Alan Jacobs

A Word to the ‘Deeply Troubled’

Elvert Barnes / cc

Damon Linker is unhappy—unhappy with the tone of a recent post by Ross Douthat. Linker says that people like Douthat—but he really just means Douthat, because he doesn’t refer to anyone else in his post—are “losing their cool. And their heads.”

Linker calls Douthat’s post “harsh and angry”—a description I won’t contest, though I’m tempted—but notes that it is “uncharacteristically” so. Maybe he could have spent a few minutes contemplating why a writer as consistently irenic as Douthat might have lost a bit of patience on this particular subject. Might it be that title of the post Douthat was responding to describes his position as “glaring hypocrisy”? A touch on the provocative side, wouldn’t you say? (Yes, writers typically don’t choose titles, but they can protest inaccurate ones; I’ve done it myself more than a few times.)

Or might it be something that runs a little deeper? In that earlier post, Linker writes, “I have faith that Douthat’s honesty and intelligence will lead him to concede that he’s lost his debate with [William] Saletan”—the magnificent condescension of that line would have me banging on Linker’s door to challenge him to a duel—but Douthat demonstrates pretty thoroughly in his reply that he hasn’t lost that argument. And it’s interesting that in his lamentation over Douthat’s so-unfortunate tone, Linker never acknowledges any of the arguments Douthat makes or the studies he cites. It’s much easier to tut-tut over people “losing their cool.”

Linker seems to be troubled that Douthat doesn’t acknowledge how different his position is from that of people like “Katha Pollitt and Rebecca Watson [who consider] the termination of a pregnancy to be as morally insignificant as (in Douthat’s words) ‘snuffing out a rabbit.’” He is, as he keeps telling us, “deeply troubled by abortion.”

But the state of Linker’s feelings may not be the most germane thing here. The really key passage in Douthat’s “harsh and angry” post is one that Linker doesn’t quote:

It is not the pro-life movement that’s forced Planned Parenthood to unite actual family planning and mass feticide under one institutional umbrella. It is not the Catholic Church or the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or the Southern Baptist Convention or the Republican Party that have bundled pap smears and pregnancy tests and HPV vaccines with the kind of grisly business being conducted on those videos. This is Planned Parenthood’s choice; it is liberalism’s choice; it is the respectable center-left of Dana Milbank and Ruth Marcus and Will Saletan that’s telling pro-life and pro-choice Americans alike that contraceptive access and fetal dismemberment are just a package deal, that if you want to fund an institution that makes contraception widely available then you just have to live with those “it’s another boy!” fetal corpses in said institution’s freezer, that’s just the price of women’s health care and contraceptive access, and who are you to complain about paying it, since after all the abortion arm of Planned Parenthood is actually pretty profitable and doesn’t need your tax dollars?

But instead of questioning the inevitability of this “package deal,” Linker prefers to (a) characterize opponents of it as exhibiting “glaring hypocrisy” and (b) express deeply-felt dismay if any of those opponents bristles at that characterization. To his credit, Linker is straightforward about his allegiances: “People like me—deeply troubled by abortion and yet supportive of women’s reproductive freedom (along with a good bit of the rest of the sexual revolution as well)—will never lend [the pro-life movement] our support. No matter how many barbaric videos its activist wing makes public.” Never.

If you tell people that you will never under any circumstances give them your support, then they may not thank you for instructing them in how to go about their business, no matter the state of your feelings. And if in the face of the horrors revealed by these recent videos of Planned Parenthood’s callous and mercenary attitude towards the organs of killed fetal humans your response is to attack Ross Douthat, then maybe, just maybe, you’re not as “deeply troubled by abortion” as you’d like to think you are.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

The Bought Grace of Life

Evgeny Atamanenko /

As I—peculiar person that I am—see the world, few things could be more readily understandable than a person’s expressing gratitude that her mother didn’t choose to abort her. And that’s what the #unplannedparenthood hashtag on social media is all about: people telling their own stories of gratitude—gratitude to pregnant women who, in the face of fear and uncertainty, decided to take a chance on life; gratitude also, in many cases, to friends, family, churches, and community organizations who supported the women who took that risk. Who wouldn’t be grateful in such circumstances?

But for Olga Khazan, writing at The Atlantic, such expressions of gratitude are “bizarre,” “odd,” and “disastrously illogical.” I fear that I too must be disastrously illogical, because I fail to understand why Khazan then goes on to explain how “during the Great Depression, women who wanted to avoid having babies they couldn’t afford used ‘disinfectant douches’ that burned their genitals.” Is the point that people should not only be grateful for not being aborted but also grateful that their mothers weren’t faced with the prospect of singeing their genitals with corrosive chemicals? The relevance of this excursus escapes me.

At one point, groping to understand these alien minds, Khazan suggests that “the larger purpose seems to be to put many happy faces on the pro-life movement. All those people weren’t aborted! Isn’t that wonderful?” And she goes on to say,

Of course it is. But it also assumes that the only reason for an abortion would be that you’re mildly surprised by your pregnancy status, and uncertain what to do next.

But the #unplannedparenthood hashtag assumes no such thing. It is grossly insensitive and uncharitable of Khazan to assume that every woman who decided to keep an unplanned baby was only “mildly surprised” to be pregnant. And incurious of her too: her assumption won’t survive two minutes’ scrolling through search results for the hashtag, which show again and again the harrowing circumstances in which many, many, many women decided to bear unplanned children. That they made such an immensely consequential decision is amazingly courageous—there is nothing “of course” about it.

And often, at the time, these were unwanted children as well. Khazan notes that “there is a big difference between an unplanned pregnancy and an unwanted one”—which is indeed true. But one of the chief points that emerges from the #unplannedparenthood stories is that a great many children who were unwanted at first became very much wanted, very much loved later—either by their birth parents or by those who adopted them. Khazan’s moral world is so impoverished that in it only first thoughts count; by contrast, the people who are grateful for #unplannedparenthood are also grateful for second thoughts.

Khazan tries to draw our attention to a world in which abortion is illegal, as though that’s likely to happen any minute now, but it’s not likely, and that’s not the world that the #unplannedparenthood stories come from. In every case that I have seen, these stories commend women who could have chosen abortion, but chose life instead, even when it was costly to them. In a famous phrase, Edmund Burke spoke of an “unbought grace of life,” but the people who celebrate #unplannedparenthood know that the grace of life that experience was bought at a price—in many cases a very high price. Olga Khazan’s disdain for their expressions of thanks is contemptible.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.


Code Fetishists and Normolaters

The policing and disciplining of disagreement that I have been exploring in two previous posts—first and second—are the product of a massive cultural movement, in the process of development over centuries, that the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “code fetishism” or “normolatry.”

In an absolutely vital essay called “The Perils of Moralism,” included in this collection, Taylor explains that “modern liberal society tends toward a kind of ‘code fetishism,’ or nomolatry. … Code fetishism means that the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code.” This idea is first fully articulated in Kant’s deontological account of ethics, but it had been in the making for hundreds of years before that. “I want to argue that it was a turn in Latin Christendom which sent us down this road. This was the drive to reform in its various stages and variants—not just the Protestant Reformation, but a series of moves on both sides of the confessional divide. The attempt was always to make people over as more perfect practicing Christians, through articulating codes and inculcating disciplines.”

Eventually “the Christian life became more and more identified with these codes and disciplines.” But once that had happened, the Gospel itself became dispensable: all we had to do was to extract the rules from it, and the “values” that produced them, and we were good to go. Thus arise figures who use the codes extracted from Christianity against Christianity: Voltaire, Hume, Gibbon.

And thus also arises an antinomian counter-movement: “Modern culture is marked by a series of revolts against this moralism, in both its Christian and non-Christian forms. … The code-centered notion of order and its attendant disciplines begin to generate negative reactions from the eighteenth century on. These form, for instance, the central themes of the Romantic period.”

