A Dialogue on Star Wars

Baring (standing), Over-Bearing (right), Past-Bearing (left)

Over-BearingFew things shows how far the world has sunken since our time more clearly than an American college lecturer reflecting on his students difficulty in reading children’s books [he reads aloud from  John Senior’s The Restoration of Christian Culture]:

In my own direct experience teaching literature at universities, I have found a large plurality of students who find, say, Treasure Island what they call “hard reading,” which means too difficult to enjoy with anything approaching their delight in Star Wars or electronic games.

Has it indeed come to this? That the descendants of the peoples of Christendom— of the peoples who built the great cathedrals, who conquered and instructed worlds— that the descendants of such peoples should have fallen so low that they cannot even enjoy Mr. Stevenson’s simple adventure stories.  No one could accuse me of being overly optimistic about the effects of the death of Christian civilization, but even I did not expect man to fall so far below the beasts that his keenest enjoyment would be found in Star Wars. Star Wars! That dismal mush of pantheism, gnosticism, and sentimentality, so illogical that in our day a child of five years would have laughed it to scorn.

Past-BearingYou are quite wrong to see in the popularity of Star Wars a sign of how far our race has fallen since the end of civilization. On the contrary— Star Wars is proof that how ever far the world has fallen, human nature cannot be entirely corrupted, and that despite the reigning dogma’s of anti-culture, the common man can still tell the difference between good and evil, and delights in stories about the triumph of the one over the other. The miracle of Star Wars is that it shows a world of machines and space-ships in which the most important thing is mystery of the good; the magic of an “ancient religion.” In the figure of Luke Skywalker the inhabitants of the dreary wasteland of a world dis-enchanted by godlessness and capitalism, can see themselves discovering that after all the world is a mighty battle field between super-natural powers. Star Wars is not art, but it is something much more important: it is story about the truth of our magical world. It is to these sad times, what penny dreadfuls were to ours.

Over-Bearing: Nonsense. Star Wars is not a story told by the simple for their own amusement. It is a powerful propaganda weapon made at great expense by Californian plutocrats, members of the world wide conspiracy of anti-Catholics and usurers. It was made to confuse the notions of good and evil, and muddle the minds of the world’s children.

Past-Bearing: My dear Over-Bearing, the truth is quite the opposite of what you say. It is precisely the proud intellectuals of the new anti-culture who decry Star Wars for being “puerile” and lacking “subtlety” in its depiction of good and evil— that is, for not mixing them up enough— for making the good good and the evil evil. Hence children spontaneously love Star Wars. It is the relativists and soft-Nietzscheans, and Picasso lovers who decry it as the end of culture.

Over-Bearing: That man may be an ass, who considers Picasso an artist, but he is quite right that Star Wars is mindless distraction that is passively consumed, destroying rather than nourishing the imagination. You yourself has magnificently shown that real fairy tales are quite reasonable, and make perfect sense. But Star Wars makes no sense at all; it is full of the most illogical stupidity. Not to mention the gnostic dualism.

Past-Bearing: It is true that some of the more tiresome characters talk solemn nonsense of a gnostic sort. But the portrayal of good and evil in action is entirely Christian, and even entirely Catholic. Evil is exaggeratedly great appearance, but weak in substance— a shadowy privation of being. Hence many of the apparent absurdities and impossibilities show themselves to be entirely logical. That the Storm Troopers are so feared, and yet are all such comically bad shots. That the evil empire is so powerful, and yet so easy to destroy. When Luke walks unarmed into the the stronghold of the enemy at the end of Return of the Jedi, he shows us again the greatest story ever told: the story of the weakness of the good proving itself stronger than the strength of evil.

Over-BearingPast-Bearing, you are indeed past all bearing. You cannot be comparing that spoiled, whining whelp, Luke Skywalker, to our Savior?

Past-Bearing: The tone of Skywalker’s voice might not be the most euphonious, but it is necessary in order that American teenagers might see him as being of their kind. As the theologians say: quod non est assumptum non est sanatum.

