Thursday, 30 June 2011

The modern, progressive creed - Weston from Out of the Silent Planet

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From Out of the Silent Planet, a science fiction novel by C.S. Lewis, 1938.

Scene:

Oyarsa is the ruling 'planetary intelligence' (or 'angel') of Malacandra (i.e. Mars).

Ransom was brought to Mars by Weston to be a sacrifice to the inhabitants.

Ransom escapes from Weston and befriends the inhabitants of Malacandra; but Weston (and his side-kick Devine) have shot and killed several of the Martians.

In this scene Weston has been brought in front of the Oyarsa to explain his motivations and conduct.

Ransom mostly translates Weston for the Oyarsa; but later in the passage Weston speaks directly to the Oyarsa using a basic 'pidgin' form of the Malacandran language.

'Hnau' means a sentient being, a 'person'. Hrossa and Pfifltriggi are types of sentient Martian (i.e. types of hnau).

Maleldil is God; the lord of the silent world is Lucifer/ the devil (said here to be the fallen planetary intelligence ruling the Earth - Earth being the Silent Planet of the novel's title).

***

'Speak to Ransom and he shall turn it into our speech,' said Oyarsa.

Weston accepted the arrangement at once. He believed that the hour of his death was come and he was determined to utter the thing - almost the only thing outside his own science which he had to say. He cleared his throat, almost he struck a gesture, and began:

'To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and beehive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization - with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower. Life -'

'Half a moment,' said Ransom in English. 'That's about as much as I can manage at one go.'

*

Then, turning to Oyarsa, he began translating as well as he could. The process was difficult and the result - which he felt to be rather unsatisfactory - was something like this:

'Among us, Oyarsa, there is a kind of hnau who will take other hnaus' food and - and things, when they are not looking. He says he is not an ordinary one of that kind. He says what he does now will make very different things happen to those of our people who are not yet born. He says that, among you, hnau of one kindred all live together and the hrossa have spears like those we used a very long time ago and your huts are small and round and your boats small and light and like our old ones, and you have one ruler. He says it is different with us. He says we know much. There is a thing happens in our world when the body of a living creature feels pains and becomes weak, and he says we sometimes know how to stop it. He says we have many bent people and we kill them or shut them in huts and that we have people for settling quarrels between the bent hnau about their huts and mates and things. He says we have many ways for the hnau of one land to kill those of another and some are trained to do it. He says we build very big and strong huts of stones and other things - like the pfifltriggi. And he says we exchange many things among ourselves and can carry heavy weights very quickly a long way. Because of all this, he says it would not be the act of a bent hnau if our people killed all your people.'

*

As soon as Ransom had finished, Weston continued.

'Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy-book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amoeba to man and from man to civilization.'

'He says,' began Ransom, 'that living creatures are stronger than the question whether an act is bent or good - no, that cannot be right - he says it is better to be alive and bent than to be dead - no - he says, he says - I cannot say what he says, Oyarsa, in your language. But he goes on to say that the only good thing is that there should be very many creatures alive. He says there were many other animals before the first men and the later ones were better than the earlier ones; but he says the animals were not born because of what is said to the young about bent and good action by their elders. And he says these animals did not feel any pity.'

*

'She,' began Weston.

'I'm sorry,' interrupted Ransom, 'but I've forgotten who She is.'

'Life, of course,' snapped Weston. 'She has ruthlessly broken down all obstacles and liquidated all failures and today in her highest form civilized man - and in me as his representative, she presses forward to that interplanetary leap which will, perhaps, place her for ever beyond the reach of death.'

'He says,' resumed Ransom, 'that these animals learned to do many difficult things, except those who could not; and those ones died and the other animals did not pity them. And he says the best animal now is the kind of man who makes the big huts and carries the heavy weights and does all the other things I told you about; and he is one of these and he says that if the others all knew what he was doing they would be pleased. He says that if he could kill you all and bring our people to live in Malacandra, then they might be able to go on living here after something had gone wrong with our world. And then if something went wrong with Malacandra they might go and kill all the hnau in another world. And then another - and so they would never die out.

*

'It is in her right,' said Weston, 'the right, or, if you will, the might of Life herself, that I am prepared without flinching to plant the flag of man on the soil of Malacandra: to march on, step by step, superseding, where necessary, the lower forms of life that we find, claiming planet after planet, system after system, till our posterity - whatever strange form and yet unguessed mentality they have assumed - dwell in the universe wherever the universe is habitable.'

'He says,' translated Ransom, 'that because of this it would not be a bent action - or else, he says, it would be a possible action - for him to kill you all and bring us here. He says he would feel no pity. He is saying again that perhaps they would be able to keep moving from one world to another and wherever they came they would kill everyone. I think he is now talking about worlds that go round other suns. He wants the creatures born from us to be in as many places as they can. He says he does not know what kind of creatures they will be.'

*

'I may fall,' said Weston. 'But while I live I will not, with such a key in my hand, consent to close the gates of the future on my race. What lies in that future, beyond our present ken, passes imagination to conceive: it is enough for me that there is a Beyond.'

'He is saying,' Ransom translated, 'that he will not stop trying to do all this unless you kill him. And he says that though he doesn't know what will happen to the creatures sprung from us, he wants it to happen very much.'

*

Weston, who had now finished his statement, looked round instinctively for a chair to sink into. On Earth he usually sank into a chair as the applause began. Finding none he was not the kind of man to sit on the ground like Devine - he folded his arms and stared with a certain dignity about him.

'It is well that I have heard you,' said Oyarsa. 'For though your mind is feebler, your will is less bent than l thought. It is not for yourself that you would do all this.'

'No,' said Weston proudly in Malacandrian. 'Me die. Man live.'

'Yet you know that these creatures would have to be made quite unlike you before they lived on other worlds.'

'Yes, yes. All new. No one know yet. Strange Big!'

'Then it is not the shape of body that you love?'

'No. Me no care how they shaped.'

'One would think, then, that it is for the mind you care. But that cannot be, or you would love hnau wherever you met it.'

'No care for hnau. Care for man.'

'But if it is neither man's mind, which is as the mind of all other hnau - is not Maleldil maker of them all? - nor his body, which will change - if you care for neither of these, what do you mean by man?'

*

This had to be translated to Weston. When he understood, he replied: 'Me care for man - care for our race - what man begets-' He had to ask Ransom the words for race and beget.

'Strange!' said Oyarsa. 'You do not love any one of your race - you would have let me kill Ransom. You do not love the mind of your race, nor the body. Any kind of creature will please you if only it is begotten by your kind as they now are. It seems to me, Thick One, that what you really love is no completed creature but the very seed itself: for that is all that is left.'

'Tell him,' said Weston when he had been made to understand this, 'that I don't pretend to be a metaphysician. I have not come here to chop logic. If he cannot understand - as apparently you can't either - anything so fundamental as a man's loyalty to humanity, I can't make him understand it.'

*

But Ransom was unable to translate this and the voice of Oyarsa continued:

'I see now how the lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws that all hnau know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little blind Oyarsa in your brain. And now you can do nothing but obey it, though if we ask you why it is a law you can give no other reason for it than for all the other and greater laws which it drives you to disobey. Do you know why he has done this?'

'Me think no such person - me wise, new man - no believe all that old talk.'

'I will tell you. He has left you this one because a bent hnau can do more evil than a broken one.

***


COMMENT

Weston's views are pretty much identical with my own from the late 1990s into the mid 2000s.

The humour and wisdom of the passage comes from the contrast between Weston's idealistic abstractions and Ransom's translations into plain, honest language (the language of Malacandra is intrinsically plain and honest, since it is an unfallen world).

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The Oyarsa's message:

There are natural moral laws that all people are born with - and one of these is the love of humankind. Lucifer (who rules the earth) has taught you to break all the moral laws except this one.

But love of humankind is not one of the greatest moral laws - rather it ought to be subordinate to other laws which you break.

Furthermore, Lucifer has exaggerated the application of this law to the point where it becomes folly and has set up this folly as your ruling principle. And now you can do nothing but obey it, without constraint and regardless of the consequences.

But you cannot give any reason why you should obey this moral law, and disobey all the other (and greater) moral laws.

Lucifer left you this single natural moral law, the love of humankind, for this reason: a warped man who is actively and zealously pursuing a single moral law is capable of far more evil than a man with no morality at all.


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Would I have seen through mine/ Weston's views if I had read OTP at that time, and seen what they translated into 'in plain language'?

Sadly, I doubt it...

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My three favourite movie scenes: fighting, courage, acceptance of mortality...

