Faith and reason > passions

When the film version of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia debuted in 2005, Joe Sobran wrote:

Belief is something you have or don’t have; but faith is an act of will and fortitude, which is why we speak of “keeping” or “breaking” faith.

A child may know perfectly well that the water is safe and that anyone can learn to swim, but still allow himself to succumb to fear of the water when he actually gets into it. The problem isn’t the child’s “beliefs” about the water; it’s his irrational panic. In the same way, Lewis explains in Christian Reflections, we may believe intellectually, but allow our moods and passions to weaken our faith when we are tempted.

When our faith fails, it isn’t usually because of any rational doubt. Reason isn’t opposed to faith; it’s opposed to the passions (the word is cognate with passive; we’re truly active only when we act rationally). In spite of all the clichés equating intelligence with doubt, the loss of faith doesn’t occur in the intellect, but in the will. Lewis understood this…

When we talk about things like “culture” or “refinement” or “manners” we’re talking at least to some degree about restraining our animalistic passions or inclinations. When laziness overcomes us—when the leather of the couch is warm, and our eyes heavy—we’d much rather not go out. Our reason is overcome, even as it tries to tell us to keep our appointment, or to arrive on time, or whatever. Same with avoiding a workout, and any other dozen instances where a sort of lie (“This other thing would be better for you…”) replaces a truer purpose.

Ben Casnocha introduced me years ago to the idea of a “resilience quotient,” basically meaning fortitude. C.S. Lewis, as Sobran explains it, is arguing similarly about faith in Christ as a means to withstand the vicissitudes of our baser instincts.

What’s the stock market?

I’m sure that economists and others would flesh this out, but it seems like a solid and simple introduction to this strange thing that is part of our daily lives:

The stock market is where people go to lend and borrow accumulated resources. For example, if you have a savings account, you are lending your resources to your bank during the time you do not plan to use them. The bank takes your deposit and invests it in productive investments, so your money grows and is available when you decide to use it.

Socially, the stock market works to allocate society’s surplus capital to the most productive use. We ask “What should society make, how much should it make and how should it make it?” The stock market answers these questions by allocating capital to the “right” firms and sectors. “Right” being whichever investments yield a high return. —Robert Ross

Allegory in art

Jan Brueghel the Elder‘s Allegory of Sight and Smell:

Jan Brueghel the Elder Allegory of Sight and Smell, 1618.jpg

When I saw this, I was arrested by it. I think of this like a little Noah’s Ark, conserving bits of a culture’s memory. The incredible indulgence of this is overwhelming to my sensibilities, but I imagine a corner of heaven looking something like this. Each canvas a place where you can live a thousand lifetimes. I feel transported in this, moved through time by it.

Peter Lawler, RIP

I have only read the thinnest amount of Peter Augustine Lawler‘s writing, but he’s been someone in the periphery of my life who I’ve tried to pay attention to whenever possible. Peter died this week.

Nicholas Frankovich remembers:

What would a word cloud of Peter’s collected writing look like? Terms in big type would include Tocqueville, Walker Percy, southern Stoicism, Flannery O’Connor, relational life, and, of course, postmodern conservative, which he coined, or so he maintained, wryly but seriously.

Peter Lawler’s insight into our time is one that I’ve become very sympathetic to:

Peter was wary of the exaggerated individualism that he saw as the logical conclusion of “liberalism” in the classical sense of that term. He was of the view that, human nature being what it is, absolute autonomy is an illusion anyway — we are social creatures, and no amount of libertarian posing could ever change that. He was alert to the perils of collectivism but also to those of its opposite. He worried about conservatives who in their enthusiasm for free-market principles got carried away and forgot the necessity of “relational life.”

He thought that our social values were in danger of being reduced to economic values. That concern of his extended to his criticism of higher education, which, he complained, was being flattened by “the empire” of “competency,” a bureaucrat’s idea of what teachers should engender in their students.

Rod Dreher remembers him, and shared an excerpt that captures why I always find Lawler’s writing so rewarding as a reader:

Southern literature at its best is a critical account of the mind of the semi-dispossessed aristocrat. Faulkner and Walker Percy, for example, let us see the self-deception at the core of racist paternalism, as well as the neglect for the truth about natural rights taught by Jefferson. But they also let us see how empty middle-class life is from an aristocratic view, and how clueless those who so methodically devote themselves to the pursuit of happiness are about what human happiness is. True individualism, from this view, regards rights not as rooted in calculated interests but as points of honor to be exercised honorably.