[Exit Over-Bearing in disgust]

[Baring, who has been listening in interest all the while, while pretending to write a triolet, lays down his pen].

Baring: Your defense of Star Wars is all very well, Past-Bearing, but surely it doesn’t apply to The Force Awakens. The original trilogy (despite its vulgarity and sentimentality) had a certain inventiveness, an innocent delight in the revealing of new-worlds. To see the old Star Wars was to walk through an enchanted door and to see again, as though half remembered, the light upon the enchanted world of childhood. But the new film is dull affair made by a committee of capitalists. A tent-pole film so anxious to please the admirers of the original that it repeats almost frame for frame the plot of A New Hope. So anxious not to be boring, that it rushes along at a frantic pace without time for enjoyment. A film so pedantically obsessed with the politically correct opinions that the heroine becomes a sort of feminist Mary Sue, for whom everything is so easy that nothing matters. Force Awakens is the very paragon of  unimaginative and decadent art.

Past-Bearing: Oh, but repetition is the very essence of the age-old story of good and evil. And typology is the genius of The Force AwakensSurely decadent art is obsessed with novelty? Nostalgia is the mark of truly human stories: Virgil is nostalgic, Dante is nostalgic [cf. the conclusion of this post].  And as to Rey: I find no fault with her role in the story. Does she not show us that great, triumphant, and eternally exciting truth: that one good girl is more powerful than a great many bad men in masks? That the goodness of a little girl is fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners?

[enter Duff Cooper, a little drunk]

Duff Cooper: I say, let’s go see The Force Awakens.

Past-Bearing [gets up with alacrity]: Yes, do let’s

Baring: Oh, all right.

Michel Houellebecq on France’s Distributist Future

I recently listened to an audiobook of the German translation of Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel Soumission— which, as most readers will know, is about Muslim party taking power in France. I am working on a review, and have been checking my favorite passages in the French original. I hope to complete the full review soon, but in the mean time here is a  rough translation of some passages in which Houellebecq discusses distributism. The main objective of the new government is to strengthen the family, and for this purpose they turn to distributism:

Apart from this superficial agitation, France was in the midst of rapid development and profound change. It soon became clear that Mohammed Ben Abbes [the new Muslim president of France] had other ideas apart from Islam; in a press conference he declared to general astonishment that he was influenced by distributism. Actually he had already mentioned this multiple times during his campaign, but since journalists are very naturally inclined to ignore information that they cannot understand, these statements were not passed on to the public. This time he was the sitting president of the republic so that it was necessary for them to bring their research up to date. And so the public learned over the next few weeks that distributism was an economic philosophy that had been developed in England at the start of the 20th century by thinkers such as Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. It wanted to take a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism (which it understood as state capitalism). Its basic idea was the overcoming of the division between capital and labor. The normal form of economic life was to be the family business. If certain branches of production required large scale organization, then everything was to be done to ensure that the workers were co-owners of their company, and co-responsible for its management.  […] An essential element of political philosophy introduced by Chesterton and Belloc was the principle of subsidiarity. According to this principle, no association (whether social, economic or political) should have charge of a function that could be assigned to a smaller association. Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, provided a definition of this principle: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

