Russell Kirk's Concise Guide to Conservatism

Conservatism today is not in good shape. Like Rome in Nero’s day, where the historian Tacitus wrote that “all degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish,” one can find just about any terrible thing you want to in the fringes of the movement. But mainstream conservatism, so-called, is not much better, riven as it is by debates between nationalists and globalists, traditionalists skeptical of modernity and technological triumphalists, advocates of small businesses and massive corporations, family values activists and anything goes social liberals, hawks and doves, and just as many big government porkbarrel technocrats as the other side of the aisle. If Yeats’s famous phrase was “the centre will not hold,” conservatism seems to have no center in the first place.

Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, a formerly out-of-print handbook by one of the twentieth century’s great conservative thinkers, offers one to a movement desperately in need of re-centering. Kirk—a man of letters rather than a strictly political thinker or, worse, the curse of today’s political scene, a policy wonk—helped frame the meaning of conservatism at the time of its American revival in the 1950s, and this book is a refreshing throwback. It’s winsomely written, engaging and even funny, and a brilliant introduction to the true core of a movement that has lost its way.

kirk concise guide.jpg

Originally published in 1957 as The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism (the title being a riposte to George Bernard Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism), Kirk’s book sets out the principles of true conservatism simply and straightforwardly, drawing on the modern tradition from Burke to the 1950s. Anyone who has read the book that put Kirk on the map, The Conservative Mind, will recognize the names of many of the British and American conservatives Kirk invokes there, including John Adams, Orestes Brownson, John Randolph of Roanoke, Tocqueville, John C. Calhoun, Irving Babbitt, and Paul Elmer More, but Kirk also builds support from an even broader group of thinkers ranging as far back as Aristotle and Cicero and up to the 20th century British traditionalist liberal GK Chesterton.

This book also presents a condensed version of Kirk’s concerns in The Conservative Mind: the threat of materialist ideologies like Marxism; the leveling effects of industrialism and consumerism; the danger of totalizing, centralized state power; the collapse of community; the erosion of virtue, discourse, learning, respect for—or even knowledge of—the past; and much more. Kirk passionately explains the conservative views of freedom of conscience; private property; variety and diversity; traditional education in the liberal arts and humanities; the transcendent vision of the world offered by religion; church, community, and the other “little platoons” that make us who we are; and the family.

One of the strengths of Kirk’s book is his handling of the tensions within conservatism, of which we have plenty. I think one of the reasons “conservatism” so-called today has been pulled so badly out of shape is the attempt eliminate these tensions one way or the other, creating a balkanized political movement of simplified, un-nuanced sub-conservatisms. This is an essentially ideological search for a resolution to tension, one that insists on consistency and going to the logical extremes. Kirk avoids that temptation—insisting throughout that true conservatism is properly non-ideological—and retains these tensions.

Kirk deals with the tension between the individual and the community—both objects of immense respect and importance within conservatism—especially well, rejecting both “‘Individualism’ as a radical political ideology” (cf. Ayn Rand) as well as pure collectivism. But the best example, and possibly the best chapter in the book, is his treatment of permanence and change. Call it the tension between stability and Progress, or the status quo and the god Change. “The conservative is not opposed to progress as such,” Kirk writes, “though he doubts very much that there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a [capital] P, at work in the world.” Invoking Coleridge, he continues:

The permanence in society is formed by those enduring values and interests which give us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the deep are broken up, and society slips into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate, and society subsides into an Egyptian or Peruvian lethargy.

Kirk wrote in 1957—the year my dad, now a 62-year old grandfather, was born—but his description of an affluent, technologically sophisticated but hollow society poised between anarchy and stagnation could have been written yesterday. A faithful advocate of what he, borrowing from TS Eliot, called “the permanent things,” he could not have produced a more permanently relevant little book.

Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism also includes a good introduction from historian Wilfred McClay. Coming in at just over 100 pages, this book is a much-needed refresher at a time of crisis. You won’t find much about economic theory or policy—those are all downstream of culture—but you will find a lot about principle, virtue, family and community, respect for the past, and the right ordering of affections that makes up the conservative worldview. I hope it gains a wide readership—both among those seeking to understand conservatives and conservatism, and conservatives in search of a center that will hold.