Thus modernity, at least since Kant, is characterized by constant tensions and frequent eruptions of hostility between two great opponents, the antinomians and the code fetishists. Most of the fights that afflict social media today are versions of this conflict: just think of the recent skirmishes between the self-described free-speech advocates on Reddit and the opponents whom they refer to as SJWs (Social Justice Warriors).

I think the key lesson to be drawn from Taylor’s account is that code fetishism produces antinomianism: antinomians are people who get frustrated by the code fetishists’ relentless policing and disciplining of disagreement—which the fetishists do because they are trying to build a more just society and think that codification and enforcement of rules is the only way to do it—and believe that a simply rejection of rules is the only way to resist. That is, both sides agree that morality is a matter of rules; but one side thinks that since rules require elaboration and enforcement, and other people are the ones elaborating and enforcing them, they would prefer what they see as the only alternative, a rule-rejecting, morally minimal commitment to freedom.

(At least, that is how the antinomians would describe themselves. The fierceness with which some of them persecute and attempt to silence dissenters—practices detailed in disturbing detail in Sarah Jeong’s new book The Internet of Garbagesuggest that a good many professed antinomians are actually code fetishists of a particular intense variety. Just for the purposes of this post I’m going to take the antinomians at their self-description.)

But what if this is a false dichotomy? What if the code fetishists and antinomians are both wrong, and wrong for the same reason: because they have unwittingly accepted the false idea that “the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code”? What if rule-following doesn’t produce justice, and the antinomians have an inadequate conception of freedom?

In an essay closely related to “The Perils of Moralism”—it even has some of the same sentences—Taylor suggests an alternative to this dichotomy. The essay is his brief but powerful foreword to The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich—a collection of interviews the writer and broadcaster David Cayley conducted with the great polymath in the late 1990s. This “testament” is enormously powerful and provocative itself, but for now I just want to highlight Taylor’s thoughts on Illich.

Taylor zeroes in on an obsession of Illich’s: Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan. For Illich, Taylor explains, “the Samaritan and the wounded man … are fitted together in a proportionality which comes from God, which is that of agape, and which became possible because God became flesh.”

The enfleshment of God extends outward, through such new links as the Samaritan makes with the Jew, into a network which we call the Church. But this is a network, not a categorical grouping; that is, it is a skein of relations which link particular, unique, enfleshed people to each other, rather than a grouping of people together on the grounds of their sharing some important property.

Illich believes that when we forget that what binds us is “a skein of relations,” we fall into a system of rules—we become code fetishists, for whom “the significance of the Good Samaritan story appears obvious: it is a stage on the road to a universal morality of rules.” But for Illich this is a “corruption of Christianity.” Our world looks very different if what matters is not the code we can abstract from a given situation but the situation itself—or, more specifically still, the utterly particular person who stands in front of us.

You can see the ubiquity of code fetishism—the can’t-see-around-it absolutism of normolatry—in Sam Biddle’s reflections on how he helped to ruin Justine Sacco’s life. He says that he apologized to her, but then elsewhere in the post he effectively walks back the apology:

I’ve been asked many times if I would post Sacco’s tweet all over again, and I still don’t know how to answer. Would I post the tweet again? Sure. Would I post the tweet knowing it’s going to cause an incredibly disproportionate personal disaster for Justine Sacco? No. Would I post the tweet knowing it could happen? Now we’re in dicey territory, and I’m thinking of ghosts: If you had a face-to-face sit-down with all of the people you’ve posted about, how many of THOSE would you do again? We’re wading through swamps and thorns, here.

Biddle would only “post the tweet again”—or at all—because he thinks that in it Sacco had violated some significant norm; but he would only hesitate because, having confronted her humanity, he realizes that code enforcement has a tendency to create “incredibly disproportionate personal disaster.” More crucially, he’s horrified by the very thought of scanning his history of social-media acts, because he could discover that he has violated codes himself, and then what would he do? “Swamps and thorns” indeed.

Biddle’s problem is that he is stuck between sensing the limits of normolatry and seeing no alternative to it except an antinomianism that strikes him as somehow irresponsible, perhaps even inhuman. He is morally disoriented by the confrontation with someone’s sheer personhood. He has the first inkling of the possibility that, as Taylor puts it in his summary of Illich’s thought,

even the best codes can become idolatrous traps that tempt us to complicity in violence. Illich reminds us not to become totally invested in the code — even the best code of a peace-loving, egalitarian variety — of liberalism. We should find the centre of our spiritual lives beyond the code, deeper than the code, in networks of living concern, which are not to be sacrificed to the code, which must even from time to time subvert it.

In this light, I think we can see that our dominant social media have a strong tendency to reinforce the normolatry-antinomianism dichotomy, and to obscure the need for “networks of living concern.” To search Twitter or Facebook for people using words you don’t like, or using important words in ways you don’t like; to scroll through a list of tweets or posts that employ a particular hashtag with an eye towards the absurd or offensive; to seek out particularly provocative tweets or posts in order to see how outrageous the replies are—these are the characteristic acts of the code fetishist. I pray you, avoid them.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.


Disciplinary Bulverism

This is a follow-up to my earlier post about disagreement.

Occasionally Americans debate the correctness of beliefs and practices — political, moral, social. But not very often. Most Americans, or so one would judge from social media anyway, are Bulverists: they already know who is right and who isn’t, so all they need to debate is why the people who get things wrong — so, so wrong — do so.

But wait: it turns out that there is actually a second form or stage of Bulverism, one that is becoming increasingly common. If the first stage of Bulverism is explanatory, this second stage is disciplinary: it is concerned to determine what penalties should be administered to those who are wrong. Disciplinary Bulverism is where all the action is today.

Consider the case of Brendan Eich, the former Mozilla CEO who was pressured to resign when it became widely known that he had contributed financially to the campaign for California’s Proposition 8. Now, Eich has made it clear that he doesn’t think he’s a martyr and would rather not have his name brought up so often in these contexts — a request that I am going to ignore, just this once, because well before he said that I asked whether people supported Eich’s ouster. Almost everyone who replied said that they did, but that’s as unscientific as a sample gets; and I’ve been unable to get a sense of just how severely Eich should be punished. One person tweeted to me that “A homophobe like Eich deserves whatever he gets,” but didn’t reply when I asked whether permanent unemployment would be a just punishment, or violent assault.

So I don’t think many people have a clear sense of how severely people should be punished for holding the wrong social, moral, or political views; but there seems to be widespread support for some kind of punishment, and something more than mere shaming. For most of the people Jon Ronson writes about in his work on internet shaming, shaming is just one element of the discipline they were subjected to. Consider the recent case of the English scientist Sir Tim Hunt, who after one sexist remark — or, as Catherine Bennett called it in the Guardian, “his determination to rescue science from female biology” — not only was forced to resign from his position at University College London but was also pushed out of the European Research Council. One strike and you’re out. Forever.

But it doesn’t always work this way — though I think more and more often the internet outrage machine demands the nuclear option as the first and only valid response. I suspect that Brendan Eich would have had at least a chance of keeping his job if he had said something like this: “I deeply regret having supported Proposition 8 and apologize without reservation to all who were rightly offended by my insensitivity. My views on same-sex marriage have evolved since then, and I pledge to do everything in my power to make Mozilla a more fully inclusive environment.” But no statement less absolute would have allowed him to escape with merely a public shaming and his job intact. (Tim Hunt actually made such an apology without receiving any mercy, but that could have been because his positions were more-or-less voluntary and more-or-less honorary.)

“Punishment” is the narrower category here, “discipline” the broader one, because there are forms of discipline that are not, or at least do not claim to be, punitive. So, for example, when scholars argue that racism is a form of mental illness, or that homophobia is, they would not suggest that racists and homophobes be punished. And while internet mobs delight in administering punishment and are happy to call it by that name, people in positions of social authority prefer a gentler approach, either to generate public confidence in their discretion or to burnish their own self-images. As Yeats wrote, “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbors, / The sentimentalist himself.”

