Humanae Vitae

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical concerning human life and the regulation of birth. Bishop Robert Barron speaks to this anniversary in this Word on Fire reflection:

When I worked my first real job at The Philadelphia Bulletin in 2008, whose motto was “Philadelphia’s Family Newspaper,” we published a special section commemorating the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. The Bulletin went out of business by 2010, but I have a number of digital editions saved from those years, including that section.

We can do all sorts of things with and to the human body and to the human person. The essential question is always, “Should we?” And equally as important is answering that having considered the immediate costs and longer-term consequences of our decision. Humanae Vitae remains controversial, but true things tend to remain controversial in every time.

‘Oh, those were simpler times’

Harrison Scott Key remarks to the 2017 St. Andrews Society of Savannah, Georgia meeting. This particular excerpt on qualities of a “real man” struck me:

“Oh, those were simpler times,” I can hear you saying. “Back when a man could solve geopolitical questions with food.”

But were the times simpler? My grandfather grew up amid lynchings. In his home of Tate County, Mississippi, he saw black men pursued with hounds by lawless mobs and hanged for crimes they did not commit. His neighbors across the fence-line were a black family, and when they were ill, he called on them with food and prayers, and when he or my grandmother were ill, they paid him in kind. How instructive for a young boy like me, from the very heart of American racial evil, to see this bold witness from his white grandfather?

Of all the memories of Monk, I remember one most vividly, when my parents were out of town and he took my brother and me to the swimming hole.

It was a wide sandy creek. You could see to the bottom in places, little bream darting in clusters. Monk fished upstream, as we played down. Soon enough, our horseplay turned into horse-fighting, when my brother and I attempted to express our fraternal love by drowning one another. Monk told us to cut it out, but we didn’t listen.

“If I have to tell you boys one more time,” Monk said, “I’ll whip the both of you.”

We had been whipped many times, at school, at home, never with fists or open palms, usually with items purchased at hardware stores, flyswatters, canoe oars, fan belts.  But Monk had never whipped us. He was the peacemaker, the Good Cop to my father’s Bad, and so we ignored him and commenced to murdering each other again, as quietly as possible.

And then the water turned dark with his shadow.

“Boys, get out,” he said, prying the leather belt off his trousers.

I felt such grand shame, that our behavior had made Monk no longer the lover of mercy but the doer of justice. I said a prayer, and looked up to see a miracle: Just as he raised his hand to whip me, over his shoulder, poking through the leaves, I saw the face of an angel.

No, not an angel.

It was Monk’s son. My father, Pop. He stepped into the clearing.

“We just drove in,” Pop said. “I seen the truck and reckoned you all was swimming.”

Bird and I waited for Monk to explain our terrible malfeasance, but when I turned back to look at my grandfather, the belt was back in its rightful place, caged and quiet.

“We was just fishing a little,” Monk said.

We all drove back to the farm. Monk never said a word, from then to the day of his death.

In that moment, so very long ago, the just act would have been to punish my brother and me, and then to tell our father what we had done. Monk probably wanted to drown us both just for ruining his fishing. Justice would have felt good to him. It often does.

You read the papers, you check Facebook, and it looks as if today’s men want justice for others and mercy for themselves. But Monk did not choose justice. He chose mercy, for us.

In the New Testament, Paul exhorts his readers like some kind of juiced-up ball coach, “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong!” And then he says, as if in rejoinder to himself, quiet, calming, “Let all your things be done with charity.”

At this point in my life, where I am statistically halfway between birth and death, I have finally come to see that being a man has much less to do with chopping your own firewood or growing your own tomato and far more with this impossible marriage of strength and compassion that Micah and Paul write about.

Together, these impossible qualities are what made my grandfather a man, and all the good men who have come before us.

Pale Blue Dot

Maria Popova reflects on living in turbulent times:

When the Voyager completed its exploratory mission and took the last photograph — of Neptune — NASA commanded that the cameras be shut off to conserve energy. But Carl Sagan had the idea of turning the spacecraft around and taking one final photograph — of Earth. Objections were raised — from so great a distance and at so low a resolution, the resulting image would have absolutely no scientific value. But Sagan saw the larger poetic worth — he took the request all the way up to NASA’s administrator and charmed his way into permission.

