Thursday, December 31, 2015

Book Awards – 2015

As we prepare once more to greet the two-faced Janus, we mortals also tend to look both backward and forward. Among the good things of this past year, I’m most thankful for my daughter’s move to Tennessee, my successful cancer surgery, and our driving trip to St. John’s Newfoundland. (Driving, mind you!) Coming up next year are a trip to Ireland (we decided not to drive there, though) and full retirement in December 2016. But of course having a Ten-Year Reading Plan prompt me to think back over the last twelve months of books and to anticipate the next twelve. As I’ve done for several years now, I offer my retrospective in the form of awards.

Hall of Fame: Charles Dickens
I used to think that if I didn’t place Dickens in his own honorific category, no one else could ever win the Best Reread. But I found this year that I’m perfectly happy announcing a four-way tie in that category.

Best New Read, Religion: Pascal, The Provincial Letters
Although his Pensées is one of my very favorite books, I had to put down Pascal’s Provincial Letters unfinished when its turn came up in the original ten-year plan that came with my Britannica Great Books set. And I find it very difficult to give up on a book; I’ve probably done it only three or four times in my whole life. But this year as I enjoyed the rest of these public letters, I couldn’t figure out how I lost interest the first time. Maybe it helped that my reading schedule has kept the Reformation on one of the closest back burners for several months. As Pascal exposes “Christian” theological theories that bribery is not sinful, that receiving forgiveness doesn’t require contrition, and that loving God is not necessary for salvation, you’d think he was writing satire except that he offered quotation after quotation from actually published books.

Best New Read, History: Foner, The Fiery Trial
Eric Foner understands that our country’s oldest and most persistent problem can’t be effectively treated in the sound bytes of postmodern politics. Through extensive quotations and careful analysis of historical context, the author does an amazing job setting out and balancing the delicate nuances of Lincoln’s feelings, thoughts, judgments, words, and actions concerning race relations and slavery. While the Great Emancipator didn’t have a twenty-first-century liberal view of race in America, it is a relief to find him consistently and emphatically denouncing American slavery as an unmitigated evil over all the decades of his public life. The high point of the book came when Foner distinguished feeling and belief and then made it clear that Lincoln valued the latter over the former, a point that I don’t normally encounter in any writing after, say, 1800.

Best Payoff for the Wait: Malory
In contrast to my experience with The Provincial Letters, when I put down Morte d’Arthur unfinished years ago, I knew I’d get back to it, and I knew I’d love it. I didn’t know it would take thirty years to get back to it, and I didn’t know I would love the last part as much as I do. The book starts out being really good, and then when Galahad and the story of the Grail shows up, it gets great. When the surprises in that story play out, though, it becomes something even greater than great. I didn’t see Malory’s tale of the knights of the Round Table on any Great Books list when I drew up my schedule ten years ago; I just planned it because I like King Arthur. Now I’m wondering how no one else recognizes this deeply moving classic.

Biggest Disappointment: Bede
I thought that by reading Bede, I’d read an inspiring history of the early Church in England. But in books II and III, Bede reveals an axe that I don’t care to see ground: the monk known as the Venerable wants to make it clear that the Celts, because they calculate the date of Easter differently from the English, are rude and barbaric. Hey, Bede, in the words of Paul, “One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?”

Most Changed Author: Hume
I learned in college about Hume’s far-reaching skepticism. I’ve read about his skepticism. I’ve read Hume himself and thought he was a skeptic, although it seemed clear to me that he was uncomfortable with his skepticism. But after reading Hume this year, I came away convinced that he fully believed that we should trust our senses, believe in God, and pursue science. All he was skeptical of, it seems to me now, is reason as the basis for these assurances.

Most Challenging Nonfiction: Lewis, “Christianity and Culture”
When C. S. Lewis starts wondering what good it does anyone for him to teach culture, the dimmer mind in this lesser professor has to sit up and take notice.

Best Return Visit: (tie) Lord of the Rings, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote, Orthodoxy
Why did I plan four of my very favorite books for the same year? Maybe, when I drew up my ten-year plan a decade ago, I put them all in year 9 thinking of each them (at four different times spread over several weeks, no doubt) that I should read new things and difficult things before I indulge myself – and then couldn’t bear to put any of them off all the way to year 10. If books were food and chocolate were completely nourishing, these four books would be chocolate to me.

Best Offroading: A History of the World in 6 Glasses
I learned something new and fascinating in almost every paragraph. I didn’t know that beer had so much to do with the beginnings of writing. I didn’t know that Enlightenment philosophers considered coffee vital to their discussions and thinking. I didn’t know that Coca-Cola is so closely associated with the U.S. that Pepsi often finds ready foreign markets in countries that don’t like us.

Tomorrow I begin the last year of my ten-year reading plan. It’s the weirdest, most extensive self-educating plan I’ve ever heard of, and I’ve reached the 90% mark right on schedule. Oh, wait. I remember now reading that Thomas Edison vowed as a boy to read every book in his library. Oh! And there’s the classic Twilight Zone episode where the avid reader finds himself the only survivor of the holocaust. I watched that episode recently, and I couldn’t believe how much I resembled Burgess Meredith’s character. Not only does he love Dickens; he lays out stacks of books on the steps of the library and arranges them according to the year he plans to read them. If I want to finish my plan next December, I guess I’d better not break my glasses!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol – 2015

I’ve written a post about lyrics to favorite Christmas carols every December for several years now. (Here are links to the posts from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.) And it’s hard to believe I haven’t said anything yet about “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” since it’s one of my very favorite hymns from the Season. First of all, when else in life do you have the chance to sing the word “natal”? (If one former pastor had had his way, we wouldn’t have sung the word at all: he wanted to nix the song from the church services that year because, he thought, no one understood that word. I pointed out to him that everyone who had every been involved with prenatal care understood the word just fine. So he relented, but as he did he gave me a look as if he had just fallen for a trick but couldn’t quite put his finger on it.)

Far more important to me than the word “natal,” though, are the single words that begin verses 2, 3, and 4: “shepherds,” “sages,” and “saints.” Here we have the three types of people (connected by a handy alliteration) who, according to the accounts of Matthew and Luke, recognized the King of Creation in the Baby. But it occurred to me several years ago that these groups also represent a trifold division of all humanity: people in industry, farming, or the military (shepherds); people in education, politics, or law (sages); and clergy (saints). Everyone gets a verse!

I can even apply each of the monikers to myself at different times: when I’m working with my hands, when I’m working with my mind, and when I’m worshiping. Each of these activities can and does bring me closer to God in its own way. But James Montgomery’s hymn alerts us that God may interrupt any of these human activities that we devote to Him from time to time, breaking in to reveal Himself in a more magnificent way. Sometimes shepherds hear about a Baby who will tend them the way they tend their sheep. Sometimes sages see a star that shines through their studies more gloriously than any of their own brightest ideas. And sometimes worshipers who go to church to serve God are reminded that it’s really God’s Church, and that service only truly happens when He attends.

I want to say a little something about “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted,” even though airs from Handel’s Messiah aren’t actually carols. Messiah isn’t even actually a Christmas piece: the German who wrote Italian operas for the English composed this work to perform for the Irish during Lent. But the first part of the oratorio rehearses prophecies of the Messiah’s advent, so we do rightly associate this section with the nativity season, and I listen to it every December.

Handel lived at a time when composers used special techniques to make their music express their words more clearly, elicit the proper emotions in the listeners, or even draw pictures of things mentioned in the text. This last technique, identified as “text painting” in every undergraduate survey of music history, pervades the melody “Ev’ry Valley.” As you listen to it, notice how the melody climbs gradually up and up during the long melisma on the second syllable of the word “exalted” (on that word’s second and fourth appearances anyway). You won’t be surprised then when the tenor reaches the bottom of his range as every mountain and hill are made “low.” You might want to trace the shape of the next part of the melody with your finger to better experience the picture drawn during the phrase “the crooked straight”: / \ / \ ______. Pretty nifty, huh? The word “crooked” is sung with a crooked melody, and the word [absurdly obvious end of sentence deleted]. Now that you’ve learned all about text painting, you might want to try out your new analytical skills on “The People that Walked in Darkness” (probably track 11 on your recording of Messiah). What shape are the paths in the land of darkness?

Here’s wishing us all happy listening and reading during the Holiday!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Lord, Keep My Memory Green

It is logically certain that since Charles Dickens befriended all mankind, he also became my friend, myself being a part of mankind and providing the minor premise in the syllogism. Dickens’s visits to our home are always momentous occasions. Joyous anticipation surrounds all the preparations and mounts until the moment the Great Man knocks on the door. He enters dramatically, of course, swinging off his cape and starting a story before anyone has a chance to utter greetings. Friends of the friend of all mankind become accustomed to the whirlwind of his presence. His personality has far too much intensity for intimate conversation, just as the sun shines too brightly to allow a direct glimpse. It is enough to know that Scrooge’s master is at my elbow in spirit throughout the rest of the year.

I hope I’m not alone in wishing that the bounteous grace furnished by A Christmas Carol could be multiplied by finding it in other Dickens Christmas books. I know that hundreds of thousands of readers from the 1840s shared my hopeful longing. But any who read the rest of the Christmas novellas must admit in the end that none of the other four even come close. The Chimes is to A Christmas Carol as a turkey sandwich is to Christmas dinner: one follows naturally from the other but, tasty as it is, comes with none of the magical glow of the original feast.

