• In June 2015, Peter Thiel wrote:

    The history of the twentieth century is a history of this loss of hope in the future. With the benefit of hindsight, the dawn of the nuclear age and the Manhattan Project may appear to have been a key turning point, a great achievement that led to tremendous disillusionment. This disillusionment hit with full force in the 1970s, when the successor Apollo program collapsed and the baby boomers redirected their energies toward interminable cultural wars. Whether by chance or design, scientists were placed on a short leash and made to spend their time writing grant applications for modest extensions of existing paradigms. The reign of science foretold in New ­Atlantis culminated and terminated at Los Alamos.

    The optimism of Bacon and Hobbes belongs to a bygone era. And perhaps there always was something profoundly contradictory in optimism and atheistic materialism. In the nineteenth century, Engels could still finesse matters by noting the apparent discrepancy between the never-ending progress of dialectical materialism and the heat death foretold by the second law of thermodynamics, but then reassure his readers that such a decline was far in the future and could therefore be ignored! If atheist optimism meant an escape from nature, then today’s atheist pessimism means an acceptance of nature, and of the many gruesome accidents and the terrible rule of chance that that entails. The physical theories of our age resemble the Epicurean accounts of the atoms randomly moving through the void, and it should be no wonder that quasi-Epicurean physics naturally lead to Stoicism and Epicurean hedonism.

    Fatalism on the one hand and hedonism on the other are not wholesome choices. In turning back to God, we have the chance to recover the sort of hope and dynamism necessary not only for relationship with God in eternity but also for thriving in this life.

  • Success requires virtue

    John Hawkins, in a particular way, writes that success requires virtue:

    Most of what makes people happy, healthy, and successful is boring. It’s trite. It’s things you’ve heard a thousand times before. The sad truth is that if you or I wrote down a list of all the things going wrong in our lives and allowed an average person to watch what we did day and night for a few weeks, they could probably tell us exactly what we’re doing wrong that’s causing us to fall short. An appalling percentage of life is no great mystery to a well-read person with a bit of life experience.

    Want to be muscular? Go to the gym consistently and lift weights. Do progressively more weight each time you go in. Get a trainer.

    Want to get good grades in school? Show up for class, pay attention, do your homework, study with friends, and get a tutor if you need it.

    Want to get a raise? Show up early. Leave late. Work hard. Kiss the boss’ behind.

    There are still plenty of mysteries, big debates, and unanswered questions in the universe, but there are also an awful lot of places where we KNOW the answers.

    Dealing drugs? Bad idea. Trading out chips for fresh vegetables? Good idea. Finishing high school? Good idea. Living paycheck to paycheck? Bad idea. Starting smoking? Bad idea. Following a police officer’s instructions when he pulls you over? Good idea. Getting blackout drunk? Bad idea. Learning to drive a stick shift? Good idea. Getting into a fistfight on the subway? Bad idea. Tipping a waitress that gives you good service? Good idea. On and on it goes.

    Success requires virtue, but sometimes (often?) virtue can feel boring. Important to live virtuously anyway.

  • Mark Bauerlein writes on visiting the Jefferson Scholars Program at the University of Texas at Austin:

    I just got back from a day of sitting in on program classes, conversing with staff and the advisory board, and chatting with students over cookies and tea. The program admits some 125 students each year as formal members of the program (non-participants may enroll in courses the program runs). Those students earn a certificate in the program by taking six courses listed under the auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas. 

    The first semester of the program goes by the name of “Jerusalem and Athens.” The second course students take is called “The Challenge of the Greeks,” and it presents “the golden age of Greek democracy and Socrates’ insistent questioning.” The first course is on another subject: “The Bible and Its Interpreters,” which highlights “the reverent faith of Abraham and the tradition of the Hebrew prophets.” No cynicism in the presentation, no Voltaire or Nietzsche to tear down the faith, no postmodern irony about Daniel and Ezekiel. Teachers simply impart the content of the Bible and track its major commentators (Augustine, et al.).

    To appreciate the value of this program, you have to consider what has happened to general requirements in higher education since the 1960s. Before that time, schools asked freshmen and sophomores to take a dose of Western Civilization before they settled into a major. Stanford, for instance, had a full year of Western Civ and a full year of English composition and literature. The emphasis fell on Great Books and masterpieces, big ideas and pivotal events. The Stanford catalog described those materials in triumphal words, affirming that an educated person must be acquainted with the core heritage of, precisely, Athens and Jerusalem.