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And so, on Valentine’s Day of 1990, just after Bulgaria’s Communist regime was finally defeated after nearly half a century of reign, the Voyager took the now-iconic image of Earth known as the “Pale Blue Dot” — a grainy pixel, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” as Sagan so poetically put it when he immortalized the photograph in his beautiful “Pale Blue Dot” monologue from Cosmos — that great masterwork of perspective, a timeless reminder that “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was… every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician” lived out their lives on this pale blue dot. And every political conflict, every war we’ve ever fought, we have waged over a fraction of this grainy pixel barely perceptible against the cosmic backdrop of endless lonesome space.

In the cosmic blink of our present existence, as we stand on this increasingly fragmented pixel, it is worth keeping the Voyager in mind as we find our capacity for perspective constricted by the stranglehold of our cultural moment. It is worth questioning what proportion of the news this year, what imperceptible fraction, was devoted to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded for the landmark detection of gravitational waves — the single most significant astrophysical discovery since Galileo. After centuries of knowing the universe only by sight, only by looking, we can now listen to it and hear echoes of events that took place billions of lightyears away, billions of years ago — events that made the stardust that made us.

I don’t think it is possible to contribute to the present moment in any meaningful way while being wholly engulfed by it. It is only by stepping out of it, by taking a telescopic perspective, that we can then dip back in and do the work which our time asks of us.

I love Valya Balkanska’s “Izlel ye Delyo Haydutin”, the Bulgarian folk song from Carl Sagan and Voyager’s “Golden Record”. That sort of folk song is something I can imagine our earliest ancestors being moved by, tens and hundreds of thousands of years ago. And someday maybe it will move others, too.

Oaks

Brad Birzer writes on Oak trees as a symbol of free peoples:

One of the most fascinating symbols of a republic in the western tradition, from the Romans through the Germanic Barbarians to the American founders to the American founders of the Republican Party, is the mighty oak. As noted in the previous essay on the history on the rise of the modern nation state, all republics must exist—by their very nature—as reflections of nature herself. They are, at essence, organic, necessarily experiencing birth, middle age, and death. How easily one might transfer this to the oak, thinking of its own stages, from acorn to prevailing gian, to corrupted and hollowed-out shell. …

When the greatest of Roman republicans, Marcus Tullius Cicero, offered the world the first treatise on the natural law, On the Laws, began with the image of an oak, deeply rooted not just in the soil, but in the poetic imagination itself. “I recognize that grove and the oak tree of the people of Arpinum: I have read about them often in the Marius. If that oak tree survives, this is surely it; it’s certainly old enough,” Atticus begins. To which Quintus famously answers, “It survives, Atticus, and it will always survive: its roots are in the imagination. No farmer’s cultivation can preserve a tree as long as one sown in a poet’s verse.” Indeed, Quintus continues, this very oak might have been planted by the one god. Certainly, the name of the oak will remain, tied to the sacred spot, long after nature has ravaged it.

In his History of Early Rome, Livy informs us that a consecrated oak sheltered the praetorium, a seat of waiting and contemplation for foreign guests and ambassadors from the Senate. Likewise, Suetonius reminds us that Mars, especially, favored the oak as a tree symbolizing the divine authority.

The Mediterraneans, though, held no monopoly over a mythic understanding of the oak, as the Germanic tribes far to the north considered the tree the symbol of their god of justice, Thor. When the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians met to decide the fate of inherited and common law–which laws to pass on, which laws to end, and which laws to reform–they met as a Witan or AllThing under the oaks.

Christians, knowing the oak to be so utterly rooted in the pagan tradition, knew not whether to love or to hate the tree. According to St. Bede, when St. Augustine of Canterbury called a conference of church leaders in 603, he did so at an oak, knowing the Anglo-Saxon fondness for the tree. There, at what became known as Augustine’s oak or Augustine’s Ak, the evangelist called for unity in proclaiming the gospel. Two generations earlier, Bede records, St. Columba had done something similar, building a monastery among the Celts known as Dearmach, “Field of Oaks.”  Even at the most famous of medieval monasteries, Lindisfarne, Finan built the church altar there not out of traditional stone, but, rather according to the custom of the peoples in that region, an altar “of hewn oak, thatched with reeds.”