Weaver on Lee

Robert E. Lee (1807-70) shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865

Robert E. Lee (1807-70) shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865

While I’m thinking of Richard Weaver, let me recommend his essay “Lee the Philosopher,” originally published in the Georgia Review in 1948 but available online—with a few glaring text recognition errors—here. Writing at a time when the United Nations was brand new and Stalin and Mao’s project of overthrowing the Chinese government had not yet succeeded, Weaver reflects on what a few of Robert E. Lee’s gnomic sayings reveal about the depths of that most handsome and inscrutable man.

One of the deepest, and most poignant, is Lee’s famous remark—recorded in a few slightly different versions—made from the heights overlooking the battlefield at Fredericksburg: “It is well this is terrible; otherwise we should grow fond of it.”


Weaver in “Lee the Philosopher”:

What is the meaning? It is richer than a Delphic saying.

Here is a poignant confession of mankind’s historic ambivalence toward the institution of war, its moral revulsion against the immense destructiveness, accompanied by a fascination with the “greatest of all games.” As long as people relish the idea of domination, there will be those who love this game. It is fatuous to say, as is being said now, that all men want peace. Men want peace part of the time, and part of the time they want war. Or, if we may shift to the single individual, part of him wants peace and another part wants war, and it is upon the resolution of this inner struggle that our prospect of general peace depends, as MacArthur so wisely observed upon the decks of the Missouri. The cliches of modern thought have virtually obscured this commonplace of human psychology, and world peace programs take into account everything but this tragic flaw in the natural man—the temptation to appeal to physical superiority. There is no political structure which knaves cannot defeat, and subtle analyses of the psyche may prove of more avail than schemes for world parliament. In contrast with the empty formulations of propagandists, Lee’s saying suggests the concrete wisdom of a parable.

Take some time to read the whole essay. You can read it at the link above or a few other places online, or collected in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, an insightful and beautifully written compilation of pieces on various aspects of historical Southern culture, politics, and belief.

And if you’re wondering why, after all this time, people are still invested in Lee and find him fascinating, what strange deeper resonance he has within the mind of the South, here’s Weaver again in The Southern Tradition at Bay, the doctoral thesis that eventually became his first published book:

Military history and autobiography bulk very large in Southern ‘literature,’ and no one acquainted with the history of the South will omit the influence of the soldier. Indeed, an inventory of the mind of the soldier is very nearly an inventory of the Southern mind.

What's wrong, Chesterton?

February, a whole month of recurrent sickness—for me and my kids—heavy work projects, and terrible weather, has also accidentally turned into GK Chesterton month on my blog. I’ve posted on his attitude toward argument and controversy and the lack of any real controversy in his world—and ours—and I also looked at his enviable ability to laugh at himself. I’ll end the month with a tiny bit of Chesterton detective work.

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

Yesterday, a colleague pointed me toward this post on the most frequently misquoted Christian writers. Chesterton was on there for a number of quotes, misquotes, and apocryphal sayings, perhaps the most famous of which was this:

In answer to a newspaper’s question, “What is Wrong With the World?”  G. K. Chesterton wrote in with a simple answer: “Dear Sirs, I am.”

I’ve seen a couple different versions of this story with slight variations—sometimes Chesterton’s answer comes in response to a survey of journalists or something similar, sometimes it’s slightly wordier—but the gist is always the same, and it’s easy to see why it sticks around. It’s been quoted by present day evangelical writers as prominent as Tim Keller. It’s cheeky and succinct, worthy of a man who enjoyed his bon mots as much as his beer. But also not quite true.

If you want to confirm a quotation’s authenticity—and you should—it’s relatively easy, and this was easy to disprove, as there are plenty of places logging it as doubtful or inauthentic. Wikiquote includes it in its “misattributed” section on Chesterton’s page. The American Chesterton Society had a rather noncommittal post on the quotation a few years ago, as did a Chesterton enthusiast’s blog.

But as it happens, the latter blog post included a couple of important tidbits. First, it clarified the actual, correct wording of Chesterton’s reply:

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question, “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.

This, helpfully, provides a lot more context and explanation about what exactly Chesterton meant. It’s also a handy passage to plug into Google. But alas, nothing.

