Ineffectual and compromised…

I finished Walker Percy’s “Love in the Ruins” yesterday. An incredible, prescient, and haunting story of a people living in collapse. It’s haunting in the same way that Brave New World is, in the sense that looking too long into its dystopian portraiture leaves one feeling like one’s looking into a mirror:

Offered as a tongue-in-cheek, pre-holocaust tale, Love in the Ruins is subtitled The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. Its protagonist and narrator, Dr. Tom More, is named for the famous sixteenth century saint who authored Utopia (1516). More is a rueful psychologist who has developed an instrument for research which he calls the “lapsometer.” The lapsometer is a device that measures certain psychic forces in the brain and thereby makes it possible to determine the source of irrationality, which for Percy is characterized by one of two extremes.

In Percy’s view, the two most evident maladies of modern life are angelism, the tendency to abstract oneself from the ordinary circumstances of life and attempt to live above them in aloof intellectualism, and bestialism, the tendency to live as a brute consumer with an unrestrained, animal-like preoccupation with sex without procreation. This protracted indictment of modern culture surfaces frequently in Percy’s later fiction, most prominently in Lancelot and in The Thanatos Syndrome.

The narrative is bracketed into five main sections, followed by an epilogue that delineates what has happened in the five years subsequent to the July 4 climax. It is an apocalyptic time in which the social institutions that are supposed to provide stability and continuity have broken down or become ridiculous parodies of themselves. The halls of academe, the medical profession, civil government, and a host of venerable religious institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, are all satirized as ineffectual and compromised, each having sold out to the spirit of modernism…

Percy published this book in 1971, but there’s a passage in here where someone declares a view of the importance of “human values” that sounds like a rough draft for Anthony Kennedy’s infamous 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey opinion: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…

Georgetown snow

Arrived back in Washington late last night as snow began accumulating meaningfully throughout the area. There was that absolutely-silent calm that follows snowfall.

In weather like this, I wonder how much quieter daily life might be a century from now if and when electric vehicles have wholly supplanted the internal combustion engine. Another way to think of this is to wonder how much quieter daily life was something like 125 years ago.

Austere and lonely offices

Attended mass at St. Denis in Havertown this morning, in Philadelphia now, and interested in seeing whether the Philadelphia Eagles season continues tonight against the New Orleans Saints. Sharing a scene from Market Street in Old City, and pairing it with Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays:”

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

It was something like ten years ago (maybe more) in the mid-winter that I was visiting my great uncle Bruce Shakely in western Pennsylvania. I had driven from State College the night before and arrived late. Gradually, the following morning, I woke to what I realized was the sound of Bruce out back, chopping wood for the living room furnace. Bruce was something like 85 at the time, still fulfilling one of Hayden’s “austere and lonely offices” of daily life and love.

‘Architecture is the only truly public form of art’

In Philadelphia this weekend, and stopped in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul briefly this morning. Pairing views from that visit with Jake Scott’s writing on beauty in architecture:

Architecture is the only truly public form of art. All other styles of art exist in a dedicated space. Paintings adorn walls within galleries that we may choose to enter, just as we may choose to take replicas home with us; music is not constant, it must be played in order to be appreciated and, out of respect for one another, we confine our enjoyment of our music to our spaces, be it in communion in a concert, or alone in our bedrooms; television and film are much the same, and theatre performances even more so.

But architecture exists all around us all the time. When we walk down the street, we are surrounded by architecture—in the fact, the very existence of a street is a creation of architecture. Consequently, when we are forced to interact with art in our every day life, it is only necessary that we ask that art to be good; when we look at buildings, we want them to look back, to make us feel welcome, and not be faced with an impersonal, expressionless façade. Even the term façade is misleading, since a façade contains an expression within it.

The consequence of bad architecture, therefore, is to make us feel less at home, as if the buildings glare at us as we go about our business, making an urban space into a place where no one feels welcome. Even in these spaces, our eyes are not drawn up to marvel at the wonder around us, but instead forced down to stare at the pavement, or off into the distance. …

Each building has a voice, and each city, town, or village is merely a collection of those voices. The more poetic among us might compare it to a choir; each voice has its own note, yet the harmony of the whole takes precedence; and so, when a new voice is added to the choir, it must remember this, and do its best to respect that harmony rather than disrupt it.

Higher GDP, lower quality of life

J.D. Vance writes in response to Tucker Carlson’s critique of an excessively economic-focused conservatism:

Tucker Carlson’s monologue heard round the world is interesting on its own terms. In it, he argues against a conservatism that consistently prizes commercial interests above those of everyone else. I encourage you to watch or read it in full. Yet the response on the right is as interesting as Carlson’s monologue itself, for it reveals a discomfort among some conservatives for balancing the tensions that exist in our coalition and in our ideology. …

Our economy has not produced fewer dead children and more living parents in America, at least not in the section of the country where I live. The opioid epidemic, in particular, has ravaged whole communities — driving down life expectancy, depriving children of their parents, and parents of their children. The human cost of this crisis is simply incomprehensible. In states such as Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, countless children are growing up with parents in jail, incapacitated, or underground. Yes, they live in a country with a higher GDP than a generation ago, and they’re undoubtedly able to buy cheaper consumer goods, but to paraphrase Reagan: Are they better off than they were 20 years ago? Many would say, unequivocally, “no.”

