Links R & C 1

Having reduced my twitter account to a bot that post links to this blog, I have decided to post a list of links here from time to time. I am calling the series “Links R & C,” because I shall be posting the links under two headings: “Recent” and “Classic.” Blogging is an ephemeral medium, but certain blogposts of long past years have caught like burrs in the trouser-legs of my memory, and I think it worth while to re-read them from time to time.


Eugene Vodolazkin, The New Middle AgesFirst Things. An amusing essay by a Russian novelist in which he argues that post-modern literary culture is more akin to the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages than the print culture of modernity.

James Chastek, Dialogue on Religion and LaïcitéJust Thomism. The ever fresh and philosophical Chastek on the paradox of cordoning off religion out of fear of death.

Idem, The critique of contemporary conservativism, ibidem. The most memorable point is #2 on the vacuity of the term “big government.”

Michael Gilleland, DisloyaltyLaudator Temporis Acti. «To the average pagan their refusal to burn a few grains of incense on the Emperor’s birthday must have appeared as a deliberate and insolent expression of disloyalty, rather like refusing to stand up when the national anthem is played.»

P.J. Smith, We’re back on the trainSemiduplex. Smith’s reflections on the Holy Father’s recent endorsement of an Argentine implementation of Amoris Laetitia. Semiduplex is solid as always, though I think he is a bit too harsh on St. John Paul II’s letter to Cardinal Baum on how one can intend not to fall into a certain sin again while expecting that one will. This is certainly often the case with habitual sins (eg. gluttony and drunkenness). Of course, one ought to avoid the near occasion of sin, but the supposition here is that there are very serious reasons for not extricating oneself from the occasion. This does, of course, show that those reasons must be very strong indeed, if they are to justify staying in a situation so dangerous to one’s immortal soul. Update: Smith has clarified his position.

Ronaldo as a Theologian, Ludorum Pulcherrimus Football. Over at my new soccer blog I reflect on the Brazilian Ronaldo’s Augustinian understanding of the Pauline principle that “in everything God works for the good of those who love Him.”


2011: Berenike, Lublin, philosophy and shoesLaodicea. Berenike was a true master of the blog form. It is hardly fair to regret that she gave up blogging to devote herself to higher things, but she has certainly been missed. This post had everything: odd, endearing autobiographical detail; Lucky Jim style put-downs of great academic philosophers; and even a little philosophy!

2010: J. Nordlinger, Salzburg SouvenirsNational Review. Even people who are wrong about most everything can write good blogposts about the beauties of Salzburg.

2011: James Chastek, The death wish in the contemporary westJust Thomism. My all-time favorite Chastek post.


2 thoughts on “Links R & C 1

  1. That last Chastek post from 2011 has got me thinking. It seems (to me, at least) to demand a response and expansion on Chestertonian lines.

    This isn’t as odd as it sounds, because a great deal of Chesterton’s corpus, when examined closely, boils down to a meditation on cultural decline and decadence (of which there was plenty to be seen in his day, as in ours) in tension with the goodness of creation. A lot of Chesterton’s work seems to be designed to give us ways to separate a creative and Christian desire for death/change/development with a merely Satanic and pagan one.

    I’m convinced that Chastek’s insight is key, though–the corruption of natural beings and kinds, and even the basic change and temporality in which all creatures are embedded, is a way of imitating God by way of temporal succession. Creatures are ephemeral by nature, and this is, given the overall scheme of the universe, a good. The change in cultures over time, which is basically based on the change in generations, is an instance of this.

    A basic sin to which man is prone is to take creatures (and cultures) as God–that is, as things which can exhaust his desires, and hence are eternal and unchanging. This is what Chesterton calls taking things for granted–taking them as necessities for us or as owed to us in some sense, rather than as gifts which are entirely gratuitous and even excessive. On this, the last chapter of Chesterton’s autobiography (practically the last thing he wrote) is a practical summation of Chesterton’s whole life and career, and it centers around precisely this topic. Chesterton’s argument is at once a rebuttal to the Victorians and the Decadents, and its point is that both are instances of one and the same phenomenon, and one and the same sin.

    When we take things, especially cultural orders, as substitutes for God, we inevitably take them as other than they really are (that is, gratuitous and transitory)–we pretend they are necessary and eternal, and we exalt them far beyond their own being. Then, we quickly become decadents, whose entire worldview is again predicated on taking cultural orders as eternal and unchangeable–only for them, this eternal order is fundamentally unbearable, since it pretends to be God without being him. Hence, the decadent takes everything for granted, finds everything wanting, and desires death.