Second, the blogger’s post indicated that Chesterton’s letter came in response to another letter not from the Times, but from the Daily News—a newspaper founded by Charles Dickens, one of Chesterton’s literary heroes—and from a specific issue: August 16, 1905. I don’t know where the blogger dug this info up, but it was enough to go on. It turned out to be correct.

Having turned up nothing via Google, and beginning to suspect that this was either elaborately fabricated or a previously totally unavailable Chesterton essay, I searched for the Daily News itself. The paper merged with another in the 1910s and no longer exists, but a free trial of the British Newspaper Archive allowed me to look at digital scans of its entire archives and the specific issue of the paper noted in the blogger’s post.

And behold:

The  Daily News , August 16, 1905

The Daily News, August 16, 1905

Chesterton’s complete letter to the editor in response to “A Heretic,” and the germ of the oft-repeated misquotation, right there.

As I mentioned, I was flummoxed that this bit of Chesterton lore was unavailable anywhere online, especially since the misquoted version has proved so persistent and vexing. So I’ve transcribed the entire text of the letter and included it below so that the whole thing is available somewhere. I hope having the full text available will prove a good resource for anyone, like me, hunting for the source of that famous story. I’ve included a handful of hyperlinks to things that might clarify some of Chesterton’s allusions or asides.

Like all of Chesterton’s work, it’s amusing and thought-provoking. And despite coming early in his career—three years before his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, five before the book What’s Wrong with the World—and from a lost world—nine years before the First World War!—in many ways as alien to us now as the antebellum South, medieval Britain, or republican Rome, much of his concern is eerily prescient, particularly in an age of religious flabbiness, unease with the status quo, political strife, the squandering of inherited blessings, and increasingly insistent reliance on the State.

This was by no means a difficult bit of detective work—I’m no Father Brown—but I enjoyed the hunt, and I enjoyed reading a new bit of recovered GKC. I hope y’all enjoy and benefit from it as well.

* * * * *

From the Daily News, August 16, 1905

Sir,—I must warmly protest against people mistaking the uneasiness of “A Heretic” for a sort of pessimism. If he were a pessimist he would be sitting in an armchair with a cigar. It is only we optimists who can be angry.

Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would.

One thing, of course, must be said to clear the ground. Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would. Now, I know there is a feeling that Government can do anything. But if Government could do anything, nothing would exist except Government. Men have found the need of other forces. Religion, for instance, existed in order to do what law cannot do—to track crime to its primary sin, and the man to his back bedroom. The Church endeavoured to institute a machinery of pardon; the State has only a machinery of punishment. The State can only free society from the criminal; the Church sought to free the criminal from the crime. Abolish religion if you like. Throw everything on secular government if you like. But do not be surprised if a machinery that was never meant to do anything but secure external decency and order fails to secure internal honesty and peace. If you have some philosophic objection to brooms and brushes, throw them away. But do not be surprised if the use of the County Council water-cart is an awkward way of dusting the drawing-room.

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby. But this original sin belongs to all ages, and is the business of religion. Is there something, as “Heretic” suggests, which belongs to this age specially, and is the business of reform? It is a dark matter, but I will make a suggestion.

Every religion, every philosophy as fierce and popular as a religion, can be regarded either as a thing that binds or a thing that loosens. A convert to Islam (say) can regard himself as one who must no longer drink wine; or he can regard himself as one who need no longer sacrifice to expensive idols. A man passing from the early Hebrew atmosphere to the Christian would find himself suddenly free to marry a foreign wife, but also suddenly and startlingly restricted in the number of foreign wives. It is self-evident, that is, that there is no deliverance which does not bring new duties. It is, I suppose, also pretty evident that a religion which boasted only of its liberties would go to pieces. Christianity, for instance, would hardly have eclipsed Judaism if Christians had only sat in the middle of the road ostentatiously eating pork.

Yet this is exactly what we are all doing now. The last great challenge and inspiration of our Europe was the great democratic movement, the Revolution. Everything popular and modern, from the American President to the gymnasium in Battersea Park, comes out of that. And this Democratic creed, like all others, had its two sides, the emancipation and the new bonds. Men were freed from the dogma of the divine right of Kings, but tied to the new dogma of the divine right of the community. The citizen was not bound to give titles to others, but was bound to refuse titles for himself. The new creed had its saints, like Washington and Hoche; it had its martyrs, it had even its asceticism.