When St. Boniface, a century later, encountered a group of Friesians still worshipping the oak of Thor, he—with nothing short of awesome bravado–attacked the tree with his axe. According to the hagiographic legends surrounding Boniface, the oak exploded into four parts moments before the blade touched its bark. So astounded were the pagans at his daring, that St. Boniface seized the moment to begin proclaiming the gospel. Where the ruined oak stood, according to hagiographic myth, an evergreen grew in its place. As it was getting dark and Boniface continued to preach, his followers placed candles all around and upon the evergreen, thus creating the first Christmas tree. …

If Boniface undid the oak as a direct representation of a god, he could not undo its importance to justice, as it remained a symbol of the law and of a free people. When the grand Christian King Alfred the Great met with his men in the late 800s to judge the inheritance of the common laws of the Anglo-Saxon people, they, too, met under an oak. Critically, Alfred and his Witan judged the laws. They did not create them, believing such actions illegal. A ruling body can only judge what it has inherited, not create laws out of nothing. Such a power belongs only to God and through his people only across time. …

The symbol of the oak remained a powerful one in colonial America, especially as the various communities on the eastern seaboard continued their own observance of the traditional common laws and, especially, in their Declaration of Independence. Though not exclusively oak, oaks made fine Liberty Poles and Liberty Trees in the 1760s through 1780s, and newly-freed American communities regularly planted oaks to celebrate their independence from Britain. Pamphleteers, not surprisingly, used the symbol of the acorn and the oak as representative of America’s independence and hardihood.

When Congress rashly passed the democratic Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854—a law that claimed that the enslavement of an entire people could be decided by mere majority vote—angry republican citizens of Michigan formed a third party, the Republican Party, in Jackson, Michigan, under, not surprisingly, a grove of oaks.

Whatever one in the early twenty-first century might think of Jupiter or Thor, the oak remains a mighty symbol of a free people, a people ready to remember and reclaim what is rightfully theirs by the grace of the Creator and the created order. The oak reminds us of strength in the face of nasty and bitter times, returning us to the nourishment of what makes us strong and free, the duty to govern ourselves in a fashion becoming to God and nature and, equally important, to the dignity of the human person. Unlike oppressive governments who rely on cults of personality, the republic relies on the nature of nature and the nature (good and bad) of the human person.

This perspective on Oaks spoke to me because the Sugar Creek Valley in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania is a home to White Oaks, and there are a number on the acres that my family settled there in the early 1800s.

Trees matter.

Jack Bogle’s values

A portrait of Jack Bogle, Vanguard’s founder:

As living legends go, Bogle is a modest fellow, or at least he tries to be. “Call me Jack” is his normal conversation starter. He’s old-fashioned, even for an 88-year-old — the kind of guy who has simple rules for living a good life, codified in the aphoristic style of one of his heroes, Benjamin Franklin. “To be called an 18th-century man is to me the ultimate accolade,” Bogle has said. …

This fall, Jack Bogle released an updated version of his primer, The Little Book of Common Sense Investing. First published a decade ago, it is one of 11 books he has written (the 12th, his own history of the company, is in the works) and according to the author has sold about 250,000 copies. In it, Bogle sets out his fundamental ideas on successful wealth accumulation for the average person: Invest in indexed mutual funds mixed between stocks and bonds, and hold onto them. Bogle is convinced — and he has done lots of research to support his case — that it’s almost impossible to beat the market over the long run, and that “average” returns combined with low management expenses and fees (which Bogle made sure were the core of Vanguard) are the best deal for investors.

“From almost the first day of Vanguard,” Bogle tells me in a recent interview, “I’ve seen so much of this industry and so many phony funds and so much money pouring in when your performance is hot and pouring out when your performance is cold. That’s not a very good way to make money. The first thing I demanded is that we were going to have funds with relative predictability.”

It has taken decades, but what was once called “Bogle’s Folly” — a so-called “passive” approach to investing that buys and holds a widely diversified basket of stocks representing a broad portion of the market as a whole, rather than one that tries to pick winners — has become certifiably trendy. We appear to be experiencing a rare outbreak of the contagion of common sense.

“In the last 10 years, investors have put around $2 trillion into index funds,” Bogle reports. Yes, that’s trillion. Other companies offer index funds, but Vanguard has long dominated the market. “Since January 2015,” Bogle adds, “Vanguard has taken in a cool $793 billion. The entire industry has taken in $815 billion. It’s amazing.” By the end of 2017, the house that Jack built was on track to have $5 trillion in assets under management.

Jack Bogle started Vanguard in difficult personal circumstances. He’d been fired from the top job at a money management firm called Wellington (the founder had handed him control when he was 38) by the very partners he’d invited to join the firm. Something of a sailing buff, he picked his new company’s name as a reference to the flagship of the famous Admiral Lord Nelson. Nautical touches have long been a staple of the company culture. Now, as he goes to work each day at the four-person outfit known as the Bogle Financial Markets Research Center, which Vanguard set up for him as consolation for adhering to the company policy of 70 as mandatory retirement age, the original little skiff of a company has grown into a giant money supertanker.

