Cicero on bad leaders

Detail from  Cicero Denounces Catiline , by Cesare Maccari, 1888

Detail from Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari, 1888

From Cicero’s philosophical dialogue De Legibus (On the Laws), Book III, XIV:

Corrupt leaders are all the more pernicious to the republic because not only do they harbor their own vices but they spread them among the citizenry; they do harm not only because they are themselves corrupt but because they corrupt others—and they do more harm by the example they set than by their own transgressions.

Let the reader understand.

I expand on thoughts like these in fictional form in The Last Day of Marcus Tullius Cicero, which I wrote in the summer of 2016 and has only grown more starkly relevant since. But be forewarned—my vision in that book is neither a partisan one (whoever you think I’m thinking about as I write this post, it’s not them) nor a hopeful one.

Jefferson on ignorance and freedom


This morning I happened across this quotation from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Charles Yancey, a Virginia state legislator, in January 1816, seven years after leaving office as president to return to private life back home in Virginia:

if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.
— Thomas Jefferson, January 6, 1816

The whole letter is quite remarkable, a blend of commentary on mundane Albemarle County infrastructure projects (a dam project that could wreck property values and the navigability of a river); his fervent hopes that an acquaintance named Captain Miller will be able to open a brewery nearby (both for his own enjoyment and for humanitarian purposes: “I wish to see this beverage become common instead of the whiskey which kills one third of our citizens and ruins their families”); and some quite pointed—and still relevant—observations about the early 19th century mania for banking:

Like a dropsical man calling out for water, water, our deluded citizens are clamoring for more banks, more banks. the American mind is now in that state of fever which the world has so often seen in the history of other nations. . . . we are now taught to believe that legerdemain tricks upon paper can produce as solid wealth as hard labor in the earth. it is vain for common sense to urge that nothing can produce but nothing: that it is an idle dream to believe in a philosopher’s stone which is to turn every thing into gold, and to redeem man from the original sentence of his maker that ‘in the sweat of his brow shall he eat his bread.’

But the most striking portions of the letter come near the end, when Jefferson reflects on the prospects of funding improvements not just in roads and canals (the big infrastructure craze before railroads), but in education. He theorizes about a minor tax that could help fund education at every level, including a projected college which would later become the University of Virginia, and criticizes the fanaticism bred in students after they leave to study in New England universities. (The more things change…) Jefferson:

if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be. the functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. there is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.

I am less sanguine than Jefferson—a hopeless Enlightenment rationalist who did not believe in original sin or any of the doctrines that traditionally imparted a salutary dose of reality to ambitious moral improvers—about the power of the press and of education, and have a hard time knowing which it would be more foolish to place much hope in. But Jefferson is exactly right that in a system such as ours, it’s up to the citizenry to defend themselves against abuse of the powers they have granted to their government. Republics run on such tensions.

I don’t think I have to argue that we’ve failed. By Jefferson’s lights, we are now and have for a long time been asking the impossible.

And education does have a role to play, especially if we hope to recover some of the republican virtues and liberties the Founders assumed were necessary to maintaining freedom. (See Jefferson’s friend John Adams on this point here.) After all, the purpose of liberal education is to train free people—citizens. It’s precisely that vision informing Jefferson’s comments above.

You can read this quotation with a bit more context here or the letter in its entirety here. You can even peruse Jefferson’s original, with a helpful transcription, here. The portion I’ve quoted has sometimes been shared with a spurious additional line or two about citizens being informed. I think this probably began as a gloss on Jefferson’s original and got lumped in with his actual words, as is the wont of internet quotation. You can read about that at Monticello’s page on spurious, corrupted, or misattributed Jefferson quotations here.

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.

