OK, suspended in a dialectical synthesis, which, practically, means rejected – because, and solely because, it had not changed in 2500 years. The only unalloyed and inescapable support for the notion of Progress – technology – is to be rejected – in the name of Progress.

Hegel was aware that all technology and science depended on exactly the logic he had just discarded. He graciously allows that old-timey logic might be important and useful to the little people – mathematicians, scientists, technologists – but was certainly nothing a *real * philosopher need concern himself with. Law of non-contradiction? Out! Logical arguments? Beneath a real philosopher’s dignity. Only the calculated incoherence of Hegel and those wise and enlightened souls who, naturally, agreed with Hegel, need be considered.

From this it falls, naturally, that 2+2 can indeed equal 5, if such is required by *real* philosophers like Hegel. Motte and Baily. Progress is obvious to everyone! You doubt our latest developments in Critical Theory mark the inexorable march of Progress? What? You want to go back to living in the Dark Ages, you moron?

Thus, a priori, any information that might cast a shadow on the notion that we all live right now in the Best of All Possible Worlds, until dawn tomorrow reveals and even better best, is right out. Only a reactionary Luddite would dare mention how all this Progress has some downsides, how it might even lead to something undesirable. Even worse are those (me, I hope) who reject and mock the very idea that Progress stands athwart the modern world, no feet of clay anywhere to be seen!


Book Review: Don’t Give Money to People Who Hate You

Brian Niemeier‘s 90-page book Don’t Give Money to People Who Hate You, is a kick in the pants to those of us who are still drifting along sedated by nostalgia, still paying for the privilege of a front-row seat to the mutilation and ultimate destruction of our own culture, willfully oblivious to the contempt and hatred of those who have appointed themselves our betters. I needed that kick – while I have long since revoked access to my wallet to Hollywood movies, and have never been much for games and comics, I still sometimes click on mainstream news articles and shop with major corporations. As explained below, these are now as much of the problem as the direct culture war waged in films and print. Many major corporations do all in their power to prove their hatred for me and mine and everything we believe and love. Don’t give them your money. Don’t give them your clicks.

So if you still are paying to consume blockbusters, comic book movies, video games, mainstream books and comics, or patronizing sports teams, retail outlets and ‘news’ media that have gone way, way out of their way to let you and the entire world know they hate you and everything you love – read this book. Now.

DGMTPWHY provides a quick tour through the who, when, where, what, and why of our current state of all but unwatchable, unreadable and unplayable ‘entertainment. The creators of mainstream entertainment have gotten converged, and, despite the hit to their corporate wallets, are now purveyors of nihilist propaganda masquerading as movies, comics, books, and games.

They must subvert and destroy what we, the sheep they despise, love. Manly men trying to be honorable, heroic and manly, and feminine women trying to be honorable, heroic and feminine, are right out – they are tools of the patriarchy, the cultural hegemony of oppression under which we sheep labor, and from which our purple-haired, nose ringed genderfluid betters are going to save us – or make sure we die from their trying. A character as complex as Rick in Casa Blanca, or even Luke in Star Wars, is to be simplified for the purposes of the cause. If you are so unwoke as to *like* such complex characters, well, our betters plan to fix that – by stories with no heroes and no villains, which leaves them with no plots or even logic. So things blow up.

And, of course, this all boils down to hatred of God. I’ve long held that all heresies are denials of the Incarnation. The basic ingredients of the dogma are a transcendent yet merciful God, creator of the Universe, Who, in an unfathomable act of humility and love, becomes one of us, suffers for us, and saves us. He defeats evil, and gives us hope. The purveyors of modern culture reject and mock each of these ingredients one by one, specifically. There is no God, nor any evil to defeat, nor good to defend. There can be no heroes, and no villains. Nothing is created from love, which is a lie. Humility is stupid; suffering is pointless. Only power matters, if anything matters.

There is no hope.

Modernism, of which this whole cultural war is the current manifestation, battles to defeat the good, the true, and the beautiful, even in such seemingly trivial forms as comic books and movies. But popular entertainment, from Homer to Shakespeare to Star Wars, is the way a culture is defined, nourished, and passed along. Just because it’s Batman and Thor getting the Social Justice treatment instead of (for the moment) Bach and Dante, doesn’t make it less dangerous Indeed, a lot more people have their morality formed by Superman and Harry Potter than by Milton and Flannery O’Conner. In a sane, healthy society, the popular culture and the highest high culture are formed by, share and communicate the same moral messages. For a century or more, that has not been the case in the West: our high culture is a cesspool of nihilism, while, up until the last 50 years, popular culture was still dominated by the theme of good versus evil – and the now novel idea that it’s better if good wins.

Brian published this work in April, before the rioting and the Antifa/Black Lives Matters psyops took over the ‘news’, and wrote it, I imagine, before the COVID hysteria and lockup. These are of a piece: the same people who show their hatred of you in movies and books have broadened their channels, and now show their murderous intent through the flexes and humiliation rituals of the lockup and masks and ‘social distancing’ (a phrase no one had heard of 4 months ago that is now treated like the Wisdom of the Ages), and by their apologetics, encouragement, and approval of those who would literally burn our country down. They destroy statues as phase one of an effort to memory hole anything that doesn’t conform to their contempt. I exaggerate not one iota when I say: Antifa and BLM dream of getting to kill you and your family. They are driven by the Marxist fantasy that bad people on the Wrong Side of History are all that stand in the way of paradise on earth. That paradise is the glorious End that justifies any means, including the slaughter of all who, in the minds of the Marxists, oppose it. Stalin and Mao, with their purges and Great Leap Forward, are not seen as history’s greatest criminals, but as role models. You and I are those bad people. They want us dead.

Don’t believe me? Read what they have to say for themselves.

The companies that even today are bending the knee and falling all over themselves in their rush to issue statements, not in condemnation of wanton property destruction and threatened and real physical harm up to and including murder, but rather in *support* of the rioters and vandals. The very idea that there are significant numbers of ‘peaceful protesters’ was always ludicrous: useful idiots and bored, antsy teenager of all ages, sure. Large numbers of people who take to the streets for weeks on end because a fellous thug who once robbed a pregnant woman at gunpoint while she pleaded for her life got himself killed by an out of control cop who is in jail awaiting trial?