Among the instances in which Southern Stoic virtue has elevated the American mind, the most obvious is Harper Lee’s character Atticus (note the name) Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus’s virtue had nothing to do with Christian charity or the liberal understanding of rights. He was courageously and paternalistically taking responsibility for his inferiors, for those who couldn’t defend themselves against the vicious mob that threatened the rule of law in the decadent South.

And then there are the Stoic characters of Tom Wolfe. There’s one who becomes “a man in full” by reading Epictetus, and so knows what to do as a rational man completely isolated in a maximum security prison. There’s also the star basketball player in I Am Charlotte Simmons who learns how to treat women and regains his manly self-confidence through absorbing—making his own—his professor’s very Stoic reading of Aristotle. In Wolfe’s novels, the foundation of coming to live according to this version of natural perfection has nothing necessarily to do with being raised with Southern “class,” but he shows us that, in the classically Southern version, becoming a member of the class of rational, responsible, relational men is a possibility available to us all.

Wolfe, by reminding us that it’s barely possible but highly countercultural to live as a natural aristocrat in our clueless and trashy time—when our institutions of higher education are the most clueless and most trashy parts of American life—frames a narrative of American moral and intellectual decline. His nostalgia for the past is meant to be selective, and it is meant, of course, to inspire personal action in the present. The purely Southern mind—like all aristocratic narratives—is a reflection on our movement away from what was best about the past. And so the Southern mind is anti-progressive, even as it suggests, with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that the one true progress is toward wisdom and virtue in a particular human life.

Distinctive communities

Conor Dougherty writes on one of Silicon Valley’s secret ingredients:

Workers around the country are increasingly being asked to sign noncompete agreements devised to keep them from leaving their job for a rival company. It’s a trend that has extended down the economic ladder to people like hairdressers and dirt-shovelers who are unlikely to possess trade secrets.

But Californians don’t have to worry about it. California law prohibits noncompetes, and this ban is often cited as key to the development of Silicon Valley. To learn more about how this law helped create the modern technology industry, we talked to AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the U.C. Berkeley School of Information and author of “Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128.”

Q. How important was California’s ban to the development of the Valley?

A. If there had been aggressive enforcement of noncompetes, Silicon Valley would probably not be what it is today. But the dynamism goes beyond the legal context. From the very early days there was a sense in the Bay Area that people were in it together and trying to build something different, and they built a culture where it was O.K. to share information more openly and it was O.K. to leave to start something new.

Q. What famous company might we not have?

A. In 1956, eight top engineers left the Shockley Semiconductor Lab in Palo Alto to start the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation. While they were labeled at the time as the “traitorous eight,” virtually all left within the subsequent decades to start yet another generation of ventures.

By the time that Fairchild’s Robert Noyce, Andy Grove and Gordon Moore left to start the Intel Corp in 1968 there were more than a dozen other “Fairchildren” in the region. A 1986 genealogy included 126 semiconductor companies that could be traced directly to Fairchild.

In the early days engineers would say, “I work for Silicon Valley.” And the idea was that they were advancing technology for a region, not any single company’s technology. We often think in the U.S. that people or companies create success, but what Silicon Valley shows us is that often it’s communities of people across a region.

Q. There was a recent case in which Google, Apple and others were accused of “an overarching conspiracy” to lower wages for engineers by agreeing not to poach each other’s workers. What does that tell you about how California companies feel about the ban on noncompetes?

A. Essentially they’re becoming the older, more inward-looking companies that early versions of themselves rejected. Maybe it’s natural, but it’s a real departure from the earlier culture of the Valley, which recognized that people will come and go but ultimately we’ll all be better off.

Far more valuable than buzzy ambitions like “becoming a more innovative community” would be investigating specific historical moments that defined your community as it exists today. Then determine whether it makes sense to advance/conserve that historical differentiator for your community, or try something new. And not necessarily on a city council level, but rather on a personal level. If you do something great, others will be attracted to it.