Now to me, the devastating weakness of our time, the sin of the 19th century, was primarily this: That we chose to interpret the Revolution as a mere emancipation. Instead of taking the Revolution as meaning that democracy is the true doctrine, we have taken it as meaning that any doctrine is the true doctrine. Instead of the right-mindedness of the Republican stoics, we have the “broad-mindedness” of Liberal Imperialists. We have taken Liberty, because it is fun; we have left Equality and Fraternity, because they are duties and a nuisance. We have Liberty to be unequal. We have Liberty to be unfraternal. At the last we have Liberty to admire slavery. For this was the just and natural end of our mere “free-thinking”—the Tory Revival. Liberalism was supposed to mean liberty to believe in anything; it soon meant liberty to believe in Toryism. Democracy in losing the austerity of youth and its dogmas has lost all; it tends to be a mere debauch of mental self-indulgence, since by a corrupt and loathsome change, Liberalism has become liberality.—Yours, etc.,

G. K. Chesterton

A warning for conservatives

Abtei im Eichwald , by Caspar David Friedrich

Abtei im Eichwald, by Caspar David Friedrich

While visiting home in Georgia this weekend, my wife and I went to my parents’ church. The sermon came from the Book of Exodus, but an aside from Ecclesiastes caught us both off guard and gave us a lot to think about:

Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
— Ecclesiastes 7:10

For my wife, this brought to mind changes at work, a difficult new generation of students, and a longing for years past, before present troubles. I thought immediately of conservatism—not the political position, but the attitude or temperament that is prior to any particular political idea: a disposition rather than an ideology, according to Michael Oakeshott; a state of mind, an instinct to preserve and maintain, to adhere to tradition and custom, to guarantee continuity, according to Russell Kirk; an understanding that good things are hard to create and easy to destroy, according to Roger Scruton. We could go on much further.

So while I am a conservative, both by temperament and because I agree with the above, I’m not talking about political conservatism, which is in bad shape in the United States anyway. I mean the general disposition, to which even self-described progressives are susceptible, and what I see as its besetting danger.

That danger is what is commonly called nostalgia now: a sentimentalized reverence for a past that—probably—never existed.

This shouldn’t be news—conservatives are accused of nostalgia all the time—but I do wrestle with a longing for a time without our present troubles. There were good things about the past, things it is good to preserve or recover, and there are serious problems at present, problems to which the past may—and I think often does—hold the solutions. But I have to remind myself that while the people of the past may not have had our problems, they had plenty of their own, and there were even then people like me who cast longing backward glances at their own simpler, more peaceful, less troubled pasts. It’s simpler times all the way down.

And there stand the words of the preacher. In the magisterial archaism of the KJV: “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.”

This is not, of course, a resounding endorsement of nostalgia’s opposite error, progressivism—“a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.” And it is good to remember that Ecclesiastes is hardly a straightforward collection of proverbial wisdom. But this passage is a good reminder of the unwisdom of two related mistakes: assuming the past was necessarily better than the present, and using that assumption as an excuse to neglect the present.

Mea culpa. This is a tall order for someone who is both a conservative and an historian, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since.

Food for thought at an obsessively nostalgic time of year. To conclude with a warning against focusing obsessively on the future—a New Year’s warning, perhaps—here’s the Gospel of Matthew:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
— Matthew 6:34

Roger Scruton talks to Jordan Peterson


…or Jordan Peterson talks to Roger Scruton. Depends on which you were more familiar with first, I guess.

I’ve admired Sir Roger Scruton for some time. He’s the most eloquent and thoughtful voice advocating a Burkean conservatism rooted in tradition, prudence, and pietas today, and I owe him a debt for the influence he’s exerted on my own philosophical and—only secondarily—political thinking as I’ve matured. Jordan Peterson I’ve only “discovered” in the last year (as I’ve joked about elsewhere, my first awareness of him was Amazon’s autocomplete while searching for my own books), but I respect him for his intellectual honesty and genuine concern for human flourishing and the truth. While in many ways different men—one an English philosopher of aesthetics devoted to Burke and Kant, one a Canadian clinical psychologist influenced by Jung and Nietzsche—their thinking has several important points of convergence.