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From the end of Blade Runner, 1982:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R72dbbtcuO0&feature=related

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From the end of The Last of the Mohicans, 1992

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tiKM4fxY1U

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The charge of the Rohirrim from The Return of the King, 2003:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAG5vBKmvcA

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The best popular art of our time is pagan.

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Theme, acting, script and editing would all have counted for nought without the music:

BR - Vangelis; LotM - Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman; RotK - Howard Shore.

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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The absence of evil from modern discourse

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Isn't it remarkable that evil strikes us as ridiculous? That the concept of 'evil' seems dumb or insane or manipulative - that to believe in the reality of 'evil' is itself seen as the product of a deranged mind?

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One of the ways that evil is disposed of is that it is regarded as a kind of conspiracy theory, and we all know that conspiracies don't exist...

The two options presented by mainstream discourse are 'cock-up or conspiracy' - accidental and blameless error versus self-aware, purposive, explicit alliances to pursue what are acknowledged to be deliberately harmful plans.

 Actually, these two options do not exhaust potential descriptions of reality...

*

Evil is absent from modern discourse, because the modern concept of evil is a straw man - and also because in a nihilist world there is no such thing as evil.

Similarly to conspiracy, for something or some-one to count as evil they are supposed to be self-aware concerning their own evil nature, and to pursue evil wholly and relentlessly in all things.

If it can be shown that evil people or groups are well-motivated, or sometimes do good things, then that evidence is assumed to have disproved or explained-away the evil.

*

How did we reach such a state of absurdity? Especially after living-through the twentieth century, with evil operative on an unmatched scale?

Answer: Because we live in a society where the Left has won. And the Left has a problem with evil, a deep and insoluble problem.

The Left cannot conceptualize evil (because it has no coherent concept of The Good). Even in its own terms of materialistic, this-worldly hedonism - in terms of a society optimizing comfort and pleasure and minimizing suffering, the Left cannot deal with evil - at root, because so much misery on such a vast scale has been deliberately produced by Leftist schemes and regimes

For the Left to have a concept of evil would be to convict themselves.

Leftist evil (and evil by Leftist standards of moral evaluation - truly vast quantities of human misery) - evil which is so very extreme and so very obvious - simply cannot be acknowledged nor responded-to.

*

You would have thought that so many and such extreme examples of the consequences of Leftism would have destroyed the Left - but no; the Left is stronger than ever.

The conclusion is that no evil which could ever happen could ever destroy Leftism.

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And since we all live in a Leftist society so pervasive that we are all tainted by Leftism to a greater or lesser degree - we can only glimpse the truth at moments before relapsing into delusional dreams.

We all have a problem with evil, a blind-spot about evil.

And the simpler and clearer and more obvious the evil, the less clearly we can understand or see it, the more necessary it is that we do not see it.

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Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Modern Left corrupts and subverts - prefers not to destroy - GFC comment

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FROM THE COMMENTS BY 'GFC':

I believe the Left to be the child of Satan, and in this we see that the rotten apple doesn't fall far from the diabolic tree: the devil cannot create of his own accord but can only twist what has already been created into corrupted forms. Always the devil tries to ape the creation of God.

The modern Western Left works its part in this by undermining and eating away at legitimate authority, but once that work is complete, attempts to set itself up in the only way it can: as a funhouse mirror image of what it worked so hard to destroy.

This is why the Left today doesn't try to destroy institutions like the Church outright but rather corrupt and subvert them. They don't wish to do away with authority per se, only usurp those rightfully in authority and rule in their place.

***

My response:

Indeed!

As in many other respects, the modern Left (political correctness) more resembles the late, cynical and corrupt Soviet Union (Brezhnev era) than it does early and idealistic post-revolutionary Communism.

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The Old Left tried to destroy whole institutions such as the cultured aristocracy, scholarly private schools and universities, independent scholarship, the serious Christian Churches.

Early Soviet Communists did this to the Orthodox Church+ (which still had immense status and power even in 1917) initially mostly by violence: imprisoning, torturing and killing vast numbers of bishops, monks and priests, and devouts adherents - by invasions, confiscating resources, wholesale demolition etc. (See also Solzhenitsyn's massive documentation.)

*

The New Left attacks on institutions are legal, regulatory and legislative; harassment is by official investigation and taxation, key individuals are publicly vilified by spreading lies and libels, the mass media is used for mockery and humiliation, employment is undermined, official scapegoat status is conferred, police protections are removed - and so on.

Unless, of course, these institutions tacitly acquiesce in their own re-making and re-direction - in which case they are showered with money, privileges, honours, and official admiration.

The New Left, as you shrewdly point-out - aim to preserve the hollowed-out shell of these institutions - and to fill these shells with inverted content (e.g. the aristocracy replaced by titled subvertionists, educational institutions by social engineering certificate-allocators, independent scholarship by state-funded 'research' bureaucracies++, Christian churches by this-worldly hedonism-sanctifiers and propagandists for 'the welfare state' etc.).

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Again, the late Soviet Union were pioneers in New Left tactics with respect to the Orthodox Church.

After an decade or so spent in an orgy of blood lust, the State instead corrupted and subverted the Orthodox Church into a branch of the state bureaucracy by hollowing it out and inserting Communist personnel, functions and ideals; atheist KGB officials were put into in Bishop's jobs, Churches were used to spread Communist propaganda and engage in spying and surveillance.

A shell of surface continuity was maintained - while the official 'Orthodox Church' was enlisted to promote national cohesion and nationalistic zeal.

*

The West is nowadays full of 'official' Orthodox Churches.

Indeed, there is very little else...

***

Notes:

+ http://russiascatacombsaints.blogspot.com/

++ It is insufficiently acknowledged that the Royal Society of London - once the premier scholarly institution in the world, descended from the actual originators of modern science - is now merely a branch of the UK public administration; receiving the great bulk of their annual funding from the state in return for providing useful pseudo-scientific validation of government policies:- such as their support for the new quasi-religious moral dogma of 'Anthropogenic Global Warming' due to carbon dioxide pollution.

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What is Charity/ Agape/ Christian Love of fellow men?

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From Donald Attwater's 1930 Introduction to his modern English translation of Piers Plowman - Everyman's Library edition, 1957 [re-punctuated, somewhat].

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'Chastity without Charity shall be chained in Hell', Langland says, and has done. Charity, that is, not a vague benevolence, an 'universal embrace', nor even just refraining from adverse speech and being kind (especially to those one likes); but the habit or virtue which enables men to love God above all things for his Own sake, and for His sake to love all their fellow men; the agape of St Paul.

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Comment:

Reading this passage induced a flash of what feels like insight.

Charity is:

1. The habit or virtue which enables men to Love God above all things for his Own sake.

2. And for His sake to Love all fellow men above themselves.

In other words, a Christian must first Love God above all other and then (and only then) can he, should he, Love his fellow men as they ought to be Loved.

*

The second cannot come until after the first.

Attempts to Love (in a Christian sense) one's fellow men must fail; unless and until there is Love of God.

To Love your fellow men, to Love your neighbors above yourself - these are concepts, instructions that must inevitably be misunderstood in absence of the Love of God, which must come first.

*

All this is perfectly plainly set out in the liturgy and throughout scripture, but that doesn't stop it being misunderstood; that doesn't prevent the point being missed - by me, by many others.

*

Those who have not achieved Christian Love of God (those who are not actually loving God) - such cannot understand, do not know the meaning of, Christian Love of their fellow men.

Therefore, in the absence of Charity, 'well-meaning' attempts to apply, to live in accordance with, Christian Love of fellow men must be futile, feeble, clumsy, prone to error and wrong emphasis; such attempts are prone to fall into harming people and unwitting devotion to the service of evil.

*

Indeed, this is precisely what we see in mainstream secular society and in worldly forms of Christianity: misguided attempts to 'love' one's fellow men, to love neighbors above self - without already-existing Love of God.

(Indeed with an active denial of God and hatred of Christianity).

*

To try and love fellow men above oneself without first loving God above all, leads by steps to the insanity of political correctness: to self-hatred and a materialist parody of Charity.

*

With PC, instead of Charity we get an impersonal, mathematical confiscation and allocation of worldly goods, coercive bureaucratic procedure displacing human morality, elimination of Love and its replacement with Altruism.

But Christian Love of fellow men can only be attained via the Love of God. 

*

Monday, 27 June 2011

Ideology versus expertise - Political correctness coming the full circle

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There is a sense in which political correctness in The West is (merely) the return of a normal situation for historical human society: a situation in which all social functions are subject to 'ideology' (which was previously religion).

It is modern societies that are unusual in favouring expertise above ideology.

*

So, where it can be seen that over the past several decades there has been a progressive 'politicization' of the educational system, public administration, health services and so on - this is a case of 'normal service will shortly be resumed'.