    The trend since then has been a decentering of the tradition and its replacement with empty categories. Western Civ has given way to a “diversity” requirement that can be fulfilled with dozens of courses scattered across a half-dozen disciplines. Or it has given way to a set of “thinking skills” requirements that break down into categories—“quantitative,” “historical,” etc.—and can likewise be fulfilled by heterogeneous class offerings each semester. No central lineage, no core texts…

    There is breathtaking diversity within Western Civilization. Too often Western Civilization or the Great Books are treated as if they were the study of simply the Anglo-Saxons or a singular and monolithic mode of thought, rather than the study of human persons and communities across millennia, across geographies, and across cultures.

  • Saurabh Sharma’s talk from the National Conservatism conference in Miami is now available:

    Lots of whitepills in this talk. Politics is a moral enterprise.

  • Lex Fridman’s recent interview with Bishop Robert Barron led me to discover the late John Polkinghorne, whom Bishop Barron mentions at one point. An Englishman, Polkinghorne was a theoretical physicist who became an Anglican priest. In his book Living with Hope: A Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, he speculates about how it is that we are separated from our bodies at death and yet have hope of the resurrection.

    How can it be that we die, our bodies are buried and decay, are burned up in cremation, or worse, defiled, and yet we have hope for resurrection? Polkinghorne writes:

    “Christian people sometimes talk about death as ‘falling asleep’ or even, in words that are occasionally quoted at funerals, as ‘going into the next room’. I am not very happy with this language. You can find the sleep metaphor used occasionally in the New Testament (for example, in 1 Thessalonians 4.13 where, to disguise the fact, the translators of the NRSV have quite unjustifiably taken it upon themselves to turn the original ‘fallen asleep’ into ‘died’). But today’s passage [Mark 14.32-36], which is one of the most moving and holy in the whole gospel story, shows us with what seriousness Jesus himself faced his own approaching death. He is ‘deeply grieved’—Luke (22.44) even speaks of ‘sweat like great drops of blood’—and he asks that if possible this cup should pass from him. Yet he is also resolute to accept the Father’s will. Death is clearly in no sense a trivial or easy matter for Jesus.

    “People have often compared this scene with the end of another famous figure in the ancient world, Socrates. He too was unjustly condemned to die, in his case not by crucifixion but by the much gentler process of drinking a cup of hemlock. Before he did so, he talked with his friends in a philosophical way about his belief in the immortality of the soul. This discourse ended, Socrates then calmly took the poison and tranquilly allowed it to bring about paralysis and eventual death. The contrast of this peaceful scene with Gethsemane is very striking.

    “So what is happening? Is the Greek philosopher a nobler figure than the Jewish Messiah? To understand Gethsemane I think that we need to understand that the Christian hope is not belief in a spiritual survival, such as Socrates believed in, but it centres on the double process of death and resurrection. Even for Jesus the two are separated by the silent tomb of Holy Saturday.

    “I can best explain how I understand this by asking a related question. What should we believe is the nature of the human soul? Socrates thought that the soul was a purely spiritual entity which during this life was housed in the flesh of the body, but which would be released at death to enter into the immortal life of an unencumbered spiritual existence. Someone once caricatured this view as being the picture of a human being as a ‘ghost in a machine’. It seems to me that today it is very hard for us to think in this Socratic way. What we know about the effects of brain damage on the mind, and of drugs on behaviour, suggest a much more unified, ‘package deal’ picture of a human being, understood as an integrated, animated entity. This idea would not have shocked or surprised the writers of the Bible, for it was also they way in which Hebrew people thought about being human.

    “But if that is the case, what has happened to the soul? Have we lost it? I don’t think so. The soul is ‘the real me’. Now what that could be is a bit of a problem even in this life, let alone beyond it. What makes me today the same person that I was 60 years ago? It is not, as you might think, physical continuity, for the atoms that make up our bodies are changing all the time, through wear and tear, eating and drinking. I have very few atoms that were in my body even three years ago, let alone 60. What really maintains the continuity of the real me is not matter itself, but the immensely complex, information-bearing pattern in which that matter is organized. That pattern is the soul.

    “It will be dissolved at my death with the decay of my body. Therefore, I have no natural expectation of surviving death. This is why death is a real end. Yet it is perfectly consistent to believe—and we can indeed believe—that the faithful God will remember the pattern that was me, holding it in the divine memory, in order to reconstitute me again in God’s great final act of resurrection, taking place beyond history.