Some economic libertarians might say that these problems are the consequence of bad individual choices, and I wouldn’t entirely disagree. I grew up in a family plagued by addiction, and I saw some bad choices. Yet bad choices simply aren’t enough to explain the crisis — people have always made bad choices, and the familial, neighborhood, and economic contexts in which they live can exacerbate or improve them. Others might admit that it’s not all bad choices, that bad policy plays a role, but oddly the bad policy they point to is almost always the negative incentives of the welfare state. Again, they have a point — our welfare state is far from perfect, especially when it comes to encouraging work and family formation — but there are many other policies at play here.

To keep the focus on the opioid epidemic, the Los Angeles Times’ reporting on the role of the pharmaceutical industry is both excellent and disturbing. It chronicles the ways in which some companies gamed our regulatory system to obtain approval and patent protection for highly addictive drugs. Those companies then knowingly lied about the safety of those drugs to doctors and patients. Some commentators have framed their problem with Tucker’s argument as promoting “government intervention” when that same intervention is the problem. But if you want to protect a community from drugs that can take hold of a person’s mind and destroy whole neighborhoods soon thereafter, you need some government intervention.

This raises a fundamental question with which so many of Tucker’s critics refuse to even engage: What happens when the companies that drive the market economy — and all of its benefits — don’t care about the American nation’s social fabric? What happens when, as in the case of a few massive narcotics sellers, they profit by destroying that fabric?

Surely our response can’t be: “Well, the market will take care of it.”

We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule.”

Inexplicable, but common

Wendell Berry writes in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community:

“The miraculous is not extraordinary, but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air, and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances, will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

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A constant challenge to remember that the commonplace is only so because we’re habituated to it. But we did not create ourselves, and nothing in this universe explains the reason for its being.

Conventional and contrarian thinking

Noah Brier writes on Sam Hinkie, former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager:

He is a contrarian. For the uninitiated, the brief history here is that Hinkie carried out one of the most radical transformation experiments in recent sports history. He put aside any notion that his team was trying to win and traded everything away for more ping pong balls in the NBA’s rookie lottery. In basketball, where only five guys from a team are on the floor at any one time, a superstar can have a massive impact on a team’s success. In a 2016 episode of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell called basketball a “strong link” sport because a team’s success is best predicted by the quality of its best player (as opposed to soccer where it’s based on the worst player on the field he explains). Hinkie figured this out. He also figured out the best way to get one of those superstars was to draft them and to do that you had to have an early first round pick. In the end, he took a lot of heat for his strategy (even though he was following all the rules) and was eventually pushed out by the league office…

Back to Hinkie’s letter. It was leaked and provided an amazing view into the psyche of someone who was willing to be a pariah. In it he paints an interesting picture of the connection between contrarianism and traditionalism.

Here he is on contrarianism: “To develop truly contrarian views will require a never-ending thirst for better, more diverse inputs. What player do you think is most undervalued? Get him for your team. What basketball axiom is most likely to be untrue? Take it on and do the opposite. What is the biggest, least valuable time sink for the organization? Stop doing it. Otherwise, it’s a big game of pitty pat, and you’re stuck just hoping for good things to happen, rather than developing a strategy for how to make them happen.”

And on traditionalism: “While contrarian views are absolutely necessary to truly deliver, conventional wisdom is still wise. It is generally accepted as the conventional view because it is considered the best we have. Get back on defense. Share the ball. Box out. Run the lanes. Contest a shot. These things are real and have been measured, precisely or not, by thousands of men over decades of trial and error. Hank Iba. Dean Smith. Red Auerbach. Gregg Popovich. The single best place to start is often wherever they left off.”

Home, household, and family life

I spent time in Old Town, Alexandria on Sunday afternoon, which is where I took this photo. I really like little scenes like this, and wonder how often passersby think on what happens above all of the little storefronts—the lives of those unfolding in little apartments, the second floor storerooms for ground floor retailers, the abandoned spaces above some shops, etc. It also reminded me of two pieces from from John Cuddeback that I had read last month. The first is Cuddeback on Aristotle and on a deep aesthetic purpose of home:

Aristotle suggests that the beauty of our home is a way that we serve those around us. And he goes further: building for permanence is an aspect of building for beauty. Perhaps this is one reason that there is always something about a stone house.

Many of us are not in the position to build a new home; and among those that are, financial considerations will often be a real limiting factor in what we can do. Yet it seems Aristotle has given us a special perspective, one from which to appreciate styles that endure, and materials and construction that endure. For the sake of beauty, and for the sake of others, as well as for ourselves.