That’s not what’s happening.

Back to the book. I know what Brian is talking about. Star Wars came out the summer after my freshman year in college. My girlfriend at the time kept raving about this movie we had to go see, even though she’d seen it several times already. I, a callous sophisticate as only a 19 year old can be, remained cool.

Then we hit the theater – with a line around the block. From the first scene, I was hooked. Awesome, and so much fun! So, of course, went back several times, and saw the sequels also several times each in the theaters, and got the videos as soon as they came out, and did my best to wear them out. So, yea – I get it.

Even after the road kill that was the prequels, with dread in my heart, I went to see the Force Awakens – and was mildly entertained. BUT – never felt the slightest urge to see it again, or get the DVD. Upon reflection, the movie got worse and worse: the pageantry and special effects – and the still-not-bone-dry well of good will earned by the original trilogy – distracted me from the cardboard characters, the utter lack of character development, the stupid, derivative plot, the relentlessly nonsensical motivations (or lack thereof) driving what little story they had. Rather than Luke’s textbook hero’s journey, we get a total Mary Sue; rather than family, honor, and friendship invigorating the characters, we had – what, exactly?

I’ve seen none of the subsequent movies. Since Brian first mentioned his rule – never give money to people who hate you – a few years ago, my inchoate disgust got a name and a focus, and rather than just avoiding movies because I didn’t want to feel used, I began avoiding them on principle – the principle of this book.

Now, we need to expand the field in which this dictum operates to include all corporations and businesses that have kowtowed to BLM and Antifa: No, Corporate America, you do not need to prove you aren’t racist by anything beside treating all your customers with respect, providing good value for the dollar, and hiring and promoting people based solely on how well they do those first two things. Pandering to bullies earns my contempt, not my dollars; actively supporting people who want me and mine dead gets me fired up to look for and promote alternatives to anything you might offer.

The Attack on Books

A large part of Marx’s appeal to the modern well-schooled student lies in Marx being the first and only example of thought they’ve been exposed to. All the authority figures they ever have in school accept the basic premises with greater or lesser degrees of awareness – because that is what they, themselves, were taught. (1) The student, again with varying degrees of awareness, accepts uncritically that everything is the result of the strangely willful movements of vast impersonal forces. Since every child has experienced deep feelings of helplessness, and, with the help of the schools, few have any sense of independent personal accomplishment (2), they can easily become convinced the individual is nothing but a twig afloat the river of events, where nothing he can do changes anything. History is presented as the story of oppression, without heroes, without valor, without any moments where an individual can shine or fail. (This, BTW, is why Star Wars ultimately HAD to be destroyed.) At the same time, witnessing to the Progress of History becomes the hallmark of virtue, even if you do it from the comfort of your living room couch.

Trouble in (the Worker’s) Paradise can be caused by other books. Marxists are pulled by the gravity of their faith into becoming, effectively, book burners. In the usual Orwellian fashion, the fury to get rid of competing books is framed as ‘being more inclusive’. We are to feel bad that few people of color, feminists and alphabet soup sexual deviants are included in the Western Canon, and only incidentally notice how these mediocrities squeese out real masterpieces of thought. Marx is a jealous, and, more important here, a tenuous, naked god.

A 3-‘n’ Western Cannon. Which is totally different. Or not….

Traditional Liberal Arts colleges have been relentlessly attacked by enlightened, progressive leaders since the middle of the 19th century, precisely because that is where most students first encounter the vast array of thought that precedes Marx, Fichte, Hegel and all the ‘Enlightenment’ thinkers back to Descartes (and, maybe, William of Ockham). Fichte (you knew we’d get there) saw reading as nothing but trouble, something to be taught, if at all, at the very end of a student’s education, after he’d been properly conditioned to do only what the state-approved authority figures told him to do.

In context – the context of 3,000 years of human thought – Marx is a patent dissembling minor leaguer. Aristotle and Thomas, the Book of Job, Sophocles, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Tacitus; Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton, and a dozen others (throw Gilgamesh and Beowulf in there, if you wish. I’ll add Sun Tsu), not to mention classical art, architecture and music, used to give at least some students a hint at what human genius looks like. These liberal artists in the classic sense were a bastion against the ambitious mediocrities that thrive, today, in our credential- and certification- addled world. Our Credentialarchy? Credentialocrity? I’m open to suggestions, here.

Since the great thinkers hardly ever agree in any detail, and more often vehemently disagree, one’s thinking gets honed trying to understand them: one gets used to the idea that really smart people can really, truly, disagree. Also – this is especially true of Aristotle and Thomas – one can see that opposing ideas are often each very appealing in themselves. One gets used to the idea that someone might have a very good point, and still be wrong, and that even brilliant people make stupid mistakes and harbor appalling bigotry, yet can still be right about other things.

It’s complicated out there. This appreciation of complexity and existence of multiple worthy viewpoints can somewhat immunize one against simple-minded theories that explain everything in one broad sweep – can raise one’s resistence to Marx, for example.

And so, as Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton and a Progressive icon, put it: the vast bulk of the people are to be denied the privilege of a liberal education and rather be fitted by public education for particular manual work. We are not to trouble our little heads with big ideas that might make life difficult for the likes of the extraordinarily well-credentialed Wilson.

This whole anti-intellectualism of the Marxists (against which label they will squeal like stuck more equal pigs, and make me laugh) is, in another example of Orwellian thinking, hiding behind their one fundamental belief: that they are smarter, more intellectual, than everybody else. Aristotle points out that a cultivated mind can consider an idea without accepting it; therefore, an uncultivated mind can (at best!) only consider ideas it has already accepted. This is what we are seeing when a Freudian analyzes the sexual hangups of his critics; when Hegel (and a host of others) classifies all who agree with him as the enlightened people, more or less tacitly dismissing all criticism as mere lack of enlightenment. And, preeminently today, when people are either woke or not, without any space in such a mental universe for one’s opponents to have a valid point, or even for them to be anything other than morally evil.

