What a nation is

Ernest Renan writes:

“A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things … constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received.

“Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate: our ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past with great men and glory … is the social capital upon which the national idea rests. These are the essential conditions of being a people: having common glories in the past and a will to continue them in the present; having made great things together and wishing to make them again.”

The French helped us win our independence. It seems only right to reflect on the words of one of her historians and philosophers on a day like this. Happy Independence Day.

Peter Brown and late antiquity

Ruby Shao profiles Peter Brown, “inventor of late antiquity:”

The fall of the Roman Empire ushered in a dark age, replete with decay and barely worth studying. Or so scholars thought until history professor emeritus Peter Brown invented the field of late antiquity, which spans 250–800 A.D. “Looking at the late antique world, we are caught between the regretful contemplation of ancient ruins and the excited acclamation of new growth,” he wrote in his 1971 book “The World of Late Antiquity.” Brown’s discovery of the era’s dynamism has driven his career. Specializing in the transition from ancient to medieval times, as well as the rise of Christianity…

Born to Irish Protestants in 1935, Brown grew up on two of the continents that he has explored in a scholarly context, Europe and Africa. For the first four years of his life, until World War II broke out in 1939, Brown spent every winter and spring in what was then the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. His father worked as a railway engineer in Khartoum, having struggled like many other Protestants to find employment in his intolerant Catholic homeland. He alone, of all Brown’s direct kin, held a university degree.

Each summer and fall, the heat caused men to send their wives and children out of Sudan. Brown and his mother, a homemaker, returned to a small, quiet, rainy seaside town called Bray on the east coast of Ireland.

“I grew up with two imaginative worlds: one the world of the Middle East, one the world of basically Dublin, Ireland,” Brown said. In the Sudan, he saw hippopotami, crocodiles, and camels under starry skies. Such experiences affected him long after. “Living in the Sudan put in me a love of the Middle East, a real interest in it, distant memories of a very sunny world with large, dark Sudanese servants in long white robes,” he said. …

He received a scholarship to attend Shrewsbury School in England at the age of 13. The institution included students from various socioeconomic classes, including farmers’ sons who left classes every Friday to help their fathers transport animals to the market. Brown intended to study science, but his headmaster discouraged him from doing so because he had performed so well. He instead pursued classics, then the most prestigious and challenging subject, renowned for disciplining the mind. New lessons in Greek added to the Latin and French that he had studied in Ireland. At 15, he switched to history. He added that whereas classics concentrated on the great works of the past, history allowed him to explore the more ordinary topic of how people lived in the past. …

Brown impressed upon his students that they needed to learn by traveling, not just reading. He taught them to understand history from the perspectives of the people involved, rather than from a supposedly omniscient Western historian’s viewpoint, Michelson said. Occupying a place enables a scholar to envision the setting of a community when writing about it, Brown explained. Brown inspired his students to pursue big questions and synthesize seemingly unrelated cultures into a common story, according to Sahner. …

Brown recommended that scholars aspiring to emulate him start from a specific object that they love, with the goal of avoiding information overload, which hampers progress. “You should always think small and intensely, and then radiate outwards,” Brown said. He added that researchers should mine unfamiliar and embarrassing developments, like the cult of saints or the monastic movement, which often conceal cultural tensions. …

Fifty years after the publication of his first book, “Augustine of Hippo,” Brown is researching a book on the meaning of the Christian notion of universalism in late antiquity. “What did it mean to preach to all nations? Did they really think they could convert everybody, or simply bring the gospel to everybody? Those are two different questions…”

I wasn’t familiar with Brown before reading this. What a life.

Corrosive speculation

Matthew Continetti writes on journalists, political speculation, and the devaluation of “the news” in the public mind:

Events are turning me into a radical skeptic. I no longer believe what I read, unless what I am reading is an empirically verifiable account of the past. I no longer have confidence in polls, because it has become impossible to separate the signal from the noise. …

The fact is that almost the entirety of what one reads in the paper or on the web is speculation. The writer isn’t telling you what happened, he is offering an interpretation of what happened, or offering a projection of the future. The best scenario is that these theories are novel, compelling, informed, and based on reporting and research. But that is rarely the case. More often the interpretations of current events, and prophesies of future ones, are merely the products of groupthink or dogma or emotions or wish-casting, memos to friends written by 27-year-olds who, in the words of Ben Rhodes, “literally know nothing.” There was a time when newspapers printed astrology columns. They no longer need to. The pseudoscience is on the front page.