Bogle is in a peculiar situation so late in life. After he’d staked his career and reputation on an untested notion that was the financial world’s version of sailing against the wind, the wind reversed. Now he’s lionized as a financial sage, and the company he started has grown and prospered beyond anything he might have imagined when he reluctantly handed over control two decades ago. Yet he’s unable or unwilling to quell his contrarian nature and a strong moralistic streak, and he can’t help but question whether Vanguard is shipshape to weather its own phenomenal success.

I remember seeing Vanguard’s logo in my grandmother’s mail every month growing up. She was a long-time investor with Vanguard and believer in their index funds, and that faith—along with her and my grandfather’s frugality, social security, and school teacher’s pension—ensured they lived decently even to their deaths. Vanguard’s Jack Bogle-created culture of thrift, frugality, and modesty is a template for how corporations, and especially financial institutions, can be model corporate citizens.

Jackson Magnolia

Kate Bennett reports:

The south facade of the White House will undergo a dramatic change this week: the historic Jackson Magnolia, a tree that has been in place since the 1800s, is scheduled to be cut down and removed.

The enormous magnolia, one of three on the west side of the White House and the oldest on the White House grounds, extends from the ground floor, up past the front of the windows of the State Dining Room on the first floor and beyond the second-level executive residence. The tree has had a long and storied life, yet has now been deemed too damaged and decayed to remain in place.

Specialists at the United States National Arboretum [wrote] … in part: “The overall architecture and structure of the tree is greatly compromised and the tree is completely dependent on the artificial support. Without the extensive cabling system, the tree would have fallen years ago. Presently, and very concerning, the cabling system is failing on the east trunk, as a cable has pulled through the very thin layer of wood that remains. It is difficult to predict when and how many more will fail.”

Another excerpt on the history of this tree:

After a brutal presidential campaign in 1828, Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, died just days after his election; according to historians, Jackson believed the particularly divisive campaign contributed to his wife’s untimely demise. When he took up residence in the White House as a widower following his inauguration, it is believed Jackson insisted on planting a sprout from Rachel’s favorite magnolia tree from the couple’s farm, Hermitage, in Tennessee.

That tree eventually grew into the sprawling magnolia the American public has come to know and recognize to this day. (A companion magnolia was planted on the opposite side of the South Portico years later for symmetry.) The official Jackson Magnolia has been in the background for numerous historic events, from state arrival ceremonies and Easter Egg Rolls, to thousands of photo ops, social and athletic activities, and countless Marine One departures and arrivals. …

From 1928 to 1998, the tree was featured prominently on the back of the $20 bill.

In 1994, a single-engine plane crashed onto the South Lawn of the White House, sending debris from the wreckage into the Jackson Magnolia, cutting off one of its larger branches.

Laura Bush commissioned a set of White House china inspired by the tree, called “The Magnolia Residence China,” painted with magnolia leaves and blossoms.

In 2016, Obama also clipped a seedling as a gift to the people of Cuba; it was planted during the Obamas’ visit there. Various other dignitaries and first ladies have gifted or replanted seedlings from the tree throughout history.

A view of the Jackson Magnolia on the $20 bills of my youth. The magnolia can be seen on the reverse bill below. These bills were phased out in the late 1990s.

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Despite this end of the Jackson Magnolia, a new generation will follow:

…the silver lining of its demise is that White House groundskeepers were prepared. For several months, at an undisclosed greenhouse-like location nearby, healthy offshoots of the tree have been growing, tended to with care and now somewhere around eight to 10 feet tall. CNN has learned the plan is that another Jackson Magnolia, born directly from the original, will soon be planted in its place, for history to live on.

Trees like this can be symbols and focal points for a nation or a community’s history, memory, and identity. They remind those who admire them across time and over so many human generations how short the sweep of seemingly-long time can be, how close we really are to those who came before, and how near we are to passing from the scene. In this way, they remind us to be stewards of the best of what we’ve received, and to strive to pass along that best for the better of those yet to be.

Sweet and silly Christmas things

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hooker’s Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
“The church looks nice” on Christmas Day.

Provincial public houses blaze
And Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says “Merry Christmas to you all.”