The normal thing for most differentiated societies in the world and throughout history is to be ideological, not expert.

*

The move back towards a society unified by ideology  can be seen in terms of universal political influence expressed via laws and administrative regulations which mean that a university or school or business must be PC first, and fit educational objectives into that framework. Senior staff are screened for political correctness, and non-PC behaviour is grounds for employment sanctions including dismissal.

Ideology is mandatory, effectiveness is an optional extra. And this is the normal human situation (except, perhaps, in times of emergency such as war or famine).

*

Specified religious beliefs and behaviours were mandatory  among the ruling elite until relatively recently.

Such that the philosopher David Hume (the 'best'-ever British philosopher) was passed over for a Professorship at Edinburgh in favour of a nonentity, essentially for religious reasons.

Of course the same was seen in the Soviet Empire - all leadership positions went to loyal Party Members with competence as a secondary consideration.

This is normal usual natural - and applies to most societies: Ideology trumps expertise.

*

The past couple of hundred years in the West, with its ideas of the rule of 'the expert', is exceptional.

The idea that leaders should primarily be competent is unusual.

Modernity was that era when expertise trumped ideology; when science pursued scientific goals related to truth and was (at least in theory) ruled by the best scientists, the economy pursued profit, productivity and other economic imperative - and was ruled by those best at attaining these goals - and so on.

But with the advent of political correctness, Western society began to move back to its pre-modern default.

Since PC, The West is no longer even trying  to have its societal functions run by specialized experts.

The ideology of PC trumps expertise.

*

So, wind-ahead to when PC has displaced expertise with ideology; and in so doing has destroyed modernity.

This means that, under PC, the economy and technological capability of the West would subside to the level of pre-modern agrarian societies - so that The West would be equal in power to the societies that surround it...

(This is not my inference, but is an explicit ultimate goal among many elite Leftist intellectuals including the most powerful person on the planet.)

*

Okay - so then how does a society dominated by Leftist PC ideology line-up against the more traditional ideologies - religious and ethnic?

A nation dominated by a PC-elite versus a nation dominated by a religious elite?

A nation dominated by a PC-elite versus a nation dominated by nationalistic ideals?

To frame the question is to answer it.

*

This is the blind spot of Leftism, and always has been. If the Left gets the kind of society that they want, it will be destroyed by traditional societies?

This is why the Left is dishonest - structurally dishonest.

In practice Leftism is a fake - maybe it pursues modernity under disguise of Leftism (early Soviet Union, early Communist China); maybe the Left destroys modernity but disguises this with propaganda and spin (the current situation in the West); maybe it explicitly destroys modernity but pretends that this is sustainable (Green politics).

But an honest Leftism would need to be driven by some kind of spirituality - since it would have to acknowledge that in destroying modernity it would destroy itself - and would do so anyway because it was the right thing to do: perhaps because it regarded itself as evil and deserving of destruction, or perhaps in pursuit of some higher goal.

The nearest approach to this would be something like an absolute and unconditional pacifism which explicitly acknowledged that the pacifism it advocates will inevitably lead to defeat.

*

I have never seen anything explicitly of this kind - I mean advocacy of deliberate, ethical suicide - honestly and explicitly stated on the Left - but it is possible that the strength of political correctness may derive from an implicit desire of martyrdom which will some time soon become explicit.

That would be the ultimate triumph of ideology over expertise.

*

Conclusion: Modernity is finished, normal service has been resumed with ideology as primary.

Assumption: We will get ideology (whether we like it or not).

Question: Which ideology would you prefer?

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Sunday, 26 June 2011

Sin and Law

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I believe Law has become so dominant a model for conceptualizing morality, that now our culture cannot escape its domination.

In particular, immoral behaviour, sin, is nowadays defined in terms of 'breaking a Law'.

Hence virtue is conceptualized in terms of following Laws, the possible nature of these Laws; and moral debate degenerates into speculating about the possible consequences of applying specific Laws.

*

So - somebody does something immoral, or habitually behaves in an immoral way - a way that 'strikes people' as immoral.

The first thing that people ask is whether the behavior breaks 'the Law' (as it exists).

When a behavior does not break the Law, then the feeling is that the behavior is probably virtuous!

*

But even if the immoral behaviour does break the Law, then we have all been trained to ask whether breaking the Law necessarily and always in every circumstance means that the behavior is immoral; and of course the answer is no.

Some circumstance can always be imagined (even if they actually never existed) where breaking any particular Law is justified - Laws are, after all, merely abstract, selective and summary.

So, any Law always has exceptions and flaws; yet Law is regarded as the only valid conceptualization of morality.  

*

This is crucial - we are trained to believe that morality is Laws (including law-like rules and regulations); only Laws can be moral - that morality can properly be conceptualized only in abstract and formal terms.

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So we are confronted by the inadequacy of any existing specific Laws, but the conviction that behaviour ought to be regulated by Laws - based on the conviction that morality is a matter of Laws.

Therefore we need constantly to change the Law: to increase the number of Laws (to fill in the gaps and close the loopholes) and to increase the generality of Laws (to cover all possible contingencies).

Now we have truly vast numbers of specific Laws, such that nobody knows them all and nobody understands their interaction; and anyways these Laws continually change, such that nobody can keep-up; and we have Laws of such generality that everyone is in breach of them at all times for instance politically correct laws based on subjective tendencies - such as those relating to discrimination or Hate Crimes.

*

This situation is subversive of morality itself - indeed not just subversive but actively destructive.

Because when the definition of sin depends on breaking a specific Law; and when such Laws are abundant, incompatible and continually in flux - then it is rational to abolish any inconvenient sin by changing the Law.

New sins are thus continually being created (by the expansion of Law/s) while traditional sins are abolished by change of Laws.

Both trends lead to temporary and contingent laws without any underlying moral rationale; which means that any specific sins are considered as contingent as the Laws which define them.

*

So now we have a self-refuting paradox: We believe that sin ought properly to be defined in terms of Laws, yet we also believe that Laws are arbitrary and we know that Laws are always changing.

The name for this situation of incoherence is nihilism - the denial of reality, the denial that reality is real.

Nihilism is not the dominant mode of modern social discourse merely because lots of people happen to have chosen it; rather it is that social conditions, including the legal system, actually imposes nihilism on our culture.

Imposing nihilism actively destroys human meaning and purpose, and creates a state of alienation; and that it what Law is doing to us.

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The error is fundamental, the situation vastly entrenched; the only answer is radical.

Start again.
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Chronological snobbery - Lewis and Barfield

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From Surprised by Joy - by C.S. Lewis - with reference to his friendship with Owen Barfield (my punctuation and emphasis):

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"[Barfield's] counter attacks destroyed forever [an element] in my own thought.

"In the first place he made short work of what I have called my 'chronological snobbery', the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.

"You must find out why it went out of date.

"Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do?

"If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that their own age is also 'a period', and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions.

"They are likely to lie in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels necessary to defend them."

***

Comment:

Why did something go out of date: was it ever refuted? Or to people disbelieve it merely because it is old-fashioned.

Some of the greatest intellectual shocks of the life have been recognizing that old ideas were never refuted but merely died away, to be replaced by something with novelty value but little or nothing else to recommend them - merely because of fashion, because that is the nature and definition of fashion.

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I came across numerous examples in science (IQ research) medical history - especially psychiatry (the electroencephalogram); and the biggest example in philosophy - where the vast and coherent synthesis of Aquinas was progressively dismantled and discarded for ever smaller, more partial and less coherent systems.

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Of course the process is most obvious in the arts over the past century, where the decline in quality is impossible to hide.

And then of course there are morals...

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Saturday, 25 June 2011

Why is Christianity incomprehensible to the modern mind?

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What I find striking about the modern mind (and I speak from fairly recent experience) is how it finds meaningless the major concepts, the vocabulary, the discourse of all previous human generations.

Not wrong, but meaningless - incomprehensible. 

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It is not that people explicitly deny the existence of the soul, or a super-natural world, or continued existence after death, or objective morality ('Natural Law'), or angels, or miracles, or prophecy, or sin, or God...

It is that these things are vague, feeble, incomprehensible - they lack subjective reality.

Moderns just cannot make sense of the major concerns of previous human generations.

Such matters don't feel important - not important enough to worry about.

*

But why do modern people think so differently from those in the past? - how do they think so differently that past categories just dissolve away without argument.

What is it that devalues, renders nonsensical, those things which used to be considered the most important things?

What traps them - traps us - inside the bubble of our own bland detachment?

*

I think that the root of this is the functional specialization of discourse which characterizes the modern world.

We start out as children thinking the same way as the mass of humanity. But to become a competent adult in the modern world is to have been trained in compartmentalization of discourse.