Nor are the empty conjectures and worthless hypotheses limited to Donald Trump. Yes, pretty much the entire world, myself included, assumed he would lose to Hillary Clinton. Indeed, a not-insignificant segment of the political class, both Democrat and Republican, thought the Republicans would not only lose the presidency but also the House and Senate. Oops! I remember when, as the clock reached midnight on November 8 and it became clear Trump would be the forty-fifth president, a friend called. “Are we just wrong about everything?” he asked. …

“Like a bearded nut in robes on the sidewalk proclaiming the end of the world is near, the media is just doing what makes it feel good, not reporting hard facts,” Michael Crichton once said. “We need to start seeing the media as a bearded nut on the sidewalk, shouting out false fears. It’s not sensible to listen to it.”

When we talk (seriously or ironically) about fake news, we’re talking basically about what Continetti is writing about: agenda-driven speculation rather than reporting on the facts of an historical event.

When Donald Trump called “fake news” the “enemy of the American people,” it was reported by the New York Times as a general attack on the free press. But Continetti underscores how vitally important a real free press is, and how agenda-driven speculation in the media really does function as an enemy of public life, in the sense that so many of us no longer believe anything we read or hear.

Health as wholeness

Wendell Berry spoke in 1992 with Michael Toms. I found their conversation recently when searching Berry’s works and enjoyed the entire hour:

…an hour of stirring and straightforward wisdom from one of the most highly respected of modern American writers and poets. Using words like “affection”, “satisfaction”, “care”, and “joy”, Berry calls for a re-evaluation of the basic values and practices of our lives. He illustrates his ideas with glimpses of his own life and those of his Kentucky farm neighbors, and describes a future where we can learn to find love, wisdom and meaning in the people, the places and the work of our own daily lives. “Abstractions don’t work – abstractions are abstractions,” he says. “You have to realize that finally you must do something.”

There was this particular exchange that I transcribed because it was arresting to me:

I thought to myself that health is so much more than just physical.

Yes. It is, of course, physical. But physical health doesn’t exist apart from the health of other things. Health ultimately involves the community, and the community ultimately involves the place, and natural life of that place, so that real health … is harmony with the world. Nothing is left out of health because health always implies wholeness.

And harmony with the world in the sense not of the planetary world out there, but harmony with the place we’re experiencing here.

Yes, the world as it’s represented to you immediately where you are.

So often I think that there’s this projection out there somehow that disconnects us from our ability to manifest creatively or to do something.

Yes. It leaves you with nothing to do. The universe, and even the planet, are ideas with respect to this conversation, anyway. They don’t immediately exist. And being right with the universe doesn’t propose that you do anything. Whereas being right with your local place and community and household—that task proposes many little jobs of work and some big ones.


Chris Stefanick in Philadelphia

I hadn’t heard of Chris Stefanick’s EWTN program “Real Life Catholic” until I saw the episode below with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput in Philadelphia. It’s a great episode for understanding +Chaput’s distinctive pastoral spirit as much as it is for encountering “real life” Catholics and some of Philadelphia’s culture.

Chris Stefanick’s in the City of Brotherly Love to talk about freedom of religion with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, serve a mean cheesesteak at The Original Pat’s King of Steaks, hear the amazing story of Father Chung Nguyen, and hang out with two young Vietnamese Catholics who are living their Catholic faith to the max.

When human history began

I’m sharing a third and final Spengler passage that I’ll offer today without commentary, and that ties together the first two excerpts:

The development of theoretical thought within the human waking-consciousness gives rise to a kind of activity that makes inevitable a fresh conflict—that between Being (existence) and Waking-Being (waking-consciousness). The animal microcosm, in which existence and consciousness are joined in a self-evident unit of living, knows of consciousness only as the servant of existence. The animal “lives” simply and does not reflect upon life. Owing, however, to the unconditional monarchy of the eye, life is presented as the life of a visible entity in the light; understanding, then, when it becomes interlocked with speech, promptly forms a concept of thought and with it a counter-concept of life, and in the end it distinguishes life as it is from that which might be. Instead of straight, uncomplicated living, we have the antithesis represented in the phrase “thought and action.” That which is not possible at all in the beasts becomes in every man not merely a possibility but a fact, and in the end an alternative. The entire history of mature humanity with all its phenomena has been formed by it, and the higher the form that a Culture takes, the more fully this opposition dominates the significant moments of its conscious being.