Still, I vaguely remember thinking, after reading all five sometime in the 1980s, that The Haunted Man claimed second place and could delight, teach, and move any reader who could sequester the thought that it didn’t hold up next to its predecessor. And now thirty years later, I’ve confirmed that assessment. I don’t know how much I could have appreciated The Haunted Man’s virtues in my twenties, but today I can sympathize with the melancholy Mr. Redlaw, whose own brooding self haunts him, hovering darkly over his shoulder and urging him to rehearse his sorrowful memories. If only Redlaw could be released from his obsession with the past!

The utterance of the wish launches the main story. The ghostly doppelgänger, playing Clarence to Redlaw’s George Bailey, grants his wish: Redlaw’s memories will no longer plague him. But the spirit goes one step further than Capra’s good-hearted angel: Redlaw will pass on this apparent blessing to anyone he touches. But the still-haunted man watches in horror as good people around him turn on each other and as fallen people lose all regret for their sinful ways. Those who lose their memories of sadness lose also their appreciation for the good, lose sympathy for fellow beings in distress, and experience no awe, mystery, or consolation when looking at graves or stars or while listening to music. Remembrance of sorrow, Redlaw learns, makes forgiveness possible and links us to Christ on the Cross. And so I repeat the words that close Dickens’s second-best Christmas book: Lord, Keep My Memory Green.

Friday, December 11, 2015

William James Knows Me So Well

Once again this year, William James is looking inside my head and showing me everyday phenomena I hadn’t understood or even noticed before. I’m reading two chapters from Principles of Psychology this year. In the first, on imagination, James distinguishes “images” from each of the five external senses. Pausing between words as I type, I can virtually see Stonehenge, virtually hear the sound of my high-school music teacher’s voice, virtually feel the touch of velvet on my fingers, virtually smell hot apple cider, and virtually taste chocolate. These are all memories that I can call up in such a way that I have some hint, some degree of actual experience: as opposed to simply remembering that I have seen Stonehenge, the arrangement of stones comes into my field of vision in a ghostly way difficult to describe except by saying that I almost actually see it.

James usually drops a bomb somewhere in each chapter, and this year’s explosion involved the story of a psychologist named Galton who conducted some of the very first psychological studies based on surveys. How else to study the way people imagine things other than to ask them? So Galton put together his survey: How vivid are your visual imaginations? Are they in color? Are they bright or dim? How long can you hold a mental image? And so on. Fearing that nonscientists wouldn’t understand what he was after or know how to take it seriously, Galton asked fellow scientists first and found to his great surprise (and mine) that most scientists said they had no visual imagination at all!

My first response to this shocking news was to think, “How do they even think?” A page later, James announced that most people respond to the news with that very question. But then he proceeds to explain how they think: obviously they do think and must need some type of mental tokens for various ideas, so without visual imagination, they must think through other types of imagination. To the list of five possibilities corresponding to the senses, James also notes muscle memory – another very new concept at the time.

Studies on people with brain injuries discovered that people who lose their dominant mode of imagination lose function. One person who memorized words visually, for instance, lost his ability to read when he lost his visual imagination – lost it, that is, until he started tracing the letters with his finger, invoking kinesthetic memory of writing the words. So here, a hundred years before it became popular to talk about, is a theory of multiple learning styles. James even anticipates my frequent response to current teaching about learning styles: an old-fashioned method like having students rewrite information and then read it aloud works because it engages channels of sight, hearing, and motion simultaneously.

James’s views on imagination raised in my mind another question concerning education. In trying out the different kinds of imagination in my own mind, I found that my aural memories are by far the most vivid and detailed. If some people have no visual imagination at all, is it conceivable that some have no aural imagination? And could student struggles in my musical aural-skills classes arise from this deficiency? If so, I should try to help weak students by exercising memory of single notes. (Oh, don’t be so surprised to find that many music majors have trouble distinguishing one interval or scale from another.)

A last note: I felt a little less strange when James told me that I’m not the only person who hears words as I read. Some people, he notes, have the converse experience: they see words when they hear someone speak. I once had a student who told me she heard the names of pitches as she played her violin. She said she was embarrassed to reveal a quirk that, at least in her fears, might tend to make people doubt her sanity. I wonder if, like me, she wouldn’t feel less strange if she let William James look inside her head.

By the way, Galton eventually found out that nonscientists, especially women and children, love to answer surveys. Magazines at grocery stores would seem to confirm that observation.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Religious and Aesthetic Sense

Many years ago, I participated in a group of Christian faculty who met a couple of times each month for prayer and discussion. Oftentimes we took turns choosing a book for the group to read – a delicate situation since tastes in religious writings can vary widely. I once chose Cardinal Newman's The Idea of a University, and no one else liked it, not even the one Catholic member of the group. When that colleague's turn came around, he selected a book by a more recent Catholic priest. Surprisingly enough, he didn't like that one, either. In fact, once again, I was the only one who cared for the selection.

The book was The Religious Sense, by Luigi Giussani. I enjoyed it mostly because the author used a lot of poetry from around the world to make his case for some universal sentiments about the Nature of Everything. Our faculty group, however, consisted mostly of engineers and economists: not the most poetic people on the planet. The fellow who picked the book was a law professor and similarly prosaic.

It's been about ten years since I read The Religious Sense, and last month I finally got around to reading the sequel to the book that appealed so strongly to both my own religious sense and my aesthetic sense. At the Origin of the Christian Claim started out much like the earlier offering, with quotations from Egyptian odes, a fifteenth-century Indian poet, Homer, the Koran, and other sources from throughout history and from around the world. But I soon realized that this fresh approach would only last during the first couple of chapters of the book, the portion dedicated to recapping the preceding volume. The rest of the book was good, but not especially novel.

But still, there's one more victory for the reading plan. I wanted to read this book for many years but probably wouldn't have if I hadn't scheduled it. And I know now that if I schedule any more Giussani on future reading plans, I should probably just return to The Religious Sense.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Lost Art of Conversation

The only other person I know who has read Boswell’s Life of Johnson (or at least part of it) once characterized that great biography as a celebration of the art of conversation. He and I and a third friend used to get together, as did Samuel Johnson and his friends, to eat and to talk. We didn’t rise to the level of the discussions of the great lexicographer and his illustrious companions, but we covered almost as many topics, and those lunchtime talks brought me intellectual nourishment to a degree that I haven’t enjoyed in recent months.

In my latest encounters with London’s Literary Club, I’ve enjoyed listening in on Johnson’s circle as they discussed these subjects – among many others!
  • Gloominess as lack of faith
  • The uncertainty of profit for an author
  • Preparation for communion
  • Lack of total certainty of God's favor
  • Original sin and redemption
  • Appearance of ancient Egyptians
  • Wealth and happiness
  • Memory
  • A housebreaker's fear
  • Gardens
  • Alfred the Great
  • Usefulness in retirement
  • Death of friends
  • Borrowing and debt
  • Fondness vs kindness
  • Beauty and utility
  • Kings and revolution
  • Right employment of wealth
  • Keeping a journal
  • Keeping a financial record of expenses
  • Talking to children
  • Public hangings
  • Parentheses
  • Foreigners
  • Fondness for cats
  • Travel books vs travel
  • War
  • Appropriate subjects for painting
  • Oratory
  • The origin of language
  • New houses near Bedlam
  • Self-defense
  • The burial service
  • Book reviews
  • Irreligious people
  • Freedom of speech
  • Virgil vs Homer
  • Richard Baxter
  • Method acting
  • Drama and comedy
They even have conversations about conversation. One eminent legalist is criticized for his dull conversation. In ten years, says Johnson, he has never said anything “striking.” So here is one goal in the lost art of conversation: say something striking. How is such a thing done? One can’t simply find a striking statement and then look for a chance to insert it.

Fortunately, Dr. Johnson provides a recipe. A good conversationalist must first have knowledge to provide material for conversation. To this he must add fluency of speech. Then he must have an imagination “to place things in such views as they are not commonly seen.” The fourth necessity is presence of mind, which I take to be a form of attention for opportunities and readiness to contribute from one’s storehouse of knowledge and imagination.

Now all those attributes and skills I can imagine developing and practicing. But the final ingredient brings me to a standstill: resolution. Have a view and state it with conviction. The first problem is that I’m not very resolute. I used to speak my mind without apologies. But over the years I’ve found so often that I was wrong or that I made someone angry or that I looked foolish or that I didn’t like the adamant rebuttal I received, that my resolution has dried up. Even if I could water it and nurture it back to life, we live in an age that looks down on resolution. Resolution appears intolerant (it isn’t, actually), so the self-refuting era of toleration must not tolerate it.

Samuel Johnson didn’t live entirely without this problem. Of course people sometimes took offense at his pronouncements. But he had a solution. He once told a man who remarked on his “candour” (a veiled notification of having been offended), “I sometimes say more than I mean, in jest.” Alas, Boswell doesn’t tell us if Johnson’s attempt to mollify worked.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Dr. Johnson Speaks to Me

Books speak to me. Mortimer Adler called the tradition of Great Books a Great Conversation for good reason, and I often feel as if I’m taking part in that conversation. I wouldn’t have a ten-year reading plan if I didn’t feel an intimate connection.

Different books speak in different ways. Some simply say to me, “I knew you’d like this sort of thing!” Some tell me about my humanity and teach me how to live, whether by positive or negative example. But Boswell’s Dr. Johnson often seems to turn his one-eyed gaze my way and speak directly to my peculiar character and situation. Last Friday, he spoke to me personally at least four times.