Books as a defense of civilized life are, as the saying goes, ‘downstream’ from family. The major attack, the prime position to be destroyed, remains the triumvirate of family, village and church. Right now, those with no or damaged families, who in any event reject family as foundational to culture, are burning neighborhoods and destroying the local businesses (and churches!) that make those neighborhoods at least potentially civilized. But this endless attack on the good, the true, and the beautiful, that has given us a crucifix in a bottle of urine and brutalist architecture, is hardly going to spare beautiful literature.

  1. Chesterton said students will readily ignore and forget what their teachers tell them, but will inerringly absorb what their teachers assume.
  2. What SAT was an acronym for changed from the ‘Student Aptitude Test’ – simply attempting to evaluate an unearned, morally neutral aptitude for academics – to the ‘Student Achievement Test’ – as if a high score was the Medal of Honor for kids. Those ‘front row kids’ now could study for the SAT -and, boy, do they ever! – instead of passively submitting to it as a diagnostic. It is the paradigm for everything considered an achievemnet in the front row kids’ lives: the approval of an outside authority that you’re worth-while.

Fichte and Messianic Schooling

Got another ‘final’ COVID 19 post all cued up, but let’s talk Education History!


Decided to reread Fichte’s foundational Addresses to the German Nation which you can find discussed at some length here on this blog. After having finished rereading Parish Schools and more Pestalozzi, it seemed necessary to reread with, one hopes, a deeper understanding, the work that underlies the schooling that we are enduring today.

The general rule – don’t read about somebody until you read what they have to say for themselves – having been observed here, I also started DuckDuckGoing (totally a verb) around to find further information on particular points in Fichte’s philosophy.

Aside: Severian turned me on to David Stove, the late sort of Neo Positivist Australian philosopher, who, while fundamentally as crazy as the next anti-metaphysician (also totally a word), spent his career providing the desperately necessary mockery of the pure nonsense spouted by Hegel, Kant and the whole clown car of modern philosophers. He tends to simply quote them, and holds up their own words for well-deserved ridicule. I haven’t read anything of his where he goes after Fichte, but that would be a fun ride. Ultimately, what all these lunatics and posers need to be deprived of is people taking them seriously. The only response to such nonsense is to ignore or mock them. They never should have been able to raise their heads in a legitimate university spouting such idiocy. But I digress…

One chapter in my much to be yearned for (by me, at least) education history book will be titled “Messianic Schooling,” containing an account of history of the belief that the world can only be saved by schooling, that there is one right way to educate, and, once everybody is educated that way, heaven on earth will be achieved. Fichte will get a starring role; poor Pestalozzi, who never could see, or at least, never could articulate, the political ramifications of his ‘discovery’ of the one, perfect way to educate children, is mere putty in the hands of Fichte. Pestalozzi sees the (properly instructed, using his textbooks) mother as the ideal educator. Fichte loves Pestalozzi’s idea of having every student’s every school minute managed by a (state trained and certified) teacher as a reason to simply discard the family. Family is a bad influence on children; the state will of course do a much better job once mom and dad are out of the way.

I’m about 40% of the way through my rereading of the Adresses, and, yep, it’s a lot clearer this time around. This time, his fanatical confidence in human perfectibility shines through, as does how he bases all this on poetical and mystical ‘insights’, not on anything as mundane as a sensible argument. He sees 5 stages of human development, identifies Germany and the world at large as stuck in Stage 3, and a moral imperative to all right thinking German men* to do what it takes to get us to the next level.

Sort of like a video game.

Thus have we endeavoured to pre-figure the whole Earthly Life of Man by a comprehension of its purpose;—to perceive why our Race had to begin its Existence here, and by this means to describe the whole present Life of humankind: …There are, according to this view, Five Principal Epochs of Earthly Life, each of which, although taking its rise in the life of the individual, must yet, in order to become an Epoch in the Life of the Race, gradually lay hold of and interpenetrate all Men; and to that end must endure throughout long periods of time, so that the great Whole of Life is spread out into Ages, which sometimes seem to cross, sometimes to run parallel with each other:—1st, The Epoch of the unlimited dominion of Reason as Instinct:—the State of Innocence of the Human Race. 2nd, The Epoch in which Reason as Instinct is changed into an external ruling Authority;—the Age of positive Systems of life and doctrine, which never go back to their ultimate foundations, and hence have no power to convince but on the contrary merely desire to compel, and which demand blind faith and unconditional obedience:—the State of progressive Sin. 3rd, The Epoch of Liberation,—directly from the external ruling Authority—indirectly from the power of Reason as Instinct, and generally from Reason in any form;—the Age of absolute indifference towards all truth, and of entire and unrestrained licentiousness:—the State of completed Sinfulness. 4th, The Epoch of Reason as Knowledge;—the Age in which Truth is looked upon as the highest, and loved before all other things:—the State of progressive Justification. 5th, The Epoch of Reason as Art;—the Age in which Humanity with more sure and unerring hand builds itself up into a fitting image and representative of Reason:—the State of completed Justification and Sanctification. Thus, the whole progress which, upon this view, Humanity makes here below, is only a retrogression to the point on which it stood at first, and has nothing in view save that return to its original condition. But Humanity must make this journey on its own feet; by its own strength it must bring itself back to that state in which it was once before without its own coöperation, and which, for that very purpose, it must first of all leave. If Humanity could not of itself re-create its own true being, then would it possess no real Life; and then were there indeed no real Life at all, but all things would remain dead, rigid, immoveable. In Paradise,—to use a well-known picture,—in the Paradise of innocence and well-being, without knowledge, without labour, without art, Humanity awakes to life. Scarcely has it gathered courage to venture upon independent existence when the Angel comes with the fiery sword of compulsion to good and drives it forth from the seat of its innocence and its peace. Fugitive and irresolute it wanders through the empty waste, scarcely daring to plant its foot firmly anywhere lest the ground should sink beneath it. Grown bolder by necessity, it settles in some poor corner, and in the sweat of its brow roots out the thorns and thistles of barbarism from the soil on which it would rear the beloved fruit of knowledge. Enjoyment opens its eyes and strengthens its hands, and it builds a Paradise for itself after the image of that which it has lost;—the tree of Life arises; it stretches forth its hand to the fruit, and eats, and lives in Immortality.