(Au-delà de cette agitation superficielle, la France était en train d’évoluer rapidement, et d’évoluer en profondeur. Il apparut bientôt que Mohammed Ben Abbes, même indépendamment de l’islam, avait des idées ; lors d’une séance de questions à la presse, il se déclara influencé par le distributivisme, ce qui plongea ses auditeurs dans un ébahissement général. Il l’avait à vrai dire déjà déclaré, à plusieurs reprises, au cours de la campagne présidentielle ; mais les journalistes ayant une tendance bien naturelle à ignorer les informations qu’ils ne comprennent pas, la déclaration n’avait été ni relevée, ni reprise. Cette fois, il s’agissait d’un président de la république en exercice, il devenait donc indispensable qu’ils mettent à jour leur documentation. Le grand public apprit ainsi au cours des semaines suivantes que le distributivisme était une philosophie économique apparue en Angleterre au début du xxe siècle sous l’impulsion des penseurs Gilbert Keith Chesterton et Hilaire Belloc. Elle se voulait une « troisième voie », s’écartant aussi bien du capitalisme que du communisme – assimilé à un capitalisme d’État. Son idée de base était la suppression de la séparation entre le capital et le travail. La forme normale de l’économie y était l’entreprise familiale ; lorsqu’il devenait nécessaire, pour certaines productions, de se réunir dans des entités plus vastes, tout devait être fait pour que les travailleurs soient actionnaires de leur entreprise, et coresponsables de sa gestion. […] Un des éléments essentiels de la philosophie politique introduite par Chesterton et Belloc était le principe de subsidiarité. D’après ce principe, aucune entité (sociale, économique ou politique) ne devait prendre en charge une fonction pouvant être confiée à une entité plus petite. Le pape Pie XI, dans son ency- clique Quadragesimo Anno, fournissait une définition de ce principe: «Tout comme il est mauvais de reti- rer à l’individu et de confier à la communauté ce que l’entreprise privée et l’industrie peuvent accomplir, c’est également une grande injustice, un mal sérieux et une perturbation de l’ordre convenable pour une organisation supérieure plus large de s’arroger les fonctions qui peuvent être effectuées efficacement par des entités inférieures plus petites.»  [Soumission, pp. 201-202, 210])

The Challenge of Dorothy Day


I recently read Dorothy Day’s memoir The Long Loneliness for the fist time; it was very beautiful and moving, but also challenging. Beautiful and moving because Day is such a lovable, good person, who truly tried to live the Gospel. But challenging because Day was an anarchist-distributist, committed to an egalitarian-emancipatory idea of justice, and a pacifist; while I am an authoritarian-corporatist, committed to an hierarchical-aristocratic view of justice, and an account of the transcendence of the common good that justifies war under certain conditions. What makes Dorothy Day’s positions so challenging is that they are so clearly rooted in her own experience concrete experience of poverty and injustice, and of the power of the Gospel. My own thinking on political and economic matters is very abstract and based mostly on book-learning a fellow blogger reminds me from time to time.

The notional and abstract must of course always be rooted in the real and concrete; the danger of unmooring it and creating a “system” independent of reality is grave. But on the other hand, the notional also makes more precise and distinct what is known confusedly in concretion.

Some persons think that Dorothy Day was “too radical”– by which they seem to mean that she was too condemning of industrial capitalism– by my difficulty with her is virtually the opposite–that she was not radical enough. I think her condemnation of the evils of capitalism was spot on, but that her conception of the alternative was too much of a piece with the whole ideological structure of modernity that helped bring capitalism about.

One of the most magnificent things about Day is deeply felt sense of solidarity. She writes of her thoughts as she lay in a prison cell long before her conversion:

I was the mother whose child had been raped and slain. I was the mother who had born the monster who had done it. I was even that monster, feeling in my own breast every abomination. (p.70)

It was this sense of solidarity that lead her eventually into the Church:

It was the Irish of New England, the Italians, the Hungarians, the Lithuanians, the Poles, it was the great mass of the poor, the workers who were the Catholics in this country, and this fact in itself drew me to the church.

It was this deep felt sense of solidarity that made the made Day so sympathetic to the egalitarian ideology of the left. Unfortunately this colors even her reading of scripture. She loves to say “call no man master, for ye are all brothers,” but unfortunately the only way of realizing this that she can she is through liberty and equality and anarchy. My difficulty with this is that there are a great many other passages of scripture which show that solidarity is based in the participation in the great common good of peace, and this presupposes distinction of rank.