Regardless of our financial situation we can bear in mind this wonderful, even if challenging aspect of what our houses can be and can mean, right down to their furnishings.

Cuddeback also writes separately in First Things on “reclaiming the household”:

Not long ago, the household was a context of daily life. The arts that provided for the material needs of human life were largely home arts, practiced, developed, and passed on within the four walls, or at least in the immediate ambit of the home. Food, clothing, shelter, as well as nonessential items that gave some embellishment to life, were commonly the fruit of the work of household members, often produced with an eye for beauty as well as utility. This carried into the industrial era. For decades, Singer sold sewing machines to housewives, who bought patterns and made their own clothes. Men built backyard toolsheds. Grandparents put up raspberry jams in Mason jars.

The household involves more than just work. Porch times, lawn times, and by-the-fire times punctuated the more serious endeavors, and were often occasions of leisurely work, too, such as carving, fine needlework, and other hobbies. Meals called for setting aside work, as of course did prayer. These habits were times of mutual presence. To a great extent, family life meant being with at least some other members of the household for most of the day.

Recounting these things, once taken for granted, highlights how remote a household is from the home life of today. Even those who intentionally seek to have a “traditional” family life, in fact, often lack the ability to comprehend the reality of a household that is not simply “traditional,” but ancient and profoundly human. They set out to start a family in a virtual vacuum. The husband and father usually sallies forth to a remote job, and the wife and mother attempts to manage the day-to-day work of child-rearing—a project the real nature of which is elusive—while wondering what place she too might have “out there.” Intangible pressures on parents and children seem inexorably to draw their attention and their time to activities outside of the home. Junior gets taken to soccer practice. Mom goes to a spin class.

A renewal of family life will require a renewal of the household, especially as a place of shared work and a center of shared experience and belonging. We are missing out on truly human living because we fail to live together. …

Because the need to restore households is not separable or even really distinct from the effort to protect or restore families, those concerned with the plight of the family today undermine their efforts when they lose sight of the household. Not thinking in terms of households misconstrues both the family and the broader societies to which it belongs.

I’ve been thinking about the physical structure of American communities for a few years now, particularly in the context of what a more life-affirming and more human American society might look like. That is, how much of the badness and error in our politics is a result of the physically and structurally deficient nature of how we’ve built both our towns and neighborhoods as well as our daily family lives?

Personalism and human pursuits

Margarita Mooney writes on personalism and the pursuits we choose in life—whether narrowly material and transitory, or also spiritual and transcendent:

Jacques Maritain was a friendly critic of the pragmatist view of education. He argued that problem-solving, the crux of John Dewey’s or Paulo Freire’s approach to education, can’t be the end of education. Learning often occurs in response to an intuition or an insight that prompts us to pursue a new avenue of knowledge. Problem-solving is, indeed, important, but not all discoveries are practical. That is because Maritain agreed with one key idea of personalism: humans are not just material. We also have an inner depth.

As much as Maritain praised efforts to develop new pedagogical techniques and test the acquisition of knowledge, he warned against the temptation to turn our tools and tests into idols. Humans are not pure instruments applying other instruments. The value of a person is not how much they produce for the economy nor how they score on a test.

While Maritain was a devout Catholic who strongly valued moral character, he argued that the end of the university is not character education per se. For democracy to flourish, Maritain argued that it is not sufficient to discipline the will to accord with the moral code of a particular religion or culture. Democracy is a form of self-government, and for self-government to triumph over tyranny, universities need to form our intelligence and reason so that we can freely choose the good. Thus, universities need to form reason in order to guide our conscience towards the use of practical reason in service of the common good.

The utilitarian, pragmatist, and moral ends of education, Maritain argued, are best pursued when our educational systems are built on a full picture of the human person; that is, a being endowed with uniqueness, freedom and creativity, and service for the common good. …

To understand the cultural, economic, political, and educational crises through which we are living, we have to understand an important shift in philosophical anthropology. Personalist philosopher Max Scheler described how we have shifted from a theistic understanding of man as created by a personal God—marked by sinfulness but ultimately created for good—to a rejection of dependence on God and the exaltation of man as primarily constituted to satisfy natural desires for power, sex, or money.

The deadening of our spiritual nature in philosophy has contributed to the crisis of fragmentation so many students feel. They may not comprehend how deeply rooted the rejection of our spiritual nature is in so much modern philosophy, but they do long for a break from competing to be successful in the modern, technocratic society we live in. They long to take a break from self-promotion and spend time growing in self-awareness by contemplating nature or a work of art.

Penn State’s fascinating motto has been “Making Life Better” for some number of years. As an undergrad, I remember thinking how simultaneously perfect and absurd such a thing is as a motto. It can be read in the charitable way possible as holistically concerned with the ultimate good of the human person. But it can also be read as basically an economic promise for attaining some marginal material or professional advancement.