I could write – or maybe should write (or maybe have written, come to think of it) – an entire post on Samuel Johnson’s views on melancholy and grief. “Grief has its time,” he says. But grieving too long over loss of a person, position, or thing indicates that a man has “so little acquiescence in the ways of Providence, as to be gloomy because he has not received as much preferment as he expected.” In a similar vein, he writes to his wife after the death of his personal physician, Robert Levett:
Whatever befalls us, though it is wise to be serious, it is useless and foolish, and perhaps sinful, to be gloomy. Let us, therefore, keep ourselves as easy as we can; though the loss of friends will be felt.
Johnson doesn’t deny the reality of the pain like a Stoic. But he points out that responding emotionally to loss or disappointment for too long indicates a lack of faith in God. Knowing that he wrote these passages based on his own struggles with melancholia make them all the more inspirational.

I don’t need to go into details on our financial history more than to say that we, like most Americans, have had our ups and downs and that we see people close to us enduring familiar struggles. Johnson had much to say on poverty in these recent pages, especially poverty brought on by oneself through overextending debt in purchasing vanity or pleasure. To do so “is to set the quiet of your whole life at hazard.” Poverty reduces both the ability to resist evil and the ability to do good. A person with no money to spare cannot, of course, give any money to others in need. But can a poor person even give advice? “His poverty will destroy his influence: many more can find that he is poor, than that he is wise.” Dr. Johnson has advice for those with money to spare, also. He notes that spending money distributes wealth among society and promotes industry (oh, yes: Dr. Johnson dined with Adam Smith on occasion) and recommends that donations constitute “only” 20% of cash outflow. Before I dare to call him a heartless middle-class capitalist, I have to ask myself whether I give away a fourth as much money as I spend. (The answer is no.) I don’t know exactly how to put this all into action for aiding a family I have in mind, but I’ve offered a cash gift, so now I’m thinking of a business proposition.

Did I say he spoke to me at least four times? This post will become almost as long as Boswell’s biography if I spend as many words on the other passages that jumped out at me as I have on the first two. So I’ll just mention a couple more. First, Dr. Johnson comforted Boswell with words distinguishing kindness and fondness: “Kindness . . . is in our power, but fondness is not.” This distinction helped me to remember, on a day when I especially needed to remember, that I don’t need to know why someone else did a hurtful thing to me or how to fix the problem (or the person!) or how to find a way to like the person. I just need to be kind.

Finally, Johnson wrote a note to himself on August 9, 1781, concerning his daily schedule during his retirement: “Having prayed, I purpose to employ the next six weeks upon the Italian language, for my settled study.” On my days off (as a semi-retired professor, I feel completely retired on those days off), I begin with prayers. And I have Duolingo Italian open on my browser at this moment. It’s nice to have such great company.

Every year, I look forward to reading a few pages of Boswell’s tribute to his great friend in the fall, and it never disappoints. Maybe I should plan to read a smaller number of pages each month. As the time approaches to read again the tale of a lovable miser and his visitation by four spirits, I always begin to reflect honestly but reluctantly and must admit that once more in my life, I have not kept Christmas in my heart all through the year, as I vow to do every time I read Dickens’s moving story. Perhaps scattering Dr. Johnson’s wisdom across the months would help me get closer to Scrooge’s goal.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Calendar for Year 10

Just about one decade ago, I started showing my family and friends a twelve-page, multi-columned list of books I had decided to read over the next ten years. Some laughed. Some just stared. Everyone, including myself, thought it was weird. I still get the looks when I tell people. I told two colleagues yesterday that I was in year 9 of a ten-year reading plan, and they stood dumbfounded for a few seconds as they tried to decide whether they had heard me correctly. I guess when I share information unlike anything anyone ever imagined hearing, I should expect it to be a conversation stopper, not a conversation starter.

As strange as it is, and as much as I doubted whether I could really keep up with the plan (I just looked at my original list, and at the top of the page I wrote, “(2007-201?)” ), it’s ten years later, and I’m ready to start the last year of the plan right on schedule. I’ve bought most of the books I didn’t already have, checked all the page counts, counted the days and weeks, and devised a calendar for how the last year of this project will play out. You can see my calendar under the tab “2016 Calendar” near the top of this page.

In addition to my favorite regulars – Aristotle, Aquinas, Dickens, Durant, Boswell, Shakespeare, Trollope, Lewis, Chesterton, and others – I’m especially eager about Tennyson, Lucretius, and Waugh. I don’t know what to expect of Dedekind, but I saw his Theory of Numbers on more than one list of great books, including the list in How to Read a Book, by my Plan’s inspiration and guardian angel, Mortimer Adler. I predict that I’ll either love or hate Ulysses without any moderation. The cornerstone of the whole year is set in April: that month, I’ll finish Orlando Furioso, the title that prompted me twenty years ago to pursue the classical education I never got in school or university.

Ten years. George W. Bush was President when I started this adventure the classics. The first Heroes was on TV. There was no iPhone. I started my plan promptly on January 1, 2007, and I’ll finish on or before December 31, 2016. And then I start my next Ten-Year Plan. I’ve already drawn it up, and over the course of this coming year, I’ll purchase the books for year 1. I’ll start that new ten-year plan on January 1, 2017. And I believe I just might finish in 2026.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Time . . . Goes by . . . So Slowly

After recounting the story of his own spiritual journey, Augustine turns the last part of his Confessions to admissions of seemingly simple things that he doesn’t in fact understand. He talks about memory, for instance, something we take for granted but don’t (still) truly understand. Old knowledge is stored in memory, of course. But new knowledge depends on memory as well. After all, we have to remember a problem long enough to know when we’ve solved it. Similarly, when we search for an unknown, we have to have some idea of what we’re searching for, and that idea must have come to us from the past and lie safely within our memory. But what do we actually remember if the thing we search for is unknown. How can we know the unknowable? How can we know God? How can we search for God? If we can’t understand Him, how do we know what we’re looking for?

Since memory links the past and the present, Augustine’s examination of memory leads naturally to an examination of time. What is time? His wonderful and intriguing answer: If no one asks me, I know, but if someone asks me, I don’t know. The future doesn’t exist yet, so how can we know it? We can’t know something that doesn’t exist, right? On the other hand, the past doesn’t exist any more, and we seem to know something about it. But what exactly do we know when we seem to remember a year passing? Time appears to move from a future, which doesn’t exist yet, through a pointlike present – which, having no dimension, doesn’t exist – and into a past, which no longer exists. What is this never-existing thing that we know so well? Maybe time exists only in a mind. We have expectation, consideration, and remembrance, and the objects of these we place in different times. It sounds quite a bit like Kant twelve-hundred years too early.

But God has (or is) a mind; so does He expect and consider and remember as we do? Augustine argues that He doesn’t. When God knows “the future,” He doesn’t look ahead as we imagine He must do. The eternal God is unchanging, the good bishop points out. All changing things are mutable and thus can cease to exist, so God must not change. God’s will doesn’t change; his righteousness doesn’t change. But not even his knowledge changes. We know that God knows everything, but if that knowledge doesn’t change, He must not know things temporally as we do. My knowledge of the sentence I’m typing right now changes as I type it: I first know what I want to convey and expect my fingers to move and letters to appear on the screen, and then I experience these things happening as one by one the characters (especially those typos I just erased) become the results of past events that I remember. But God considers every keystroke and every character in one unchanging present glance.

Augustine says it’s difficult for us humans to imagine God seeing all of time in a single present. But I’ve actually not had so much trouble with that concept. I’ve often thought about moving objects tracing streaks through time and imagined that I understand how God can see the whole of that movement at a glance. Maybe I’ve just seen more long-exposure photographs than Augustine. Or maybe I learned this when I made and enjoyed flip-book animations in the margins of a book or on a pad of paper. (When I was a child, of course. I would never do that now that I’m all grown up.) I can fan the pages and look at all the pictures at once if I want. By embracing every frame in a single gesture, I can see the motion as a simultaneity. And it appears as a motion, even though I’m not experiencing it unfolding in time.

I also think sometimes about things I’ve done and wonder at the silent mystery of a past action performed out of free will that now stands frozen in memory, unable to be anything other than what it is. Why do we have so much trouble wondering how we can have free will as God’s knowledge of the future makes that future fixed, when we all have memories of free actions even as those memories set that very past in stone?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Reasonable Man

I originally had David McCullough’s Truman on my reading list as the presidential biography for year 9. But as I put together the plan for 2015 last fall, and I saw The Lord of the Rings and Don Quixote and other lengthy books on the list, I started wondering whether I really wanted to reread that monumental history, as much as I loved it the first time through. So at the beginning of the year, I decided to remove it from the schedule and to put in its place Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial, a fairly recent Lincoln book. And I’m glad I did.

In his preface, Foner says he wants to put Lincoln’s thoughts, feelings, and actions concerning slavery in historical context. Many pages of what I thought would be a biography don’t mention Lincoln at all, instead examining significant historical events, newspaper editorials, debates in Congress, and speeches and letters by other prominent figures of the time. Then each time the lens turns back to Lincoln, the reader knows the setting and can judge just how much Lincoln was shaped by the culture and how much he resisted or even changed the culture.

I’ve read many times that — Hold on: I have to think a minute. There’s a subordinate clause coming up, and I don’t know which verb to use. I have two choices, and the difference between the two constitutes the main point of this post. I think I’ve read many times that Lincoln did not believe that blacks were the social equals of whites, although he courageously and repeatedly insisted that they were entitled to the unalienable rights named in the Declaration of Independence. But was it in fact his belief?  I know I’ve read this quotation before, from a speech given in Peoria in 1854:
If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do. . . . Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this.
But Foner doesn't stop here. He doesn’t just want to offer up a provocative quotation designed to prove to the reader quickly that Abraham Lincoln wasn’t free from all traces of racism. Oh, he shows Lincoln’s faults, all right. But I don’t think now that this quotation is a sign of one of those faults. Reading the words in context this time, I actually come away with even greater admiration for the sixteenth President than I had before.