“Ponderous Teutonic prose” indeed. Fichte was dogged by accusations of atheism. You may notice the lack of that God person in the above, and the Pelagianism of his take on Man’s role in his own redemption. This could hardly be any more contrary to Luther, and, indeed, in the Addresses he does get around to damning the great reformer with faint praise. The progression is perhaps familiar: just as in America at almost the exact same time, the great Calvinist Puritan tradition of the absolute depravity of man became, almost suddenly, the Unitarian Universalist position of salvation for all, Fichte was preaching to the Germans that they must move from the depraved Third Age – “The Epoch of Liberation … the Age of absolute indifference towards all truth, and of entire and unrestrained licentiousness:—the State of completed Sinfulness,” to the 4th, “The Epoch of Reason as Knowledge;—the Age in which Truth is looked upon as the highest, and loved before all other things:—the State of progressive Justification.”

Notice, also, the lack of any family references. We move, in Fichte’s philosophy, almost directly from the individual to Mankind as a whole, with only a brief stop with our neighbors to pick up consciousness, self-consciousness, and morality. Fichte’s whole philosophy is built upon the self-positing ‘I’ which finds self-conscious in the recognition of the ‘Not-I’. We’re on the threshold of stage 4, where peace, love, and understand will bloom everywhere, once the state supplants the family and beats a little of Fichte’s pure love of Truth into our children. Until then, we’re screwed:

I, for my part, hold that the Present Age stands precisely in the middle of Earthly Time; … In other words, the Present Age, according to my view of it, stands in that Epoch which in my former lecture I named the third, and which I characterized as the Epoch of Liberationthe State of completed Sinfulness

Fichte, Characteristics of the Present Age/Lecture 2

Surfing around for some back-up materials, found this which ties together Fichte’s 5 Ages with his plan for national education (although the author, it seems, is simply wrong about where Fichte believe Mankind stands – not in the 4th on the threshold of the 5th age, but in the 3rd on the threshold of the 4th, as stated above):

In 1804-1805, Fichte delivered a series of lectures entitled Characteristics of the Present Age (Grundzüge des Gegenwärtigen Zeitalters), in which he outlined five stages of human development. Having travelled from the primal state of noble savages in ‘the Age of Innocence’, through dark ages, absolutism, and the ‘State of Progressive Justification’, mankind was now on the threshold of ‘the state of completed justification and sanctification’. Indeed, the ideals of the French Revolution had been characteristic of the State of Progressive Justification, but to reach political nirvana it was not enough to rely on the ideals of the French, which in any case had been undermined by the conquering forces of Napoleon. So in 1807 – the year after Hegel had described seeing ‘the world spirit on horseback’ in the guise of the French emperor, and at a time when the Germans were at a historical nadir and the once all-powerful Prussia was a shadow of its former military self – Fichte proposed that the Germans had to seize the day. In fourteen addresses, delivered as entertainment for bourgeois Berliners on Sunday afternoons in the winter of 1807, Fichte asserted that the Germans had a historical role: namely that of shepherding humanity into the bliss of a cosmopolitan utopia.

from Philosophy Now magazing, Matt Qvortrup’s Brief Life of Fichte

Love ‘delivered as entertainment for bourgeois Berliners on Sunday afternoons in the winter of 1807’ – man’s gotta pay the bills. Further:

Kant had argued that trade liberalisation – what he called ‘the spirit of commerce’ (der Handelsgeist) – would slowly but surely lead to a kind of brotherhood of man. Fichte agreed with Kant that the “whole race that inhabits our globe will… become assimilated into a single republic including all peoples” but he did not see free trade, let alone economic liberalism, as the path to perpetual peace. Rather, he feared that the economic competition between states would generate new enmities that would lead to war. Moreover, unlike his former mentor’s espousal of classic economic liberalism, Fichte made a case for economic protectionism and a planned economy in Der geschlossene Handelsstaat (The Closed Commercial State, 1800). This book’s defence of social justice facilitated by government intervention is but one of the reasons it has been labelled the first systematic case for the welfare state.

The Closed Commercial State was a philosophical Rubicon for Fichte. He maintained that all people eventually would be united into a single “peoples’ republic of culture,” and here he began to consider how this would be achieved, gradually coming to the conclusion that the German people could play a pivotal role in the process of creating a cosmopolitan utopia.


Marx, anyone? Since God, to Fichte, is something like the drive toward morality as expressed in Human history, Marx is pretty much all there even before Hegel picked up the baton and wrapped it in even more dense and ponderous Teutonic prose.


The Germans themselves were not yet ready to take on the burden of educating humanity. True, their language enabled them to utter deep thoughts, and so potentially to spread reason to the rest of mankind. But in order to fulfil their mission, the Germans themselves needed educating. Thus educational reform, not military strength, was Fichte’s key policy proposal. And in his Second Address he went to great lengths to explain how the aim of education was to make active and creative individuals who would “learn with enjoyment and love, purely for the sake of learning itself.” The aim was to facilitate “the capacity to spontaneously construct images that are not at all replicas of reality, but are capable of becoming models for reality.”


You may also see Pestalozzi peaking through here. “The capacity to spontaneously construct images” could have come straight from any of his works. The important part for Fichte is having children spontaneously imagine and be moved to action by perfect images of their own creation – in accordance with Reason, ‘natch. He’s after, almost exactly, what John Lennon described in his execrable song: bringing into being a purely imaginary reality in accordance with Reason.

It’s easy if you try.

The point here, of course, is that this is the philosophical underpinnings of modern state schooling: schooling is the means to messianic salvation. This – the promise of an Utopia to be achieved via the state’s training of children – is what Mann and Torey Harris and the NEA at its founding were attracted to and embraced. There is no discussion of ‘the basics’ – reading, writing, and ciphering don’t and never did figure into it. It’s simply not what these folks are interested in. The plan is and has always been: get kids away from their families to form them into the new citizens of the coming paradise on earth.

Therefore, homeschoolers and other dissidents cannot be ignored or tolerated. We are heretics, keeping the enlightened from achieving Paradise! Wrong has no rights, here. Burning at the stake is too good for us. The goal, except peripherally, is not staffing factories and armies. That might be OK, as an interim step, during the period where the Vanguard must rule absolutely to usher us sheep toward the eventual Worker’s Paradise (thanks, Lenin, for clearing that up for us) – but that’s not what, in the vision of its founding light, modern compulsory state schooling is for.