[Human waking-consciousness consists of sensation and understanding and to that extent is equivalent to “ascertainment.” It thus encounters the epistemological problem. Waking-consciousness is synonymous with the existence of oppositions; whereas the world of tensions is necessarily rigid and dead, namely “eternal truth,” something beyond all time, something that is a state, the actual world of waking-consciousness is full of changes. Rest and movement, duration and change, become and becoming, are oppositions denoting something that in its very nature “passeth all understanding” and must therefore from the point of view of the understanding contain an absurdity. If the will to know breaks down on the problem of motion, it may well be because life’s purpose has at that point been achieved. In spite of this, and indeed because of this, the motion problem remains the centre of gravity of all higher thought.]

The problem of motion touches, at once and immediately, the secrets of existence, which are alien to the waking-consciousness and yet inexorably press upon it. In posing motion as a problem we affirm our will to comprehend the incomprehensible, the when and wherefore, Destiny, blood, all that our intuitive processes touch in our depths. Born to see, we strive to set it before our eyes in the light, so that we may in the literal sense grasp it, assure ourselves of it as of something tangible.

For this is the decisive fact, of which the observer is unconscious—his whole effort of seeking is aimed not at life, but at the seeing of life, and not at death, but at the seeing of death.

That we do not merely live but know about “living” is a consequence of our bodily existence in the light. But the beast knows only life, not death. Were we pure plantlike beings, we should die unconscious of dying, for to feel death and to die would be identical. But animals, even though they hear the death-cry, see the dead body, and scent putrefaction, behold death without comprehending it. Only when understanding has become, through language, detached from visual awareness and pure, does death appear to man as the great enigma of the light-world about him.

Then, and only then, life becomes the short span of time between birth and death, and it is in relation to death that that other great mystery of generation arises also. Only then does the diffuse animal fear of everything become the definite human fear of death. It is this that makes the love of man and woman, the love of mother and child, the tree of the generations, the family, the people, and so at last world-history itself the infinitely deep facts and problems of destiny that they are.


Oswald Spengler continues:

[The plant is something cosmic; the animal has an additional quality, it is a microcosm in relation to a microcosm. All that is cosmic bears the trademark of periodicity. It has beat-rhythm. Everything microcosmic possesses polarity. We talk of tense thought, but all wakeful states are in their nature tension—subject and object, I and You. To become aware of the cosmic beat we call “to feel;” microcosmic tensions we call perceptions. The ambiguity of the word Sinnlichkeit—sensitive faculty, sensuousness—has obscured the difference between the plant and the animal sides of life; the former [plant] always bears the mark of periodicity, beat: the latter [animal] consists in tensions, polarity of light and object illuminated, of cognition and that which it cognized. We use the word “touch” quite generally of contacts: to “establish” means to fix the position of something relatively to its surroundings. All senses are positive. The blood is for us the symbol of the living. The blood of ancestors flows through the chain of generations and binds them in a great linkage of destiny, beat and time.

The word “consciousness” is ambiguous; it contains the meaning Being (“Dasein”) and Waking-consciousness (Wachsein). Being possesses beat and direction; waking-consciousness is tension and extension. The plant exists without waking-consciousness.

The opposite pole of the eye is light. The picture of life is taken in through the light world of the eye. In man’s waking-consciousness nothing disturbs the lordship of the eye. The idea of an invisible God is the highest expression of human transcendence. Where the boundaries of the light world are lies the beyond. Music is the only art whose means lie outside the light world. Hence it can take us beyond the tyranny of light. Even in the higher animals there are differences between mere sensations and understanding sensation. The development of language brought about the emancipation of understanding from sensation. Understanding detached from sensation is called thought.

This is a challenging passage, and it’s my amateur sense that Spengler’s German thinking makes this passage particularly difficult, because I think his distinction between “being” and “waking-consciousness” is better understood as the difference between “existence” in the physical sense, and “being” in the metaphysical sense.

In any event, here’s my thinking on this passage: that the waking-consciousness we possess (the ability to perceive of ourselves as creatures in time) is the same consciousness that suggests the likelihood of a “somethingness” to life rather than a “nothingness;” in short, the likelihood of meaning.