Last month, the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism hosted this conversation—entitled “Apprehending the Transcendent”—between philosopher Scruton and Peterson, and it’s those points of convergence or overlap that provide their starting point. In a wide-ranging chat, Scruton and Peterson talk about what “the transcendent” is; the factual and the meaningful; the hermeneutics of suspicion pervading humanities programs; the obsession with power, privilege, and identity that undermines normality, tradition, and the ability of people to relate to and cooperate with one another; the transcendent power of art and especially music; cultural appropriation; and much more.

The latter half of the discussion touches on topics especially near to my heart, including teaching the humanities and the Western tradition as an act of love for one’s students, how to recover a shared understanding of ourselves as all commonly dependent on the transcendent, and the importance of gratitude to… everything. After all, to take it back to Cicero, as I am wont to do, gratitude “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the mother of all others.” Without mentioning Cicero, Scruton and Peterson both elaborate on that theme at some length.

It’s a really magnificent discussion with a lot of substance to it. While I hardly agree with them on everything, one of the reasons I respect both of these men is their facility in explanation. They are excellent communicators. (A striking contrast—Scruton tends to go for a quotation from an authority with a pithy summary that neatly encapsulates what he’s trying to say, while Peterson tends to tell stories from his clinical experience that concretely, and often stingingly, lay out any abstract ideas he’s discussing. Both valid, both interesting.) They also approach all of the topics of their talk from such specific and even idiosyncratic angles—see above—that it couldn’t fail to provoke a reexamination of some of what they were talking about. And it was a lot of fun: a winsome presentation of good ideas by two men who care about those ideas and their relation to the truth. I don’t think it’s widely enough appreciated how funny both Scruton and Peterson are despite—or perhaps because of—their earnestness, and both are in good form here. (Though Scruton’s deadpan burn of modern art in “Why Beauty Matters” is still my favorite one-liner of his.)

I plan to listen to it again sometime soon, but to quote one of the comments on YouTube: “I feel like my brain ran out of RAM.”

Check it out for yourself—it’ll be worth your while, particularly if this will be your introduction to one or both of them.

St. Thomas Aquinas, virtue, and fireplace implements

Coincidental to my post on Thomas Aquinas and charity in debate, I discovered this delightful post from Christ and Pop Culture about my second favorite Thomas story: "How to Practice Virtue (by Chasing Hookers Away with Red-Hot Pokers)." It's a fun introduction to some of the basics of virtue ethics as demonstrated early in the monastic career of the Angelic Doctor. Thomas, who came from a noble family in southern Italy, joined the new and controversial Order of Preachers or "Dominicans" against his family's wishes, so his brothers abducted him, locked him in a tower, and threw a prostitute into the room with him to test his commitment to his vow of chastity. Read the piece to learn how that ended.

I say this is my "second favorite Thomas story"; it used to be my favorite, but the reality of lecturing a classroom of sleepy students on Western Civ at 8:00 AM moved the one I recounted earlier this week—about his startling interruption of a banquet with the king of France—to the top. I usually hold students' interest even if I'm not exactly a flamboyant lecturer, so this story,  the one time I pound on the lectern and shout during the semester, always gets hilarious and entertaining reactions. For me, anyway.

I'm not saying it was aliens

Giorgio Tsoukalos on The History Channel's  Ancient Aliens . The pose that launched  a thousand memes .

Giorgio Tsoukalos on The History Channel's Ancient Aliens. The pose that launched a thousand memes.

This morning I read a very interesting essay at The Atlantic in which the author, after summarizing some widespread beliefs, related scientific data, and modern attempts to reconcile the data with the beliefs, recounts wrestling and coming to terms with his unbelief—in extraterrestrial intelligence. Aliens. 

The title of the piece, by Michael Clune, a professor of English at Case Western University, is "I Don't Believe in Aliens Anymore." Clune's primary interest is in finding meaning and significance in a universe in which humanity, as a conscious intelligence, is alone. And we almost certainly are. Clune notes that:

Humanity shouldn’t be surprised that we haven’t found aliens, because most likely there aren’t any.

Earlier this year, a group at the University of Oxford released a paper arguing that our knowledge of the universe and of math should lead us to assume that intelligent life is most probably an extremely rare event, depending on a series of fortuitous circumstances . . . that are so unlikely as to almost never happen. Humanity shouldn’t be surprised that we haven’t found aliens, because most likely there aren’t any.