* Literally, men of the male persuasion: Fichte argued that “active citizenship, civic freedom and even property rights should be withheld from women, whose calling was to subject themselves utterly to the authority of their fathers and husbands.” – Wikipedia

Ruined: Followers continued

Aristotle, on a couple of occasions (Nicomachean Ethics, for one, I think) mentions how poorly raised men are incapable of philosophy, while well-raised men love excellence, beauty and truth, and are therefore well-prepared for at least undertaking philosophy. He recognized, from an unredeemed pagan perspective, that men could be ruined.

Aristotle was also famously not a democrat, in the sense that he did not think men in general, nor women, children and slaves, were fit to rule. They could not rule themselves, but were subject to passion and impulse. A city that promotes happiness, defined by the Stagirite as the activity of the soul in accordance with excellence, could not be governed well by those who did not understand, appreciate nor desire excellence.

One might say his dim view of the common man, let alone women, slaves and children, reflects the world he grew up in and not so much how people are in and of themselves. The problem with that view is that we still inhabit that same world Aristotle observed. Check the news lately? How many of your friends and coworkers and acquaintances would you feel good about being ruled by, unchecked? I mean, where they are making all the calls, not constrained by other, perhaps better, men such as the authors of the Constitution? How soon before summary executions and the payment of tribute in the form of nubile youngsters? By the second generation, tops, and that’s assuming some residual decency that takes a generation to dissipate. Tyranny doesn’t stop just because you have 1000 tyrants rather than 1. (1)

Thus, the idea of a Republic, which considered from this perspective is the required universal acknowledgement of a common wealth of morals, traditions, and aspirations (which often boils down to religion), plus some of the following: territory, language, stories, heroes – culture. This commonwealth, shared and enforced by all, shapes the laws and reigns in the sociopaths leaders who inevitably arise. Within a Republic, you can have democracy – a democracy in which all the truly important stuff is off the table, and the voter and candidates and issues all fall within the bounds, in both senses of the word, of the Commonwealth. (2)

In this sense, Aristotle and the Founders pretty much agree: only men who love truth, beauty and excellence are fit to rule. The Founders thought, or hoped in the face of thought, that a free people who nurtured and handed on an American Republic could be such a people as could rule themselves. Aristotle’s requirement of the love of truth, beauty and excellence are concretely expressed in those morals, traditions, and aspirations that form the core of the Republic – learn and love your Republic, and you could be trusted to rule as well.

I can just see Aristotle raising an eyebrow and saying a very dubious: maybe. He would, I think, completely understand Franklin’s ‘if you can keep it.’

Image result for benjamin franklin
That look on his face: He ain’t buying it.

Men can be ruined. This is the underlying truth behind the damnable half-truth of the Marxist/Gramsciite dogma of social oppression: it is true that people can be ruined by the wrong influences and the lack of proper guidance, and, ultimately, the lack of love. But all these things are, ultimately, personal. Parents and family, teachers and neighbors and priest are supposed to help us to know and love the true, the beautiful and the good and to want them above all else.

They will fail to a greater or lesser degree, and there is always the mystery of Free Will. What there is not is Society or some other abstraction acting as an agent. Society is a collective noun, a description, not an actor. The people within a society act, and by their actions sustain or change ‘society’.

Shifting the emphasis from individual people to collective abstractions means that personal behavior no longer matters: “the individual is nothing, the collective everything.” You see this everywhere. Refusing to look at individuals as individuals but rather seeing each of us only as instances of ‘Society’ stands the world on its head, and dictates the crazy and crazy-making efforts to change ‘Society’ in order to change the people in it. It’s a wet sidewalks cause rain problem.

There is a divide between ruined and not ruined people, with plenty of gray area between – a divide between those who just might be able to rule themselves and their country, and those for whom such tasks are asking far too much. At the far end are sociopaths, who never should but often do lead. Even the most pessimistic estimates put them at ‘only’ 5% of the population – one in 20 people have no empathy, no hesitation to use people, and often take pleasure in manipulating and lying. (3) On the other end are great saints and lovers of truth (4), who characteristically want nothing to do with ruling, or, more properly, nothing more than is strictly necessary. (5).

In the middle are 7 billion sheep. Me, you, anybody. Some sheep try to follow the Good Shepherd. Some, as stated in the seed quotation to this series of posts, follow anything that moves. Setting aside for the moment miracles, even while acknowledging that all true conversions are miraculous, what seems most often to be the case: those raised with love, who see the true, the good and the beautiful recognized and honored, have a better chance to become the sort of reasonable and responsible people who stand some chance of governing themselves well, and therefore might have a chance to govern the polis well. Those who are raised among The People of the Lie will not be able to govern themselves, and will misgovern the polis horribly if given the chance. They have been poisoned. They have been ruined. They are unconstrained by traditions they neither know nor love – family and personal honor, the law as a positive good, a life among family, friends, and neighbors directed to something other than self-fulfillment. Lacking these and similar things, and lacking a miracle, there’s simply no chance that the rule of such as these will result in anything but envy run amok, tyranny, and chaos. In short order, they will be lead by the most unscrupulous and violent, whether they like it or not. Their personal slavery to their passions will soon become a physical slavery to ‘anything that moves’.

That love of tradition, of place, of family, friends, neighbors, and the shared life in which human beings find expression for their freedom and personal genius is a key part of the Commonwealth. I’m not sure the two are not the same in practice. Lacking such roots and the humility that comes with gratitude for them, there simply is no chance a person could rule well.

I’ve long contemplated how there is always ruin in any culture, always those who through no fault of their own come from a situations without the basic love and support needed to grow up healthy. The difference today is, first, such people used to grow up in a culture where everyone understood that the orphan, the abandoned child, the broken home were wrong. Thus, even if I drew the short straw, I knew I’d drawn it and that there were better fates, better expectations, and that I could aspire to them. The result was that even those from horrible circumstances would often try to behave like people who had been properly raised. In other words, the idea that one could be properly or improperly raised was understood by everyone.