Now, I certainly believe that racism is very wrong, though I would call it a sin rather than an illness or an error. (I’m not sure what homophobia is, but I think hatred of homosexuals is a sin also.) But that’s not the issue under debate here. My subject is what is to be done about people who hold the wrong beliefs, whether or not we describe their condition as an illness. And from the point of view of the Disciplinary Bulverism, wrong beliefs must be dealt with in some way, must be subjected to some form of discipline. And in that light, thinking of their error as a form of illness has certain advantages.

C.S. Lewis, the creator of the term “Bulverism,” also wrote an essay that’s very relevant to these considerations. It is called “The Humanitarian Theory of Pubishment,” and here is a key excerpt:

According to the Humanitarian theory, to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, is mere revenge, and, therefore, barbarous and immoral. It is maintained that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic. Thus it appears at first sight that we have passed from the harsh and self-righteous notion of giving the wicked their deserts to the charitable and enlightened one of tending the psychologically sick. What could be more amiable?

But this theory is not quite as amiable as it looks — at least if you’re the one being “cured.” Lewis continues: “On this remedial view of punishment, the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And of course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence … an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts.” This point leads Lewis to his peroration:

It may be said that by the continued use of the word Punishment and the use of the verb “inflict” I am misrepresenting the Humanitarians. They are not punishing, not inflicting, only healing. But do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be remade after some pattern of “normality” hatched in a Viennese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I have grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success — who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared — shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust — is obvious.

And of course this kind of thing happens all the time in Western societies today: sensitivity training and its many near relations. Nothing new there. In fact, the disciplinary structures that have been well-emplaced for decades will simply continue: but in the coming decades they will have different targets.

Because this is how a society built on disciplinary Bulverism works. The reparative or conversion therapy that was once widely used to change homosexuals can easily be adapted to address the problems of racists and homophobes — who can be easy to find, thanks to the social-media trails that most people leave online. Sometimes such reparation will merely be encouraged by friends and family; sometimes it will be made a condition of employment; sometimes it will be mandated by judges. Discipline will not always (perhaps not often) come directly from the State; it will typically be administered by what one of the more acute Marxist theorists called ideological state apparatuses — institutions (schools, hospitals, many private businesses) that the State trusts to enforce its preferences. And these preferences will not be argued for; as always in Bulverist thought, their essential truth will be assumed; and the way social media are used today will ensure that dissent is driven out of any given circle of discourse.

Althusser’s picture of how the state works closely resembles what Foucault — who was not a Marxist and whose political positions were highly ambiguous — called the “power/knowledge regime,” and what some current neoreactionaries call “the Cathedral.” It’s interesting to see people from all over the political map exploring the subtle ways that State power works. There’s a reason for this. People who support using the disciplinary powers of the State against their enemies always assume that people like them will be in power forever. And on this point they are always wrong.

The Value of Disagreement

In an excellent recent article, Mollie Hemingway wrote, “We are slowly forgetting how to dislike something without seeking its utter destruction.” I would only replace “slowly” with “quickly”—very quickly. This makes me think about disagreement—what it is, what it means, what it is for. So let’s explore.

Many years ago, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote that “The view dies hard that Babel was the occasion of a curse being laid upon mankind from which it is the business of philosophers to deliver us, and a disposition remains to impose a single character upon significant human speech.” By “Babel” here Oakeshott does not mean the diversity of languages but the diversity of beliefs and positions; his statement is a kind of challenge to philosophical hubris, to the idea that arguments can be produced that will defeat the opposition once and for all.

Bernard Williams likewise appreciated the value of disagreement: “Disagreement does not necessarily have to be overcome. It may remain an important and constitutive feature of our relations to others, and also be seen as something that is merely to be expected in the light of the best explanations we have of how such disagreement arises.” The context here is, broadly speaking, ethics—how people should live—and Williams thinks that ethical questions are immensely complex, so that disagreement about them is “merely to be expected.” Indeed, any attempt to shut down disagreement on such matters will be an impoverishment of thought, and perhaps of life itself.

The ancient idea of the philosopher as gadfly arises from the awareness that a person can serve society not only by being correct but also, and in a distinct way, simply by being different—by challenging conventional wisdom and received beliefs. Similarly, in the American legal culture we have long seen defense attorneys serving a similar role: it is good for society, and for justice considered generally that even seemingly indefensible clients or ideas be defended. And sometimes, of course, what seems indefensible proves to be justified after all. But perhaps that’s not a value held in high regard any more—at least, in relation to some issues.

To be sure, toleration, both legally and socially, has always had limits. Consider John Milton’s “Areopagitica,” perhaps the most stirring celebration of freedom of the press ever composed. Hear, my friends, these noble words: “And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” But then just a few lines later: “I mean not tolerated Popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate.” Milton reassures us that when he advocates freedom of speech he certainly doesn’t mean to include Catholics, whose words should be forcibly snuffed out.

So no society tolerates every imaginable form of speech; there are always boundaries. What’s disorienting about American society today is how quickly the boundaries are shifting. Beliefs that were almost universal less than 20 years ago—and are held by around 40 percent of the American people now—are deemed utterly beyond the pale. It’s hard not to suspect that some of the people most devoted to policing those boundaries are pouncing prosecutorially on views that they themselves held not that long ago. (The convert’s zeal.) And social media provide the chief impetus for both changing one’s own views and policing those whose views are different. In this environment, it’s hard to see who will resist what Oakeshott calls the “disposition … to impose a single character upon significant human speech.”

Maybe the Oakeshott/Williams view of philosophy as an opening-up rather than a closing-down of options can assist. In this fascinating conversation on the value of political disagreement, Gary Gutting and Jerry Gaus end up doing what people always do in these conversations: they advocate open disagreement but then quickly pause to say that “toleration has limits.” But, being philosophers, they go on to ask how those limits should be determined. Gaus: “The critical question is not whether I judge a person to be radically misguided, or judge her way of life to be morally repugnant, but whether she is a danger to the life and liberty of others.”

But that doesn’t help us very much unless we know what “danger” is, and its sibling “harm,” and no concepts have undergone more radical alteration in the recent shifting of social opinion than these. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”—but that was in a simpler time. In a culture devoted to a minutely particular screening of language for microaggressions, the injury inflicted by opinions becomes the most talked-about form of harm. There are no socially useful gadflies in Microaggression World—unless, of course, you think it’s okay for some ideas to be challenged but not your favorite ones. And no one would ever be so inconsistent, would they?

People who traffic in symbolic manipulation—and that’s most of us, these digital days—are typically inclined to overrate the importance of symbolic manipulation. It’s always tempting to think that to exercise control over symbols—like the Confederate battle flag, which, for the record, I have long despised—is to strike a blow for justice. Again, social media play a key role here: Jerry Gaus once wrote an article “On the Difficult Virtue of Minding One’s Own Business”, but given the hyperpublic character of the web services most of us rely on, and the difficulty of getting any of them to reliably provide intimacy gradients, everyone’s business now seems to be everyone else’s business. In such a environment, ABP—Always Be Policing—is the watchword. Survey and critique others, lest you make yourself subject to surveillance and critique. And use the proper Hashtags of Solidarity, or you might end up like that guy who was the first to stop applauding Stalin’s speech.

Minding your own business, on this commonly-held account of things, is a vice, not a virtue, and those who handle disagreement peaceably are ipso facto deficient in their commitment to justice. To restore a belief to the positive value of disagreement, here, would be a challenging task indeed. When Bernard Williams writes of disagreement as “an important and constitutive feature of our relations to others,” he is speaking a moral language that’s incomprehensible to those for whom free speech is so last century and for whom history is always a story of moral progress.

How might such people come to see, with Williams, the virtue of moral and epistemic humility? How might they be brought to see that it can be a positive good to belong to a society in which people with deep disagreements, even about sexuality and personal self-determination, can live in peace with one another and, just possibly, converse? I have absolutely no idea.


Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

How Sexy Was Kant?