I know. I need to explain that. How can I admire a man who felt something so distasteful? Bear with me for a couple of minutes before you call me a barbarian.

A twenty-first century American coming across the sentence “My own feelings will not admit of this” tends to read the words as a final statement. Well, if that’s what he felt, then that’s that. Now we know what Lincoln really thought. But feeling isn’t the same as thought. In a much earlier speech delivered to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Lincoln addressed his concerns over the alarming number of mob riots then occurring throughout the country. He told the “young men” of the audience that in order to prevent the country from sliding into anarchy and then tyranny, Americans would have to devote themselves to living by “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.” Note especially the adjective “unimpassioned.” A few years later, in 1842, Lincoln spoke to a temperance society and closed his talk saying that freedom for every person in America (he explicitly mentioned slaves here) would come only when reason ruled the world and passions were subdued. All that classical education that Lincoln gave himself shines through here. I wouldn’t be surprised if I read the entire text of these speeches and found him quoting book IX of Plato’s Republic.

Now back to the Peoria speech. Lincoln goes on to say this:
My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded.
Lincoln indeed admitted his feelings; we might even say he confessed his feelings. But feelings are not the same as beliefs. At least they aren’t for a man who knows to distinguish between reason and passion. I’ve read enough student papers to know that most people today don’t know the difference between “I feel” and “I believe.” But Lincoln did, and his reason, or “sound judgment,” condemned his unjust feeling. He felt that blacks were not his social equals, but he did not believe it. Other passages from the speech show that his main concern here is whether blacks would find themselves in a happy social situation if suddenly freed. And he sees that they would not, because passion rules society and not reason.

Lincoln told the temperance society that he envisioned a day when reason would rule the world, and that when that day came, there would be no more slaves. When reason reigns, the pragmatic dilemma of the Peoria speech goes away. Feelings are held in check and then eventually change to “accord with justice.” Every person treats all other persons with dignity; no former slave need fear being treated as an pariah. We have no slavery in America today – well, no legal, constitutionally protected slavery. But reason does not rule our society. Reasoned discourse requires time, and the age of the sound byte and of the highly moderated debate doesn’t allow the time. Are the civil rights Americans enjoy today (as imperfect as those rights may be) based on feelings, then? No wonder the debates are so bitter. No wonder our rights are so fragile and temporary. Does no one know how to condemn his feelings with reason?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Comedy Is not Pretty

Evelyn Waugh is often described as a comedic author. If he is, then his novels must be categorized as extremely dark comedies. I laughed twice during A Handful of Dust, but only twice. And yet much of the powerful effect of the novel comes from jarringly conflicting elements juxtaposed in a comedic way. So the traditional label does make sense. Brenda Last develops a thing for Mr Beaver and asks Tony Last for a divorce. Everyone “agrees” (I’m not sure how) that it will be “convenient” for Brenda to be the plaintiff in the court case. So Tony’s solicitor hires detectives and Tony hires a woman to spend a weekend with him at the beach – and then he consults with the detectives on what he should do so they can “catch” him. Detectives don’t make plans with their targets, right?

When I was about nine years old, my parents took me to see The Cactus Flower. I remember laughing out loud at the line “That’s my wife, all right. And with her boyfriend.” I also remember my parents giving me a look that said, “That is not anything to laugh about.” But I was nine. I didn’t know what any of it meant. I just saw the crazy juxtaposition, so I laughed. Every nine-year-old knows that a person’s mouth is not a radio. But Gilligan’s mouth becomes a radio, so it’s funny. Every nine-year-old knows that people don’t make cages out of water pipes. But Curly Howard traps himself in a maze of plumbing, so it’s funny. Every nine-year-old knows that married women don’t have boyfriends. But in The Cactus Flower, they do, so it’s funny. I don’t know why my parents didn’t see it.

But of course I do know why they didn’t see it. Sadly, although we never lose our understanding that mouths are not radios and that plumbers don’t make cages, we all find out soomer or later that many wives do indeed have boyfriends. So the line in The Cactus Flower is both funny (I wasn’t the only person in the theater laughing) and tragic. And in this way, A Handful of Dust is both funny and tragic, even if you want to cry more than you want to laugh.

Another way to put it: If comedic scenes like the one from Gilligan’s Island and the one from the Three Stooges work by putting on screen a mad situation that conflicts with the standard of reality, can’t it be funny to focus on a mad situation from real life that conflicts with a higher standard of how things could be – or even should be? And Waugh does exactly this. He portrays modern society in all of its veneer-crusted emptiness, and yet his narration and pacing always carry an undertone of criticism. By making his scenes and characters excruciatingly realistic, he writes satire, because modern life itself is a satire. And whether I laugh out loud or not, I see satire as funny.

Yes, I know that by recognizing comedy in a story of divorce, I’m laughing at the Fall of Man. But somehow, scowling at sin in a story often ends up feeling judgmental, while laughing at sin in a story seems to keep me aware that I’m one of the good old sinners, too. Thanks for reminding me, Mr Waugh.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

An Honorable Man

I picked that title for today’s post and then immediately thought of the funeral oration from Julius Caesar. But when I say Harry S Truman was an honorable man, I’m not using Mark Antony’s air quotes. Truman was the straightest of straight arrows. He was the kind of man who could actually say, “Polls don’t matter. All that matters is right and wrong,” and mean it sincerely.

What makes his virtuous story even more remarkable is that he climbed the ranks of public service in one of the most corrupt political machines of the early twentieth century: the Kansas City of T. J. Pendergast. Pendergast once instructed the future President to grant sinecures to a list of people who had done him favors. Truman just said “No.” I don’t know how he got away with it or why Pendergast continued to support him. But a few years later, Pendergast’s Democratic machine got Truman into the U. S. Senate. His fellows in the upper chamber avoided him at first, saying that there was one senator from Missouri and one senator from Pendergast. But he ended his first term with the respect of his colleagues, and in his second term, during the War, he headed a committee that rooted out waste, negligence, and fraud in military contracts, saving the U. S. billions of dollars and untold numbers of lives.

Listening to David McCullough read his biographical account of No. 33, it occurred to me that Truman seemed to deal with corrupt politicians in an unusual way. In McCullough’s account, Truman neither walked in the way of the sinners nor railed at them. He knew other politicians regularly received payment for votes or appointments. He knew crooked deals routinely placed unqualified people in public office. But he didn’t engage, and he didn’t go on crusade. Perhaps knowing that he could never stop these practices, it seems he simply didn’t let it bother him. Instead, he just kept on doing his own good work.

I’ve just been dealing with the Moen company. They made a faulty faucet that ruined our floor, and now they’re lying to keep from being responsible. That’s not a billion dollars, and no soldier’s life is at risk. But it’s corrupt business. I wish someone at that company understood the nobility of saying, “The buck stops here.” And I wish I could just not let it bother me.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Forward to the Past

Reading about the Reformation is sad. I’m grateful for many of the lasting effects of the Reformation: having the Bible translated into English from the original languages and understanding salvation by grace through faith sit at or near the top of my list. But the story of these achievements makes for grim reading. I spent a couple of years with Will Durant’s account of the Renaissance, including his depiction of the corrupt state of the visible Church: the simony, the fornication, the hypocrisy, the power politics, the murders, the draining of money from the people of Europe to fund a cesspool of immorality in Rome. But cleaning up this mess wasn’t easy, and reading this year about the power politics of the Protestants, their intolerance for each other, and their rancorous rhetoric hasn’t exactly provided a happily-ever-after ending to the tale.

Take the Peasants’ War, for example. Luther published statements saying that the German princes and the leaders of the established Church should watch their backs and that they deserved all the violent reaction they might receive. The German public read these observations as a call to arms.
So then Luther’s press releases called for an end to the violence of the peasants and encouraged the princes to execute the law and restore order. This public position, of course, prompted a horrific response from the authorities. Between 1524 and 1526, 130,000 peasants died in the conflict. And all in an effort to purify the worship of the Prince of Peace.

Human history is rarely pretty. But ideas are not the people who speak them. And truths sometimes proceed from the mouths of murderers, in spite of themselves. I love reading about the ideas, and I’ve been continually fascinated with the interplay of the characters: Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Melanchthon (who comes out looking pretty good), Erasmus (who looks even better), Francis I, Henry VIII, Charles V, Clement VII, Marguerite of Navarre, Catherine of Aragon. With two more weeks of Reformation history to go, I’m ready for things to get worse. But I’m hoping for at least one more Melanchthon.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Aquinas and the Reformation

I can’t pin Will Durant down. Does he think anything about he Renaissance needed correction, or doesn’t he? Although he was a fan of the artistic and literary achievements of the Renaissance, he strongly disapproved of the ecclesiastical immorality and aristocratic abuses of the period. In the first part of his volume on the Reformation,which follows his Renaissance volume, he again clearly outlines the political and social problems in fifteenth-century Germany clamoring for revolutionary change. But once he gets to the actual Reformation, he can’t seem to find any respect for its reforms. The reformers definitely brought new problems along with their solutions, but (as far as I can see from what I’ve read, anyway) Durant can’t see any virtue in the solutions, only that, as he says more than once, “the Reformation killed the Renaissance.”