Second, today dysfunction is not only not recognized as dysfunction, it is positively cultivated. It only takes a few leaders to lead millions astray. Today, the critical theorists and their useful idiots disparage all healthy behaviors and beliefs, and promote anger, envy and bitterness. Marxist end up creating something like the world they hate, with hatred, bigotry, alienated individuals, oppressive structures, and a yearning for totalitarianism. The delusion is that this evil, oppressive world is Out There, not merely a reflection of their own emotional and mental states. (6)

For people so damaged, projection is irresistible: the flip side of Goebbels’ rule to always accuse your enemy of what you’re doing is that people will willingly ignore what they are doing and know is true in order to hate the enemy. If this were not so, Goebbels’ rule wouldn’t work – yet it does.

This hatred of happiness and normalcy is completely insane. Attempts at reason, appeals to fact and objective reality, application of logic: not only do these not convince, they are taken as signs that anyone who uses them is the enemy. Peopled are ruined; they have built defences against anyone who could really help them.

By these standards, I should not be allowed to rule, as I am largely a failure in ruling myself. By this standard, few, indeed, would rule. The choice is not available to me and probably never has been to anyone, but if it were, I would humbly submit to being ruled by sane, good people. As it is, representative democracy within a solid Republic is the best we can get.

That Republic, that American Commonwealth of shared morals, traditions, and aspirations, if it ever really existed, is gone. A huge percentage of people are ruined, in that it would take a miracle for them to submit to any set of consistent and non-self-refuting morals, traditions, and aspirations such as a Republic could be built upon. Their ruiners run loose, and run our colleges and universities. Poison is everywhere. It’s gotten to be a cliche to post pictures of happy high school seniors, fresh scrubbed and smiling, next to their pictures as sullen, angry (and blue-haired and nose-ringed) college students.(7)

Where do we go now? Speaking theoretically, we can only have a Republic if we’re willing to enforce a certain minimum uniformity (this is where the Ruined scream ‘fascist!’) or willing to break the country up into two or more territories in which some set of shared morals, traditions, and aspirations are pervasive. Failing that, we fall back on 1) Empire: imposed rule on sets of people who each may or may not have a commonwealth. Empires tend to rule without an interest in enforced homogeneity, at least for a while; 2) Totalitarianism, after quick pit stops in ‘true’ democracy and anarchy; or 3) Aristocracy, where all pretext at equality before the law is jettisoned, and our betters simple make the rules outside the reach of the people.

Or we pray for a miracle, which I would recommend in any case. Interesting times, indeed.

  1. The infighting is the only potential positive, knowing the pigs will fight to the death. However, I don’t know if the grim satisfaction of knowing many of the leaders of the French Revolution were themselves guillotined outweighs the disgust at knowing some weren’t. But, overall, there can be only one, so most people will die fighting to be that one.
  2. We don’t have this anymore, here in America. I wish we did. But the Marxists who control our schools and all the non-RAD professions explicitly reject the Commonwealth. Objective reality being a social construct and history and religion tools of of oppression, ya know.
  3. A genius move by Kazantzakis was making St. Matthew a sociopath in The Last Temptation of Christ. Matthew just figures the odds: he’s seen the miracles and seen the effect Christ has on people, and figures the best angle is to be a follower, which he then does unto his own martyrdom. Kazantzakis wrestled, in other words, with how that 1 in 20 might be saved.
  4. C.S. Lewis portrays, almost as comic relief, such a one in That Hideous Strength: Andrew MacPhee is a sceptic to his core, but can’t quite let go of Ransom, an old friend, who is true be believer and surrounded by Divine Evidence great and small – and MacPhee sees, but remains skeptical, and stays! He is on the side of the angels whose existence he doubts.
  5. Footnotealanche! A Thomas More or a King St. Louis of France found it necessary to wield great political power, but remained heroically detached from it. That alone – having great power yet not clinging to it – should merit beatification. Well, and that Jesus thing.
  6. There is real oppression, of course. If Marxism were defined as an effort to redirect attention away from actual oppression toward delusions of oppression, there would little data to contradict it.
  7. On the flip side, over the last decade, we’ve had 5 children pass through their teenage years under our roof, and 4 go to college. To my surprise, they were and are each fun, helpful and pleasant. I’m nothing special as a dad, except for one thing: we kept them away from the ruiners. No graded classroom schooling; Newman list colleges. I was surprised because I had uncritically accepted the idea of the rebellious teenager. Truth is teenagers want very much to become adults; help them, and that rebelliousness may not surface.

A History Guy?

Me? No. All the history I know comes from having read a fairly slap-dash set of books, and, in recent years, watching a few interesting videos on Youtube. Vast areas of history are a complete or near complete mystery. Yet, because I’ll chime in with some tidbit of history once in a while, I’ve been called a history guy. This mostly shows how low the bar on historical knowledge has become.

Image result for woodrow wilson high school san francisco
Woodrow Wilson High School, San Francisco. One of many thus named spread around the country. I point out what a racist pig Wilson was every chance I get, and how he was a great supporter of progressiver public education, which means educating the vast bulk of people to shut up and do their little peon jobs and leave the thinking to the specialists. Here we have some classic William Torrey Harris approved architecture – he wanted schools to be, basically, sensory deprivation tanks, none of that distracting beauty! But I digress…

At St. John’s Santa Fe back in the 1970s, Charles G. Bell was a tutor, the universal title there for people who everywhere else are called professors. He was a character, to say the least: born in 1916 on the Yazoo Delta in Mississippi and picking up degrees in Virginia, and Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, then teaching all over the place and doing research in physics at Princeton, Chuck, as we referred to him (not to his face) had the most confusing accent you’d ever hope to hear. He told colorful stories about his time in Oxford, where he would switch from a thick Yazoo Delta drawl to something like an Oxford don’s English, but, usually, he spoke in an ineffable accent all his own. From anyone else, it would have come off as an insufferable affectation; from him, it was just Chuck.

He was also just about the most widely read person anyone would ever hope to meet. The Mississippi Encyclopedia entry linked above says: “In a time when academic specialization is the rule, Charles G. Bell’s career as a physicist, poet, novelist, philosopher, historian, art and music historian, and professor was a dramatic exception.”I visited his home on occasion – wall to ceiling bookcases in virtually every room of a two-story house, and he’d read them all, and then some.