    Chesterton’s answer to these two states of mind is manifold, and it’s no exaggeration to say that all of his innumerable works are concerned with it in some way. At the heart of it, though, is the idea of gratitude. We receive all temporal things from the outside, not as things which are meant to stand in for God, but as gifts from God and pointers to him–hence, we do not face the dilemma of either despising them or take them as absolute. In the arena of culture, we realize, at the outset, that culture is a human artifact, existing for certain definite ends, and that it naturally always changes to some degree due to the succession of time and the change of generations–and we receive it with gratitude nonetheless, and strive to create a cultural order that is fundamentally open to God, and increases people’s ability to appreciate the world as a gift and attain to God.

    Because of this, our attitude towards all cultures and temporal orders should always be one of appreciation, and hence of cultivation. This is a metaphor Chesterton uses on more than one occasion as a rebuttal to the progressivism of his day–culture and civilization is something to be cultivated with effort and creativity. This cultivation presupposes that its subject is transitory, always changing, and fundamentally secondary (as we grow food for people to eat, or walls to keep out animals, not merely to sate our boredom)–it seeks to guide this change in positive ways, preserving and increasing what is good and removing what is bad, and hence making definite progress over time on the basis of some firm ideal or principle. This idea is, for Chesterton, a rebuttal at once to progressivism and conservatism. The trouble with progressivism is that it treats culture as absolute, and its development as predetermined and always for the better–but this is as absurd in practice as it would be when applied to any genuine act of cultivation or human craft. To use two examples used by Chesterton: a fence does not automatically become more white over time, until it achieves a totally never-before-seen kind of whiteness; corn does not continually produce more and more without any care or creativity; and both these things exist ultimately to serve “the ordinary flesh and spirit” of human beings, not so that human beings and human nature should be altered in order to serve them. At the same time, for Chesterton, the trouble with conservatism is that it again makes the cultural order absolute, seeking to preserve a static and unchanging order, and hence ignoring the transitory nature of things, and the constant need for human care and creativity. As he puts it, again, if you want a white fence, you will need to constantly repaint it, and probably replace it from time to time–and the fence should be taken down if it harms people.

    The trouble with both of these orders is that they absolutise the temporal order of things. In such cases, destruction and death may become helpful, even necessary, for the good of people. As GKC’s “The Ballad of Saint Barbara,” a poem about WWI in relation to the long era decadence preceding it, puts it, “Ruin is a builder of windows.” That is, when a cultural order threatens to seem absolute (either in a progressive, conservative, or decadent sense), its ruin can open up people’s ability to see past it to reality and God. Hence, Chesterton suggests in a column in the 1930s (that most wretched decade) that the fall of a civilization is often preferable to its merely continuing to increase in material power while failing to provide a means for people to be happy within it.

    Here, though, the destruction, though, is only a means–it is not something to be desired in itself. For the crux of the issue is always fundamentally people’s ability to see through the temporal to the eternal, not the temporal conditions themselves. Destruction can be helpful in this, but it can also be harmful–as the annihilation of WWI ended up leading to a wave of decadence even more despairing then before, and finally to the madness of the 1930s.

    On the other hand, there is a kind of delight in destruction in and of itself–a desire to gain transcendence through destruction that is cut off entirely from any appreciation of the value of things or even of God himself. This Chesterton sees as literally Satanic–and as represented by the Nazis and the militarists of his day. “The Ballad of the White Horse” presents this attitude as the natural end of the decadence of civilization, and responds to it in resounding terms: “For our God hath blessed creation/ Calling it good; I know/ That spirit with whom you blindly band/ Hath blessed destruction with his hand;/ But by God’s death the stars shall stand,/ and the small apples grow.” Here, the pagan Danes’ rejection of the natural human duty of cultivating and preserving in the face of change is the sign of their inevitable failure and defeat, just as Satan will inevitably be defeated and destroyed. Those who desire death will receive it in the end.

    We live in very decadent times. There is a pervasive cultural and civilization death-wish on all sides of our political and religious divides. The duty of Christians, though, I am convinced, is to preserve all that is good and can be preserved, and to be ready with a revolution that will not destroy civilization, but renew it in human terms. This was Chesterton’s argument prior to World War II; and I think it is just as applicable now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Some interesting posts from Sancrucensis (and a response) – Semiduplex

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