My beef with esotericism: a poem.

…the second half of a poem, anyway.


We don’t know all: we know that we aren’t wise
Texts have, thank God, a golden wealth of deeps
But this much we do know: the great surprise
has come, the news has spread, the sower reaps:

The double-spoken words of the first book
Became our common sense, and noised about.
Truth into which the angels longed to look
Became the jubilant credal rooftop shout.

We know what’s in your mind: that this was bait
To help us live beneath an empty sky
A thing to make us yearn and love and hate
And just another shabby noble lie:

There was no resurrection from the dead
There were no graveclothes folded in the tomb
There was no flesh, but metaphor instead:
You see, “Truth” became “Man” in the “Virgin’s” “Womb.”

But that will never be: there’s no divide
between initiates and fools: enlightened ones
with scare quotes as the weapons of their pride,
and a mob deceived that God had made them sons.

Oh– more will be revealed, there’s more to learn
More to decipher, and delight, and guess
But where we all began we won’t return,
Repudiating what we all confess.

Nothing’s hidden that won’t be revealed
No inner ring without an outward call
Jerusalem, Rome, Athens: all are healed;
Nehemiah’s built the city’s wall.
The City that our poleis had concealed
We’ll rule by gift-right, or not rule at all.

So, once again admit that you don’t know.
Stop trying to buy the gift you can’t afford,
And meet at last the Way you ought to go.
Let Lady Wisdom lead you to her Lord.


Paging Gerald O’Hara

I somehow managed to be listening to a podcast called The Soul of Enterprise, a VoiceAmerica production squarely in the George Gilder camp: Oh you silly person, thinking that the physical stuff around us matters in economic questions is just terribly naive and also Marxist; to be a real modern person you must understand that stuff– “atoms”– is nothing, nothing to be thankful for, nothing to profit from: the real wealth in the world is either a) the human spirit/human creativity/insight/intelligence or b) (which amounts to the same thing) “information,” which is the same thing as what exists in a computer, and is (apparently) made out of bits, here conceived as something like spiritual particles of information/creativity etc.

It’s a terribly hyperventelating worldview, fairly Platonist, kind of interesting. Those Christians who buy into it (they tend to be West Coasters) regularly imply, if they do not argue outright, that capitalism (in this sense) is more spiritual (and therefore good, naturally… because “spiritual”=nonphysical=good) than Marxism, which is “materialist.” Basically they’re AnCap gnostics– think Docetists who subscribe to Wired and read a lot of William Gibson.

You know the drill. Anyway, the specific ep was called How Much does the Economy Weigh, and it was dedicated to “explore[ing] the following insight from Thomas Sowell: ‘After all, the caveman had the same natural resources at their disposal as we have today, and the difference between their standard of living and ours is a difference between the knowledge they could bring to bear on those resources and the knowledge used today.’ We will also discuss the five stages in human economic history, from hunter and gatherers to the Industrial Revolution, and now a knowledge economy; the differences between data, information and knowledge; the physical fallacy and why we continue to cling to this outdated mode of thinking about our economy; and how hard it is to make a toaster from scratch. A framework for leveraging your organization’s intellectual capital will be presented.”

Look, it’s not that none of this has any merit, or that it’s stupid, and obviously the Christians who are into this are not ACTUALLY heretics. And sometimes one needs some of these ideas, in order to counterbalance one’s usual diet of Porchery.  But halfway through the podcast, Ron Baker said this to Ed Kless, and the level of irony was so high that I actually had to break my blogging slackerhood to write about it.


WhatsApp has just been sold for 17 billion dollars. WhatsApp was four guys and a contract programmer in Georgia. The country, not the state [snickering.]…That tells you the world has definitely changed, from an atom to a bit-type economy, to an economy in mind.

One of my favorite examples, Ed, is if you just look at Gone With the Wind, right? Here’s a movie, it’s whatever, it’s on tape, it was produced in 1939. Would you rather have the rights to, or own, that movie, or would you rather have… I dunno, think of the most expensive car from 1939? I’d rather have the Gone With the Wind! But even that’s just an idea, that’s just service, it’s not physical, and yet it contains much more wealth.

Oh dear.  Mr. O’Hara, you had something to add?