Durant often lumps all belief in the supernatural together as “superstition,” so I don’t expect him to approve of any specific Reformation doctrine. But his blanket rejection makes it hard for me to tease out two surprises I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks. Both have to do with doctrines Durant links to the Protestant movement: predestination and the notion that the recipient of a sacrament has to have faith in that sacrament in order to receive the benefits. The surprise comes in that I’ve read both teachings in Thomas Aquinas, who, as a Doctor of the Church, can supposedly be trusted as offering pure Roman Catholic doctrine. So why does Durant call the doctrines Protestant?

OK, just because Aquinas is declared a Doctor of the Church doesn’t mean that every Catholic theologian knows everything he ever said – especially not the theologians among the corrupt clergy of Durant’s Renaissance Church. Just because one given Catholic theologian might know what Aquinas said doesn’t mean he believes it. As a non-Roman, I can add that just because a Doctor of the Church says something doesn’t mean it truly aligns with or shapes actual Catholic doctrine. I know I’m not usually going to see the nice straight lines I desire so much to discover in human history. But I’d at least like to know where these lines got broken.

Thomas Aquinas observes that God gives some humans goods that He does not give to others. One is beautiful while another is not, for instance. One has two working hands while another is born with only one. Extending this understanding to invisible gifts, Aquinas teaches that God gives some people the grace to turn from sin back toward their Maker and denies it to others. A human can only be saved through grace, and some simply are not given this saving grace. This is precisely the doctrine of predestination.

Now Calvin sees every action and every thought of every being as having been predetermined by God, even laying the evil plans of demons at God’s door. Aquinas, on the other hand, leaves humans in possession of free will. Everyone has total freedom of will to sin in any way whatsoever. And everyone who by grace is turned to God freely chooses Him because He is so obviously Good. So maybe the Catholic polemicists of the sixteenth century disapproved of Calvin’s version of predestination or Luther’s version. But Durant doesn’t recognize the nuance. He simply says that Catholics viewed predestination as a Protestant heresy and quotes Catholics denouncing the doctrine. So where is the disconnect? Does Durant not understand the distinction? Did he only cite the theologians ignorant of Aquinas’s teaching? Were the theologians themselves ignorant of Aquinas’s teaching? Or did they know about it and yet disagree? I don’t know that I’ll ever get the answers, but when I read over and over that predestination was a Protestant dogma, I can’t help but ask the questions.

Similarly, Aquinas teaches that the recipient of a sacrament has to believe in the sacrament in order to receive its effects. An early Protestant theologian asked a Catholic whether a mouse consuming a crumb of the Host eats bread or eats God. As I read Aquinas, I think he would say that the mouse eats bread. Durant's treatment of this issue prompts all the same questions in my mind as predestination does. But it suggests another layer as well: did the Catholic clergy at the time categorize the doctrine as Protestant rather than Thomist (aka Catholic) only because they saw that accepting it reduced the political power of the priests?

It turns out the history of the Reformation is as messy and complicated as any other history. Go figure. I’m afraid I’ve said enough potentially offensive things for one day, so I’ll quit now.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Tolkien’s Historical Perspective

Like most readers of The Lord of the Rings, I think, I've been mystified by Tom Bombadil. Is he Valar, Elf, or Man? He doesn’t seem to fit in exactly with any race of Middle Earth. He isn’t evil, but he seems only concerned with his own life, singing incessantly about his river and the flowers he wants to bring home to his wife, Goldberry. Is he beyond good and evil in some non-Nietzschean (or even Nietzschean) way? The Ring has no effect on him whatsoever when he puts it on, and that circumstance suggests that he has no will, or at least no will toward good or evil as we know them. After all, the only other objects in Middle Earth that seem unaffected by the Ruling Ring when they come into contact with it are insensate: the cloth of Bilbo’s pocket and the chain around Frodo’s neck.

I think I remember reading somewhere that someone asked Tolkien if Tom represented an incarnation or avatar of God. When the Hobbits ask Goldberry who Tom is, she merely responds, "He is." That phrase is so reminiscent of the Name God reveals to Moses, I've considered the same interpretation. But Tom is imperfect in knowledge and in other ways, so that reading just doesn't work.

This time through the great fantasy classic, another view of Tom popped into my head as I was reading the chapters with Treebeard. The chief Ent, described by Gandalf as the oldest living thing, explains to Merry and Pippin that he isn't hasty to take sides, even in a giant war between an eminently good cause and an abjectly evil lord. He explains his position partly by saying that no one is on his side. But the tree shepherd also points out that for one who lives as long as he has, the wars of Elves and Men seem only like brief annoyances.

And that remark made me think of Tom Bombadil. He says he was alive when the Elves came West, making him some thousands of years old. I’ve wondered for forty years what kind of species would act like Tom, when perhaps I should have been looking toward experience rather than nature to explain his quirky, detached character. Maybe any rational creature who lives as long as Tom has lived learns not to be moved by what must end up looking like negligible irritations, learns simply to live and enjoy the lasting goods of life.

In the previous post, I said that Tolkien’s characters have geographical perspective and that he teaches us to have this perspective, too. The same could be said for historical understanding. The Return of the King has timelines in the appendices because almost every character knows the history of Middle Earth, and we readers are expected to know that history, too. The move against Sauron doesn’t make any sense unless we know that Isildur cut off his finger in the battle at Dagorlad two ages earlier.

Historical knowledge doesn’t only do us good in Middle Earth, though. The good-hearted in our world can learn patience and kindness from history, if only by negative example. And knowledge of history may be our only human source for deep wisdom, since no earthling lives long enough to learn from a single life’s experience how to handle all challenges. Tolkien may have written about  a realm that existed only in the imagination, but once again he teaches us how to live in the all-too-real world.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Tolkien’s Geographical Perspective

Does any other novel depend on maps as much as The Lord of the Rings does? The squinty stranger from the south. The shadow in the east. The western door of Moria. At least three major mountain ranges. At least four significant forests. At least five notable rivers. The reader needs every one of Tolkien’s maps to keep track of it all.

Understanding the geography of Middle Earth, though, doesn’t just help get us through the plot. The more we know the lay of the land, the more we become like Middle Earthers. The hobbits are the exception to the rule. Everyone else always knows where he is in relation to every road, hill, town, tower, cavern, tavern, and Fortress of Evil in the land. Legolas climbs a hill close to Edoras, and he can see the tower of Orthanc to the west and the tower of Barad Dur to the east – over 400 miles away!

It takes more than just elven eyesight to see an evil tower from a distance of 400 miles. Legolas has the clear air of pre-industrial fantasy, and Middle Earth is flat. On a flat world, no place hides beyond a curving horizon. So from the beginning of The Silmarillion to the last page of The Lord of the Rings, we’re meant to see all of Middle Earth in one glance. Every place is connected. As Bilbo says, there’s only one road, and it goes on and on and reaches every door. Among the many salutary lessons Tolkien offers us, this is one of the most important. Six degrees of separation is about four degrees too many.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is It Allegory?

In his preface to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien says, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations.” This statement has puzzled me ever since I first read the fantasy classic in the 1970s. Series of events occur in the book that most definitely remind me of series of events in the Bible.

Some of the clearest cases depict Christ figures. Gandalf fights an enemy made of fire and shadow, falls to his death in the depths of the earth, and then comes back to life more powerful and resplendent than before. Tolkien knew the Bible, so of course it’s no accident that these events follow the story of the death of Christ, his descent to Hell, and his resurrection in a glorified body. Aragorn begins his arc as Strider, a scruffy ranger, but is later revealed to be the heir to the human throne. Can anything good come from Bree? Frodo takes on the burden that tempts and corrupts mortals and carries it to the fires of the evil one in order to destroy it. This parallel to Jesus’ acceptance of our sin even follows the geography of Psalm 103: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” Galadriel looks into the hearts of each member of the Fellowship; they hang their heads in shame, but she says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” No one can think that Tolkien didn’t shape these examples on the preexisting Biblical pattern that he knew so well.

As much as LoTR’s main plot of sin, sacrifice, and redemption follows the contours of the Biblical account of Jesus’ work, a detail jumped out at me the other day that evokes comparisons with a different character from Scripture. In telling the story of Sméagol’s fall, Tolkien’s narration says, “They kicked him, and he bit their feet.” It’s impossible for me to think that this line didn’t come somehow from God’s words to the serpent of Eden: “He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.” How is this not allegory?

Merriam-Webster defines allegory as “a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation.” If so many details of The Lord of the Rings seem intentionally patterned after details of the Bible, how can Tolkien say the book isn’t allegory? And why does he say that he “cordially dislikes allegory”? The answer to the second question is easy: Tolkien didn’t care much for C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. With the great friendship between the two, Tolkien’s dislike had to be cordial. But it was dislike nevertheless. Whatever it was he didn’t like about his fellow Inkling’s book series, he called it “allegory” and claimed that his own epic novel didn’t partake of it. But surely LoTR contains characters and events that stand for historical situations in a symbolic way. On the other hand, many characters (Mr. Tumnus, for example) and even entire books (A Horse and His Boy, for example) from the Narnia series have no discernible Biblical referent. Tolkien’s claim just doesn’t make sense to me.