Steel engraving by J. L. Raab, 1791 after a painting by Döbler
Steel engraving by J. L. Raab, 1791 after a painting by Döbler

In his review of Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, Tim Wu explains Crawford’s critique of Immanuel Kant’s understanding of the concept of freedom, which Crawford believes to have had enormous (and enormously negative) social consequences. Then, out of absolutely nowhere, Wu writes,

I sometimes wonder if Crawford’s beef with Kant is personal: for all the dangers of driving a motorcycle, my guess is that he would prefer going down in flames to living like the philosopher, whose life appears to have been among the most boring in recorded history. What else can you say about a man who opined on freedom yet is widely believed to have never had sexual intercourse?

Wu helpfully adds to that last sentence two—not one, two—links to Google Books searches for “kant + never + had + sex.”

When people talk about the hypersexualization of our culture, they’re usually referring to, for example, the advertising industry’s attempts to get even children to present themselves as sexual, and sexually desirable, beings. And this is true enough, important enough, lamentable enough. But comments like the one Wu makes here are even more telling, in a way, because they reveal the ways an obsession with sexuality gets disseminated throughout our whole public discourse. What does Kant’s sexual experience, or lack thereof, have to do with Crawford’s argument? What does it have to do with Kant’s own arguments about freedom or his arguments about anything else whatsoever? Would philosophers need to rewrite their interpretations of Kant’s thought if researchers discovered a liaison with a saucy little chambermaid?

Attempting to parse Wu’s line of thought, I can only come up with this: “Matt Crawford likes to do things, and Kant is famous for not doing many things, and the main thing that he didn’t do is have sex.” And not having sex is, we may infer, the ne plus ultra of boringly not-doing-things. (I mean, just think of poor celibate Joan of Arc—her life had to have been totally boring. So, so boring.) Later in the review Wu comments that Crawford’s “rather manly and physical ideas of living tend to suggest that someone like Stephen Hawking, bound in his wheelchair, has led a meaningless life.” But hasn’t Wu just made a very similar suggestion about Kant, only based on a different “physical idea of living”?

I’m old enough to remember when the main thing that people talked about Kant not doing was travel—when people thought that it was Kant’s reluctance to leave Königsberg that was his chief oddity. And since elsewhere in the review Wu describes Crawford’s love of motocycles and dislike of automobiles that insulate us from direct encounters with the world, a reference to Kant’s preference for just staying home might seem appropriate… but no. It’s sex. It’s always sex. See Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”:

Hannah: Sex and literature. Literature and sex. Your conversation, left to itself, doesn’t have many places to go. Like two marbles rolling around a pudding basin. One of them is always sex.

Bernard: Ah well, yes. Men all over.

Hannah: No doubt. Einstein—relativity and sex. Chippendale—sex and furniture. Galileo—“Did the earth move?” What the hell is it with you people?

Hannah’s point, of course, is that it’s not “men all over”—it’s Bernard. But who isn’t Bernard these days?

UPDATE: Tim Wu responded very graciously on Twitter to this post, and explained that he referred to Kant’s unsex-life, or sex-unlife, in order to suggest that Kant’s understanding of freedom may have been overly abstract. I’m going to risk ungraciousness in reply by saying that the association of sexual experience with personal freedom is a (perhaps the) founding axiom of our current sexual ideology, but one that’s pretty hard to sustain if we are honest about our lives. I wrote about this some years ago in relation to Anne Carson and Sappho.

And one more point. In “Sext,” the third poem of the great sequence “Horae Canonicae,” Auden speaks with reverence of those who have managed to take the “prodigious step” of ignoring the power of “the appetitive goddesses” to focus their attention on what fascinates them.

There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

Where should we be but for them?
Feral still, un-housetrained, still

wandering through forests without
a consonant to our names,

slaves of Dame Kind, lacking
all notion of a city.

Maybe those people — and maybe Kant was one of them — know something about freedom ungraspable by those enslaved to the appetitive goddesses.


Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

The Six Axioms of Politico-Judicial Logic

Mesut Dogan /

These six axioms provide all you need to know to navigate the landscape of current debates about judicial decisions:

1) The heart wants what it wants.

2) The heart has a right to what it wants—as long as the harm principle isn’t violated.

3) A political or social outcome that is greatly desirable is also ipso facto constitutional.

4) A political or social outcome that is greatly undesirable is also ipso facto unconstitutional.

5) A judicial decision that produces a desirable outcome is (regardless of the legal reasoning involved) proof of the wisdom of the Founders in liberating the Supreme Court from the vagaries of partisan politics so that they can think freely and without bias. The system works!

6) A judicial decision that produces an undesirable outcome is (regardless of the legal reasoning involved) proof that the system is broken, because it allows five unelected old farts to determine the course of society.

From these six axioms virtually every opinion stated on social media about Supreme Court decisions can be clearly derived. You’re welcome.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd.

Here’s a puzzling report from the New York Times:

A recent report from UBS Wealth Management found that people with more money are generally happy, which probably doesn’t come as much of a shock. “I would say that millionaires in general are very happy,” said Paula Polito, chief client strategy officer at UBS Wealth Management Americas. “I wouldn’t confuse happiness with contentment or satisfaction or achievement.”

Got it. Happy but not necessarily satisfied or content.

The UBS report found that satisfaction rose in line with wealth: 73 percent of those with $1 million to $2 million, 78 percent of those with $2 million to $5 million and 85 percent of those with over $5 million reported that they were “highly satisfied” with life.

Oh. So they are satisfied. Satisfied and happy? Satisfied and happy but not content?

What piqued my curiosity was how conflicted the report’s respondents seemed to be about the source of their wealth. They often have jobs that entail long hours, high pressure and working vacations.

Are those things satisfying? Happiness-conducive?

‘Part of this pressure to keep going is less about greed and more about insecurity that might be self-imposed,’ Ms. Polito said. ‘If you ask people, ‘If you knew you had five more years to live, would you act differently?’ they say they would. That’s a showstopper.’

Happy and satisfied but insecure?

Money buys happiness, the report said. But what good is that happiness if the millionaires who have it cannot enjoy the freedom the money gives them, the freedom that most people would love to have?

But if the inability to enjoy freedom doesn’t make you less happy or satisfied, is it a problem? If so, why?

My takeaway from reading this article: no one involved, from the investigators to the respondents to the reporter, has any idea what they mean by “happy” or “satisfied” or “content” or “free.”

Let’s try to think about these things, starting perhaps with W. H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen.” Everyone’s assignment: read this poem, think about it for a month, and then try again.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

How I Became a Soccer Fan

Gazza via YouTube
Gazza via YouTube

In the last few weeks, a soft fog of nostalgia has settled over much of England as the country commemorates the 25th anniversary of Italia 90. It was one of the few times that the national team did better than expected. The Three Lions had been inept, or profoundly unlucky, for several years, reaching their nadir in losing every match in the 1988 European championships. One London paper shouted to Bobby Robson, the England manager, “IN THE NAME OF GOD, GO!”—a nice echo of Oliver Cromwell’s words to the Rump Parliament—and then, when the team was held to a draw by Saudi Arabia, “IN THE NAME OF ALLAH, GO!” But Robson didn’t go, and continued to lead the team through World Cup qualifying and into the tournament itself, where, to general astonishment, they made it to the semi-finals, losing to West Germany—of course—on penalties—also of course.

In the later stages of the tournament I was in London, visiting England for the first time in my life. At the time I knew nothing about soccer; had never really paid attention to it. I do not believe I even understood that the World Cup was going on. But one evening my wife and I were walking near Covent Garden and trying to understand why the streets were so empty. We had not been in London long, but we understand that this was not normal; was not anything like normal. Then we started hearing the shouts.

From time to time, from every pub in earshot, groups of people would cry out: in fear, in anticipation, in misery—and three times in ecstasy. The last two marked the moments when England’s brilliant forward Gary Lineker converted two penalties to bring England back from a deficit against Cameroon, sending them into the semi-finals. But at the time I didn’t know that. I had to get back to our hotel and turn on the TV, and then read the next morning’s newspapers, to piece together the events of the evening. Gradually it dawned on me that this World Cup thing was a pretty big deal.