“Bell’s masterwork, Symbolic History through Sight and Sound, is a sixty-hour video cultural history of the world that brings alive history, art, music, politics, philosophy, and literature using thousands of images of art and architecture.” Back in the late 70s, it was a slideshow with a recorded voiceover. Chuck would run segments of them at school. I sat through a few. Somebody threw about 45 minutes of it up on Youtube. (Chuck either toned down the accent for these videos, or, more likely, he was toning it up for us kids.)

The slideshows themselves, with Bell’s weird, intellectually dense, if not out and out pretentious, voiceovers, were all but unendurable for me. But his introduction and Q & A were good, or at least, left a much stronger impression. For Chuck’s whole point, which came up repeatedly in those talks, was that all this stuff – history, philosophy, art, music, science – was not separable, at least not if you wanted to really understand any of it.

In this way, Symbolic History is nearly the antithesis of the Great Books Program taught at St. John’s. The Great Books throws a bunch of ignorant 18 year olds (but I repeat myself) into the intellectual deep end with nary a life-preserver in sight. Of course, you have to start somewhere, and it’s much more respectful to just have the students dive in than to treat them like children who need their food predigested.

And it wasn’t entirely fragmented. Herodotus and Thucydides do give one a little flavor for Greek history, and the Greek playwrights and poets help with cultural background, so Socrates and Aristotle aren’t totally untethered from their culture and time. But once you leave Roman times, you’re screwed. We students had no real context for the Middle Ages, Renaissance or the Enlightenment. I don’t think the Counter-Reformation came up much if at all, for example, nor did we discuss the absurdity of the Enlightenment writers dismissing Medieval art, architecture and philosophy as ‘Gothic’. Our sole sort of framing works for the Middle Ages were maybe Dante and Chaucer. Not bad, for sure, but not sufficient for such a cataclysmically important age. From then on, you get the occasional Don Quixote or War and Peace, and insufferable French poets and such, which do provide some flavor of the age, but hardly enough to qualify as context.

Bell’s talks left me dissatisfied. I knew nothing of history, little of art and music. I was getting a very good smattering of philosophy and literature but, again, without the context for the most part. It was up to us to notice Hegel’s (and Kant’s, and, indeed, everybody from Descartes on) near-total silence on the Schoolmen. Clearly, they were of the opinion that St. Thomas & Co. simply didn’t matter to the discussion. But having just read a bunch of Thomas, it was pretty obvious that, if somebody was irrelevant, is was much more likely to be the largely untethered and arbitrary Enlightenment philosophers than the broad and careful schoolmen.

But a lot of history had happened between 1200 and 1630 – not that we students had much of a clue at the time. And it continued to happen, and those Enlightenment thinkers found themselves riding shotgun while Thomas and Aristotle weren’t even on the stagecoach. Rather than have our country founded explicitly on the notion that rights were the flip side of duties, which the Founders might have made a lot more clear had they been precise Thomists instead of muddle-headed children of Rousseau and Locke, they set the stage for today’s collapse, where rights are discovered and invented daily based on who is whining most loudly at the moment, with no thought that duties (other than ‘bake the cake’ duties imposed on others) must accompany them, or rights become arbitrary and tyrannical.

For example. We could have at least argued about it, would have been enlightening.

So I’ve read some history, studied a little art and music, not a lot by any means, not as a real scholar, but enough to get at least an outline of the vast sweep of things. Thus, in conversation, I’m often the guy pointing out what else was going on at the time that lead to or colors what we’re talking about.

It’s a little scary, as I’m no doubt leaving off 10 other things that might be pertinent. But it’s still better if people are told that Galileo died of old age in his own bed; that Islam conquered about 2/3 of the Christian world between 634 and 732; that the Gothic building boom began in the time of Sts Francis and Dominic and was going strong when St. Thomas and Dante were writing – and there’s a connection; that in Les Miserables Jean Valjean was stealing bread at a time of famines, exacerbated by revolutions and social unrest, which meant that him feeding his meant somebody else’s were going hungry and perhaps starving to death; that Lincoln did not win the popular vote and was a very controversial figure right up until his secular canonization; that Nazism gained power not so much because thugs signed up as because the professional classes, who always love the idea of somebody controlling everything, got on board; and that the KKK was coextensive and staffed identically with the democratic Party over most of its range.

And a million other things. The main difference between me now and 18 year old me is that, slowly, I’ve gotten enough bits of history to start to see longer term stuff and repeating patterns, and am able to draw some conclusions. For example, knowing that Wells’ Outline of History (1920) occasioned responses by both Belloc and Chesterton – Europe and the Faith (1920) (1) and Everlasting Man (1920), respectively, helps frame the intellectual disputes current as of the end of the Great War. Which in turn makes the years leading up to WWII more interesting, and puts WWII itself in a different light. While there no doubt are many causes of such a great war, you can see the issues that gripped the two great Christian writers playing out in blood.

Hilaire Belloc portrait by E. O. Hoppé, 1915
Belloc looks like John Cleese’s older brother. There, I said it.

I wish I knew more history, which is in some sense is an indication that I’ve learned a little history. Only someone who knew no history could find it boring.

  1. Among other works – as a real historian, Belloc was clearly appalled and angered by the amatuer Wells’ Progressive, anti-Christian take, and wrote a number of works to counter it.

Modernism on the Feast of Pope St. Pius X

Here’s a few selections from the old Catholic Encyclopedia’s write up on Modernism, in honor of Pope St. Pius X, who was pope at the time this encyclopedia was being written and who gave Modernism both barrels.

What Modernism is:

A full definition of modernism would be rather difficult. First it stands for certain tendencies, and secondly for a body of doctrine which, if it has not given birth to these tendencies (practice often precedes theory), serves at any rate as their explanation and support. Such tendencies manifest themselves in different domains. They are not united in each individual, nor are they always and everywhere found together. Modernist doctrine, too, may be more or less radical, and it is swallowed in doses that vary with each one’s likes and dislikes. In the Encyclical “Pascendi”, Pius X says that modernism embraces every heresy.

One reason a full definition of Modernism would be difficult is that Hegel, the tent-pole Modernist, held that definition – stating what something or some idea *is* and *is not* – is right out. The world is Becoming, not Being, so that all statements of being are essentially meaningless. Thus, expecting some sort of consistency in the beliefs and behaviors of Modernists is also nonsensical. They are all manifesting, in better or worse, or more or less advanced, ways the feelings of the age.