Chesterton on controversy

…or the lack thereof. Alan Jacobs, in a post called “insincere controversialists” at his blog Snakes and Ladders, brought this passage from What’s Wrong With the World back to my attention this morning:

GKC 1904.jpg

Genuine controversy, fair cut and thrust before a common audience, has become in our special epoch very rare. For the sincere controversialist is above all things a good listener. The really burning enthusiast never interrupts; he listens to the enemy’s arguments as eagerly as a spy would listen to the enemy’s arrangements. But if you attempt an actual argument with a modern paper of opposite politics, you will find that no medium is admitted between violence and evasion. You will have no answer except slanging or silence. A modern editor must not have that eager ear that goes with the honest tongue. He may be deaf and silent; and that is called dignity. Or he may be deaf and noisy; and that is called slashing journalism. In neither case is there any controversy; for the whole object of modern party combatants is to charge out of earshot.

I’ve quoted a selection from this passage here before, in “Chesterton on arguing,” about his more charitable approach to arguing, back last summer. Chesterton published What’s Wrong With the World in 1910—four years before the First World War, in a different world entirely—but the situation has only deteriorated in the eleven intervening decades.

Without being too topical, and trying not to pick on any one person or group (for there is none righteous), I intentionally ignored the State of the Union Address last night. I had more important and meaningful things to do—children to feed and take care of, an old friend to meet up with, a wife to talk to, books to read. But I couldn’t help noticing that, all afternoon, the News app on my phone desperately wanted me to read some selections from Stacey Abrams’s forthcoming rebuttal to the forthcoming State of the Union. With assertions and responses already thus prearranged, with the “party combatants” thus arrayed for battle, would anyone actually be listening to the speech? Or to the other side at all?

I don’t think I have to provide an answer. Don’t bother listening to your opponents—which would actually be engaging with them—but valiantly attack into the safe space of your ideological bubble and give bold speeches about your side’s bravery and the enemy’s duplicity. I can’t improve on Chesterton’s wonderful phrase above:

there [is no] controversy; for the whole object of modern party combatants is to charge out of earshot.

Despite everything you see on the news—and, God help us, social media—we don’t actually have much controversy any more, but it’s not for lack of noise and strife. Our politics and combat are noisy because we’ve lost the ability to listen.

A sick man's appetite

Epic entrance: Ralph Fiennes as Gaius Marcius confronts the plebs in Fiennes’s film adaptation of  Coriolanus

Epic entrance: Ralph Fiennes as Gaius Marcius confronts the plebs in Fiennes’s film adaptation of Coriolanus

Kevin Williamson wrote an interesting piece recently on the acquiescence of major news organizations to the realities of Twitter mobs. He begins with a meditation on one of Shakespeare’s less well known plays, Coriolanus, and the amazing entrance of its title character, the Roman general Gaius Marcius Coriolanus.

In Scene I, Act I, Coriolanus confronts an angry mob of plebeians— “mutinous Citizens” armed “with staves, clubs, and other weapons,” according to Shakespeare’s stage directions—who threaten to riot over the price of bread. Though hostile to Coriolanus—no more than five lines into the play they call him the “chief enemy to the people”—upon his appearance they hail him as “noble Marcius.” Already having the measure of the mob, he responds with a putdown, and when their leaders say “We have ever your good word,” trying to initiate an exchange of flattery, Coriolanus launches into the first of his several short but savage speeches:

He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: You are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offence subdues him
And curse that justice did it. Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favors swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What's the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another? What's their seeking?

Williamson’s interest in his piece, prompted by this New York Times article and especially journalist Masha Gessen’s comments in it, is the capitulation of news organizations to social media mobs. The “morality clauses” discussed there seem to be—by the most charitable interpretation I’m capable of—legal mechanisms for covering a news organization’s butt, at the expense of its writers, in the event of a Twitter outrage mob. While I agree this is a risible, even craven trend which will only encourage online rabblerousers and Williamson argues his point eloquently, something else in Coriolanus’s introductory speech, something related but tangential to Williamson’s angle, stuck with me.

Near the middle of his harangue, Coriolanus tells the mob of angry citizens that “your affections are / A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that / Which would increase his evil.”

Can there be any better metaphor for our social media addiction?