On the other other hand, though, Tolkien and Lewis knew more about literature than I know about anything. So I keep pondering Tolkien’s enigmatic statement while I enjoy rereading The Lord of the Rings. I don’t completely understand, but at least the puzzle keeps me from dwelling on the many aspects of this beloved fantasy classic that a certain film director didn’t understand.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I’ve Missed Hobbits

A few years ago, Christopher Tolkien put out a book-length version of The Children of Hurin, a tale that takes up only one chapter in The Silmarillion. In the introduction, he explains that his father thought that three of the stories from his origin myth deserve longer treatment. When I read that I got scared. Three? Peter Jackson had just announced that he was going to turn the Hobbit series into a trilogy, and I became very concerned that Christopher was working to provide Jackson with the material for a third trilogy. Although I dislike every place where Peter Jackson and his two co-writers deviate from the book in their Lord of the Rings series, I can still watch those movies. But The Silmarillion is an even better book in my view and way beyond their capacity to understand, and I didn’t want to have to deal with the bitter choice of either hating or not watching a new trilogy of films.

But I do watch the LotR trilogy from time to lengthy time and cringe when I see again what they did to Aragorn and Faramir. And it’s been a disturbingly long time since my last reading of Tolkien’s original. So as I visit Middle Earth again (the real Middle Earth: the one that springs from books) some things are really standing out as having been driven from my consciousness by that pesky Kiwi and his gorgeous but shallow vision. In writing what I hope will be the first of several posts about The Lord of the Rings this fall, let me get some complaints out of the way by reviewing some of what’s missing in the movies.

The first thing that jumped out at me as I started turning the pages was Frodo’s classical learning. Gandalf isn’t just an old friend who brings fireworks to the Shire now and then; he’s a teacher, and Frodo has learned from him. Frodo knows history. He knows Elven language. When they begin to discuss the Ring and its evil nature, Frodo immediately starts talking about sacrifice and about the courage he will need. Elijah Wood stumbles into his virtues, but the real Frodo has studied ethics with his master.

I was extremely disappointed when the movies came out that there were hardly any songs. But, to my shame, I had forgotten just how many there are. It’s the rare two-page spread that doesn’t have some verse on it in those first hundred pages or so. Hobbits sing while they work, while they eat, while they walk, while they muse. Jackson’s hobbits laugh and pick wax out of their ears, but they don’t seem to sing.

And if they don’t sing, they certainly can’t have any mystical experiences with songs. Frodo speaks poetry as if inspired at one point. He, Sam, and Pippin receive bits of translation in the melodies they hear from the elves they meet traveling through the Shire. Surely Tolkien had the Corinthians’ spiritual gifts in mind during these passages. But Jackson’s hobbits have no mystical, holy inspiration. And of course there are no elves traveling through the Shire, no barrow wights, no Tom Bombadil.

Obviously I’m a little upset all over again about the movies, and I’m doubly upset about having to think about how upset I am about movies while reading one of my favorite books. But it’s not all bad. I read just the other day that Christopher Tolkien, who currently administers the rights to The Silmarillion, dislikes Peter Jackson’s films and will never give his permission for another trilogy. And at least I have distinct faces for Merry and Pippin in my mind now – although Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd are quite a bit plumper in my imagination.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Don’t Let This Happen to You

Lucy Ricardo once wrote a novel. (Season 3, episode 23: I’m sure you can find a link somewhere.) When Ricky, Fred, and Ethel read it and discover that Lucy has based an unlikeable character on each of them, they burn the typescript to try to keep it from publication. Of course wily Lucy has made other copies and sent them to publishers. But her husband and friends still have nothing to worry about: the only publisher interested in Lucy’s work wants to include an excerpt of it in a book on how to write a novel – in a chapter entitled “Don’t Let This Happen to You.”

Plutarch starts his biography of Demetrius, a Hellenic king, by saying that amidst all the examples of virtuous people he has put forward, it could be instructive to see an example of bad living. In other words, Plutarch’s life of Demetrius is his “Don’t Let This Happen to You” chapter. And I think Plutarch was exactly right: the tale of Demetrius makes for some of the most compelling reading in the whole expansive tome.

Demetrius reveals his character early on when he brings women into the temple of Jupiter for sexual dalliances. I mean, come on, Demetrius! There are some Roman temples you have sexual dalliances in and some you don’t, and Jupiter’s temple is definitely one of the ones you don’t have sex in.

But worse in Plutarch’s eyes – and more instructive for modern readers – was Demetrius’ tyranny. Living in the second generation after Alexander, Demetrius vied and jockeyed with the other heirs of the Great King for power in the region of the Macedonian Empire. Early in his campaigns he freed Athens from the tyranny of others only to implant his terrible rule even more firmly. Plutarch partly blames the Athenians for rewarding Demetrius so lavishly and letting the adulation go to his head. He soon calls himself King of Kings and assigns humiliating titles to Seleucus and Ptolemy and the other kings from the realm. This of course only brings their wrath and armies down on him. His fortunes go up and down rapidly, but every time he gains a throne, he uses its power only for his own comfort and pleasure while ignoring the people’s needs, the tending of which Plutarch rightly calls the true work of a king.

At one point in the story of Demetrius, the great biographer of the classic world makes the point that people erect statues for kings for one of two reasons: either adoration or fear. This remark about statues activated a memory of a modern-day ruler who could stand to learn from Plutarch’s negative lesson. For I know a president of a university who lives in a white house, calls his wife “First Lady,” commissions statues and paintings of himself for the campus, and has seen to it that the university has a street and a college named after him. He has publicly stated that his goal as president is to become the longest-sitting occupant of that office in the history of the university, without so much as mentioning the educational mission of the institution, i.e., the needs of the people. Ironically, in the first speech I ever heard from him, he mentioned Plutarch’s Lives.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


A few years ago, a colleague paid me an enormous, humbling compliment. He’d been watching the Paul Giamatti series based on David McCullough’s biography of our second President, and he told me that I reminded him of John Adams. I know what he meant: he meant that I stubbornly stuck with principles, a stubbornness he interpreted as courage. Our workplace had undergone years of political turmoil, and over that period I gave several public speeches for my side of the issues – and then typically found myself on the losing side of votes, usually 4 to some quite larger number. I read and reread Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Plato’s Gorgias when preparing these speeches, and I believed they helped. But if I had known about it, perhaps a reading of Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn would have helped even more.

A couple of weeks ago, I boiled down the theme of Zane Grey’s The Call of the Canyon to the word “Progress.” I’ll do the same today and serry the many themes and subplots of Phineas Finn under the heading of “Compromise.” Compromise is necessary, and the characters – even (or especially) the ones with stubborn principles – have to learn to live with it. Lady Laura tells Phineas that, now that they have each had their separate romances, they have to deal with reality. And reality brings compromise. People who marry have to compromise their ideal views of their mates and of married life. Politicians have to compromise their determination to see their favorite causes come to fruition. Women have to compromise their sense of independence in a male-dominated society. Those who don’t compromise willingly only find themselves suffering when the changes are forced upon them from without.

I can see Trollope walking a fine line throughout the novel, sometimes displaying compromise as the healthy companion of patience, sometimes as a regrettable but necessary evil, sometimes as a betrayal of good form or even of ethical absolutes. The pageant of compromising situations and compromisers is long and multicolored. I dare not begin to cite examples of particular characters who come to terms with compromise for fear that the post end up divided into volumes like a nineteenth-century novel. But one of the most frequent themes is the reality that Members of Parliament, if they wish to enjoy the benefits of belonging to a party, must not vote according to conscience. Or rather, they must trust to the conscience of the party leaders to know where and for how long to compromise on certain points. Asking for everything at once is the sure way to get nothing, and even a severely abridged package of proposals needs a unified voting block in order to succeed. Principles are not abandoned according to this view, only held back for a season.

The difference between me and John Adams (apart from all the other, huge, obvious differences) is that Adams eventually got his way. McCullough – and Giamatti, for that matter – portray John Adams as very reluctant to compromise in the way Trollope tentatively condones, and yet the United States achieved independence. I still wonder sometimes if I should have been even more vocally adamant or if instead I should have sought smaller victories. But the point is moot now: nothing changed except that I left. Still, maybe Phineas Finn offers me a final ray of hope: very near the end of the novel, one of Phineas’s friends tells him that standing up for an unpopular position marks the first necessary step in getting the position accepted. The first flurry of attention to a cause gives some people at least the notion that it isn’t impossible. If a second generation sees the idea move from possible to probable, the third may well uplift it to the Thing Without Which We Cannot Do.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Conclusion of Hume’s Book

The first exposure I had to a lot of details of the artistic and philosophical history of Europe came from Francis Schaeffer’s book entitled How Should We Then Live? Schaeffer definitely had a particular way of interpreting art spiritually, and he probably committed some errors of fact in his historical details. But when I was about eighteen years old, he got me thinking about history and art and philosophy and cultural criticism at a level I had never worked at before. And he was exactly right about at least one observation. He said that the colleges ignore the last part of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, the part labeled “Conclusion of This Book.” A few years after I read Schaeffer’s book for the first time, I took a philosophy class as part of my Ph.D. program, and we covered Hume and his Treatise of Human Nature, and, sure enough, we did not discuss the “Conclusion.”

Hume spends most of the treatise applying empiricist skepticism to the world and showing that we don’t rationally know that things exist and can’t logically know that cause and effect exist. All we know, he says, is that we experience phenomena, and that the phenomena come in patterns. This part of the book leaves us without any basis for science, love, or faith; life seems meaningless. As my professor duly pointed out, Kant says that reading Hume woke him from his “dogmatic slumber,” and that he set about finding a system that would “save” God and science. But in the “Conclusion,” Hume says:
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds [i.e. the uncertainty that God, people, morals, and causality exist], nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther. Here then I find myself absolutely and necessarily determined to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life.
Maybe God and science didn’t need saving. I suspected Hume just tossed these lines out in order to try to stave off public criticism of his nihilism, but, retaining my own brand of skepticism, I entertained the thought that he wrote the words sincerely. After all, they are in the “Conclusion to This Book,” and “conclusion” doesn’t only mean the end: it might mean that this position marked the final resting place of his thoughts on the subject.