This is a realization I had myself some years ago. If, as we are often assured, the chance of intelligent life evolving anywhere is so infinitesimally small, the odds so impossibly long, then how can we assume it has happened more than once? 

But this is, in fact, what a lot of people will say if asked about extraterrestrial life. It's become a platitude: "The universe is so big there just has to be other life out there." Some people even take such questions as an opportunity to show how very 'umble they can be, by turning the question back onto ourselves: "I think it's arrogant to believe we're alone in the universe." But if you accept the premises above—the vast and dangerous complexity of the universe, the fragility of the conditions where life could emerge, and, given everything else, the long odds of life actually appearing and evolving—you must return to the question: If we're alone, now what? 

That's the question that animates Clune's essay, and I recommend reading it. But it was an offhand expression, not even an argument or line of thought, that caught my attention near the end, in this line from the conclusion: "Now looking back on that moment from the perspective of the Oxford study’s revelation, I wonder if giving up gods and aliens will lead people to the weird singularity of the human mind." Gods and aliens, lumped together. This follows from Clune's introduction, in which he posits religion as an earlier, now outmoded attempt by humanity to find a cosmic Other with which to communicate and through which to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. 

I don't know anything about Clune's religious beliefs—if he has any, and he seems to dismiss religion, albeit gently, in his essay—but I am religious, and this passing turn of phrase affirmed something about belief in aliens that also occurred to me some time ago: Belief in aliens is a substitute religion, and aliens are substitute gods.

You don't have to dig far or be intimately familiar with believers to see this, and once you've had that realization, you can't unsee it. Enthusiasts of spiritual esoterica and belief in aliens have a religious fervency and conceive of aliens in very religious ways: guides, protectors, sometimes even creators. The premise of everything from Ancient Aliens to 2001: A Space Odyssey is that aliens are responsible for the greatest human achievements, the greatest human wisdom, and the greatest historical leaps forward. Alien encounters almost always take the structure of a religious experience, so much so that some of the believers who have gone farther down the rabbit hole speculate that religious experiences are in fact alien abductions. The "kinds" of close encounters pretty clearly mirror the kinds of religious experiences people have, whether simply seeing a miracle, having visions, directly encountering saints or angels, more intense encounters that leave physical marks, and, the most awesome of all, being caught up into the heavens for a beatific vision. These encounters change the often unwilling witnesses and they long to reconnect with the intelligences that came to them. One of the most famous alien abduction books, which you may remember being repeatedly shilled on Unsolved Mysteries in the early 90s, is even called Communion.

One way to view these correspondences is as two iterations of the same nonsense, the attitude Clune, more tactfully, seems to assume in his essay. As he writes, "human culture never left the non-secular world behind." Aliens and belief in them "were just a modern version of religious literature." The old temples aren't being torn down; new ones are going up. Whether it's aliens (but I'm not saying it's aliens) or abstractions like humanity, spirituality, nature, Progress or, the ultimate abstraction, the Universe, new gods are crowding in with the old. And aliens and God are hardly mutually exclusive—there are embarrassing Christian spins on all of these things. It may be the most widespread but least noted form of modern religious syncretism.

Spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison
— CS Lewis

Which brings me to my point. I do agree with Clune to an extent, especially about the non-existence of alien life. But I disagree that belief in aliens is simply one more sincere but vain attempt to find meaning through false mythologies; I think belief in aliens bespeaks a deep human need to believe that has gone awry. As CS Lewis put it in an entirely different context, "spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison." 

The answer to UFOs isn't to give up faith in every transcendent belief system as equally erroneous, but to take away the poison of conspiracy theory and substitute truth. That, as it happens, is the path to meaning.

St. Thomas Aquinas on charity in debate

Catholic priests and Eastern Orthodox patriarchs in debate, from a late 13th century manuscript

Catholic priests and Eastern Orthodox patriarchs in debate, from a late 13th century manuscript

From one of St. Thomas's commentaries on Aristotle: 

We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it.