On her Catholic Worker farming communes Day tried to realize her conception of anarchical fraternity, this caused some rather predictable problems:

William Gauchat who headed the house of hospitality, furnished an apartment for single women in need, and a married couple arriving first, were sheltered there. But when Bill wanted to put a few single women into the empty bedrooms, the couple announced that they had possession and refused to allow them entrance. Our guests know that we will not call upon the police to evict them, that we are trying to follow the dear Lord’s teach- ings, “If anyone take your coat, let go your cloak also to him. . . . Give to him that asks of you and from him that would borrow, turn not away. You have heard that it has been said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you, that you may be the children of your father who is in heaven who makes his sun to rise upon the good and the bad and rains upon the just and the unjust.” When another family came to Maryfarm, we explained that we were trying to open a retreat house and that we did not have room for them. It was the family of one of our own willful leaders who “loved God and did as he pleased.” He did not wish to remain on a farm belonging to his father, where he was forced to work too hard. He and his wife refused to listen and unpacked their things to stay with us. First they took over the lower farmhouse. After a few conflicts due to their possessing themselves of retreat house goods (as common goods) they moved to the upper farm to join Victor. For the following year they continued their guerrilla tactics from the upper farm, coming down to make raids on the retreat house food and furnishings, explaining to retreatants that they were true Catholic Workers and that the retreat house was a perversion of the movement. (261-262)

It is not hard to guess what St Paul would have have to say about that. “Non est dissensionis Deus, sed pacis.” It is hard to square St Paul with egalitarian anarchism:

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men… (Eph 6:5-7)

It seems to me that the problem here is that Day’s thinking was too concrete: she considered merely the evil and unjust form of servitude that she found in the economic system of her time and did not consider its essence in abstraction.

The same I think can be said of her pacifism. One can apply to her what Belloc (one of her favorite authors) says of his own pacifist friends:

[When] a man says that war is wrong, he is saying something which, as it stands, is manifestly nonesense. But if we expand the phrase it has full and definite meaning. He means “for one organised community to attempt destruction and physical pain upon the organization of another such community with the object of gain or increase of power is wrong.” And so it undoubtedly is. (The Cruise of the Nona, p. 110)

Chesterton as Belloc’s Proverb-Maker

NPG 3654,Conversation piece,by Sir James Gunn

Elliot Milco has written a wonderfully amusing post against G.K. Chesterton quotes (expanded at First Things):

I made it through the first two pages (of sixteen) devoted to Chesterton on a popular quotation website. Here are a few of the stupidities I found:
People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are.
By this logic, the works of E.L. James must be extremely true.
One sees great things from the valley, only small things from the peak.
One sees small things from the valley, but only at the peak can one see the greatness of which they form a part.
Love means to love that which is unlovable; or it is no virtue at all.
Love means to love what is worthy of love; everything else is vice.
Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.
Maybe it’s because Chesterton wasn’t educated that he believed this, but I find that educated people tend to take each other much more seriously than uneducated people take them. People with college degrees don’t tend to call intellectuals “egg heads.”

And so on. It reminded me of Belloc’s immortal rant against the proverb maker in The Path to Rome (which is good enough to be quoted at length):


