Thoughts (for Students) on Language

Unexpectedly in mid-summer vacation, my departmental chair asked me whether I could assume supervision of some courses previously taught by a faculty member who had taken retirement on short notice at the end of the spring semester. One course concerned the Anglo-Saxon and Norman roots of Modern English and in general the history of the language. The other course concerned theories of language, of which it is designed to offer a survey, more or less at the instructor’s discretion. The clientele for both courses comes largely from the current cohort of teachers-in-training in my college’s School of Education and in some part from English majors. The new assignment required me to marshal my knowledge of the two areas and quickly to devise two syllabi. In writing the syllabi, I decided to introduce each course to its enrollment in the form of an essay. There is some repetition of ideas in both introductions, but that is inevitable given that the subject-matter of the two courses necessarily overlaps. I share the results with my fellow Orthosphereans.

Continue reading

New Articles

Apropos of Kristor’s recent recommendation of an essay, available online, by the redoubtable René Girard (born ninety years ago), I call attention to my latest contribution at The Brussels Journal, “Globalism as Sacrificial Crisis,” a discussion in review of The Mark of the Sacred by Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who works from a declaredly “Girardian” perspective. The Mark of the Sacred is a courageous analysis of the existing crisis in terms of Girard’s concepts of mimesis and the sacred. The review is a follow-up to two earlier ones that also appeared at the Journal – those of Gregory Copley’s Un-Civilization and Eric Cline’s 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. I am indebted, as always, to Luc van Braekel, for the handsome treatment of the text.

The article is here: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5148

I am also indebted, as often I have been in the past, to Angel Millar, webmaster of The People of Shambhala, for posting my essay on “Ur-Civilization, Cosmology, and the Invention of History,” which couches a discussion of how much we know of the human past, and of how certain many people are of knowing everything about it, in the context of a quest for the merits inherent in what its detractors refer to as pseudo-archeology. Readers of The Orthosphere who are familiar with such names as Ignatius T. Donnelley or C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne, might find some modest pleasure in my paragraphs.  (As I hopefully predict…)

The article is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/ur-civilization-and-the-invention-of-history/

Book Review: “Persons: the difference between ‘someone’ and ‘something'”

Persons:  the difference between ‘someone’ and ‘something’
by Robert Spaemann

“Person” is a funny category.  In its contemporary sense, the world managed to do without it before 300AD.  The category “human” fit our fellow intelligent creatures, and the word “person” originally meant “role”.  It was elevated to a philosophical concept by theologians in order to explain what it was that is multiple in the Trinity and one in Christ.  Unlike “human”, which refers to a nature, “person” is defined in contrast to nature, that which is one in God and two in Christ.  The settled definition of a person, given by Boethius, is “the individual substance/subsistence of a rational nature”.  The emphasis, then, is on being a particular existent, as being the existing subject that holds a nature (or, in the case of Jesus, holds two).  As Robert Spaemann, the author of this intriguing book, explains, “person” refers not to a particular nature but to the particular way intelligent beings relate to their nature.   This personal mode of existence is alluded to in saying that a person “has a nature”, implying non-identity with that nature and a degree of freedom in engaging with it.

The key quality of personal existence is transcendence.  Like all animals, we have drives, and we naturally regard other beings according to how they relate to those drives’ satisfaction.  But we are not stuck regarding the world this way.  Even to realize that this is a limited perspective is to step beyond it.  Even to, like Descartes, wonder if all one’s perceptions might be false is to maintain the personal attitude of transcendence, because one retains the knowledge that there is an outer world, an outside perspective, in addition to one’s inner world.  That we can try to respond to things according to their objective truth or goodness (the “view from nowhere” rather than my self-interested view) is the mark of our dignity.  Thus, a dying man would prefer to hear a distressing truth to comforting lies even when he is beyond the point where the truth can practically affect him.  As free beings we can choose illusion, retreat into immanence, relinquish our specifically personal dignity, but even this is a distinctively personal act.