    “I shall have more to say about this later. For the moment, just note that when God does bring about that re-embodiment, it will have to be in some new kind of matter, for if it were the old kind I would just have been made alive again in order to die again. And where will that new ‘matter’ come from? It will surely be the redeemed matter of this world, transformed by God after the death of the universe itself. The future of the cosmos and the future of humanity must lie together, in the life of that new creation that will succeed the demise of the old. Again, I shall have more to say about this later in relation to the resurrection of Christ, which is the pattern and the guarantee of the hope that we are given through the steadfast faithfulness of our creator.

    “Meanwhile, we can think of the moment of death as being the great final act of this life, in which we shall commit ourselves fully into the hands of God.”

    Later in the book Polkinghorne further elaborates his notion of the soul as a sort of divinely-remembered pattern:

    “We have already seen that today it is natural to think of human beings as a kind of package deal: psychosomatic unities, as people like to say. I think that we are right to think in this way and St Paul would agree with me. Today’s rather difficult passage [2 Corinthians 5.1-3] shows him expressing a horror of being found ‘naked’, that is to say as a soul without a body. In this life, and in the life of heaven, human beings have to be ‘clothed’ with some sort of body, be it earthly or heavenly in its character. (Paul has a lot more to say about this in 1 Corinthians 15.35-49.)

    “What then is the soul? It is surely the ‘real me’, but what that can actually be is a bit of a puzzle in this life, let alone beyond it. What is it that connects me, a bald, ageing academic, with the young lad with the shock of black hair in the school photograph of 60 years ago? It is tempting to suppose that the connection lies in material continuity, as that young body changed gradually into today’s elderly body, but that is really an illusion. I mentioned earlier that the matter in our bodies is changing all the time… Philosophers sometimes like to talk about a boat that is continually being repaired at sea, so that when it eventually comes into port again every plank in it has been replaced. Is it still the same boat that left the home port, if all its material bits and pieces have been changed in this way? I would say yes, provided that the pattern had been maintained. Of course if that had been altered, so that it had sailed out as a single hull but arrived as a catamaran, the answer would have to be no. Continuity lies in the pattern and not in the planks.

    “It is similar for us. The real me is not the ever-changing atoms of my body, but it is the immensely complex, information-bearing pattern in which those atoms are organized. It is that pattern that is the soul, an idea that fits in with what twenty-first-century science is beginning to discover from the study of complex systems, that information is as fundamental a category as energy.

    “This concept of the soul as informational pattern is quite an old one. Aristotle believed something like that, and so did the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. I believe that we should think this way too. If this is right, it follows that the soul, in itself, is not immortal. When I die, the pattern that is me will dissolve with the decay of my body. But it is a perfectly credible and sensible hope that God will remember that pattern—hold it in the divine memory after its natural decay—and then rebuild it when I am resurrected into the life of the world to come. Once again we are reminded of a central truth, that the true ground for hope of a destiny beyond death lies solely in the everlasting faithfulness of God.

    We might think, along these lines, about the consequences of cutting ourselves off from relationship with God as a sort of willful and intentional dis-figuring of ourselves, of a disruption of our pattern that can only be restored through confession and repentance.

  • “Freedom is not self-determination,” says Bishop Robert Barron at roughly the 1:43:00 minute mark in conversation with Lex Fridman. “Freedom is the disciplining of desire so as to make the achievement of the good first possible and then effortless.”

    Topics: Who is God?, Christianity, sin, the Trinity, Catholicism, sexual abuse scandal, evil, atheism, Jordan Peterson, Jesus, the Bible, America, Nietzsche, Word on Fire, gay marriage, abortion, advice for young people, mortality, meaning of life.

  • James Howard Kunstler writes in The Geography of Nowhere:

    Thirty years ago, Lewis Mumford said of post World War II development, “the end product is an encapsulated life, spent more and more either in a motor car or within the cabin of darkness before a television set.” The whole wicked, sprawling, megalopolitan mess, he gloomily predicted, would completely demoralize mankind and lead to nuclear holocaust.

    It hasn’t come to that, but what Mumford deplored was just the beginning of a process that, instead of blowing up the world, has nearly wrecked the human habitat in America. Ever-busy, ever-building, ever-in-motion, ever-throwing-out the old for the new, we have hardly paused to think about what we are so busy building, and what we have thrown away. Meanwhile, the everyday landscape becomes more nightmarish and unmanageable each year. For many, the word development itself has become a dirty word.