When that first Proverb-Maker who has imposed upon all peoples by his epigrams and his fallacious half-truths, his empiricism and his wanton appeals to popular ignorance, I say when this man (for I take it he was a man, and a wicked one) was passing through France he launched among the French one of his pestiferous phrases, ‘Ce n’est que le premier pas qui coûté’ and this in a rolling-in-the-mouth self-satisfied kind of a manner has been repeated since his day at least seventeen million three hundred and sixty-two thousand five hundred and four times by a great mass of Ushers, Parents, Company Officers, Elder Brothers, Parish Priests, and authorities in general whose office it may be and whose pleasure it certainly is to jog up and disturb that native slumber and inertia of the mind which is the true breeding soil of Revelation.
For when boys or soldiers or poets, or any other blossoms and prides of nature, are for lying steady in the shade and letting the Mind commune with its Immortal Comrades, up comes Authority busking about and eager as though it were a duty to force the said Mind to burrow and sweat in the matter of this very perishable world, its temporary habitation.
‘Up,’ says Authority, ‘and let me see that Mind of yours doing something practical. Let me see Him mixing painfully with circumstance, and botching up some Imperfection or other that shall at least be a Reality and not a silly Fantasy.’
Then the poor Mind comes back to Prison again, and the boy takes his horrible Homer in the real Greek (not Church’s book, alas!); the Poet his rough hairy paper, his headache, and his cross-nibbed pen; the Soldier abandons his inner picture of swaggering about in ordinary clothes, and sees the dusty road and feels the hard places in his boot, and shakes down again to the steady pressure of his pack; and Authority is satisfied, knowing that he will get a smattering from the Boy, a rubbishy verse from the Poet, and from the Soldier a long and thirsty march. And Authority, when it does this commonly sets to work by one of these formulae: as, in England north of Trent, by the manifestly false and boastful phrase, ‘A thing begun is half ended’, and in the south by ‘The Beginning is half the Battle’; but in France by the words I have attributed to the Proverb-Maker, ‘Ce n’est que le premier pas qui coûte’.
By this you may perceive that the Proverb-Maker, like every other Demagogue, Energumen, and Disturber, dealt largely in metaphor–but this I need hardly insist upon, for in his vast collection of published and unpublished works it is amply evident that he took the silly pride of the half-educated in a constant abuse of metaphor. There was a sturdy boy at my school who, when the master had carefully explained to us the nature of metaphor, said that so far as he could see a metaphor was nothing but a long Greek word for a lie. And certainly men who know that the mere truth would be distasteful or tedious commonly have recourse to metaphor, and so do those false men who desire to acquire a subtle and unjust influence over their fellows, and chief among them, the Proverb-Maker. For though his name is lost in the great space of time that has passed since he flourished, yet his character can be very clearly deduced from the many literary fragments he has left, and that is found to be the character of a pusillanimous and ill-bred usurer, wholly lacking in foresight, in generous enterprise, and chivalrous enthusiasm–in matters of the Faith a prig or a doubter, in matters of adventure a poltroon, in matters of Science an ignorant Parrot, and in Letters a wretchedly bad rhymester, with a vice for alliteration; a wilful liar (as, for instance, ‘The longest way round is the shortest way home’), a startling miser (as, ‘A penny saved is a penny earned’), one ignorant of largesse and human charity (as, ‘Waste not, want not’), and a shocking boor in the point of honour (as, ‘Hard words break no bones’–he never fought, I see, but with a cudgel).


Not that Chesterton’s character was much like that of the Proverb-Maker; his method sometimes was. “But,” Belloc continues, and his last point is perhaps more applicable to Chesterton than Milco admits:

he had just that touch of slinking humour which the peasants have, and there is in all he said that exasperating quality for which we have no name, which certainly is not accuracy, and which is quite the opposite of judgement, yet which catches the mind as brambles do our clothes, causing us continually to pause and swear. For he mixes up unanswerable things with false conclusions, he is perpetually letting the cat out of the bag and exposing our tricks, putting a colour to our actions, disturbing us with our own memory, indecently revealing corners of the soul. He is like those men who say one unpleasant and rude thing about a friend, and then take refuge from their disloyal and false action by pleading that this single accusation is true; and it is perhaps for this abominable logicality of his and for his malicious cunning that I chiefly hate him: and since he himself evidently hated the human race, he must not complain if he is hated in return.