And a side effect of specialized discourse is that general discourse become impossible.

*

The nature of religious, Christian, metaphysical discourse cannot be captured by specialized discourse, therefore cannot be captured by modernity; therefore is either excluded or trivialized by modernity - therefore this whole domain of life has simply dissolved away.

It is not that modernity (or 'science') has discovered that there is no soul, or God, or that reality is a matter of subjective opinion, or else a social construct - rather it is that the discourse of modernity cannot make any sense of such concepts as such - but can only evaluate them sequentially, a bit at a time, using narrow and inappropriate criteria - and inevitably reject them as meaningless, unnecessary...

*

The process ought to be obvious. How could science disprove religion, for example, when the very first assumption of science is to exclude religious causes explanations and use only material causes and explanations? Surely that is easy to see?

But no. People learn to do science, learn think scientifically (disciplining the spontaneous human tendency to make religious explanations for phenomena), and at some point science-thinking becomes a habit - and people 'discover' that they no longer 'need' religious causes and explanations.

All that has happened is that they have developed a habit of thinking (including the habit of excluding religious explanations); and the habit has become so ingrained and socially-supported, that they have forgotten that it is just a habit - itself having no justification other than the pragmatic.

*

In sum, the problem of modernity is not only that it destroys our ability to understand religion and the supernatural; but that it destroys our ability to understand anything at all - or, that 'understanding' is now framed in such a narrowly specialized sense that it becomes a matter of indifference.

Because, although we habitually regard scientific truth as being the only kind of truth which is really solid, in practice almost nobody cares about scientific truth - certainly scientists do not care about scientific truth, since they do not try to discover truth nor do they speak truthfully.

So we are in the bizarre situation that our paradigm hegemonic mode of thinking, i.e. science, has become so narrow and partial that we no longer care about scientific truth; yet the habitual exclusions which led to science have prevented us from conceptualizing what has happened.  

*

Modernity merely evaluates one thing in terms of another, and perpetually displaces the question.

The process is eventually circular - except that people get bored and their attention wanders before the circle is completed.

In modernity, nothing is valuable in itself, but only in promoting 'something else' - that 'something else' not being valuable in itself, but only in terms of another 'something else'.

Which is to say, everything depends on everything else.

Which is to say everything is incomprehensible - including Christianity.

Which is to say that nothing feels like it matters.

*

Friday, 24 June 2011

Who are the virtuous poor? Northumbrian shepherds?

*

Reading the medieval poem Piers Plowman by William Langland brings me up against the Christian conviction that it is easier for The Virtuous Poor to achieve salvation than the Rich.

Langland - at various times and with varying conviction - asserts that the simple, hard-working Christian plowman (i.e peasant) has a special 'pardon' from God which enables him to be saved; while the hazards of luxury corrupt many more powerful, wealthier and prestigious individual.

*

But who are the modern virtuous poor?

The first thing to be said is that there probably are not many of them - certainly no a large class of people analogous to the medieval peasants.

And the people who spring to mind as the modern poor are more akin to the assorted pleasure-seekers, loudmouths, brawlers, drunkards and fornicators depicted by Langland as the dregs of the Middle Ages.

The mainstream modern 'poor' are perhaps akin to the idle vagrants who Langland argued should be forced to work by the lash of starvation!

(And yet there are those who regard Christianity as soft!)

*

One group of people who strike me as akin to the virtuous poor are the Northumbrian shepherds who I used to see at country shows, involved in the competitions for best sheep.

My observations were superficial, but they were a quietly impressive bunch.

In the first place they were indeed quiet - men of few words, minimal movements, modest demeanor.

(When a shepherd won first prize for his sheep, this would be acknowledged by - at most - a barely-perceptible nod. Yet they might have put in many dozens of hours of work in preparing and displaying that sheep.)

And when a shepherd did speak it was brief and to the point; their rural dialects (from both sides of the border of England and Scotland) were intrinsically musical, their words lyrical: they were naturally poetic both in terms of what they said and how they said it.

*

Well, all this may be wishful thinking.

But recall that the best British folk poetry is to be found in the ballads from this region, and that the very first named English poet was a northern shepherd: Caedmon, as told by The Venerable Bede:

*

[Caedmon] was established in worldly life until the time when he was of advanced age, and he had never learned any songs. And consequently, often at a drinking gathering, when there was deemed to be occasion of joy, that they all must in turn sing with a harp, when he saw the harp nearing him, he then arose for shame from that feast and went home to his house.

Then he did this on a certain occasion, that he left the banquet-hall and he was going out to the animal stables, which herd had been assigned to him that night. When he there at a suitable time set his limbs at rest and fell asleep, then some man stood by him in his dream and hailed and greeted him and addressed him by his name: 'Caedmon, sing me something.'

Then he answered and said: 'I do not know how to sing and for that reason I went out from this feast and went hither, because I did not know how to sing at all.'

Again he said, he who was speaking with him: 'Nevertheless, you must sing.'

Then he said: 'What must I sing?'

Said he: 'Sing to me of the first Creation.'

When he received this answer, then he began immediately to sing in praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard, whose order is this:

*

Nu we sculon herigean heofonrices weard
(Now we must praise the Protector of the heavenly kingdom)

meotodes meahte ond his modgeþanc
(the might of the Measurer and His mind's purpose)

weorc wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs
(the work of the Father of Glory, as He for each of the wonders)

ece drihten, or onstealde
(the eternal Lord, established a beginning)

He ærest sceop eorðan bearnum
(He shaped first for the sons of the Earth)

heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend
(heaven as a roof, the Holy Maker)

þa middangeard moncynnes weard
(then the Middle-World, mankind's Guardian)

ece drihten, æfter teode
(the eternal Lord, made afterwards)

firum foldan, frea ælmihtig
(solid ground for men, the almighty Lord)


Note: þ is called 'thorn' and ð is called 'eth' - and they are used for the various sounds made by modern 'th'.

*

Then he arose from that sleep, and all of those (songs) which he sang while sleeping he had fast in his memory, and he soon added in the same manner to those words many words of songs worthy of God.

Then in the morning he came to the town-reeve, who was his alderman. He said to him which gift did he bring, and he directly lead him to the abbess and made it known and declared to her.

Then she ordered all of the most learnèd men and scholars to assemble, and to those who were present commanded him to tell of that dream and sing that song, so that it might be determined by the judgement of all of them: what it was and whence it had come.

Then it was seen by all even as it was, that to him from God himself a heavenly gift had been given.


http://www.heorot.dk/bede-caedmon.html

*

Revolution - or permanent anarchy? GK Chesterton on the Suffragette strategy

*

"The objection to the Suffragettes is not that they are Militant Suffragettes. On the contrary, it is that they are not militant enough.

"A revolution is a military thing; it has all the military virtues; one of which is that it comes to an end. Two parties fight with deadly weapons, but under certain rules of arbitrary honor; the party that wins becomes the government and proceeds to govern. The aim of civil war, like the aim of all war, is peace.

*

"Now the Suffragettes cannot raise civil war in this soldierly and decisive sense; first, because they are women; and, secondly, because they are very few women. But they can raise something else; which is altogether another pair of shoes.

"They do not create revolution; what they do create is anarchy; and the difference between these is not a question of violence, but a question of fruitfulness and finality.

"Revolution of its nature produces government; anarchy only produces more anarchy. (...) You can only knock off the King's head once. But you can knock off the King's hat any number of times. Destruction is finite, obstruction is infinite: so long as rebellion takes the form of mere disorder (instead of an attempt to enforce a new order) there is no logical end to it; it can feed on itself and renew itself forever.

(...)

"It is exactly this unmilitant quality in the Suffragettes that makes their superficial problem. The problem is that their action has none of the advantages of ultimate violence; it does not afford a test.

"War is a dreadful thing; but it does prove two points sharply and unanswerably--numbers, and an unnatural valor. One does discover the two urgent matters; how many rebels there are alive, and how many are ready to be dead.

"But a tiny minority, even an interested minority, may maintain mere disorder forever.

*

"The working objection to the Suffragette philosophy is simply that overmastering millions of women do not agree with it. I am aware that some maintain that women ought to have votes whether the majority wants them or not; but this is surely a strange and childish case of setting up formal democracy to the destruction of actual democracy.

"What should the mass of women decide if they do not decide their general place in the State? These people practically say that females may vote about everything except about Female Suffrage."

*

The Unmilitary Suffragette, from What's Wrong with the World by GK Chesterton, 1910

***


Comment:

A tiny minority, even an interested minority, may maintain mere disorder forever - this is a striking recognition, a century ago,  of the methods of the Left which have led to political correctness: rule by the tiny minority.
 