This year, I read Hume’s other most known works: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The former covered much of the Humean territory familiar to me, but I was amazed to see that the author started right at the beginning explaining that he had no desire to pull the rug out from under religion and science. He makes his point abundantly clear: we should trust our senses, believe in God, and pursue science, but the basis of these human activities is not in the understanding. We can’t prove that cause and effect exist the way we can prove the Pythagorean theorem, but we still believe in them rightly because we have been made with another mechanism of knowledge, which he calls “custom.” A few minutes ago, when I read the passage I quoted earlier, words stood out that I had never noticed before. I had remembered “reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds” and “I play a game of backgammon” and “they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous.” But I did not remember the words “nature herself suffices to that purpose.” Hume only rejects reason here, not our beliefs. He just wants to show that these beliefs come to us by a path that has nothing to do with arguments and syllogisms.

So now I’m thinking about Kant again. Was he really concerned, as I’ve thought, that Hume made belief in God and science impossible? Or did he see that Hume still believed? In other words, was he disturbed only that Hume placed belief on a foundation other than that of reason?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Zane Grey’s America

Is Zane Grey’s The Call of the Canyon a Great Book? A classic of elegant and instructive prose? Among “the best which has been thought and said”? A garden of ideas whose fruits populate further fields of literary wonder? Is it even a great book with no reference to capitalization? No, no, no, no, and no. But did it make me think the entire time I read? Yes.

I vaguely expected some adventure, some danger, possibly some shooting from a book by the father of the American western novel. What I got was a love story. Love stories are fine by me, but the romance didn’t interest me nearly didn’t interest nearly so much as the conflict that kept Arizona’s Romeo from New York’s Juliet until the last page: the vision of America. Whatever else I might want to deny this as possessing, it has a vision – a relentless vision that Glenn Kilbourne teaches and that Carley Burch eventually adopts.

If I had to boil the vision down to a single word, I’d have to call it “Progress.” Humans are capable of more, Grey tells us through Glenn’s words and through the narrative descriptions of the vast Arizona landscape. They can and should grow morally, intellectually, spiritually, and in personal strength and collective size. I’m not sure from this book whether progress is either desired, possible, or necessary for Mexicans; Grey presents the book’s one Hispanic character as good and hard-working, but doesn’t indicate any path of improvement for her. Native Americans and African-Americans aren’t even mentioned, so the hope of progress probably doesn’t exist for them in Grey’s world. One ugly remark about “immigrants” strongly suggests that they (whoever they are) not only don’t deserve progress but actually hinder the progress of more deserving Americans. But in any case, Progress is available for people named Burch and Kilbourne (despite the almost certainly recent date of the immigration of the family with the latter name), and that Progress is best pursued in the American West.

The cities of the East, exemplified here by New York, pose big problems. There people seek darkness – the darkness of the movie theaters (the story takes place in the 1920s) and the darkness of the dance clubs. The films in those theaters make the boys who watch them grow up to be criminals and the girls who watch them vampires (the word used then for dangerous flirts, soon after shortened to “vamps”). Materialism runs rampant: men want nothing so much as they want cars, and they seem to want them only because they crave speed. The women of the East are slaves of fashion and will wear any revealing, salacious dress if fashion dictates that they must lower their moral standing by doing it. Jazz represents all these evils at once: the fast music, the promiscuous dress, the dark clubs. Many men don’t work; many just trade stocks and cut deals. To make matters worse, these loafers all probably found a way to stay out of the Great War instead of fighting with other Americans for America. The East spends money on entertainment but won’t pay teachers sufficiently to raise a new generation that can rise above the decadence of their tawdry parents. People in the East smoke; according to this book, anyway, hard-working ranchers in Arizona would never pollute their bodies with tobacco. One observation made over and over again is that city women tend not to bear children. And that problem brings Grey to his announcement of the greatest danger of all this bad behavior: the disappearance of the American race.

Grey’s West, on the other hand, cleanses those who visit. Early on, Carley climbs a knoll from which she can see a hundred miles in every direction. “Oh, America!” she exclaims. She never knew the immensity of the land, and any country that big and empty yearns to be filled and beckons to all who see it to the challenge. The West demands hard work and a renunciation of gross materialistic comfort, and those who answer this demand find their spirits growing. (It even seems to me that the “human spirit” in the book is a Hegelian world-spirit that needs the progress of humans in order to fulfill its search for self-knowledge.)

I struggled to sympathize with characters motivated by such a problematic vision. I certainly support the value of hard work, but I don’t believe a person has to engage in sheep-dipping in order to qualify as a hard worker. I also don’t believe that the men who went to the trenches of France were the only ones who served their country in World War I. I can’t condone everything that happens in a dark movie theater, and I can’t approve the message of every movie. But darkness and film themselves are not in themselves evils; I’ve received instruction, entertainment, rest, inspiration, and spiritual uplift from both on numerous occasions. But then the grand vistas of the West have also strengthened me many times, and I have to agree with Grey that they do so in a way nothing else does. I love my country enough to admit its terrible problems, but I can’t see that emptying New York City and transplanting all its former citizens in the Arizona desert will improve anything.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Five Years Ago

In August of 2010, I had an illness that kept me in bed for three weeks. After about a week, I felt energetic, but I still couldn’t leave bed. (You don’t want to know.) So I got bored. Really bored. My wife and I had just seen Julie & Julia, and so she told me I should start a blog. That’s what I did, and the last two weeks of that illness went much more quickly. But I didn’t stop when I got better: five years later, I’m still at it, today publishing post no. 524.

But my blog on reading hasn’t taken off like Julie Powell’s blog: I’ll ignore the possibility that my literary skills may not be up to snuff and just point out that musty philosophy and medieval poetry aren’t as popular as cooking. I see that one year ago, I reported that exlibrismagnis received about 1000 hits per month then; it’s averaged about 1300 a month lately, but Russian spambots seem to have found me, so I don’t know how many of those increased hits represent human readers. But for those of you who are human (and you know who you are!), thanks!

These last twelve months have made up the first full year in our new Tennessee home. I’ve had new time schedules to work out. I had to find the closest Wendy’s to my new campus for lunchtime reading. And I’ve had to find new places to walk both at work and around home so I can keep up my habit of exercising body and mind at the same time. During this first year in Tennessee, I’ve taken a tour of Renaissance Europe with Will Durant, watched the sun set in Trollope’s Barsetshire, followed the friendship of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt through a world war, witnessed Christianity gaining an unsteady footing in Gibbon’s declining and falling Roman Empire, finished Malory’s epic tale of the greatest knights in the world, and reread Cervantes’s moving account of the ridiculous modern man who tried to mimic them. These wonderful books traveled with me through my first year in a new job, on a long road trip to Newfoundland, and during a ten-month ordeal of discovering, fighting, and getting cured of cancer.

Here are links to a handful of my favorite posts from this last year:
A Bird’s Eye View
Serenity in Barsetshire
The Song
One Small Corner of Earth
Whose Stuff?
Mute Inglorious Miltons, Arise!
Looking Forward to 2015
Grim Expectations
Here I Can Grovel

About a year from now, my ten-year reading plan and my blog will be nearing their close. But keep with me until then, human readers. Russian spambots, on the other hand, please go away! I’m interested in old books, not whatever it is that you’re trying to lure me into.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Is Don Quixote Mad?

The thing about a Ten-Year Reading Plan is that the fellow doing the planning and reading looks forward to some books for years. And I waited with eager anticipation to reread Don Quixote for eight-and-a-half years. Then, as I began a year ago to put the calendar together for this twelvemonth of reading, I also started to look forward to blogging about the books on the schedule for 2015. And of all the blogging of the year, I looked forward most to writing this post.

Is Don Quixote mad? I’m not totally sure, but I’m pretty confident he isn’t. Yes, he says he’s a knight errant several hundred years after such characters supposedly existed. Yes, he attacks windmills while claiming that they are giants. Yes, he chooses a frumpy, unibrowed farm girl named Aldonza, rechristens her Dulcinea del Toboso, and then insists that everyone he meets declare her the most beautiful woman alive. But none of these facts makes me think that Don Quixote is insane. (1) He admits that he knows perfectly well who he is, that the books about knights depict them not as they actually were but as heroes ought to be, and that he simply wants to pattern his own life after the most virtuous models he can find, all of this making him idealistic, but not mad. (2) He doesn’t actually see giants when he attacks the windmills but instead claims that a sorcerer has changed the appearance of giants to that of windmills, making him gullible, but not mad. (3) He admits that no woman in a ballad is as lovely as the poet makes her out to be and that Dulcinea simply deserves to be called beautiful, making him extremely gallant and romantic, but not mad. No the detail that most tempts me to think him insane is his explicit deathbed confession that his days of knight-errantry were days of madness. But couldn’t this just be a figure of speech?

Sancho on the other hand truly believes (after a while) everything Don Quixote says. Who’s more mad: the madman or the fool who follows him?