Continue reading

New Article on the Destruction of Education

An article of mine has appeared at The Brussels Journal under the title, “Hannah Arendt and Richard Weaver on the Crisis of Western Education.” It is accessible at: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5141

Here is a sample:

Arendt writes of assuming responsibility for the inherited world, as the conservative or curatorial heart of education. A strikingly complementary notion occurs in the work of one of Arendt’s contemporaries who also wrote about the perils threatening education in the period of the Cold War. This writer saw in the self-styled progressive pedagogy of his day, which in his view had already begun to subvert traditional education, an essential ‘irresponsibility to the past and to the structure of reality in the present.’ Indeed, he saw that the assumptions of this revolutionary coup-d’état in the classroom could never ‘serve as the foundations of culture because [they] are out of line with what is.’ It was the case that ‘where [these assumptions] are allowed to provide foundations,’ or to allege to provide foundations, ‘they imperil the whole structure.’

The other writer is Richard Weaver (1910 – 1963) and the lines quoted above come from the chapter on ‘The Gnostics of Education’ in his book Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (published posthumously, 1964). Arendt was a woman of the Left; Weaver was a man of the Right. That their separate and independent commentaries on the same topic, appearing in book form within three years of one another, should be so convergent and complementary is striking. What explains it? A commitment to civilization, shared across the political frontier, might be the best answer to the question. Both Arendt and Weaver, in contrast to the advocates of avant-garde pedagogy whom they criticize, see education in its conservative or curatorial role as a civilizational, rather than as a social, institution. When the high-school English teacher in Santa Monica brought his portable stereo to the classroom and invited his students to listen to Wagner, he appealed to them in the name of civilization, not in the name of society. At the time, society’s idea of music was The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones. When I challenge students to read and appreciate Tono-Bungay by Wells, I do so in the name of civilization, not of society, whose notion of literary challenge is non-existent.

Of Possible Interest

I have an article at the website of the Pope Center for Higher Education on the difficulty of teaching a course on literary criticism in the prevailing post-literate condition. The link is here: http://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=3019. I have another article, or rather the first part of a two-part article, on S. T. Coleridge as a Traditionalist, at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website. The link is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/a-vision-in-a-dream-s-t-coleridge-on-imagination-and-politics/. My review of James Kalb’s Against Inclusiveness, for The University Bookman, is here: http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/bookman/article/todays-totalitarians/.

PS. The Pope Center article is a version of an item that I first posted here at The Orthosphere a couple of months ago.

The Year Civilization Collapsed

At The Brussels Journal, I review Eric H. Cline’s new book 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Cline’s topic is the “Catastrophe” that afflicted the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age. Cline’s service is to have correlated the large monographic literature on the “Catastrophe” and to have organized it in complementary narrative and analysis.  The review is here:  http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5134

I offer an excerpt:

Just before reading The Year Civilization Collapsed I read Gregory R. Copley’s Un-Civilization: Urban Geo-Politics in a Time of Chaos (2013).  Copley sees the existing global economy as a distorted, unstable system already embarked down the slope of collapse.  The malaise of the contemporary system in Copley’s analysis stems from many of the distortions that Cline cites as contributing to the end of the Bronze Age: Centralized bureaucratization of the societies; overspecialization within the total mercantile network such that a disruption anywhere must spread its effects like ripples everywhere else; vulnerable infrastructure, such as, in the modern instance, the electrical grid; unregulated, massive migrations of peoples; and the development of enmitous social factions within societies, in some cases massively immigration-driven.  Copley predicts a crisis, one effect of which will be plummeting depopulation leading to the desertification of the distended World Cities.

The parallelisms between Copley’s assessment of the contemporary situation and Cline’s hypothesis about the causes and character of the Catastrophe are quite obvious and quite disconcerting.  Copley differs from Cline in his willingness to include moral failures as playing a role in the impending (as he sees it) debacle.  Cline explicitly disavows any gesture of “laying blame,” as when he criticizes invoking the “Sea Peoples” as agents of a general destruction in the concluding phase of the Catastrophe.  Nevertheless, The Year Civilization Collapsed is extremely valuable.  The Catastrophe is little-known – unlike the specious “Fall of Rome,” so often celebrated in novels and cinema.  It ought to be better-known, as it would serve as a useful reference in getting people to understand the terrible fragility of the civilized accomplishment.  One ingredient of total social calamity at which Cline hints but which he nowhere fully develops is the complacency of the people, their dumb belief that nothing can change in the way of life.  The psychological inertia of complacency plays a large role in the stultification of the existing “global order,” which more and more resembles ambient disorder.