Obstruction is infinite: so long as rebellion takes the form of mere disorder there is no logical end to it; it can feed on itself and renew itself forever - well, yes indeed.

You can knock off the King's hat any number of times - how can such behaviour be stopped (especially when it is tacitly approved by the King's rivals)?

Modern society seems unable to deal with this kind of stubborn, unrelenting disorder by any means other than yielding.

Presumably, the only effective methods would be judged too harsh to be acceptable in modern society: hence tiny minorities of really persistent troublemakers get their way, sooner or later.
 
*

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The four levels of allegory applied to Frost, Harry Potter, Toy Story 3

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From Nevill Coghill and C.S. Lewis I learn of four levels of allegory as described in medieval times; which I understand as follows (and this is my made-up shorthand terminology). 

1. Primary. The literal level of what is described.

2. Referent. That secondary literal meaning which is encoded in the first level.

3. Moral. Any underlying moral point or message.

4. Ultimate. The ultimate level of understanding the human condition - usually spiritual or religious, but perhaps some other non-religious ultimate.

*

(In what follows, I am blurring the difference between allegory and symbolism, in order to emphasize the layering. Often the allegorical interpretation is optional, subordinate or may be denied by the author. Strictly, though, the allegorical layers ought to be deliberately and consciously encoded in the text - as William Langland did with Piers Plowman.)

*

So that Animal Farm by George Orwell has the primary literal level of being a story about animal and farmers, a referent literal level of being about the Russian Revolution, and a moral level of being about the tendency for revolutionary ideals to be corrupted. It does not have a substantive Ultimate level (at least, it does not for me).

*

Another, fuller, example might be Robert Frost's poem Nothing Gold Can Stay:


Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

*

1. A poem about leaves.
2. Referring to Life in General ('dawn goes down to day')
3. Moral. A poem about the evanescence of beauty ('hardest hue to hold') it should be cherished while it lasts.
4. Ultimate. That this is the Christian human condition ('Eden sank to grief')

*

The fourth 'ultimate' level of religious meaning may be implicit: a matter of 'pointing offstage', as throughout The Lord of the Rings.

Or it may be depicted partially but inexplicitly - as in the Harry Potter series with its ghosts, talk of souls, the 'Veil' (dividing death from life) in the Ministry of Magic, and the King's Cross limbo' chapter of the last book.

Or there may be an explicit description and explanation of the Ultimate level, as with the last of the Narnia Chronicles.

*

The Death Eaters in Harry Potter are an obvious three level allegory of Nazis - with Muggle hating representing anti-Semitism in a literal fashion, and the third layer of an egalitarian morality of tolerance also  very obvious.

What makes the Potter series so much richer than this is that the fourth and ultimate moral layer is Christian, supernaturalist, traditional; with multiple allegorical pointings to the Christian story, with its sacrificial theme, death and rebith etc, and moral principles (esepcially the centrality of Love in the sense of 'Charity' or Agape).

So that Death Eaters are ultimately evil not because they inflict pain on others (Harry does that), or because they are snobs; but because/ insofar as they reject Love and worship Voldemort, who is a false god.

*

And what of Political Correctness?

Clearly much PC art can be interpreted as having the first three levels of allegory - but not many PC works go so far as to provide an Ultimate level of allegory.

The ultimate level for political correctness, as I have argued in this blog passim - is a this-worldly perspective of human life as regulated by abstract rules that are 'inverted' - i.e. non-spontaneous, non-natural, and with a utilitarian justification (i.e. optimizing happiness for the greatest number - but especially minimizing suffering).

PC allegory might also has characteristic themes such as diversity/ multi-culturalism, egalitarianism, peace and so on.

*

The best example that comes to mind of a PC work of art which depicts the Ultimate level of allegory - the 'sprituality' of PC - is the recent movie Toy Story 3 which I reviewed last year:

http://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/2010/07/toy-story-3-superb-depiction-of-best-of.html

*

Of course Toy Story 3 has the first three levels of allegory since it is

1. Literally about toys,

2. Referring to humans - each toy being a recognizable human type,

3. Has a moral message/s concerning the importance of friendship, courage and loyalty (i.e. the pagan virtues of Natural Law) - and also PC themes of egalitarianism (all toys equally deserve equal gratification, hierarchical command is characteristic of evil), diversity (inclusive of all types of toy), anti-cruelty (evil toys are cruel, good toys are non-violent) etc.

*

But in addition the resolution of Toy Story 3 strikes me as a depiction of a kind of paradise of political correctness.

The toys voluntarily choose to accept an egalitarian, multi-cultural and diverse life (inclusive of all the different toys of different types) - by sharing equally both pleasures and duties, and accepting that it is all going to end in destruction; yet accepting destruction as the essence of life: sweetened by friendship.

The ideal life as a kindly mutual huddling against the indifference of the universe.

I see the denouement of Toy Story 3 as being an acceptance of the ultimate PC reality of life as governed by abstract rules - rules whose face value is utilitarian - but in a world where utilitarianism (a life of gratification equally and for all) lacks further validation.

It also has the ides that 'meaning' comes wholly from relationships, despite that relationships are inevitably short-lived.

It is a tragic ultimate view of life, a fusion of pagan and PC, beautifully done. But having seen this ultimate and participated imaginatively in it, the deep current of hopelessness in modern life is entirely understandable.  

*






Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Alienation, purposelessness, meaninglessness and Christian conversion

*

Although the only reason for becoming a Christian is that it is the truth, that it is reality; nonetheless, since we humans are weak and corrupt there also needs to be at least some short-term reward for conversion.

There needs to be some therapeutic aspect to conversion.

And that which requires therapy is modern secular life; which (whether pleasurable or miserable on average) is perceived as ultimately alienated, purposeless, meaningless.

*

Alienation, detachment, alone-ness, lack of any connection or relation to the world - is pervasive in modernity.

Alienation can be solved with animism, with paganism; it can be solved in fantasy and sometimes in art; it can be solved in human love (of spouse, of family).

And alienation can also be solved by Christianity which affirms a continuous personal relationship with God (specifically Jesus Christ) so that we are never truly alone.

Also, for a Christian there is the continual reality of Unseen Warfare, of the struggle for salvation affected by angels and demons (which are Christian interpretations of the conscious natural entities of animism or the gods and goddesses of paganism).

Since the Christian is never alone, and always the object of attention; alienation is a temporary illusion - not a permanent reality.

Furthermore, for a Christian the unity of Man is not a mere aspiration, but a fact. We are - whether we like it or not - all in it together; and what we think and do affects not just ourselves but everybody.

No Man is an island: not even in his 'private' thoughts; humans are necessarily social even in solitude. Hence the divisions between practical and personal, work and prayer, contemplation and labour are abolished. A desert-dwelling hermit may exemplify the fullest membership of humankind.

*

Purposelessness is a feature of modernity where life is specialized, each specialism exists only to serve other specialisms, yet each specialism is narrow, literal and un-engaging.

Everything feels trivial because it is going nowhere for no reason.

Some moderns 'lose themselves' in work or human relationships, others in whatever happens to provide temporary distraction or relief from consciousness (e.g. intoxication, busyness, serial pleasure-seeking). But these are merely means to an end which is left blank by modernity.

For the Christian, however, there is an underpinning purpose to life: which is salvation. All our choices lead either toward, or away from, salvation.

Properly understood, there is also the possibility of increasing holiness - which is termed theosis - i.e progress in this life towards God-like-ness. The success of theosis is Sainthood - a Saint being understood as one who lives partly in Heaven while still on earth.

So, for a Christian, nothing is trivial: everything is goal-directed.

*

Meaninglessness is the sense that nothing matters in an indifferent universe. The secular materialist looks up at the stars and feels infinitely insignificant.

By contrast, Christianity states that on the contrary everything is significant.

It offers a cosmology, a description of reality, which encompasses this life, the reality of the soul and its survival of death, the nature of the next world into which the soul survives, the existence of beings intermediate between Man and God - namely angels and demons.

When a Christian looks up at the stars he become partially aware of (is glimpsing) spiritual reality: a universe of life, meaning, struggle - the field of transcendent truth, beauty and virtue - and a reality in which his own soul is a focus of vital importance.

*

So that although Christianity is not about 'being happy' (rather it is a struggle until death, an unseen warfare); and although Christianity is not about re-making the world in accordance with our subjective desires (not about lets-pretend or wishful-thinking  - but rather about fitting oneself to reality); nonetheless adopting the Christian perspective does offer some immediate and profound psychological rewards.

For a Christian things matter: choices matter, what we do has meaning and purpose; and the universe is in personal relation to the perceiving soul.