Belloc and Class War

Recent posts (here and here) by Daniel Nichols of the excellent distributist blog Caelum et Terra have provoked a spirited and eloquent defense of the radical left by Owen (“the ochlophobist”). Owen begins by attacking distributism, and Catholic Social Teaching in general, for rejecting class-conflict, thus rejecting the only realistic means of bringing down the power of capital:

Distributism is a leftist movement, or rather would be, were it not for one major distinction between it and every other leftist movement – distributists are either quiet with regard to the necessity of class conflict, or they state they are against it (in keeping with the “plain” reading of C[atholic] S[social] T[eaching]). Leftists, whether anarcho-syndicalist, anarchist, communist, lib-communist, or socialist (here speaking of socialism proper), all believe that there cannot be an overcoming of capitalism without class conflict. […] Belloc […] never, so far as I have been able to find, preached, or even mentions positively, class war and the cultivation of class conflict as a socio-political aggressor which will bring this about. Without a belief in the role of class conflict, you are basically left with a political vision in which you really hope most people, including most rich people, will, without a serious fight, assent to the desires of a society that on the whole wants to be oriented towards distributism. How can a thinking person can look at the history of capitalism and rationally conclude that this is possible?

Belloc, as a faithful Catholic, never promoted class war, but there is definitely a case to be made that he was conflicted about this. His deep sense of the injustice of capitalism made him sympathetic with the vindictive anger of class-revolution. The clearest expression of this is the unrestrained violence of his early poem The Rebel:

There is a wall of which the stones
Are lies and bribes and dead men’s bones.
And wrongfully this evil wall
Denies what all men made for all,
And shamelessly this wall surrounds
Our homesteads and our native grounds.
But I will gather and I will ride,
And I will summon a countryside,
And many a man shall hear my halloa
Who never had thought the horn to follow;
And many a man shall ride with me
Who never had thought on earth to see
High Justice in her armoury.
When we find them where they stand,
A mile of men on either hand,
I mean to charge from right away
And force the flanks of their array,
And press them inward from the plains,
And drive them clamouring down the lanes,
And gallop and harry and have them down,
And carry the gates and hold the town.
Then shall I rest me from my ride
With my great anger satisfied.
Only, before I eat and drink,
When I have killed them all, I think
That I will batter their carven names,
And slit the pictures in their frames,
And burn for scent their cedar door,
And melt the gold their women wore,
And hack their horses at the knees,
And hew to death their timber trees,
And plough their gardens deep and through—
And all these things I mean to do
For fear perhaps my little son
Should break his hands, as I have done.

Small wonder that Belloc’s election to parliament was seen as a disaster by the upper class. Here is how Christopher Hollis describes it:

Conservative property-owners, terrified by the threats of the 1906 election, saw in his oratory the threat of the tumbrils which awaited them. ‘Belloc is in’ went the message round the rich houses of Maifair when the election results came through. They feared the worst. (The Seven Ages, p. 52)

In his magnificent panegyric on Belloc Msgr. Ronald Knox describes Belloc as a prophet who “saw what he took to be the evils of our time in a clear light, and with a steady hatred; [who] found, or thought he had found, a common root in them, and traced them back, with that light God gave him, to their origins.” That I think is just right, but then Knox interprets a famous passage from The Path to Rome in a way that I think is not quite right. Here is the Belloc passage itself, which I quote at length for the context:

I found my cigar and lit it again, and musing much more deeply than before, not without tears, I considered the nature of Belief. Of its nature it breeds a reaction and an indifference. Those who believe nothing but only think and judge cannot understand this. Of its nature it struggles with us. And we, we, when our youth is full on us, invariably reject it and set out in the sunlight content with natural things. Then for a long time we are like men who follow down the cleft of a mountain and the peaks are hidden from us and forgotten. It takes years to reach the dry plain, and then we look back and see our home. What is it, do you think, that causes the return? I think it is the problem of living; for every day, every experience of evil, demands a solution. That solution is provided by the memory of the great scheme which at last we remember. Our childhood pierces through again … But I will not attempt to explain it, for I have not the power; only I know that we who return suffer hard things; for there grows a gulf between us and many companions. We are perpetually thrust into minorities, and the world almost begins to talk a strange language; we are troubled by the human machinery of a perfect and superhuman revelation; we are over-anxious for its safety, alarmed, and in danger of violent decisions. And this is hard: that the Faith begins to make one abandon the old way of judging. Averages and movements and the rest grow uncertain. We see things from within and consider one mind or a little group as a salt or leaven. The very nature of social force seems changed to us. And this is hard when a man has loved common views and is happy only with his fellows. And this again is very hard, that we must once more take up that awful struggle to reconcile two truths and to keep civic freedom sacred in spite of the organization of religion, and not to deny what is certainly true. It is hard to accept mysteries, and to be humble. We are tost as the great schoolmen were tost, and we dare not neglect the duty of that wrestling.