A few days later an American couple then living in London invited my wife and me to have dinner at their flat and then watch England play the Germans. I was half-disappointed—I had wanted to find out first-hand what it would be like to watch such an event in one of those raucous pubs—but it was impossible to say no. It was also the Fourth of July, which it was sensible to spend with my fellow Americans (though our pre-match dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant was not, perhaps, fully orthodox). But whether I would have enjoyed the pub experience more or not, in that little flat in Bloomsbury I came for the first time to understand something of soccer as a game, and of its role in English society.

I remember the somber dignity of the pre-match commentary—it sounded to me as though they were announcing the beginning of a war—and then, once the game started, the occasional shouts and curses from nearby flats and the streets below. But mainly I remember Paul Gascoigne, whom I had already noticed in the Cameroon match: his long pass to Lineker—I didn’t yet know to call it a “through ball”—that led to the third goal gave me my first awareness of the beautiful geometries of soccer. In the match against Germany I couldn’t stop watching him: he didn’t look like what I thought an athlete should look like, with his chunky frame and long spindly legs, and he ran a bit like the Tin Man, upright and jerkily. Yet he made things happen, he caused constant trouble for the opposition. And when, on receiving the yellow card that would have kept him out of the final, he broke down in tears, my eyes filled also.

Of course, I didn’t really know what was going on: I assumed that Gascoigne had been dismissed from the match, and couldn’t understand why he was so upset if he could keep playing. (He would later say, “When things are good and I can see they’re about to end I get scared, really scared. I couldn’t help but cry that night.”) But the emotional intensity of the players and the fans, especially as the match moved towards the penalty shootout, and the utter devastation on the faces of Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle when they missed their penalties, simply radiated from the screen, overwhelmingly.

When we left the flat to walk back to our hotel, there were angry drunk people on the streets of London, but not too many of them. (We would learn the next day that the more violent ones had congregated in Trafalgar Square, and were thankful that our walk home hadn’t taken us in that direction.) Most of the people we saw looked dazed, spent, and yet somehow exhilarated. It was clear that something of great import had just happened to them. And it was clear that for the rest of my life I would be a soccer fan.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.


Life in the Garrison

There is a wonderful extended passage near the end of Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head that describes the highly traditional, and yet open-to-change, practices of a small organ-making company called Taylor and Boody. “They understand the long story of organ making as their own,” says Crawford, “and find for themselves a place in it.” Here is an especially powerful passage:

Some critics will say that these craftspeople have ‘retreated from the world.’ I think nearly the opposite. We have come to accept a condition of retreat from the world as normal. The point of the organ shop example is to help us see what it would look like to inhabit an ecology of attention that puts one squarely in the world.

This is a brilliant and vital point in itself, but I want to take a bit of a turn and show how it’s relevant to recent debates, on this site and elsewhere, about what Rod has been calling the Benedict Option.

Rod has written of the BenOp as a “strategic withdrawal.” And while I have argued that it’s better to speak of “strategic attentiveness,” in reality those are two sides of a coin: since attention is finite, one cannot increase attentiveness to one object without withdrawing it from another.

The BenOp recommends increased attentiveness to local communities, to the formation of Christians (young and old) in the traditional practices and habits (of thought and action) of the Church. Though what this might look like has yet to be clarified and codified, there are already a good many people describing it as a regrettable withdrawal from “the world.”

But the passage from Crawford encourages us to ask: What do the critics of the (nascent) BenOp mean by “the world”? And when you put it that way, it becomes clear that for them “the world” is inside the Beltway, and in the New York Times and Washington Post, and on Politico and HuffPost, and the tweetstreams of politicians and policy wonks, and on our biggest TV networks. But I would like to suggest that the building of a healthy society might depend on people who are willing to say that those vast public edifices — some made of stone, some of pixels — are not the world, that the world lies much closer to hand.

To think in this way — to think seriously in this way — is to commit oneself to slow and incremental change, to what W. H. Auden in one of his poems calls “local understanding.” It is also to acknowledge that the order and value you crave will not be handed to you by your environment; rather, you must build it ad hoc, improvising as you go with like-minded people, as you can find them.

This is one of the conditions of modernity, I think. The great scholar and thinker Mikhail Bakhtin believed that Dostoevsky had discerned this, and portrayed, with great compassion and psychological acuity, people who (primarily because they were intellectuals) had been displaced from any kind of organic community and had to rebuild their world from scratch. Here’s a beautiful desctiption:

To create a human community in the world, to join several people together outside the framework of available social forms, is the goal of Myshkin, of Alyosha, and in a less conscious and clear-cut form of all Dostoevsky’s other heroes…. Communion has been deprived, as it were, of its real-life body and wants to create one arbitrarily, out of purely human material. All this is a most profound expression of the social disorientation of the classless intelligentsia, which feels itself dispersed throughout the world and whose members must orient themselves in the world one by one, alone and at their own risk.

The bond Alyosha forms with “the boys” in The Brothers Karamazov is the perfect example of this: an improvised bond, a fragile and local one, but one with enormous strength and comfort for those who accept it.

A genuinely conservative — i.e., conserving — counter-culture of any kind, including the Christian kind, will be similarly improvisatory, small-scale, local, fragile. It will always be aware that “to inhabit an ecology of attention that puts one squarely in the world” is a task to be re-engaged, with more or less success, every day. Over its (imaginary) gates it will carve a motto, one taken from a late Auden poem, “The Garrison”:

Whoever rules, our duty to the City

is loyal opposition, never greening

for the big money, never neighing after

a public image.


Let us leave rebellions to the choleric

who enjoy them: to serve as a paradigm

now of what a plausible Future might be

is what we’re here for.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

In Praise of Private Colleges

Recently I noticed a comment on Twitter that the very idea of the poor being dependent on private charity, rather than being cared for by the state, is “monstrous.” It was a neat, if unremarkable, example of the hypermoral tone of much American political rhetoric. The question of whether the poor benefit more from state-funded and state-administered programs or by private charitable organizations strikes me as an empirical one, the sort of thing that people ought to be able to discuss rationally and peaceably while trying out new ideas and sorting through the available evidence; but clearly that is not how some (many, I think) on the left see it. It is for them simply an article of faith that the morality of a society must be manifested through its government, and that any other vehicle is not just inferior but … well, monstrous.

(This sort of thing happens on the right too, of course, as I’ve discovered when I’ve said that I don’t believe the Second Amendment says anything one way or another about private gun ownership. A topic for another day, perhaps.)

Many of my lefty friends are academics, and it seems to me that the current controversy over what’s happening to the University of Wisconsin system should cause them to rethink their reliance on the government to uphold academic values in particular. The legislative changes to academic governance in Wisconsin are complex, but most of the attention is focused on tenure, which, some say, the Wisconsin legislature has just abolished within its system. However, legislators insist that they have done no such thing, but have only shifted responsibility for the status of tenure from state law to the university system’s Board of Regents. Time will tell, I suppose.

In general, Republican legislators are not big fans of tenure, largely because they see it as a way for lefty professors to keep themselves in power. And many lefty professors agree that that’s what tenure is for. See for example this post by Michael Schwalbe of North Carolina State University, who celebrates “professors as a left force in U.S. society” but then complains about “the usual conservative attacks on professors.” Well, yes: if you teach at a publicly funded university and want to use your position to promote and consolidate a particular political stance, then legislators with different politics than yours will probably want to defund you. Sauce, goose, gander.

This raises the question of whether it’s reasonable for people who want their universities to be sites of resistance to “neoliberal ideology” to demand that a neoliberal government support their work. A question that answers itself.

Perhaps, then, the work that Schwalbe wants the university to do might better be done by private schools. This is, after all, a lesson those of us who work in Christian higher education learned a long time ago. We understand that we have a distinctive take on the world, a distinctive mission that won’t be shared by all Americans, and take advantage of this country’s rich and longstanding tradition of private education to pursue our own vision.