Surprisingly for anyone who believes medieval people all marched in theological lockstep, in ideological thrall to the Pope, one of the most cherished methods of education during the Middle Ages was debate. This passion for debate included not only debates before audiences (but with considerably more intellectual rigor than our political "debates" now) but debates carried on by correspondence. Debate was, in a way, part of one's own education, as students often had to argue opposing sides of issues using set texts like the Sentences of Peter Lombard. This was the purpose of his contemporary Abelard's Sic et Non, which set conflicting opinions of the Church Fathers against one another with the student's task being to argue both sides and/or resolve the seeming conflict. Not everyone received Abelard's book enthusiastically, especially since Abelard burned a lot of bridges during his career, but such a project—using preexisting authorities, compiling glosses, adding commentary, and, throughout it all, debating—was typical of medieval education.

thomas aquinas.jpg

Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) was himself no mean debater. As a student and teacher at the Universities of Paris and Cologne, he both hosted and participated in debates and wrote extensively in preparation for them. His Disputed Questions on Truth is one such work, in which Thomas introduces a controversial topic like predestination, knowledge, justification, or the relation between human choice and God's will, considers them from multiple angles, proposes his own answers, anticipates responses and answers those, and, via dialectic, works his way toward the truth of the topic in question.

This format, the posing of thesis and antithesis in a disputatio, was itself a form of debate and mirrored the disputationes of the medieval university. Thomas wrote most of his heavy theological and philosophical work this way, including his magnum opus, the unfinished Summa Theologica, and his Summa contra Gentiles, apparently an apologetic work meant to help Christians both defend their faith and present it to Muslims in understandable terms. Thomas's use of the disputatio makes for incredibly tedious reading, but that reading will also be profoundly instructive if one sticks with it. It takes a serious amount of intellectual honesty and—to use a buzzword—empathy to work this way, presenting the strongest arguments of one's opponents rather than setting up armies of straw men to knock down. One has to respect one's opponents to work this way. It requires the virtue of charity.

Thomas took debate seriously, especially when theological truth was on the line. One of the weightiest issues of his day was the Cathar heresy, a revival of the dualistic Manichean spiritualism of late antiquity. Briefly, the Cathars held that one's spirit is pure, the material world—including one's own body—was evil, and only by purifying oneself of attachment to the world and its attendant appetites could one be saved. (This heresy has by no means been expunged from modern Christianity, by the way. How many people do you know who look forward to release from "this body" and "eternity in heaven" instead of the resurrection?) The founder of Thomas's order, St. Dominic, traveled through the area of southern France where Catharism had most firmly taken root and repeatedly debated Cathar leaders.

The controversy continued into Thomas's day. According to a famous anecdote, when Thomas was invited to a banquet with Louis IX, the Crusader king of France, he sat mostly silent through dinner, apparently lost in thought. Suddenly, long after the partygoers had gotten used to his silence, Thomas pounded on the table and shouted, "And that will settle the Manichees!" Supposedly, Louis had a secretary fetched so Thomas could get his idea down while it was still fresh.

The story may or may not be apocryphal, but it illustrates something true about Thomas: the debate was never far from his mind, and the more serious the disputed question the more that was the case. But again—this care for the debate was always infused with charity. Charity was not, to Thomas, mere affection or the bundle of feelings and lusts that passes for love today, but specifically the habit of "friendship of man for God" which unites man to God, who is charity. This divine friendship, as God works through us, reflects like sunlight off of us onto those around us:

The aspect under which our neighbor is to be loved, is God, since what we ought to love in our neighbor is that he may be in God. Hence it is clear that it is specifically the same act whereby we love God, and whereby we love our neighbor. Consequently the habit of charity extends not only to the love of God, but also to the love of our neighbor.

Loving your neighbor is loving God. So debate, but debate charitably, because bringing your neighbor to the truth is the loving thing to do. After all, that's what God is doing to us.

Abelard offers an instructive counterexample. Famous for his arrogance, Abelard was seldom content to defeat someone in debate on points—he wanted an intellectual knockout. He tried to humiliate his opponents and pointedly criticized major theologians and philosophers, including his old teachers, saying of one that he was famous out "of long established custom" and not because of "the potency of his own talent or intellect." After impregnating a student, whose relatives caught and castrated him, Abelard fled to the Abbey of St. Denis outside Paris—until he insulted the abbot and fled again. For the rest of his life, he resurrected old controversies and picked new fights. Like Galileo, who also provoked most of the hostility he encountered himself by being rude and pigheaded, Abelard found himself accused of heresy and facing excommunication by the time he died. A number of Abelard's ideas, particularly his dabbling in rationalist deconstructions of the Trinity, would still have put him beyond the pale doctrinally speaking, but his reception may have been warmer—more forgiving, more charitable—had he practiced a little charity himself.