Bad Children of Kant


Damon Linker has just come out with another installation in his mysterious interstitial self-positioning in the national conversation: is he a Platonist who doesn’t believe his own noble lie but wants to, and also can’t really keep his mouth shut about the fact that he doesn’t believe it, which makes it a really ineffective noble lie?  Is he a basic Isaiah Berlin liberal? A Straussian quadruple agent?  A Jesuit?  WHAT?

Key quote (or at least my favorite):

What talk of selfishness and self-absorption really points to is the poverty of our moral concepts. As good children of Immanuel Kant, we find it difficult to think about morality and ethics in broader terms than a binary contrast between the selfless devotion to universal principle (good) and the selfish satisfaction of subjective desires (bad). No wonder that many of the people who think of themselves as selflessly devoting their lives to raising children look out at a sea of childless couples and singles in contemporary America and conclude that they’re paragons of selfishness.

Ethical reasoning in the ancient world (at least among philosophers) was much richer. Aristotle encapsulated the classical view in the famous opening line of the Nicomachean Ethics, which boldly asserted that every art, inquiry, action, and pursuit “aims at some good.” The implication is quite stunning to a mind reared on Kantian categories, maintaining that a person who engages in great acts of evil, no less than someone who does great moral deeds, is pursuing some notion of the good. (It also implies, pace Kant, that the “selfish” concern with one’s own good is inexorably wrapped up with everything human beings do.)

This is exactly right: Christianity has no problem saying that Christ went to the Cross “for the sake of the joy set before him,” but Kant would consider the promise of that Joy (i.e. being united with us) as cheating.

I managed to not be the girl who bombed a facebook comments thread with a C.S. Lewis quote but this is my blog so now I get to indulge:

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love.  You see what has happened?  A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.  The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.  I do not thik this is the Christian virtue of Love.  The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.  If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.  Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.

Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory

One theme in the comment thread was people saying that having kids is/is not actually more pleasurable/hedonistic in various more or less complicated ways than not having kids but having a lot of brunch instead.  And there was a guy called Will Wilkinson who talked about the non-obvious kind of pleasure that comes from caring for kids:

My experience as a very new parent is that now I act far more often by fairly pure other-regarding motivation. A lot of what I do for my son I don’t exactly *want* to do, but I do it anyway, and not grudgingly or unhappily, but often without pleasure. I feed him, change his diaper, etc. because he’s mine, and so my responsibility, and *he* needs it. It’s duty.

But he’s not talking Kantian duty, where the more you don’t enjoy it the better you are.  He talks about

my sense that raising a decent human being is intrinsically valuable, and that it will be satisfying in a not obviously hedonic way to be proud of having done so.

I’ve been squabbling with a bunch of Desirists lately– these are utilitarians who think that they’ve solved the is-ought thing although they haven’t– and Will’s comment gets right to what’s wrong with attempts to account for how we actually experience the good which discount the possibility of a real human teleology, a real objective good.

Will’s pleasure in caring for his kid isn’t a pleasure in unselfishness qua unselfishness (which in Kantian terms wouldn’t make any sense,) and it’s not even an anticipation of being proud of having raised a good person, although that’s as far as he seems comfortable taking his own observations.

Rather, it’s a pleasure in love: he’s taking the complicated kind of pleasure we’re supposed to take in loving and caring for the people we’re supposed to love. It’s complicated because it doesn’t always feel like pleasure: it can be boring and annoying and sometimes gross, and it doesn’t just cater to your existing self but shapes you into a new self. So maybe we should just call it joy. Like pleasure, but it can kick your ass.

I get to call the following fact providence, rather than coincidence: my little cousin Alexander, last night, found himself a loose copy of The Weight of Glory that was hanging around the living room.  He’s a kid who likes “reading,” although he’s still working on spoken language– he’s actually trilingual, speaking Russian, English, and Alex, which is a language that sounds like it has indo-European roots but I can’t say much more about it.  Anyway, he found the book, which is a second spare copy for the household, and parked himself on the sofa to read.  Then he decided that he’d rather be on the camel saddle that my mom’s parents brought back from when they lived in India, so he read there for a while.

photo 4

And then he decided that mom– my mom, not his– should read it aloud to him, actually, so he came over to where we were eating dal and rice and climbed up on her lap and indicated his instructions.  She read the table of contents to him, as he pointed: “The Weight of Glory,” she said.  “Transposition…Membership.”  “Membership,” repeated Alex after her, thoughtfully.

That book is going home with him today, after he and his older brother and his parents visit the High Line and Eataly.