This is not to say that I don’t place a high value on public higher education. I was myself educated entirely in public schools, and am thankful for what I learned there. Nor is it to say that I support what the Republicans in Wisconsin are doing—I don’t. But I’m thankful for my own education in part because so few of my teachers thought it was their job to tell me what my politics should be. Certainly there are disadvantages to an educational model that tries to remain politically neutral and dispassionate; but one of the advantages, in the public domain anyway, is that it stands a chance of being funded no matter which political party is in power.

But if you want a college or university that has a strong ideological bent, that has a clear political purpose (using the term “political” in a broad sense), then perhaps you should not look to public institutions as the ideal venues through which to pursue your goals. There is a long tradition in America of intellectually powerful private universities with distinctive missions, and that tradition is worthy of our best efforts to sustain it. I hope it’s not monstrous to say so.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

Stepping Away

Dear readers, I’m going to be — once again — stepping away from this blog for a while. I enjoy writing it, and thought I would be able to keep it going, but the many complications introduced into my life by moving to a new city to take up a new job in a new university where I will teach new classes . . . well, it’s all more than I can keep up with, at least for now. I hope to check back in eventually, and in the meantime: Thanks for reading!

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The Selfish Babette

This morning Rod calls our attention to this post about cooking the central dish from Babette’s Feast. The movie is rightly legendary among food lovers and cooks, partly for reasons specified by J. Bryan Lowder here:

Contrast that with Babette. My favorite scene in the film comes after the last, glistening course has been served, when she finally sits for a moment in the kitchen, her skin dewy from work, quietly sipping a glass of wine. The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care. Indeed, Babette’s story is an argument for the idea that spending money, time, and energy cooking for friends is the best gift a home cook can give, especially if they enjoy themselves so much that they practically forget who’s behind the stove.

But: in the great story by Isak Dinesen on which the movie is based, Babette isn’t cooking for anyone else at all. She knows that when she cooks she makes people happy, but that isn’t why she cooks. At the end of the story, when the women who employ her learn that she spent all her savings to buy the ingredients for the magnificent meal they and their friends have just eaten, they are deeply moved. But they get a response from Babette they don’t expect.

Philippa’s heart was melting in her bosom. It seemed that an unforgettable evening was to be finished off with an unforgettable proof of human loyalty and self-sacrifice.

“Dear Babette,” she said softly, “you ought not to have given away all you had for our sake.”

Babette gave her mistress a deep glance, a strange glance. Was there not pity, even scorn, at the bottom of it?

“For your sake?” she replied. “No. For my own.”

She rose from the chopping block and stood up before the two sisters.

“I am a great artist!” she said.

She waited a moment and then repeated: “I arn a great artist, Mesdames.”

Again for a long time there was deep silence in the kitchen.

Then Martine said: “So you will be poor now all your life, Babette?”

“Poor?” said Babette. She smiled as if to herself. “No, I shall never be poor. I told you that I am a great artist. A great artist, Mesdames, is never poor. We have something, Mesdames, of which other people know nothing.”

Babette’s art gives great pleasure to others, but she does not care. How other people feel about her work is a matter of complete indifference to her, because she knows herself to be a great artist and therefore to be utterly superior to them, to be made of different stuff. Lowder writes, “The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care” — but nothing could be further from the truth for the Babette of the story.

There is, from our point of view, which is necessarily that of the sisters, something inhuman about Babette. “Philippa went up to Babette and put her arms round her. She felt the cook’s body like a marble monument against her own, but she herself shook and trembled from head to foot.” Lowder believes, and perhaps the movie believes, and certainly I believe, in the beauty of a gift that is both given and received in love. But that is not what happens in the story. There Babette loves only her art. That that art pleases us is not, in her view, worthy even of contemplation.

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Boomers and E-Reading

Photograph by André Kertesz, from an essay by Sven Birkets on reading

I bought my first e-reader some years ago in a curious but skeptical frame of mind. But gradually over the years I have read fewer and fewer codexes, more and more electronic versions. I might have gone wholly digital by this point except for two things. First, many of the books I read I read in order to teach, and I have never gotten comfortable with navigating through an electronic text in class. It’s slow and awkward for me. And second, I started buying electronic books from Amazon and so am locked into their e-reading ecosystem, and I don’t like that. (Yes, I know how to extract the books from their DRM prison, but that’s a tedious and time-consuming process.) So I remain a regular purchaser of codexes.

But you know, like many people my age, I don’t see quite as well as I used to: even with trifocals, finding the right distance for text can be challenging. And light-sensitivity decreases with age, so I find myself looking for brighter lamps under which to read. Reading on an iPad or a Kindle Paperlight solves both of these problems: I can get text the size I want and plenty of light in every environment.

And I suspect that as I age the conveniences of e-readers will only become more appealing. When my back hurts I might want to lie on my side for an extended period, and we all know how awkward that can be with a codex. Or maybe my eyes will get tired more often, at which point I can put on my headphones and let the machine read the book to me for a while. I might become more forgetful, leaving the books I need behind more often, in which case having just one object to remember will make life easier.

So perhaps it won’t be young people but rather older ones who bring about the decline of the codex. Almost everyone I know who plays vinyl records on a turntable is thirty years younger than I am; maybe something similar will happen with books. Twenty years down the line, the retirement homes will be lit by the glow of screens, while the young hipsters in their coffeeshops will be savoring the tactile and olfactory pleasures of well-printed cloth-bound books.

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How Dare You?

Sometimes people quit the internet — and quit other things because of the internet. For instance, Hugo Schwyzer, who has made a name for himself online primarily as an advocate for feminism, has said goodbye — largely, it seems, because he has mental health issues that he feels are incompatible with handling the often toxic culture of online commentary.

The toxicity of take-down culture is exhausting and dispiriting. The cheapest and easiest tweets and articles to compose are snarky and clever dismantlings of what someone else has worked hard to create. The defenders of this culture of fierceness call it intellectual honesty, but it is an honesty too often edged in cruelty. I’ll admit It: I’m a most imperfect man. I have an absolutely dreadful past, one for which I continue to make quiet amends. I’m also frequently a smug and sloppy writer. But despite that past and my glib prose, I don’t think I’m wrong that when it comes to a concerted effort to drive me off the internet, I’ve been more sinned against than sinning.

And then there’s Phil Fish, the creator of a popular independent computer game called Fez. Fish had been working on a sequel to Fez but then, rather suddenly it seems, came to this conclusion:


As you maybe able to tell from what I’ve quoted, Schwyzer and Fish are both pretty volatile, indeed confrontational, types and may not at all be “more sinned against than sinning.” That’s not a debate I want to pursue, in relation to either man, though Lord knows you can find thousands of people on the internet who are pursuing it right now.

What I find interesting, though, is the number of posts I’ve come across written by people who insist, vociferously and passionately, that Schwyzer is wrong to quit the internet, or Fish is wrong to stop development on his game. I’m not going to link to these posts or comments, in part because it’s too depressing to go back to them again and in part because I don’t want to give them the hits, but the specifically moral outrage is noteworthy. It seems obvious to me that if someone wants to stop blogging, or close down/make private his Twitter account, or give up on a self-chosen work project or, in a related matter, write books slowly or not at all, I have no right to an opinion about that. None of those people owe me their presence or their creative activity.

But a great many people don’t feel as I do, and I wonder why that is. I suspect the simplest answer may also be the most correct one: There are a great many people in the world who make no distinction between “I want this to happen” and “I will be wronged if this doesn’t happen.” Even if what I want to happen is for someone to be available for me to write angry messages to.

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A Note on Christianity and the Intellectual Life

Over the past few days I’ve been mulling over the thoughts from Frederica Mathewes-Green that Rod shared over at his joint. This is not easy because I don’t think Frederica — everyone else seems to call her Frederica, so I guess I will too, even though I don’t know her; I hope that’s not disrespectful — has been very clear in formulating her objections.

Her follow-up comment doesn’t help much either. She tells the story of people at an academic conference behaving very rudely towards her, especially one elderly priest who (incoherently) denounced her writing, and concludes that the experience “confirmed my lack of enthusiasm for pure-theory theology.” But as I read the story, I can’t see that it has anything at all to do with “pure-theory theology,” but rather with a malformed community that delights in conflict and treats its guests inhospitably. That’s not a theoretical or theological failure, that’s a collective failure of Christian charity.