I reflected a few weeks ago on the difference between quarreling and arguing. I think charity is the difference; it's the oil that reduces friction and overheating. We might be tempted simply to disengage, to shut off the engine, but that's a mistake. The truth is real and worth pursuing, and it's worth persuading others to join you in the pursuit—what's the point of debate if not to persuade? Charity makes debate, rather than screaming, tribalism, and virtue signalling, possible. Assume the best of your opponents, assume their good faith, and always give them yours.

If we can learn anything from Thomas right now, we can start there.

Richard Weaver on toughness and heroism

From Weaver's great Ideas Have Consequences, published in 1948, seventy years ago:

Since he who longs to achieve does not ask whether the seat is soft or the weather at a pleasant temperature, it is obvious that hardness is a condition of heroism.

This passage comes from a chapter entitled "The Spoiled-Child Psychology," in which Weaver documents the degeneration of virtue in the modern world and ascribes our afflictions, crises, and upheavals to an essentially immaturity: a discontent, a raving for a norm of comfort and self-fulfillment that is both unattainable and–the real root of the problem–materialistic. Without the transcendental, an idea he develops later in the same chapter, heroism is meaningless struggle and discomfort. And with the transcendental stripped out of our cultural imagination–so that every human endeavor is nothing but economics, or competition for resources, or, our explanation du jour, simple power–all we can do with the leftovers is squabble like toddlers over the choicest bits.

Richard M. Weaver (1910-63)

Richard M. Weaver (1910-63)

I don't entirely agree with some of Weaver's diagnoses. He sees Aristotle as part of the problem, for instance, which is a notion I vehemently disagree with. But few writers have lamented the modern world as thoughtfully or eloquently or with as little hysteria or mordant self-pity as Weaver did in Ideas Have Consequences.

The quotation above, in a bit more of its context. Note Weaver's explicit references to World War II as symptomatic–even on the Allied side: 

The trend continues, and in a modern document like the Four Freedoms one sees comfort and security embodied in canons. For the philosophic opposition, that is of course proper, because fascism taught the strenuous life. But others with spiritual aims in mind have taught it too. Emerson made the point: "Heroism, like Plotinus, is almost ashamed of its body. What shall it say, then, to the sugar plums and cat's cradles, to the toilet, compliments, quarrels, cards, and custard, which rack the wit of all human society?" Since he who longs to achieve does not ask whether the seat is soft or the weather at a pleasant temperature, it is obvious that hardness is a condition of heroism. Exertion, self-denial, endurance, these make the hero, but to the spoiled child they connote the evil of nature and the malice of man. 

The modern temper is losing the feeling for heroism even in war, which used to afford the supreme theme for celebration of this virtue. 

I last read Ideas Have Consequences four or five years ago and have been meaning to reread it since. Do check it out–it's a short, punchy book full of challenging ideas, and it will be well worth your time. Weaver's Southern Essays is also a wonderful collection on a favorite topic of mine, and also worth reading. You will also see a quotation from Weaver as an epigraph to my soon to be released Civil War novel Griswoldville.

A warning for fellow bookworms

From Leftism, by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a word of caution to those with lots of theories and little experience:

The distance of a bookworm from reality can be considerable.

Kuehnelt-Leddihn is making this point to explain the failure of Karl Marx's theories to come true, the failure of Marxists once they come to power, and more broadly why revolutionaries tend to be bourgeois autodidacts or pure cranks rather than actual members of the classes they claim to represent. Those oppressed peoples–be they the workers, the peasants, or something else–are too busy in the real world for sloganeering. Plumbers rarely throw bombs at the Tsar's troops. College dropouts often do. And once they come to power, millions starve precisely because of this teething problem in their intellectual-real world transmission.

I include myself in this word of caution. Work with the concrete. Avoid abstractions. Get out in the world and get dirty. It's good for your intellectual immune system.