What happens in life is never lost in time and space - but (for better or worse) is a permanent reality of the soul.

*

Wholeness, weight and significance are restored to life; there is no longer reason to live wholly for distractions.

So although wholeness, weight and significance bring a new set of problems for the convert - Christian conversion is not entirely a matter of struggle, trial and tribulation; it does have immediate rewards.

Conversion to Christianity means reality is real and has our human experience at the centre of things; there is no longer need to live by strategic evasion of consciousness and systematic suppression of thinking.

*

Medieval cosmology - looking up at the stars...

*

From Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages, by C.S. Lewis (in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 1966).

*

Go out on any starry night and walk alone for half an hour, resolutely assuming that pre-Copernican astronomy is true.

(...)

You will be looking at a world unimaginably large but quite definitely finite. At no speed possible to man, in no lifetime possible to man, could you ever reach its frontier, but the frontier is there; hard, clear, sudden as a national frontier.

And secondly, because the Earth is an absolute centre, and Earthwards from any part of this universe is downwards, you will find that you are looking at the planet and stars not merely in terms of 'distance' but of that very special kind of distance we call 'height'. They are not only a long way from Earth, but a long way above it.

(...)

Now these two factors taken together - enormous but finite size, and distances which, however vast, remain unambiguously vertical, and indeed vertiginous - at once present you with something which differs from the Newtonian picture rather as a great building differs from a great jungle.

You can lose yourself in infinity; there is indeed nothing much else you can do with it. It arouses questions, it prompts to a certain kind of wonder and reverie, usually a sombre kind (...) But it answers no questions; necessarily shapeless and trackless, patient of no absolute order or direction, it leads, after a little, to boredom or despair or (often) to the haunting conviction that it must be an illusion.

(...)

But the effect of the old model becomes even more interesting when we consider order.

It is not merely very large, it is a whole of finely graded parts. Everything descends from the circumference with a steady diminution in size, speed, power and dignity. (...)

All above the Empyrean [Firmament] is in a special, immaterial sense 'Heaven', full of the divine substance.

From the Empyrean down to the Moon is the realm of aether - that strange half-matter in which so many different ages have believed (...) - changeless, necessary, not subject to Fortune.

From the Moon down to the Earth is the realm of air (...) which is also the realm of luck, change, birth, death and contingence.

(...)

It is a structure, a finished work, a unity articulated through a great and harmonious plurality. It evokes not mere wonder but admiration. It provides food for thought and satisfaction for our aesthetic nature.

(...)

After the dimensions and the order we must consider the dynamics. (...)

The infinite, according to Aristotle, is not actual. No infinite object exists; no infinite processes occur. Hence we cannot explain the movement of one body by another and so on forever. (...)

All the movements of the universe must therefore, in the last resort, result from a compulsive force exercised by something immovable.(...)

He called this Unmoved Mover either 'God' or 'Mind'. It moves the Primum Mobile [or outermost sphere of the universe] by love. (...)

Accordingly we find (not now by analogy but in strictest fact) that in every sphere there is a rational creature called an Intelligence which is compelled to move, and therefore to keep his sphere moving, by his incessant desire for God. (...)

*

A modern might ask why a love for God should lead to a perpetual rotation. I think, because this love or appetite for God is a desire to participate as much as possible in his nature; i.e. to imitate it. And the nearest approach to His eternal immobility, the second best, is eternal regular movement in the most perfect figure, which, for any Greek, is the circle.

(...)

[A man of the middle ages] did not think that the spaces he looked up at were silent, or dark or empty. Far from being silent, they were perpetually filled with sweet, immeasurable sound. The vast hollow spheres, turning each at its proper interval inside its superior, gave out a blended harmony.

(...)

Nor were these high regions dark. The darkness in which the stars (for us) is set is merely the darkness of the long, conical shadow cast by the earth when the sun is below our feet. They knew (...) that the apex of this dark cone must fall well above the moon.

Beyond that apex the higher heavens are bathed in perpetual sunshine.

(...)

And these spaces, bright and resonant, were also inhabited. We have already peopled them with the Intelligences who either animate or guide the spheres.

Distinct from these, but of course equally immortal and superhuman, are the angels. Their natural habitat is between the Empyrean and the Moon and their number is probably enormous. (...)

[Humans] touch only the lowest fringe of angelic life. (...) They are ordered in nine classes which are arranged in three groups of three classes each. (...)

The lowest hierarchy deals with human affairs; Principalities with the destiny of nations, Archangels and Angels, in varying ways, with those of individuals.

(...)

[God governs the world through the angels; the whole angelic population, without prejudice to its complex internal triads, is the medium between God as agent and Nature (or man) as patient.]

(...)

But I must crowd the sky a little more. (...) Besides the Intelligences and the angelic hierarchies are the planets themselves. Each of them is doing things to us as every moment.

(...)

Go back for a moment to the experience I mentioned at the beginning; that of looking up at the stars (...).

The full contrast between the medieval experience and ours is only now apparent.

For whatever else we feel, we certainly feel that we are looking out; out of somewhere warm and lighted into cold, indifferent desolation, out of a house onto the dark waste of the sea.

But the medieval man felt he was looking in.

Here is the outside. The Moon's orbit is the city wall. Night opens the gates for a moment and we catch a glimpse of the high pomps which are going on inside; staring as animals stare at the fires of the encampment they cannot enter, as rustics stare at a city, as surburbia stares at Mayfair.

(...)

These spheres are moved by love, by intellectual desire, never sated because they can never completely assimilate themselves to their object, and never frustrated because they continually do so to the fullest extent which their nature admits or requires.

Their existence is thus one of delight.

The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one.

They are the unimpeded movement of the most perfect impulse towards the most perfect object.

***

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Jim Kalb - from the comments

*

Comment by Jim Kalb re: posting on Political correctness versus natural selection:

"One way to explain what has happened is that people decided there is no personal God, so the world around us isn't intended or meaningful.

"You can't trust it and you certainly don't want it to dominate you. Salvation lies in escape.

"In Buddhism escape from that situation involved something that looks like personal extinction. In the West it has involved self-deification."

*

The "Not even trying" test

*

I find that I use the "Not even trying" test a lot nowadays, in evaluating stuff I come across.

If I come across scientists or a branch of science who are clearly not even trying to discover the truth or tell the truth, then I reject their work - because there are infinitely more ways to be wrong than right.

When I listen to or read a modern philosopher, I reject their status as a philosopher if it is obvious that they are not even trying to seek or speak the truth.

When I perceive that government policy is not even trying to solve economic problems, then I know that these problems will not be solved (at least not by government).

When writers, poets, musicians, artists and architects are not even trying to create beauty, then their works will be ugly.

In journalism, in the media generally - are they even trying to be accurate? If they are not even trying to report the news, obviously they cannot be trusted or believed, obviously they will be worthless at best, more often actively misleading.

*

If people and institutions are not even trying to fulfil their stated functions, not even trying to do good or be good - then they should be avoided.

We should not contaminate our minds with such stuff. We should not be tempted to take them seriously.

They don't deserve it; we owe ourselves better.

***

NOTE: 

The above view contrasts with the idea that personal motivations are unimportant in social systems: that bureaucratic systems or selection mechanisms (such as markets) can produce functionality indifferent to motivation, indeed in the teeth of motivation.

This is the standard view in social science.

But I now believe that you cannot produce a silk purse from a sow's ear: that real science cannot come from hypotheses testing working on the output of dishonest scientists; the real art cannot come from selecting among the works of those who regard beauty as kitsch - and shock, disgust and boredom as aesthetic experiences; that good governance cannot come from a combination of careerism and voting; that real education does not emerge from a system primarily devoted to promoting diversity - even when there is competition. 

Markets, democracy, bureaucracy - all systems rely on selecting, and are constrained by that which is available for selection.

Good outputs can only come from Good inputs.

Unless at least some people are trying to do what is supposed to be done, then it will not be done. 

*

Monday, 20 June 2011

Political correctness versus natural selection

*

There is a paradoxical relationship between the theory of evolution by natural selection and Leftism, liberalism or political correctness.

At one level, to 'believe in' evolution by natural selection is used by the Left as a litmus test of seriousness - and 'creationism' is regarded as a marker of imbecility.

On the other hand, the Left will not accept the conclusions of natural selection when applied to humans, so that sociobiology/ evolutionary psychology is regarded with extreme suspicion (even though the discipline is colonized almost entirely by Leftists).

*

The politically correct Leftist ideology is primarily ethical - yet as a secular ideology it excludes divine revelation as a basis for ethics, and as a revolutionary ideology it also excludes spontaneity and common sense as a basis for ethics.

This opposition to the spontaneous and commonsensical is the basis for the aversion to natural selection - because natural selection shapes instinct.