In that same comment of clarification, Frederica writes, “I see that my objection is to the custom of purely intellectual theologizing, separated from communion with God.” But anything human beings do, including inviting speakers to conferences, can go badly awry when “separated from communion with God.” Why single out intellectual activity? Frederica prefers to celebrate, in order, “the experience of God’s presence,” “community,” and “the teaching of the Church.” Yet those are vulnerable goods as well, when isolated from one another. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

So I’m still not sure that I know what Frederica means by “pure-theory theology,” but I am certain that it is no more likely to lose its way than anything else we broken and miserable humans do. We are never unable to make a mess of something.

And one more point. Frederica writes,

Primary, for me, is the experience of God’s presence. Right from the start, almost 40 yrs ago, that electrifying experience, that voice that “speaks with authority,” that’s absolutely primary.

And it is the experience of a person, not a spiritual shimmer or “oneness with the universe.” It has all the complexity and beauty of personality, though it’s clear that what I can encounter is only the very surface of the reality; it’s just, it’s all I can grasp. Anything further would explode me.

To which I have to reply, Nice ecstasy if you can get it, but some of us can’t get it even if we try. I have been following Jesus for thirty-five years or so now, and I have never once had the kind of experience that Frederica speaks of as normal and foundational for her. I have often asked for some “showing,” as Julian of Norwich called her own visions of the divine, but have never received anything. Perhaps if I had experienced the blessing of God’s immediacy that Frederica regularly receives, I would be as skeptical of the intellectual life as she is. So far, no dice.

But the intellectual exploration of the Christian faith, the pursuit of understanding Scripture and the great traditions of Christian thought, has been immensely nourishing to my soul over the years. It is through study and reflection, as well as through certain modes of worship that have come to saturate my being, that I am able to draw nearer to God, or rather, to allow Him to draw nearer to me. (I am, after all, asked to love the Lord my God with all my mind as well as my heart and soul.)

Is it possible that these intellectual pursuits could lead me astray, could be divorced from “communion with God”? Indeed it is. But the desire for spiritual experience or for community can also be so divorced. We’re really all in the same boat: We have received gifts of which we are the stewards. We must neither cast those gifts aside nor make idols of them. This is hard, and none of us has an easy road. So let us be kind and forbearing towards one another.

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More About Reza Aslan’s Zealot Than I Wanted To Write (Or Than You Want to Read, Probably)

First, Reza Aslan is not a New Testament scholar. In Zealot, he is writing well outside his own academic training. This does not mean that his book is a bad one, or that he shouldn’t have written it, only that it is primarily a sifting and re-presenting of the work of actual NT scholars.

Moreover, there is nothing remotely new in Aslan’s book. Its general outlines very closely follow the story told by John Dominic Crossan in his 1994 book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, which was itself a kind of summation of work Crossan and his colleagues had been doing for the previous quarter-century. (Aslan is more prone to see Jesus as a consciously political revolutionary than Crossan, who writes of Jesus’s message, “It did not invite a political revolution but envisaged a social one at imagination’s most dangerous depths” [196]; but in other respects Aslan’s picture of Jesus so closely resembles Crossan’s that it’s peculiar, at least, to see the earlier book go barely acknowledged in those notes.) Aslan makes no new discoveries, and makes no arguments that haven’t already been made — in some cases very long ago.

Let’s look at just one issue that tells us something about how Aslan handles his business. In Chapter 4 he writes,

Whatever languages Jesus may have spoken, there is no reason to believe that he could read or write in any of them, not even Aramaic. Luke’s account[s of Jesus’s literacy] … are both fabulous concoctions of the evangelist’s own devising. Jesus would not have had access to the kind of formal education necessary to make Luke’s account even remotely credible.

This an exceptionally definitive statement in two noteworthy ways.

First, Aslan asserts that Luke was a conscious fabulist. Yet even if Luke were wrong about Jesus’s literacy — or about anything else — there is more than one way to explain those errors. For instance, Richard Bauckham’s important and much-celebrated book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses — which Aslan appears not to know — makes a strong case that Luke’s Gospel, like the others, is based on the testimony of those who claimed to be eyewitnesses. Especially since Luke places such emphasis on his attempt to gather reliable witnesses to the life of Jesus, wouldn’t it make sense to attribute his errors (if they exist) to his interviewees’ lively imaginations or poor memories, and to his own credulousness, rather than to intentional deception? Yet Aslan never considers any other possible explanation than the one he blandly asserts without argument.

But, second, can we be so sure that Luke was wrong about Jesus being literate? Aslan again just states that Jesus could neither read nor write, but if we look at the bibliographical essays at the end of Zealot we discover that he knows perfectly well that the situation is far more complicated than that. One of the chief sources he cites is John P. Meier’s Jesus: A Marginal Jew, and, as Aslan must acknowledge, “Meier actually believes that Jesus was not illiterate and that he even may have had some kind of formal education, though he provides an enlightening account of the debate on both sides of the argument” (230n). So there’s an argument on this point? One wouldn’t learn that from reading the actual text of Zealot, only from burrowing deep into the apparatus.

In fact, Aslan is following the logic of Crossan here, who wrote — though again Aslan does not cite him —, “Since between 95 and 97 percent of the Jewish state was illiterate at the time of Jesus, it must be presumed that Jesus also was illiterate” (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography 25). Aslan, as one might expect, just says “97%” — but both he and Crossan are wildly oversimplifying an immensely complex question, as I discovered when I tried to navigate the vast pile of evidence provided by Catherine Hezser in her Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine. Confession: I didn’t get far in Hezser’s book, but far enough to realize that the invocation of statistics like “between 95 and 97 percent” and “97%” is a comically inept attempt to use numbers plucked from the air to give a false appearance of scientific accuracy in overwhelmingly difficult and evidence-poor situations.

The chief point I want to make here is that in claiming that Jesus was illiterate Aslan is (a) asserting flatly a point that is seriously disputed among New Testament scholars and (b) making no new claim. Indeed, the claim was not remotely new when Crossan made it: probably armchair atheists have been making it since before there were armchairs, but among New Testament scholars it goes back at least to Light from the East by Adolf Deissmann, the first edition of which appeared in 1908.

So, in sum: Reza Aslan’s book is an educated amateur’s summary and synthesis of a particularly skeptical but quite long-established line of New Testament scholarship, presented to us as simple fact. If you like that kind of thing, Zealot will be the kind of thing you like.

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The End of Growth?

Claude Lorrain, Aeneas and Dido in Carthage, via Wikipaintings
Claude Lorrain, Aeneas and Dido in Carthage, via Wikipaintings

UPDATE: Feel free to ignore what follows and just jump ahead to Noah Millman’s super-smart and super-provocative response to it. Go ahead: GO.

As I wrote in a post a while back, economic growth is wonderful—but what if it doesn’t happen? The economist Robert Gordon thinks it won’t—indeed that it can’t—and he’s trying to spread the bad news:

The forces of the second industrial revolution, he believes, were so powerful and so unique that they will not be repeated. The consequences of that breakthrough took a century to be fully realized, and as the internal combustion engine gave rise to the car and eventually the airplane, and electricity to radio and the telephone and then mass media, they came to rearrange social forces and transform everyday lives. Mechanized farm equipment permitted people to stay in school longer and to leave rural areas and move to cities. Electrical appliances allowed women of all social classes to leave behind housework for more fulfilling and productive jobs. Air-conditioning moved work indoors. The introduction of public sewers and sanitation reduced illness and infant mortality, improving health and extending lives. The car, mass media, and commercial aircraft led to a liberation from the narrow confines of geography and an introduction to a far broader and richer world. Education beyond high school was made accessible, in the aftermath of World War II, to the middle and working classes. These are all consequences of the second industrial revolution, and it is hard to imagine how those improvements might be extended: Women cannot be liberated from housework to join the labor force again, travel is not getting faster, cities are unlikely to get much more dense, and educational attainment has plateaued. The classic example of the scale of these transformations is Paul Krugman’s description of his kitchen: The modern kitchen, absent a few surface improvements, is the same one that existed half a century ago. But go back half a century before that, and you are talking about no refrigeration, just huge blocks of ice in a box, and no gas-fired stove, just piles of wood. If you take this perspective, it is no wonder that the productivity gains have diminished since the early seventies. The social transformations brought by computers and the Internet cannot match any of this.