Barring the word addiction itself—which is more literal than metaphorical now anyway—I don’t think so. We have a lot of electronic opiates available to us—games, memes, videos, gossip, pornography, and more, all of it soaked in one form of satisfied self-affirmation or another and a retreat from the world. But the most dangerous electronic drug has to be outrage, because unlike any of those others it imparts to the addict a sense of purpose and moral uprightness and, worst, an illusion of caring about the real world. And the more we indulge, the worse it gets.

I’ve been mulling over two examples for some time: one recent, one ancient history (by internet standards).

The first is last weekend’s Covington Catholic incident at the March for Life in Washington, DC, a story everyone, whether they like it or not, should be familiar with. I can’t add much to the discussion there—the misinformation, the superheated Twitter mob, the public pillorying, the death threats were all despicable, the more so for being a kneejerk reaction—but keep this example in mind.

The second example I observed by accident on Facebook a few months ago. A post from a Florida sheriff’s department popped up in my newsfeed because a friend from college—a Florida native serving in the Marines—commented on it. The headline was certainly attention grabbing: a Florida man (“Har har,” says the entire Internet instantaneously) had been reported to and arrested by this heroic sheriff’s department after he was observed having sex with a miniature horse. He immediately confessed. The post included details, a mugshot of the offender (a pretty ordinary looking 21-year old man), and—of course—a picture of the horse.

Fortunately, before simply clicking away in disgust, I decided to see what my friend had written in the comments. There were hundreds, and the story had been shared and “liked” nearly a thousand times. He asked, pretty simply, why the sheriff’s department was bothering to publicize this story. As replies stacked up under his comment, I realized there was more to the story than the sensationalism provided by the sheriff’s department: the suspect had severe mental handicaps requiring medication and had lived alone since his mother’s suicide.

In response to my friend’s honest and justifiably pointed “Why?” one commenter wrote: “To let us know what is going on I’d assume.” His reply: “What does this news do for you?”

What I realized in observing this exchange was that a sick man, having already lived through 21 years of difficulty and pain, was being paraded to the public by the authorities for clicks. What’s worse, as the responses to my friend made clear, the prurient Facebookers could justify their leering and hooting by invoking a vague “right to know.” The Victorians had their freak shows, something that should turn the stomachs of all of us; but we have Facebook, and we’re ready with the “likes.” Our response to a real life tragedy converted to electronic stimulus is mere consumption. The tiny number of commenters who were actually familiar with the situation expressed only sympathy, not outrage, disgust, or Bojack Horseman memes.

To return to Covington Catholic and the incident at the Lincoln Memorial, the best piece I’ve read so far on that debacle is this short essay by Julie Irwin Zimmerman at The Atlantic. Zimmerman was among the outraged as the story developed last weekend. She even began castigating her own kids—tellingly, via text message—about the story as it developed. Within two days, as a fuller picture emerged, her view changed and to her credit she repented. She writes:

Take away the video and tell me why millions of people care so much about an obnoxious group of high-school students protesting legalized abortion and a small circle of American Indians protesting centuries of mistreatment who were briefly locked in a tense standoff. Take away Twitter and Facebook and explain why total strangers care so much about people they don’t know in a confrontation they didn’t witness. Why are we all so primed for outrage, and what if the thousands of words and countless hours spent on this had been directed toward something consequential?

The same sentiment my friend had expressed, two months later and in entirely different circumstances. If there’s an upside to this shameful display, it’s that it's very publicity could make it a widely understood example, something we can learn from. But I doubt it.

Williamson, for his part, published a complementary piece this week that unpacks a little bit of what keeps the outrage snowball rolling: self-radicalization, self-selection (creating bubbles or echo chambers), extremism, and, perhaps most crucially, the absence of a hierarchy of credibility. “[T]he only hierarchy that remains,” he writes, “is the crude hierarchy of popularity.” Think of the likes, shares, and jocular comments on that pitiful personal tragedy in Florida trumpeted to the masses on a sheriff’s Facebook page. “Rage and extremism build audiences, especially on social media.” Think of Covington Catholic—or any one of hundreds of similar examples in the last few years. Anyone remember Justine Sacco?