That “embraces every heresy” line is interesting. The future saint doesn’t say “is open to” or “may fall victim to” but “embraces” – a positive act. This embracing of the heretical, expressed in phrases such as ‘everything is a social construct’ or ‘that’s your truth’ is not just a letting down of our guard against heresy, but, in keeping with the Hegelian rejection of statements of being, a necessary step in the upcoming synthesis. A heresy is not wrong, it is merely the expression of the antithesis to some dogma, destined to become suspended yet not contradicted in a new and better understanding.

Note that one outcome of this kind of emoting – it would hardly do to call it thinking – is the readily apparent moral race to the bottom we’re seeing now. Nothing at all can be fundamentally wrong, but merely daring or transgressive, soon to be incorporated into enlightened understanding. Hegel, who imagined the Spirit driving all this enlightenment, may have not meant it that way, but it’s a funny tendency of ideas to get off leash and be pursued to their logical conclusion regardless of who thought it up and what they may have wanted.

A remodelling, a renewal according to the ideas of the twentieth century — such is the longing that possesses the modernists. “The avowed modernists”, says M. Loisy, “form a fairly definite group of thinking men united in the common desire to adapt Catholicism to the intellectual, moral and social needs of today” (op. cit., p. 13). “Our religious attitude”, as “Il programma dei modernisti” states (p. 5, note l), “is ruled by the single wish to be one with Christians and Catholics who live in harmony with the spirit of the age”. The spirit of this plan of reform may be summarized under the following heads:

– A spirit of complete emancipation, tending to weaken ecclesiastical authority; the emancipation of science, which must traverse every field of investigation without fear of conflict with the Church; the emancipation of the State, which should never be hampered by religious authority; the emancipation of the private conscience whose inspirations must not be overridden by papal definitions or anathemas; the emancipation of the universal conscience, with which the Church should be ever in agreement;
– A spirit of movement and change, with an inclination to a sweeping form of evolution such as abhors anything fixed and stationary;
– A spirit of reconciliation among all men through the feelings of the heart. Many and varied also are the modernist dreams of an understanding between the different Christian religions, nay, even between religion and a species of atheism, and all on a basis of agreement that must be superior to mere doctrinal differences.

Every get frustrated with the idea of Progress as an intransitive verb, divorced from any idea of progress toward something? That’s a feature, not a bug.

So Rodney King’s ‘why can’t we all just get along?”, that Hull House lady Jane Addams (I think) who convinced John Dewey that there are no real disagreements, only misunderstandings, and Jo Swenson’s Empathicalism, where the goal of life is “to project your imagination so to actually feel what the other person is feeling.”  – these are all flavors of Modernism. Right?

Perhaps Modernism could be defined as the idea that humanity will find peace only once all join hands in a sufficiently murky emotional miasma.

For [Modernists] external intuition furnishes man with but phenomenal contingent, sensible knowledge. He sees, he feels, he hears, he tastes, he touches this something, this phenomenon that comes and goes without telling him aught of the existence of a suprasensible, absolute and unchanging reality outside all environing space and time. But deep within himself man feels the need of a higher hope. He aspires to perfection in a being on whom he feels his destiny depends. And so he has an instinctive, an affective yearning for God. This necessary impulse is at first obscure and hidden in the subconsciousness. Once consciously understood, it reveals to the soul the intimate presence of God. This manifestation, in which God and man collaborate, is nothing else than revelation. Under the influence of its yearning, that is of its religious feelings, the soul tries to reach God, to adopt towards Him an attitude that will satisfy its yearning. It gropes, it searches. These gropings form the soul’s religious experience. They are more easy, successful and far-reaching, or less so, according as it is now one, now another individual soul that sets out in quest of God. Anon there are privileged ones who reach extraordinary results. They communicate their discoveries to their fellow men, and forthwith become founders of a new religion, which is more or less true in the proportion in which it gives peace to the religious feelings.

The attitude Christ adopted, reaching up to God as to a father and then returning to men as to brothers — such is the meaning of the precept, “Love God and thy neighbour” — brings full rest to the soul. It makes the religion of Christ the religion , the true and definitive religion. The act by which the soul adopts this attitude and abandons itself to God as a father and then to men as to brothers, constitutes the Christian Faith. Plainly such an act is an act of the will rather than of the intellect. But religious sentiment tries to express itself in intellectual concepts, which in their turn serve to preserve this sentiment. Hence the origin of those formulae concerning God and Divine things, of those theoretical propositions that are the outcome of the successive religious experiences of souls gifted with the same faith. These formulae become dogmas, when religious authority approves of them for the life of the community. For community life is a spontaneous growth among persons of the same faith, and with it comes authority. Dogmas promulgated in this way teach us nothing of the unknowable, but only symbolize it. They contain no truth. Their usefulness in preserving the faith is their only raison d’être.  They survive as long as they exert their influence. Being the work of man in time, and adapted to his varying needs, they are at best but contingent and transient. Religious authority too, naturally conservative, may lag behind the times. It may mistake the best methods of meeting needs of the community, and try to keep up worn-out formulae.

Those church songs I’m always going on about, where we, the gathered people, are mentioned directly or indirectly to the exclusion or near-exclusion of God – these are not some accident. They embody the above emphasis on *us* as the source and summit of religion.

What could possibly go wrong?

All heresies are rejections of the Incarnation. From Satan on down, pride inclines us to reject the idea that an all-powerful God could ever be so humble as to become one of us. Modernism rejects the idea that, having become one of us, Jesus might have something to say, and, having said it, might expect us to embrace it. They called him ‘Rabbi’ that is, ‘Teacher,’ yet we are incapable of being taught. No – we turn to feelings, to our personal direct experiences without any animating influence from that guy on the cross. We may stumble across Him (not that that could be all that important) and feel some connection. Or not. But that hardly matters. What matters is that we embrace our feelings and each other as we stumble into the sulfurous cloud.

Little heavy, there. But nothing compared to Pope St. Pius X. He was metal. Perhaps his St. Michael’s pray would be a good palate cleanser at this point.

Pope St. Pius X – Pray for us!

Image result for st pius x