It’s that last sentence that really gets me thinking: What if the amazing achievements of information technology, cool though they undoubtedly are, prove incapable of addressing certain underlying material realities that limit economic growth? That is, what if our electronic gadgets and the world-wide informational networks they plug us into have, over the long haul, only a relatively superficial effect on our overall economic health?

Moreover, it’s important to note that economic prosperity has the strong tendency to establish a new baseline of normalcy. I grew up half-a-century ago in a ramshackle old house in Birmingham, Alabama where our house lacked, among other things,

  • air-conditioning
  • central heat
  • cable television (we got four channels)
  • a microwave oven
  • a dishwasher (other than my grandmother)
  • a shower (tub only in our single bathroom)
  • a clothes dryer

—and, of course, computers. We didn’t even have a typewriter until I asked for one for Christmas when I was in high school. Our one automobile had neither air-conditioning nor power steering nor power brakes. Power windows had been invented but we didn’t even know anyone who lived in such luxury. And yet we were by no means poor: we had an economically stable working-class urban life, with access to good medical and dental care and the ability to buy almost any kind of food we were interested in.

But if you threw me back into that world now, and equipped me exactly as I was equipped then, I would feel horribly impoverished and it would surely take me years to stop thinking of myself as constantly afflicted and deprived—if I ever managed to get there.

So if Robert Gordon is right, and if what I have just said about how we respond to prosperity is right, then it becomes easy to imagine a society in which people become ever more dependent on their network connections to distract them from a stagnant or perhaps even increasingly dismal economic condition. Shades of Philip K. Dick.

All this just makes me want to re-emphasize a point I made in that earlier post: “We need to strive to articulate and commend visions of the good life, of human flourishing, that do not depend on economic growth. Then, if the growth comes, well and good—what a delightful bonus.” Those who think they can make growth happen, go for it—I’ll cheer you on. But the great majority of us will need to be tending our cultural and moral gardens so that our children will be founded and established as persons in such a way that (relative) poverty will not crush them. It was possible to flourish as a human being in the conditions I grew up in—in fact, people do it all the time, even today, and have flourished in worse environments in the past.

Such flourishing will still be possible in the future, even if economic conditions decline. But because of the (real or imaginary) baseline that has been established in recent decades, and is reinforced by almost all of our mass media, it won’t be easy. As I try to prepare myself to let my son go out into the world on his own—he’s a rising junior in college—I hope my wife and I have helped prepare him to make a good living for himself and his future family. But even more I hope we have prepared him to be the kind of person whose mental and moral health will not depend on his achieving a historically high level of economic success. Because the level we think of as average or normal may in the not-too-distant future be available only to a select few.

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Problems of Engineering and Problems of Life

One of the key themes of the book I’m just beginning to work on — provisionally titled Christian Humanism and Total War — is that the renewal of Christian humanism during World War II owes less to the war itself than to a crucial development that (inevitably) accompanied the war: a dramatically accelerating transformation of the Western democracies into militarized technocracies.

I recently discovered a 1944 essay by T. S. Eliot called “The Responsibility of the Man of Letters in the Cultural Restoration of Europe” that addresses this transformation and provides a very concise summary of the Christian humanist response to this social transformation. This passage in particular is key:

I have suggested that the cultural health of Europe, including the cultural health of its component parts, is incompatible with extreme forms of both nationalism and internationalism. But the cause of that disease, which destroys the very soil in which culture has its roots, is not so much extreme ideas, and the fanaticism which they stimulate, as the relentless pressure of modern industrialism, setting the problems which the extreme ideas attempt to solve. Not least of the effects of industrialism is that we become mechanized in mind, and consequently attempt to provide solutions in terms of engineering, for problems which are essentially problems of life.

A good word not only for that hour but for our own.

The essay is available various places online, often under somewhat different titles (it was reprinted by several periodicals in the year following its first publication): one version may be found here.

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Dante and His Readers

Fiona Sampson’s review of Clive James’s new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy is a somewhat slapdash piece of work. For instance, she writes that “According to James, most English translations fail to bring across the assonant and alliterative interplay of Dante’s original, because they are busy with the almost impossible task of reproducing its terza rima, the chain-link rhyme scheme.” In fact, James does not say this — I’ve read his Introduction to his translation — because no major translator since Dorothy Sayers has even tried to reproduce Dante’s terza rima fully. (Even Laurence Binyon’s translation, the best-known one immediately preceding Sayers, doesn’t stick with terza rima consistently — in citing him as an example Sampson ends up quoting a passage that departs from Dante’s original scheme, though she doesn’t notice this.)

So in rendering Dante’s verse more flexibly, James is just doing what the poet’s English translators have been doing for the past fifty years — though I don’t know of anyone else who has adopted his preferred solution of writing in rhymed quatrains. If I were translating Dante I wouldn’t try to force rhyme-poor English into terza rima — one look at the indignities Sayers inflicts on Dante and English alike ought to cure anyone of that temptation — but I would insist on keeping the tercets, in order to acknowledge that the number three is the absolutely foundational structural principle of the whole Divine Comedy. That James is willing to dispense with that suggests a certain deafness to Dante’s theological concerns.

But the main point I want to emphasize here stems from another error that Sampson makes, an extremely common one, even among highly literate and well-educated people. Here’s the relevant quote:

Divine reckoning is not only necessary; it is both inescapable and precise. Deceivers, in the eighth circle of hell, are put into ten subdivisions, including seducers, flatterers, hypocrites and false counsellors. The imagination of medieval Christendom was often highly literal, as well as visual, in this way. The concentric circles Dante pictured in the afterlife also appear widely elsewhere over the next few centuries – in Vasari’s designs for the frescoes in the dome of Florence’s cathedral, or the “doom” window of the Church of St Mary in Fairford, Gloucestershire. Christendom’s world-view was equally hierarchical. Dante was formed by a culture in which where you were to a large extent defined what you were. To write the Comedy in exile must have been a tremendous act of individuation.

Almost all of these easy and familiar assumptions about Dante’s mind and culture are wrong, but wrongest of all is the idea that anything in the Divine Comedy is “literal.” It is truly extraordinary how many people assume that in the Inferno Dante is painting a picture of what he thinks Hell is really like, even though the allegorical character of the narrative is shouted from the first lines:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

(That’s Robert and Jean Hollander’s rendering.)

If you don’t think the cammin is literal or the selva oscura is literal — and surely you do not make that mistake — why would you think the depiction of Hell later in the poem is literal?

On even brief reflection it becomes obvious that to treat Dante’s Hell as a literal depiction of anything is a mistake. Just consider this: each sinner is located in a circle of Hell devoted to punishing a single sin. But no one is guilty of only one sin. Well, then, perhaps each person is punished according to his or her most serious sin? No, that’s not it: we meet Dido in the Second Circle among the Lustful, not in the Seventh among the Suicides.

In fact, Dante is not at all interested in placing persons (or as he would see them, ex-persons) in their proper places in the afterlife, nor is he interested in speculating on the precise nature of the sufferings of the damned: he is, rather, interested in exploring the nature of sin. The topic of the Inferno is not Hell but sin, for the Pilgrim must understand what sin is so he can renounce it, and thereby begin to find a way out of that dark, dark wood.

So Dante’s imagination is not, pace Fiona Sampson, “literal” at all. It is symbolically rich and immensely nuanced. The literal-mindedness belongs to many of his modern readers.

I’ll post more on Dante later. He’s fun to think and write about.

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