And while it would be tempting, especially for those of us inclined to Luddism, to blame Twitter or smartphones, the truth is that we can’t just blame our technology “The news is there for people who want it,” Williamson writes. “The problem is: Most don’t.” We have to want the right things, and we don’t.

We are, as we try very hard to forget, the real problem. Shakespeare, through Coriolanus, anticipated this. “What’s the matter,” he asks in that first speech,

That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another?

The urge to outrage and mob violence and scapegoating is always there, but the beliefs, institutions, and practices that keep those urges at bay—religion, family, honor, government, law enforcement, established and credible news sources, personal virtue—are not, as we’ve learned. We are no longer awed by anything. How could we be? We have spent decades tearing them down and enjoying it. Now we live for our fix, to give in to our appetites. We’re sick. And absent a recovery of the qualities that keep our will to gawk, to leer, and to participate in others’ public calamities, we will only increase our evil.

As more and more examples make clear, the mutinous citizens, armed with their phones and Twitter and Facebook accounts, are more than willing to feed on one another.

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.

The Early Church on City of Man Podcast

Yesterday the latest installment of the City of Man Podcast’s Ancient Asides series, in which I and regular host Coyle Neal discuss Roman political history, posted online. In this episode, Coyle and I discuss the first generations of Christianity as this obscure Eastern movement developed into a large new religion under the heel of Rome. You can listen here via the embedded Stitcher player, or on iTunes or any number of other fine podcasting apps. You can read our brief shownotes and reading recommendations at the Christian Humanist Radio Network homepage, here.

I always have a great time talking to Coyle, and this is an interesting and important topic, especially as we press forward in Roman history and the Empire begins to change. Enjoy!


Last night my wife and I watched Chappaquiddick. I’d been curious about the movie since I first heard of it last year and had hoped to catch it in theaters earlier this year but never got the chance. I’m glad I finally saw it—it was worth the wait.


Chappaquiddick dramatizes one week in the summer of 1969—the same week, coincidentally, that Apollo 11 launched, reached the moon, and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon’s surface. The weekend of the launch, Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy attended a party with several friends and staffers and “the Boiler Room Girls,” young secretaries who had worked on his elder brother Bobby’s abortive presidential campaign. (By the time of the events depicted in Chappaquiddick, Bobby had been dead just over a year.) Late in the evening, Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year old secretary, left the party. About an hour and a half later, Kennedy drove off a bridge into a tidal pond. The car flipped and came to rest on its hood and roof, upside down in the water. Kennedy got out—how remains unclear—walked back to the party without attempting to get help from any houses he passed, and enlisted the aid of friends Joe Gargan and Paul Markham. After attempting to get into the partially submerged car, Gargan and Markham told Kennedy he should contact the authorities immediately and rowed him across the channel to Edgartown, where Kennedy went to his hotel room and went to bed. He didn’t contact the police until 10:00, by which time the car and Kopechne’s body had been discovered. The subsequent scandal consumed much of the next week and threatened to end Kennedy’s career.

The film dramatizes all of this in an unsensational, straightforward style that only makes it more powerful. Its cinematography, editing, design, and costuming are just right, nailing a feel of period authenticity without overindulging in 1960s clichés. It feels authentic and the time period carefully informs the plot—several characters bring up the Apollo 11 landing as a potentially useful distraction.