Hence Leftism sets itself against the instinctual, has an automatic suspicion of that which is natural, because the natural is essentially 'selfish' (whether conceptualized as selfishness of organisms or of genes).

*


Political correctness cannot accept the implications of the natural selection it espouses, because PC regards natural selection as leading to a secular version of 'original sin' - intrinsic human selfishness.

For political correctness to accept the full implications of natural selection would therefore be to refute itself.

It would be for PC endorse selfishness, since animals are selfish; it would be to endorse cruelty, because animals inflict suffering on each other.

*

Political correctness (correctly!) recognizes that natural selection cannot lead to real virtue, to real disinterested unselfishness - therefore PC is intrinsically trying to get outside natural selection.

*

Political correctness, as the most advanced form of Leftism, has evolved to locate virtue in terms of abstract ethical rules which are instantiated outside of the human organism and human society.

(Given the suspicion of the spontaneous and commonsensical) these abstract ethical rules ought to be followed literally even when (especially when) they contravene instinct and common sense.

Therefore, for political correctness, the ideal is that all human behavior should be regulated by abstract ethical rules - and the outraging of spontaneous human morality is a feature, not a bug: it is evidence of transcending the 'natural' (where the natural is intrinsically regarded as corrupt).

*

But which rules?

If they are not to be purely arbitrary, abstract ethical rules must have two characteristics:

1. Moral inversion.

PC rules must contradict spontaneous common sense.

2. Face plausibility.

Since there are (in principle) an 'infinite' number of morally-inverted ethical rules; those which are selected must have a kind of face plausibility - must have (in the social context of modern society) a kind of platitudinous uncontradictability; for instance when denial of the morally-inverted rule must seem to convict the contradicter of cruelty and/ or selfishness.

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This means that the ethical principles of political correctness depend on an implicit consent; they cannot be founded, nor defended in any fundamental fashion, but only by 'sophistry', displacement and counter-attack.

They are not necessary, but neither are they arbitrary. They are not approximate, neither are they exact - yet their interpretation must be precise and literalistic.

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(Specific PC rules, developed in this fashion, are then subjected to progressive harmonization/ simplification by being brought under ever-more-general 'meta-principles'- such as diversity, equality, peace, non-discrimination. Presumably these meta-principles will - if PC lasts long enough - eventually be brought together under a single primary, foundational evaluation.)

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Literal interpretation of rules in the face of the natural means that there is no such thing as moderation in PC, nor is there any hierarchy of PC transgressions: use of a single taboo word in a private conversation may elicit the full majesty of legal prosecution, social exile, permitted violence; yet tyranny, torture, rape and murder may be ignored when to notice these might be seen to tend towards disruption of over-arching PC priorities.

The two options are full and unrelenting legalism, or complete ignoring: the end goal of promoting universal PC justifying the means of ignoring specific transgressions of PC.

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Natural selection is seen as having led to that to which political correctness is opposed: the natural and instinctive.

Hence PC opposes the consequences of natural selection, even as it accepts (as dogma) the reality of natural selection.

The rules of PC are therefore set-up in opposition to natural selection as abstract and partial summaries of concrete and infinitely complex realities - presented as self-evidently true - followed and enforced without compromise in the face of spontaneity and common sense - and the denial of which is seen as a moral monstrosity.

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Astrology and free will - the medieval understanding (C.S. Lewis)

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From Imagination and thought in the Middle Ages - by C.S. Lewis. An essay delivered in 1956; posthumously published in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, edited by Walter Hooper, 1966.

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"...the planets had more than a physical effect. They influenced the course of events and they influenced human psychology. Born under Saturn, you were disposed to melancholy, born under Venus to amorousness.

(...)

"The important question, theologically, was whether the planets compelled or merely disposed men to action.

"If they compelled, then of course there was an end to human freedom and responsibility.

"If they merely disposed, then planetary influence, like heredity or health or education, was merely part of the concrete situation handed over to the individual to do the best he could with.

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"The theologians were in fact, as so often, fighting against determinism.

"Nor were they fighting against a phantom: in Renaissance times, if not before them, astrological determinism was very widely accepted. It seemed (odd as this sounds to us) to have the support of age-old experience and common sense, and the theological resistance seemed idealistic wishful thinking.

"In the Middle Ages men's mind's no doubt wavered. The ordinary, moderate, respectable view was summed up in the maxim sapiens dominabitur astris; a wise man, assisted by Grace, could get over a bad horoscope just as he could get over a naturally bad temper.

(...)

"On a practical level orthodox people, while admitting planetary influence, strongly disapproved of 'judicial astrology', the lucrative practice of foretelling the future.

"They did not need to deny that some astrological predictions might be correct.

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"Planetary influence could not remove free will but it could alter the states of mind and imagination which free will has to deal with.

"Any man can master the psychological raw material and thus refute the prediction; but few men do and therefore the predictions will succeed as regards the majority.

"Just in the same way and for similar reasons a modern theologian might say that Marxian predictions based on economic determinism or Freudian predictions based on psychological determinism will usually be true, and true about mass-behaviour, but not necessarily about a given individual."

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Comment:

Medieval thinkers were more rational about astrology that modern thinkers are about genetics.

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Medieval Christian understanding was built-around free will: that free will could be influenced, but was not ultimately compelled, by emotions and images, by disposition and circumstances, by planets and angels and demons.

By contrast, the modern 'scientific' understanding, by its prior assumptions, excludes free will from rational causal explanations.

Yet the modern thinker does not recognize that he has excluded free will in his assumptions. Instead he believes that he has discovered free will does not exist.  

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The modern thinker ignores free will when he is at work - until after he has reached his conclusions; then he wonders how on earth he can make sense of his conclusions in a world where free will is assumed.

Having constructed a model of the world without free will (a model world with which he is well satisfied); he begins to wonder - in a bewildered fashion - how free will might somehow be re-inserted into the description of the world?

Then, finding that free will has no role, serves no necessary causal function in his model world; the modern thinker believes that somehow free will has thus been refuted, has been discovered - after empirical investigation - to be absent, been exposed as a primitive philosophical error...

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Once what Lewis called 'chronological snobbery' has been pushed aside, a decline in human intelligence, in reasoned discourse, seem inescapable.

Again and again I find that modern thinking cannot distinguish between assumptions and conclusions.

I mean really cannot distinguish between assumptions and conclusions; not even (especially not even) when the difference has been pointed-out.

Neither is this basic inability a trivial matter, but is a radical fact of modern discourse. And it leads on to unbounded evil consequences because the devil is inaccurate (to quote Charles Williams - meaning evil does its work by building-upon falseness).

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Note: I could not recommend highly enough this essay by C.S. Lewis to anyone with an interest in medieval thought, or indeed the history of ideas. It is simply superb.

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Sunday, 19 June 2011

Dream-dozing - Micro-sleeps and micro-dreams

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Usually when people (including myself) have a micro-sleep (e.g. momentarily nodding-off while reading quietly) this is perceived as an absence, an interruption in the stream of consciousness, a jump-ahead in time with a chunk missing.

Indeed, people may not realize that they have been asleep unless told by an observer.

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But sometimes I doze-off straight-into REM/ dreaming sleep; indeed alternate between being awake and aware of surroundings with being asleep and in dreams.

Eyes open, there is the world; eyes closed, in a dream.

So the micro-sleeps are associated with micro-dreams, or fragments of dreams.

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(Dream-dozing can typically only happen if the person is lying down, or has their body and head supported to some extent - such as resting in an armchair; since dreaming sleep is associated with muscle relaxation which would otherwise cause the person to jerk-awake.)

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My experience of this phenomenon of dream-dozing with micro-dreams is interesting.

It feels like flipping-between two ongoing realities, with time subjectively moving at the same rate in both waking and dreaming; but going at different rates when one state is compared with the other.

By ongoing realities, I mean that (of course) the real world is going-on even when I am not attending to it, so that when I awaken from a micro sleep things have moved-on in the real world: if I have been asleep of a second, then a second has gone past - obviously).

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The same applied to the dream world: if I have been awake, then when I return to sleep, then time has passed in the dream world.

But if I have been awake for one second, then more than one second of subjective experience - indeed much more than one second, has passed in the dream world when I re-enter it.

And, conversely, what feels like some minutes of dream story can occur in a few seconds of awake time.

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If awake time is taken as the calibration, then dream time moves 'faster' - in the sense that a lot more narrative happens in a dream during one second of awake time than vice versa.

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Also, the dream world is narrative, a story; whereas the awake world may not be perceived as a story.

The micro-sleep is a slice of narrative; the micro-awakening may be simply an image - for example a static picture of the room where I am dozing.