Now, Knox interprets this in the light of Jeremiah as the prophet in mood to be rid of his burden of prophecy. But this I think is false, it is not that Belloc wanted to be free of the burden of condemning the evils of the age, it is rather that he wanted to condemn them with the full throated violence of the revolutionary, and found it difficult to submit to the gentle doctrine of the Church which prefers cooperation between classes to conflict, and can preach submission to slaves:

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.  (Eph 6:5-7)

Isidore of Seville and Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel Defend the Seminar Method Against the Immoderate Attacks of John Senior

John Senior’s book The Restoration of Christian Culture  is almost pure joy to read. Senior captures so perfectly the ideals of a very good sort of person, a sort that I happen to know well. The sort of Chesterton-and-Belloc reading home-schooling mid-western American Catholic that used to write for C & T.  Only he says things better than most such people. The Restoration of Christian Culture is written in such vigor and emphasis that at times it attains to prose intoxicating enough to have been written by Belloc himself. Still, for TAC graduates the jabs he makes at our alma mater are kind of annoying. After slamming the great-books movement in general for fostering skepticism (he was at Columbia back in the day), he admits that the Catholic version is somewhat better but that it would be good if the “Thomist philosophers among them” would remember that means must be proportioned to ends, and that the medievals didn’t see any use in “class discussion.”

I was reminded of this reading Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel’s Diadema MonachorumSmaragdus was a ninth century French monk, who wrote the oldest surviving commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict. The Diadema is a collection of quotes from the fathers to be read at the collatio, the communal reading before Compline. In a chapter on the collatio itself, Smaragdus quotes the following passage from Isidore of Seville:

Cum sit utilis ad instruendum lectio, adhibita autem conlatione maiorem intellegentiam praebet; melius est enim conferre quam legere. Conlatio docibilitatem facit; nam propositis interrogationibus cunctatio rerum excluditur, et saepe obiectionibus latens ueritas adprobatur. Quod enim obscurum est aut dubium, conferendo cito perspicitur. (Sententiae III.14)

Kees Waaihman translates as follows:

Whereas lectio is good for instruction, collatio furnishes more insight. After all, conducting a conference is better than giving a lecture. A collation makes things comprehensible. Subject matter is set in motion because questions are raised. Frequently hidden truth is proved by objections. For what is obscure and doubtful is soon made transparent by a conference.

In his commentary on chapter 42 of the Holy Rule of St. Benedict Smaragdus explains a little more what is meant by “collatio”:

A ‘conference’ means a ‘bringing, speaking and chatting together’, in which while some bring questions about the divine Scriptures, others bring suitable answers, and in this way things that had long remained hidden become open and manifest to those taking part in the conference. (Smaragdus, In RB 42; translation David Barry)

Hmm, what would John Senior say?

Lying to Children; or Edward Feser at the Battle of Solferino


In an excellent series of blog posts Edward Feser has been defending (against a surprising amount of protest) Saint Thomas’s teaching that lying is always contrary to the natural law. Since words are natural signs of what is in the mind it is perverse to use them to signify what is contrary to one’s mind. Now while speech itself is natural, the particular meaning of speech is established be convention, and, Feser points out, this can mean that, depending on the context, certain speech, which might seem to be a lie if one took it literary, is not in fact a lie:

Fictional stories and jokes do not count as lies […] because circumstances make it clear that they are not intended to be taken to communicate what the speaker really thinks is true. Similarly, given circumstances and the conventions of English usage, utterances like “Fine, thanks” are widely understood to be mere pleasantries, the sort of thing one will say out of politeness however one is actually feeling. In typical circumstances, they are simply not conventionally used to express a meaning like “I am completely free of anxiety, physical pain, or difficulty of any sort.” Hence it is […] silly to classify them as “lies”.