Sebastian Kurz

An interesting/short piece on Sebastian Kurz, the youngest Foreign Minister in Austria’s history:

If you met Sebastian Kurz in an Austrian café over a pint of lager, you probably wouldn’t guess what he does for a living. Judging by his smart suit and slicked back hair, you might take him for a budding lawyer or banker, maybe even a model on a Brooks Brothers shoot. But this fresh-faced blonde is Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Kurz, now 28, was only a year younger when he took the job— and became the youngest cabinet member in the history of the Austrian republic. Europe’s youngest foreign minister, too, who landed in international news when his country hosted the recent Iran nuclear talks. Indeed, his rise has been meteoric, and not just because of his youth and good looks. As it turns out, Kurz has a preternatural ability to hold the spotlight, to remain the star of the ruling conservative People’s Party, thanks to some bold thinking. As the whole of Europe struggles with immigration and jihadism, Kurz intends to make his little country into a model melting pot. Perhaps this is a strange ambition for a right of center leader, but, he says, “There’s really no other choice.”

To be sure, Austria is not exactly a political heavyweight. When most people consider Austria– if they consider it all– they think of it as a southern appendage of Germany. Its population is a mere eight million, a tenth of its neighbor to the north. Yet its small size and high proportion of immigrants may make Austria a sort of microcosm or petri dish for the demographic remaking of Europe. Almost one in five residents were born outside the country.

A people’s essence

Last year I quoted a review of Pierre Ryckmans’s writing:

In one of [Ryckmans’] most interesting and provocative essays on Chinese culture, he tries to find an answer to an apparent paradox: why the Chinese are both obsessed with their past, specifically their five thousand years of cultural continuation, and such lax custodians of the material products of their civilization. India and Europe are full of historic churches, temples, cathedrals, castles, forts, mosques, manor houses, and city halls, while contemporary China has almost nothing of the kind. … People in the Chinese cultural sphere, and perhaps beyond, did not traditionally share the common Western defiance of mortality. The idea of erecting monumental buildings meant to last forever would have seemed a naive illusion. Everything is destined to perish, so why not build impermanence into our sense of beauty? The Japanese took this aesthetic notion even further than their Chinese masters: the cult of cherry blossoms, for example, fleetingness being the essence of their unique splendor. … But if even the strongest works of man cannot in the end withstand the erosion of time, what can? [Ryckmans’] answer: “Life-after-life was not to be found in a supernature, nor could it rely upon artefacts: man only survives in man—which means, in practical terms, in the memory of posterity, through the medium of the written word.” As long as the word remains, Chinese civilization will continue. Sometimes memories replace great works of art.

Pierre Ryckmans suggests a people survives in its memory, but Will Durant suggests a people might also survive through a combination of their sheer essence and a responsiveness to change. In Will Durant’s 1935 Our Oriental Heritage, the first of his The Story of Civilization series, he writes on China, among other ancient civilizations. (The Story of Civilization series is praised  for its sweeping, glittering approach to history, or “composite history.” Not simply great in fact, but great too in analysis that’s timeless.) In his closing reflections on China, Durant’s keen ability to distill to the essence is evident. He’s writing about China prior to World War II, the rise of Communism, the Cold War, or the globalized economy:

One wonders for a moment whether China can ever be great again, whether she can once more consume her conquerors and live her own creative life. But under the surface, if we care to look, we may see the factors of convalescence and renewal. This soil, so vast in extent and so varied in form, is rich in the minerals that make a country industrially great. …

As industry moves inland it will come upon oars and fuels as unsuspected now as was the mineral and fuel wealth of America was as undreamed of a century ago.

This nation, after 3,000 years of grandeur and decay, of repeated deaths and resurrections, exhibits today all the physical and mental vitality that we find in its most creative periods. There is no people in the world more vigorous or intelligent. No other people so adaptable to circumstance, so resistible to disease, so resilient after disaster and suffering, so trained by history to calm endurance and patient recovery.

Imagination cannot describe the possibilities mingling the physical, labor, and mental resources of such a people with the technological equipment of modern industry. Very probably such wealth will be produced in China as even America has never known, and once again as so often in the past China will lead the world in luxury and the art of life. No victory of arms or tyranny of alien finance can long suppress a nation so rich in resources and vitality. The invader will lose funds or patience before the loins of china will lose virility.

Within a century China will have absorbed and civilized her conquerers and will have learned all the technique of all that transiently bears the name of modern industry. Roads and communications will give her unity and economy, thrift will give her funds and a strong government will give her order and peace.

Every chaos is a transition. In the end disorder cures and balances itself with dictatorship. Old obstacles are roughly cleared away and fresh growth is free. Revolution, like death and style, is the removal of rubbish, the surgery of the superfluous. It comes only when there are many things ready to die.

China has died many times before, and many times she has been reborn.