So in the micro-sleep I am in a story, when I open my eyes, I merely see the wall and chair.

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What this feels like is that dreams are stories going on all the time, without me being aware of them.

When I have a micro sleep I can sometimes dip-into a segment of this on-going dream narrative.

So I fall asleep and experience in dream what feels like quite a lot of some narrative, then wake-up and almost no time has passed; then fall asleep and rejoin the dream but the dream has moved on a lot while I was awake.

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In general, dreaming seems to be like a process that is going on behind the scenes, mostly without awareness. Awareness of dreams seems like an non-essential optional extra.

Whatever it is that dreams are doing, apparently does not need our awareness (and indeed many people claim not to dream, or very seldom; and everyone rapidly forgets most of most dreams).

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So if (if) it really was true that dreams are pre-cognitive in the kind of way tha JW Dunne and JB Priestley have said, and that JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis apparently believed, then much of this pre-cognition would have to be having effects without awareness, would be having unconscious effects.

If pre-cognition was real and had a purpose; that purpose would be unconscious, implicit, a background to our aware lives.

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Saturday, 18 June 2011

Science reporting: from breakthroughs to projects

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Scientific progress has gone into reverse, and one of the most obvious signs is that the media now do not report breakthroughs but projects.

eg. Some random biological fact is 'expected to' lead to a cure for cancer; Professor x has won a multimillion grant to make discovery y; University z has built a vast new (eco-friendly) institute and filled it with people and machines...

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Of course, this began some time ago with the human genome project, the rise of brain imaging, the relabelling exercise of 'nanotechnology' and with money-raising for the big physics machines.

None of these led to anything interesting or useful, but created a new evaluation system in (what still calls itself) science.

So, for the past generation, most research careers have been built by 'working-on' problems - the solution to which would be, it is claimed, a breakthrough.

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We no longer wait to find out whether something actually does lead to any significant or useful outcome - presumably because they very seldom do.

Best to get the publicity on the basis of what research might do, rather than await inevitable disappointment.

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But anyway, nobody is interested in scientific breakthroughs. Nowadays a breakthrough is something which leads to major new funding opportunities.

That was why the Human Genome Project was regarded as the most important research in history. Scientifically it was nothing, professionally it was a gravy train.

As big grant awards and expensive projects are themselves the sole and sufficient purpose of a research career, then naturally these are what gets reported and celebrated.

And dressing-up bureaucratic expansion as a scientific breakthrough is business-as-usual for the modern media.

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Friday, 17 June 2011

What is the difference between science and philosophy? (and theology)

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I have been reading and thinking about the nature of science, and its definitions, for a long time - probably since I saw Bronowski's TV programme The Ascent of Man in 1972.

Any comprehensive definition must be minimal - in particular there is no characteristic scientific method, nor mode (i.e. Popper was wrong, although interesting and useful) - nor does science have any essential attribute of being self-correcting, nor is science necessarily observational or empirical.

And so on.

So what made the difference between science and what went before?

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This is the idea: Science came from philosophy and philosophy from theology - by a process of specialization - a part coming off from the whole, and being pursued autonomously as a social system.

Theology is a social system that aims to discover the truth; and which puts the truths of divine revelation first and reason subordinate (if at all); philosophy aims to discover truth (or used to) but puts reason first - but remains (in its early phases) constrained by revelation.

Then science broke-off from philosophy by eliminating divine revelation as an allowable explanation.

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So science is a specialized social system, based on reason, but which excludes all reference to divine revelation.

But what is special about being a social system?

Mainly time and effort, in a co-operative sense (although the cooperation can be between just a few people).

So science is simply some people devoting time and effort to investigating the world using reason and excluding reference to divine revelation.

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Naturally, since Science excludes divine revelation, science can have no formal impact on theology, nor can it have any formal impact on philosophy.

Yet, apparently, science has substantially impacted on theology and philosophy - it is, for example taken to have discredited Christianity.

How did this perception arise?

1. Science as (until recently) been perceived as in enabling (somehow, indirectly) humans to increase power over nature (this perception may be subjective/ delusional, or false, as it often is now - or it can be all-but undeniable).

Yet science is (or rather was) successful mainly because a lot of smart people were putting a lot of effort into discovering truth.

(And now that people don't try to discover truth, they don't discover it - naturally not.)

2. Sheer habit. People trained and competent in the (wholly artificial) scientific way of thinking, which a priori excludes religious explanations, leads to human beings who habitually exclude divine explanations.

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And it turns out that habit is very powerful as a socialization device.

Such that people trained in an artificial (hence difficult) and socially-approved specialized mode of thinking, eventually do not notice the exclusions of their mode of thought, and assume that their mode of thought is the whole thing; assume that that which was excluded a priori has instead been excluded because it was false.

A mistaken inference - but mainstream in modernity. 

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NOTE ADDED: in sum, to put it another way, progress in science was essentially a consequence of the quality and quantity of man-hours dedicated to the aim of discovering truth about the world using reason and excluding religious explanations.

When the most able truth-seeking people with leisure from subsistence increasingly shifted their interest, activity and effort away from theology into philosophy (from, say, the twelfth century onwards in the West) and then from philosophy into science (from, say, the seventeenth century) - this shifted achievement in the same direction.

And when the most able people with leisure from subsistence increasingly shifted their interest, activity and effort away from truth-seeking and into other things (especially careers) (from, say, the early-middle twentieth century) this shifted achievement into... well, bureaucracy and media distractions.

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A monastic education - John Senior writes

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Excerpted from The Death of Christian Culture by John Senior (1923-1999) [re-punctuated]:

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"For the training of the body there is the ascetic life - the habit, the fare, the manual work; and for the soul - the liturgy (the Opus Dei as St Benedict called it), the continuous immersion in a very few texts.

"The Psalter [i.e. Book of Psalms] learned by heart in the first year of the novitiate and finally the whole of the Old and New Testaments in St. Jerome's Vulgate Latin.

"Beside the Bible were the Rule (of St Benedict] and a few select commentaries.

"No single monastery had anything like the bulk of the Patrologia. The monks read very little of their own tradition and still less of the liberal arts.

(...)

"Few in those days read the Greeks at all, or even any classical Latin other than some schoolboy books for learning grammar.

"As soon as Plato was taken up by St Augustine, there was no longer any need for Plato.

"As the children of Israel took vessels of Egyptian gold and silver with them into the wilderness, so Christendom took some of this and that - but not very much. As with Buddha's raft across the Ganges, it would be absurd, once having used the classics to get to St Augustine, to strap them on one's back and continue studying Virgil and Cicero on the dry land of Christendom.

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"Old GG Coulton was right, I think: they were a narrow, antiliberal lot, if you measure them by the world's standards.

"Even the most learned of them, such as Alcuin, was no Socrates or even a Flaccus, as they jokingly called him; and when you consider the millions of monks in all the monasteries across the Dark Ages for a thousand years from the bitter Western Isles of Britain to the deserts of Egypt, those ages really were dark.

(...)

"[Yet] In what sense is the mind narrow that has not studied so much as become the substance of the Psalms?

"Day after day, hour upon hour, summer, winter, through the watches of the night, humming with a resonating sound that buzzes in the skull and bones, the long, slow-balanced verses and antiphons in the singular, sonorous silence of the Gregorian tones.

"We have confused simplicity with impoverishment and poverty with destitution."

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John Senior, whose career was mostly as a Classic professor in the University of Kansas, is probably (in two books: The Death of- and then The Restoration of- Christian Culture) the clearest, most eloquent, most rigorous, and most convincing recent expositor of the nature of traditional Roman Catholic Christianity that I have yet encountered.

And yet, for me - at the end of all this - I felt (rather than perceived) something missing from the vision of an ideal full Roman Catholicism: a dryness, an incompleteness.

And this prompted me to keep looking, and to explore Eastern Orthodox Catholicism (mostly via Seraphim Rose), where I felt (rather than perceived) exactly that warmth and wholeness which I had felt was missing from the vision of ideal Roman Catholicism.

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Nonetheless, John Senior is a marvellous writer, with acute insights into modernity.

 And his point about the benefits of immersion in relatively few texts is one which has always appealed to me - despite the fact that I have read such a lot!

I tend to regard my wide reading as more of a compulsion and a shallow search for distraction, rather than any sign of wisdom.

And I am a great re-reader (as my Tolkien blog demonstrates) - I am only really happy reading a book which I know (even during the first reading) that I will be re-reading; otherwise I feel the time is probably being wasted.

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NOTE ADDED:

I have unfortunately under-sold John Senior in the above, by my excess emphasis on autobiography: his books on Christian culture are very good indeed, and very well worth reading.

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