The question of how speech is conventionally meant to be taken becomes particularly complicated in the case of speaking to children, because children often have an imperfect understanding of the conventions of speech. The most hotly contested post in Feser’s lying series is one on Santa Clause. Telling your children that Santa is real, Feser argues, is a lie. He quotes Fr. Thomas Higgins:

A child can distinguish between fable and fact. When we purport to tell him things “for real” he does not expect a fairy tale. An example in point is the Santa Claus legend. We obtrude the story upon his belief, insisting that we are not weaving tales and commanding his acceptance – it is nothing but lying.

But Higgins is making the case simpler than it really is. A child is still in the process of learning how to distinguish between fable and fact. Depending on the child and how old it is etc. this process can be at very different stages. In fact children often take fables as fact, this is true even of fables that they themselves have invented. They slowly learn to distinguish between “pretend” and “real”; as they grow older they realize that their dolls are pretend persons whereas their brothers and sisters are real. Now I think that there are probably ways of telling the Santa Clause Myth that really make a lie out of it and harm the process of sorting out real and pretend in the child, but I think there are probably ways of telling it as what it is, namely figurative speech, which is not a lie. The child will initially take it literally but gradually learn to take it figuratively. My parents did not do the Santa thing, but they did have Saint Nicholas fill our shoes with chocolates on his Feast Day, and my experience was that we gradually came to see that it had been meant figuratively—there was no rude awakening, because our parents never said “this is not pretend;” they simply told the story and left us to develop the correct interpretation.

What is the point of such a procedure? Wouldn’t it have been better to tell the children from the start that it was not “really” Saint Nicholas who was filling the shoes? I don’t think so. It is important that children learn the different shades of speech, the conventions that determine when speech is taken literally and not. One has to guard against the naively priggish literalism of Belloc’s schoolmate:

There was a sturdy boy at my school who, when the master had carefully explained to us the nature of metaphor, said that so far as he could see a metaphor was nothing but a long Greek word for a lie.

There is a wonderful portrayal of the whole problem in the first chapter of Joseph Roth’s novel Radetzkymarsch (to take an example from Austrian literature for a change). Trotta, an infantry lieutenant, saves the Austrian Emperor’s life at the battle of Solferino by the rather un-romantic means of knocking His Apostolic Majesty down. Trotta is a Slovene, and (in stereotypically Slovenian fashion) a pusillanimous, miserly prig. He is covered in honors by the grateful monarch, and everything goes well till he reads an account of the Battle of Solferino in one of his son’s school books. Trotta’s heroic act has been turned into an exciting cavalry charge. Trotta is outraged. “It’s a lie!” he bellows, but everyone just answers him, “It’s for children.” “Children need examples that they can understand,” one of his friends says, “they will learn the real truth (die richtige Wahrheit) later.” Poor Trotta writes to the Imperial and Royal Ministry of education. The minister writes back in hilarious bureaucratic German, explaining “Euer Hochwohlgeboren” (Trotta is the son of a hedge-clipper) that in school books historical events have to be described in a way proportioned to the the imagination of children, “without changing the truthfulness of the events described.” So who is right the courageous but plodding Trotta or the imaginative minister? His Apostolic Majesty seems to side with Trotta when that noble officer takes his complaint all the way to the Imperial and Royal Throne:

“Your Majesty” said the captain, “it’s a lie!”

There’s a great deal of lying goes on,” agreed the Emperor.

Es wird viel gelogen:” that’s one thing we can be certain of!