    Eighty percent of everything ever build in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading—the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the “gourmet mansardic” junk-food joints, the Orwellian office “parks” featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain-gang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call “growth.”

    The newspaper headlines may shout about global warming, extinctions of living species, the devastation of rain forests, and other world-wide catastrophes, but Americans evince a striking complacency when it comes to their everyday environment and the growing calamity that it represents.

    Kunstler was writing in the early 1990s. While I think there have been some areas since where we’ve recovered some of traditional and ecologically-conscience construction, our basic growth pattern remains the same: expand outwards until we consume every last free and open space and replace it with ever-denser townhomes, ever-closer “detached” homes on ever-smaller plots, within ever-more random and disconnected suburban cul-de-sacs undeserving of the name “neighborhood,” because they are places devoid of neighborly intimacy.

    Spending the summer in Europe was eye-opening, noticing that it’s possible to have cities and towns and also rural areas—that we can choose to stop building suburbs and try building cities and towns like we did prior to the last century’s wars.

  • We walked over to The Catholic University of America’s Heritage Hall on Sunday night for “An Italian Evening,” a concert hosted by Catholic University’s Chamber Orchestra and the Italian Cultural Society of Washington, DC.

    Kendall Waters describes Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony:

    “Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony was composed not to introduce uniquely Italian melodies and forms to the rest of Europe but rather to provide the composer’s impressions of what he experienced during his Italian travels. What each movement might have been intended to represent, of course, is subject to speculation. The first movement, which opens with one of the most recognizable symphonic melodies in the repertory, seems to swoop and skip like leaves in the wind. The second, contemplative and solemn, might call to mind a religious procession such as those Mendelssohn witnessed in Rome. The third movement is more restrained than the boisterous fist movement, but it retains the light sweetness of the symphony’s opening. The final movement is a marked departure from European art music convention. Instead of utilizing an expected musical form, Mendelssohn labeled this movement a saltarello, a folk dance from southern Italy. By ending the Italian Symphony with a saltarello, Mendelssohn demonstrated that the use of folk music idioms could be an effective tool in a composer’s toolbox.”

    The concert program:

    Preludio to Act I of La traviata (Giuseppe Verdi)

    Marionette (Teresa Procaccini)
    Allegro spiritoso
    Tempo di Valzer
    Allegro brillante

    Concerto No. 2 in B minor for Double Bass (Giovanni Bottesini)
    Allegro moderato

    Symphony No. 4 “Italian” (Felix Mendelssohn)
    Allego vivace
    Andante con moto
    Con moto moderato
    Saltarello – Presto

  • St. Anthony of Padua’s Votive of Thanksgiving

    MaryKate (26) and I (34) were among the oldest present at the final extraordinary form mass last Tuesday at St. Anthony of Padua in Brookland in Washington, DC.

    St. Anthony of Padua has been our parish since we moved to the neighborhood last year and is one of hundreds of parishes across the United States where the mass of our ancestors—the extraordinary form, the Tridentine Mass, the Old Mass, the usus antiquior, etc.—has been suppressed as a result of Pope Francis’s motu proprio Traditionis Custodes. We’re not frequenters of the extraordinary form, but we have both been grateful for its accessibility, faithfulness, reverence, and vitality. We find our spiritual gaze elevated in distinctive ways through this liturgical expression of the mass. There is obvious loss in the loss of this mass, and so we wanted to be there for this final mass at St Anthony of Padua before restrictions took effect on September 21st.

    St. Anthony offered its final mass as “a Votive of Thanksgiving for all the graces poured out through the Old Mass in all the parishes of the Archdiocese.” The extraordinary form mass continues nearby at the Fransiscan Monastery, though this too may be suppressed when the norms are reviewed in three years.

    As a husband and father, I am now acutely aware of how crucial it is that the mass be as accessible as possible for the widest number as possible—especially the many young men to whom this mass speaks so powerfully. We’re living through a time of spiritual poverty on so many fronts. We need God. We need spiritual nourishment amidst the spiritual deserts of our culture.

    Trusting in God and in the Holy Father’s pastoral care, we can be content in knowing that God is always good and that time is a great thickener of things.

  • Near Leesburg

    Near Leesburg

    We spent Saturday out near Leesburg, Virginia in part for Leonine Forum’s Fall Picnic. The colors this time of year are fantastic, with the brightness of summer and the first hints of fall. We had to drive more than an hour outside of Washington just to start getting past grey suburbia.

    We picked up fresh honey on the way home, still with part of the honeycomb in the jar.