The nature of solidarity: Donoso Cortes vs. the socialists

The nineteenth-century Spanish reactionary Juan Donoso Cortes occupies an intriguing place
in the history of Reaction. His critique of liberalism is distinctly theological; he grounds all his social principles in Christian doctrine: the nature of the Trinity, its manifestations in creation, mankind’s collective Fall, and its collective redemption. In some ways, he anticipates the Christian communitarians and Radical Orthodoxy schools of our own time. Unlike them, he was tied to an actual, living traditional society, and he defends kings, hereditary aristocracies, Catholic establishment, and many other things that would cause today’s communitarians to faint from fear.

Throne & Altar reader William McEnaney has kindly sent me a copy of Dononso’s main work, his Essay on Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism. Bill works with Preserving Christian Publications, a small business that sells out-of-print pre-conciliar Catholic books. I would be pleased for such ventures to flourish and so am happy to offer this bit of free advertising.  What follows will be an exploration of one key theme in Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism.

Writing in 1851, Donoso saw the great issue of his age as an ultimately theological battle between Catholicism and socialism. Catholicism had dignified both authority and obedience by locating the former’s source in God. Even the legitimate authority of fathers (as opposed to their mere primacy of age and power) is explicable primarily through the Trinitarian relation it reflects. Alongside the family and state, Catholicism fosters a vast network of associations, each embodying it its own way the fundamental law of unity-in-diversity rooted in the Trinitarian heart of Being. Socialism would destroy all of this, reducing the order of mankind to a vast and unitary yet illegitimate statist tyranny.

In the twentieth century, all of this would be explained in terms of the supposed Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. As you’ve often heard the story, the Left basically owns solidarity, and Catholics criticize Leftists only for neglecting the second principle of subsidiarity, a vague council to–all other things being equal–favor small and local agency. This is inadequate for a number of reasons.  Donoso gets to the real heart of the matter. What’s wrong with socialism is not that it is solidarity unchecked; socialism is solidarity denied, misunderstood, reduced to a shadow of its true self. The socialist believes in solidarity too little, rather than too much.

Continue reading

Two Articles of Possible Interest

Writer Michael Presley has written about Chinese cinema, under the title “Visions of China: The Nationalist Spirit in Chinese Political Cinema,” at The People of Shambhala. Presley is an impressive and thorough connoisseur of the Chinese motion-picture tradition. I recommend Presley’s article to readers of The Orthosphere. It is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/visions-of-china-the-nationalist-spirit-in-chinese-political-cinema/

At The Brussels Journal, I review Gregory Copley’s new book Un-Civilization. Copley argues that the world is in the middle stage of a systemic breakdown that is driven by the hypertrophy of cities and will end in their collapse; the whole process will see a drastic shrinkage of the global population.  It is here: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/

Re-Post: Edgar Rice Burroughs and Masculine Narrative

[This is a much-revised version of an article that originally appeared some years ago at The Brussels Journal.]

Prologue: Contemporary popular culture is as jejune as contemporary politics, with which it is more or less indistinguishable: Strangled by political correctness and by contempt for form and etiquette, “pop” culture eats away like acid at what remains of courtesy and memory. But the past of popular culture – in literature, illustration, and the movies – has much nourishment to offer. One of the most widely read authors of the Twentieth Century, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950), had a penetrating insight concerning the health of the body politic and the positive relation of a vital culture to its founding traditions. The author of Tarzan (1912) and its many sequels, the inventor of the extraterrestrial sword-and-sandals romance, ex-cavalryman, admirer of the Apache and the Sioux, anti-Communist, anti-Nazi, self-publishing millionaire entrepreneur, religious skeptic, “Big-Stick” patriot, Southern California real-estate baron, sixty-year-old Pacific-Theater war correspondent, Burroughs has, with a few ups and downs, maintained an audience from his authorial debut in 1912 to the present day, nearly sixty-five years after his passing. Burroughs has a place in the culture wars, standing as he does for the opposite of almost everything advocated by the elites of the new liberal-totalitarian order. I offer, in what follows, a modest assessment of Burroughs’ work.

Continue reading