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad,
And Christmas-morning bells say “Come!”
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

John Betjeman

‘Christmas is about two caves’

I’m sharing Fr. George Rutler’s Christmas reflection, emailed by his Church of Saint Michael the Archangel in Hell’s Kitchen, my once-upon-a-time neighborhood, along with a photo I snapped from my friend Alex’s 21st and Walnut Philadelphia apartment lobby. What does it mean that Christians believe in the bodily resurrection? Fr. Rutler sheds some light on this absurd-seeming belief:

Saint Paul was converted by the risen Christ, who appeared as a blinding light. Later, he would meet Peter and James who had seen the actual risen body, which had changed from the way it appeared during Christ’s three years with them.

The body of the resurrected Christ had four characteristics. First, it could no longer feel pain. This “impassibility” was a triumph over the horrors of the Passion. Second, by “subtlety” the body was no longer subject to the laws of physics. During his earthly life, Christ had to knock on doors to enter, but in the Resurrection, he could appear in a room though the doors were locked. Third, the “agility” of Christ’s body had a strength that freed him from the constraints of motion and enabled him to bi-locate. Fourth, the “clarity” of the risen body radiated a brilliance that emanated from the divine intelligence: “light from light.” This was glimpsed in the Transfiguration, and was what blinded Paul on the Damascus road.

These lines would seem to be an Easter meditation, but they are a Christmas meditation as well, for the two mysteries are inseparable. Without the Resurrection, the Nativity would be just another birthday, for even extraordinary people like Alexander the Great or Mozart had ordinary births. Because Christ is the Divine Word who created all things, the restrictions of his human nature are no less wonderful than the glory of his divine nature.

The infant in Bethlehem was not impassible: he hungered and cried like any other baby. Without subtlety, he was confined to the stable. While in the Resurrection his agility could cast aside the shroud, in the manger he was bound by swaddling clothes. And as for clarity, his infant body could be glimpsed in the darkness only by frail lamplight. As he has no beginning and no end, his divine glory was not something he attained as he grew up: rather, it was what he allowed to dim when he came into time and space. He “emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7).

So Christmas is about two caves, and the birth in a stone stable would be only a sentimental reverie without the fact of the burial cave burst open. The Holy Infant in the manger is a kind of graphic hint for our limited intelligence, of the indescribable Ruler and Judge of the Universe. And the qualities of his risen body intimated what he would let us become in eternity.

That youngest of the apostles wrote in his old age: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when he appears, we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is” (1 John 3:2).

 

Greek generalists

Edith Hamilton writing in The Greek Way on Socrates:

Through the dialogues moves the figure of Socrates, a unique philosopher, unlike all philosophers that ever were outside of Greece. They are, these others, very generally strange and taciturn beings, or so we conceive them, aloof, remote, absorbed in abstruse speculations, only partly human. The completest embodiment of our idea of a philosopher is Kant, the little stoop-shouldered, absent-minded man, who moved only between his house and the university, and by whom all the housewives in Königsberg set their clocks when they saw him pass on his way to the lecture-room of a morning. Such was not Socrates. He could not be, being a Greek. A great many different things were expected of him and he had to be able to meet a great many different situations. We ourselves belong to an age of specialists, the result, really, of our belonging to an age that loves comfort. It is obvious that one man doing only one thing can work faster, and the reasonable conclusion in a world that wants a great many things, is to arrange to have him do it. Twenty men making each a minute bit of a shoe, turn out far more than twenty times the number of shoes that the cobbler working alone did, and in consequence no one must go barefoot. We have our reward in an ever-increasing multiplication of the things everyone needs but we pay our price in the limit set to the possibilities of development for each individual worker.

In Greece it was just the other way about. The things they needed were by comparison few, but every man had to act in a number of different capacities. An Athenian citizen in his time played many parts. Æschylus was not only a writer of plays; he was an entire theatrical staff, actor, scenic artist, costumer, designer, mechanician, producer. He was also a soldier who fought in the ranks, and had probably held a civic office; most Athenians did. No doubt if we knew more about his life we should find that he had still other avocations. His brother-dramatist, Sophocles, was a general and a diplomat and a priest as well; a practical man of the theatre too, who made at least one important innovation. There was no artist class in Greece, withdrawn from active life, no literary class, no learned class. Their soldiers and their sailors and their politicians and their men of affairs wrote their poetry and carved their statues and thought out their philosophy. “To sum up”—the speaker is Pericles—“I say that Athens is the school of Greece and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace”—that last word a touch so peculiarly Greek.