Hmm. Was that brief exposition worth all the wait? Maybe not. But the great Spanish treasure, the book worth more than all the gold in all the conquistadors’ ships, was certainly worth the wait of a few paltry years.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the intolerance of many fourth-century Christians. It occurred to me after I pressed “Publish” that in using the word intolerant, I used a word that has recently acquired a meaning different from the one I normally use. I can quite easily and realistically imagine some people I know saying, “Well, duh! Of course Christians are intolerant: they believe something and think I’m wrong for disagreeing.” These days, some people find it difficult to draw a line between intolerance and disagreement. I hear people say strange, silly things like “That’s okay if that’s true for you, but it’s not true for me.” Wanting so much not to disagree – because disagreement seems today to smack of intolerance, and intolerance is not to be tolerated – many people have decided that truth is all relative.

I disagree with that sentiment. But my disagreeing with you doesn’t mean that I’m intolerant of you. It doesn’t mean I want to insult you. Disagreement is actually a great honor compared with the “your-truth-and-my-truth” attitude; at least disagreeing with you means that I care what you think and want to think it with you, at least long enough to find out what’s wrong with it. Or who knows? Maybe I’ll think about it long enough to come around to your way of thinking.

Trinitarians and Arians disagreed. Given the premises each held, they were right to disagree with each other. The theory Arius proposed needed to be talked out, and the Church needed an Athanasius to show what was wrong with the Arian theory. I don’t complain about any of that. But when the Christians in power kill the Christians who disagree (and it went both ways at various times), they have become intolerant to the ultimate degree, and I can’t approve. Now, my not approving doesn’t mean that if I lived then I would want to kill everyone who was so intolerant of others that they killed them. I just mean that I disagree with them and that I would hope I could have tried to be the Lord’s servant Paul describes in his second letter to Timothy: “kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth.”

Realizing that I still haven’t said much about what I read over the course of five weeks in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, I’d better move on. Gibbon continually moves and amazes me with a picture of a world without clearly defined edges. (We might say that the boundaries had tolerances!) Who was emperor of Rome? Well, when the dying emperor nominates one person but British legions declare someone else, the answer isn’t entirely clear cut. Was Rome the capital of the Roman Empire? Constantinople was clearly a capital. And the western emperors sometimes resided at Milan. But a Senate still sat in the ancient city. Was Rome Christian after Theodosius? The answer depends partly on how many believers in Jupiter were left and partly on whether Arians are to be considered Christian. Were the Visigoths the enemies of Rome? Thousands of them crossed the Danube to get away from the Huns; they assimilated themselves into Roman society and served in the army. From time to time, they rebelled. But at those times, were they Romans in protest or traitors or enemies of the state? The fuzzy boundaries on all these categories fascinate to me.

But that doesn’t mean that I believe that the truth of the categories is relative. It means that I think it is definitely true that they have fluid edges. The boundaries are fuzzy, not the truth.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Who Is Cervantes Making Fun Of?

Or for those who don’t know the wonderful witticism that may or may not have originated with Winston Churchill: “Of Whom Is Cervantes Making Fun?” Actually, I think he may be making fun of pedants, maybe even pedants who cite overly fastidious grammatical rules. (And as a pedant who cites only moderately fastidious grammatical rules, I have the right to laugh with Cervantes.) But more on the satire in a moment.

First I have to say a word on the difference between book I and book II. While I’ve been rereading Don Quixote, I’ve noticed that I remember a lot from book I and almost none from the second half. I was puzzled about the stark difference for a while, but I think I now know why it is. Despite Cervantes’s efforts to improve his writing for the conclusion of the novel (he says right in the narration that he’s trying to satisfy the critics who found fault with book I), I just don’t find book II nearly as entertaining. The efforts of Don Quixote’s family and neighbors to keep him from going out again are fun. But soon after he sets forth on his final quest for new adventures, he falls in with a Duke and Duchess who take up at least 25% of the whole work playing tricks on poor Don Quixote. I can laugh at the Knight of the Sad Countenance when he mistakes windmills for enchanted giants, but I can’t laugh with the supposed nobles who tell Don Quixote that a particular bearded man is an enchanted woman just to see what he’ll do. If I can’t laugh with the Duke and Duchess, I’m not laughing at Don Quixote. And if I’m not laughing at Don Quixote, I’m not having as much fun. I must have thought the same thing the last time I read the great Spanish treasure, and that would explain my remembering so much more of the first part.

Still, if Quixote’s delusions aren’t funny in the second part, at least he has interesting things to say. And Sancho is still funny – maybe even funnier than he is in book I. And I’m still more than happy about including every word of this most wonderful classic on my ten-year reading plan. So I’ve been thinking: who is Cervantes making fun of in this book? On the surface level, he’s making fun of Don Quixote (at least when he’s not making sport of him). And of course he succeeds famously: history’s last knight errant is such a hilariously great character that everyone, even people who haven’t read the book, knows about Don Quixote and his mad attempt to tilt at windmills (an episode found in book I, naturally).

But the satire runs deeper. Don Quixote himself says that he wants to style his life after the knights he reads about in books. So apparently Cervantes is poking some fun at Spanish heroic romances written at and just before his time. If Cervantes primarily aimed his barbs at these knightly tales, the wonder is that Don Quixote is still funny for us today, since virtually no one now knows the originals.

I think, though, that Cervantes goes after even larger game. Many times in the book, people marvel that someone who talks so intelligently and even wisely could behave in such a barmy way. This oft-mentioned view of Don Quixote has me thinking that he represents scholars, authors, and (perhaps especially) critics: people who live off of the words they spout out but don’t necessarily live as wisely as they speak. Come to think of it, though, isn’t that all of us? We all talk a good game, and we all fall short of the glory of God. So ultimately perhaps Cervantes is making fun of the whole human race. And maybe that’s why we all love Don Quixote so much and are so ready to forgive him.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bring It On

Before I started reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire a couple of years ago, I had heard that author Edward Gibbon offended many Christians of his time and afterwards because of some less than respectful treatment of the Christians in his history. Reading only 150 pages a year (albeit 150 long pages), I didn’t get to any Christians until my second year with the book: last year. There, the only thing I could see that might have troubled people is that he took a long time to show that Constantine, the first Christian emperor, wasn’t always such a good guy, and that Julian, who left the Church and declared himself a believer in the Roman pantheon, was a wise and virtuous ruler. Those two points seemed true to me, and Gibbon didn’t offend me with either one.

In this year’s passage, Gibbon has a lot of good things to say about Christians and a lot of bad things to say about them. The negative criticisms pertain mostly to the intolerance of Trinitarians for Arians and vice versa. How is this offensive? There aren’t any Arians around anymore (unless the Unitarians want to claim that pedigree), so I think the purported libel must apply to the Trinitarians. But many of them were intolerant (Gibbon carefully points out a couple of notable exceptions), and they did abuse their political privilege. If I’m offended, I’m offended by the fourth-century Christians for leaving a legacy of exiling and executing those who didn’t agree with them. Christianity stayed purer and when Christians had no political power, which is why I’m not overly upset by the increasing secularism of our society.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Robber Barons and Luther’s Stew

When my wife and I go on road trips, I spend much of the time reading out loud while my wife drives. It makes the miles go by faster, and we get educated and entertained. She knows that when we have a long trip, she’s going to have hear some things from my list: I can take a break from The Plan for a weekend jaunt, but not for a three-week trek to Newfoundland. We always read some C. S. Lewis, and often we enjoy some G. K. Chesterton; this year we read Christian Reflections and Orthodoxy. We also watched Emma nearly ruin everyone’s lives, including her own, by her meddling. And we followed Agatha Christie to Baghdad. These are all things she would normally read on her own. But I also read a long chapter from something she hasn’t, to my knowledge, ever picked up and probably never will: Will Durant’s magisterial The Story of Civilization.

I’m well into the Reformation volume this year. Last year, I read the first 250 pages, which trace the events of several European countries through the years of the Italian Renaissance, the subject of the previous volume. But now, after the game of catch-up, Durant is just about ready to discuss the actual Reformation. In the car last month, we read a chapter about conditions in Germany just before Luther’s stand.

As we read the first few pages, concerning the financial transformation of fifteenth-century Germany, I kept thinking about the robber barons I had read about earlier this year in Edward Rutherfurd’s New York. Did you know J. P. Morgan once stopped a nationwide financial crisis with his personal funds? His personal funds! I couldn’t help making the comparison when we read about Jakob Fugger making private loans to several troubled European states. One person bailing out an entire country – or even several. Now that’s rich. I don’t think Bill Gates could make more than a tiny dent in a national crisis if, say, our creditors decided to call in their debts.

Coincidentally (I hesitate to say “ironically” since no one can use that word these days without being told that they don’t understand irony), after I had the term “robber barons” swimming around in my head for a couple of days, Durant explained the origin of the term – and it wasn’t Fugger and the other financiers. The term came from actual barons, the German knights who seemed to make up the only class that didn’t benefit from the move from feudalism. Their wealth lay in land and traditional obligations for service, none of which went far in a society that wanted thalers for everything. So the German knights declared private wars and attacked tax wagons moving through their domains. It wasn’t exactly stealing from the rich to give to the poor. It was more a matter of stealing from the moneyed to give to the landed, which happened to be themselves.

The ultimate point Durant makes in this section is that the new portable wealth enjoyed throughout the region we think of as Germany led a sizable new class of people both to scorn the old system of feudalism and to resent having to part with so much of their new-found cash in the form of tithes to Rome. After all, they reasoned, the church in Rome is extremely corrupt (we just won’t mention the lax morals in our part of Europe); so why should we enable their debauchery? And thus the pot was heated for Luther’s stew.