The film is interestingly cast, but all of the actors work well in their parts. Ed Helms (The Office’s Andy Bernard) plays Joe Gargan, an old Kennedy friend, “the only brother I have left,” according to Ted, who becomes disillusioned as a result of the carefully stage-managed scandal. Gargan is the soul of the film and Helms plays him well, as a loyalist whose conscience hasn’t completely calcified, and who pays a price for it. Jim Gaffigan, America’s favorite comedian, plays US Attorney Paul Markham, one of the two men Kennedy first trusted his story with. One especially interesting choice is Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption’s Byron Hadley) as Robert McNamara. Brown makes the weedy nerd, who tried to run the Vietnam war on stats, into a powerfully intimidating presence. (See below.) Bruce Dern as Joe Kennedy, Ted’s wheelchair-bound father, is especially good with just a handful of scenes and barely three lines. Of all the characters who hold Ted in contempt, it’s Dern’s Joe Kennedy that packs the hardest punch.

The star, and the performer who makes the whole thing work, is Aussie actor Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy. Clarke’s Kennedy is profoundly galling—a cocktail of impotent resentment and entitlement, vulnerability and grandstanding, loyalty and bottomless dishonesty. He’s also stupid. Some stretches of the middle of the film play like black comedy, as if this were a real life political scandal created by the Coen brothers. Kennedy claims to have a concussion and to be on sedatives. “Did anyone actually consult a doctor?” one of his staffers says when a New York Times reporter immediately sniffs out the deception. When old Kennedy stalwarts enter the picture to lend their help to “protect the senator”—a phrase that grows creepier the more it is repeated—genuinely capable men like Robert McNamara seem barely able to conceal their disdain for Kennedy, especially as his lies and miscalculations begin to pile up.

Chappaquiddick’s Ted Kennedy lives in the shadow of three older brothers, all dead, all more favored by his once powerful father Joe, and while the film makes this clear right from the opening credits, it doesn’t attempt to make this an explanation or excuse. It’s simply part of who Ted Kennedy is, as much as his sailboat regattas and faithful buttkissers, and what the film dramatizes is how he chooses to live with that.

What we see him do is avoid reality by walking away from the accident and refusing to report it for nine hours, shift blame by laying the burden to report the accident on Gargan and Markham, and scramble to place his contradictory half-truths and lies in the order most advantageous to him. While he talks a lot about doing “the right thing,” it’s only talk. He even comes close to using the phrase “alternative facts” at one point and, at the end, offhandedly says “I don’t know what’s right anymore.” And he never passes up an opportunity to make the death of Mary Jo Kopechne through his own negligence about broader systemic problems, about his family’s legacy, about him. When he asks Gargan to prepare a resignation for him ahead of a live TV statement, he discards it and instead tries to raise political support from his viewers. Kopechne’s parents watch in silence.

And that team of capable people does rally to protect the senator. From the local sheriff to insiders in the Massachusetts DMV to former cabinet members, a Yankee good ol’ boy network comes to the aid of this shortsighted, petulant, deceitful man-child and tries to help him escape the consequences of his actions. It’s as well-crafted a depiction of the rot in our political system as we’re likely to get, so we should learn from it.

But, importantly, it’s not just a story of a crooked politician and the mafia-like cabal of enablers that kept him in office, it’s a story about the voters. The film’s sting is in its finale, as archival man-on-the-street interviews show Massachusetts voters considering the story and, mostly, saying that they would reelect Kennedy. And they did, over and over again.

Chappaquiddick’s most important lesson seems, to me, to be that while political corruption is inevitable, and there will always be Ted Kennedys, the reason it’s inevitable and the reason they stick around is because we allow them to. Gargan, Markham, McNamara, and the others were the most visible parts of the coverup, but Ted Kennedy’s real enablers were us.

Talking John Birch with Sectarian Review

Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper in  Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Hot on the heels of our discussion of Alex Jones on the Sectarian Review Podcast, I rejoin Danny—and old podcasting compatriot Jay Eldred—for a chat about the John Birch Society. We cover its Cold War origins, its ejection from mainstream conservatism in the early 1960s, the patterns it set for conspiracist political perspectives down to the present, and the real John Birch—a man whose complicated and fascinating story was eventually lost in the mix of partisan politics and paranoid rhetoric. Great talk. Hope y’all enjoy!

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.

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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.