So Socrates was everything rather than what we expect a learned man and a philosopher to be. To begin with, he was extremely social; he delighted above all in company.

What is a criticism of a society, like our modern and globalized civilization, that prioritizes specialization and specialists? The witness of Greek history might suggest that specialization limits the ability of any one person to develop his own soulfulness or practical talents.

In other words, an education in a society of specialists would naturally leave out enormous swaths of general, soul-enriching knowledge. The society as a whole is enriched by the abundance that specialization enables in material terms, but the individuals within that society might be left poorer and less intellectually and spiritually enriched than in a generalist’s society more concerned with the Greek’s sense of telos and love of arete.

A value of an aristocratic (or semi-aristocratic) class in a democratic/specialized society might be to carve out a certain social space where at least a fragment of society can be less specialized and more generally developed. But it’s difficult to speak about this sort of thing, though, first because in the American mind aristocracy is fundamentally opposed to equality and egalitarian sensibility, and also because the sort of “generalist aristocracy” that might be useful in our society would not be a caste aristocracy of birth, but as much as possible it would be an organic, naturally occurring class. Aristocracy is therefore probably a poor and confusing word to use for the goal of developing a generalist, humanely developed number of human persons.

If nothing else, Edith Hamilton’s Socrates and others provide examples of what’s possible when we remember that a man good with numbers doesn’t merely have to devote himself entirely to accounting.

Fear-lined delights

Anthony Esolen writes:

I’m reading, for one of my classes at Thomas More College, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel set in the last days of Saints Peter and Paul, Quo Vadis? The Rome of that imperial matricide, mass murderer, poetaster, and buffoon, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus Nero, was “a nest of evil,” “a seat of power, madness but also order, the capital of the world and also mankind’s most terrible oppressor, bringer of laws and peace, all-powerful, invulnerable, eternal,” so wicked, that Peter cannot fathom why God should lead him to build the Church upon such a foundation. Even the libertine Petronius understands that such a Rome cannot endure. “A society based on brute force and violence,” thinks that arbiter of taste, “on cruelty beyond anything possible among the barbarians, and on such universal viciousness and debauchery, could not survive forever. Rome ruled mankind, but it was also its cesspool and its seeping ulcer. It reeked of death and corpses. Death’s shadow lay over its decomposing life.”

Rome, pagan Rome, was exhausted. She would, in the next few centuries, produce a few fine public buildings, some aqueducts and roads, one near-great poet (Juvenal), a sad philosopher king (Marcus Aurelius), and a brief efflorescence of Platonic mysticism not uninfluenced by Christianity. That was it.

The west, the post-Christian west, is exhausted. She exceeds ancient Rome in population by twenty to one, she enjoys plentiful food and drink, and labor-saving (and labor-eliminating) machines, and the moral heritage of its Christian past, mainly spent down and in many places mortgaged. But she is exhausted. …

Quo Vadis? is a story of the irruption of the Christian faith into that exhausted world. Its protagonist, a young patrician named Marcus Vinicius, learns of a God who makes the Roman pantheon look ridiculous and shabby, and a force, a new thing in the world, Christian love, that the world dreads and yet desperately needs. Greece brought the world beauty, and Rome brought the world power, says his uncle Petronius, but what do these Christians bring? From what Petronius can see, all they bring is gloom; they spoil what few and fleeting pleasures are available to man in this life. But by the end of the novel Petronius admits that it is not so, though he cannot share in this new thing, this adoration of the God of love.

Vinicius will become a baptized follower of Christ. His passionate and violent desire for a young Christian woman—whom he would kidnap and rape rather than not enjoy—will be transformed, through his own defeat and humiliation, and a veritable miracle of Christ that saves her from the bloodthirsty Nero, into a love that he had never known, and that requires him to change his life forever. So he writes to Petronius, pleading with him to become Christian also. “Compare your fear-lined delights,” he says, “your concern for material objects when none of you is sure of tomorrow, your orgies that seem like funeral suppers, and you’ll find the answer. Come to our thyme-smelling mountains, to the shade of our olive groves, and to our ivy-covered coast. Peace waits for you here, the kind of peace you haven’t known in years. And love waits for you here, in hearts that truly love you. You have a good and noble soul, Petronius. You deserve to be happy. Your brilliant mind can recognize the truth, and when you’ve seen it, you will come to love it.”

“Compare your fear-lined delights … and you’ll find the answer.”