Who Are You? Identity and Authenticity and Makeovers and Giussani


“The supreme obstacle to our journey as men and women is the “neglect” of the “I.” The first point, then, of any human journey is the opposite of this neglect; concern for our own “I,” for our own person. It is an interest that might seem obvious but it is not obvious at all: a glance at our daily behavior is enough to show us that it is qualified by immense, wide gaps in our consciousness and loss of memory. Our first interest, then, is our subject. Our first interest is that the human subject be constituted and that I may understand what it is and be aware of it. Behind the increasingly fragile mask of the word “I” there is great confusion today. Only the shell of the word has a certain consistency. But as soon as it is pronounced, the whole course of that sound, “I,” is entirely and only packed with forgetfulness of all that is most alive and worthy in us. The conception of the “I” and our sense of it are tragically confused in our civilization.”

Luigi Giussani, 1992

Think about this in relation to the self-help section of the bookstore. Half the books are about projecting a certain image, and the other half are about discovering your own Authentic Self. Neither category of books tends to look for clues to how to behave or to who one is in the external world, in reality: i.e. it’s rare to have a self-help book that asks you to consider what your duties are, what your place is, as a daughter or a citizen or a friend or a creature before it asks you to start formulating your goals and dreams.

We’ve lost the concept of station in life– which doesn’t have to be a rigid below-stairs Downton Abbey thing, but can be a framework for understanding the context of our goals, endeavors, projects. In other words, we have to re-link the existential subjectivist modern understanding of the person with the role-based, virtue-based premodern understanding. Both have strengths. But it’s really a dead end to keep going back and forth between projects where we imagine who we want to be and then buy Dale Carnegie books or exercise books or get-rich books to shape ourselves into this person, and then that starts to feel hollow and inauthentic and so we get other books– Julia Cameron, etc– that ask us to look inside ourselves and discover our True Self outside the context of the external, tangible world of other people and their claims on us.

The choice we make cannot be between Extreme Home Makeover and Eat Pray Love.

Also n.b. I haven’t read Giussani.  But my friend Kristen just posted this quote & we’re going to Encounter this weekend so maybe I should.

Moral/Transcendental Argument Mashup


Zach: Well, try this.

P1 If moral facts exist, then God exists.
P2 Moral facts exist.
C God exists.

Anne: I see the truth of the syllogism– but what are your reasons for the first premise?  Couldn’t there be objective, transcendent moral facts without a personal God?

Zach: But think about the… call it the flavor of moral facts; they have a distinctive character to them– they are not like other facts; they intend things of you, they ask things of you, they say that you are intended for things and that you have duties that are unchosen. They are inherently relational. They act like a person, and like a person you already have a relationship with– not like a stranger.  That this lemonade is here doesn’t demand something of you; chlorophyll making sugar doesn’t demand something of you; two plus two doesn’t ask you to make it four.  But if you steal, something asks you to return the thing you stole, and to ask forgiveness.  

Anne: It’s limeade, not lemonade.  And what if these “facts” are just the subjective deliverances of evolutionary advantageous psychological states– there might not be any connection between them and truth, even though I admit that I and most other people in the world and all cultures experience them as true.

Zach: But if you say that you must say the same about both reason and observation– both the inductive and deductive ways of getting at reality. We have no more reason to believe that our reason –by which we just know that two plus two equals four, or by which we just know that if A entails B; A exists, therefore B– is a source of reliable insight, than that our conscience– by which we just know that it is wrong to punish someone for something he did not choose, or for something morally arbitrary like having red hair– is a source of reliable insight. We have no more reason to believe that our senses, by which we investigate the natural world, deliver us reality, than that our moral sense does. But it is our senses and our reason on which naturalism depends to build up its grand evolutionary denial of morality. Such a denial saws off the branch of the tree on which it’s resting, because the basis on which it is making its denial would be the same basis on which one could deny its own validity as a scientific discovery. This isn’t exactly the transcendental argument– although that’s a good one too– and it’s not exactly the moral argument. It’s kind of a mashup, and I think it’s sound. Skepticism is still open (except that it has its own Cartesian defeater)– but not a decided nihilism.

There are really two kinds of wrong that we perceive, although they are related– call them violations of justice and of love. Both are immediately perceived, like reason, but the justice one is more like the experience of reason, while the love one is stranger.

Tom stole a loaf of bread, and so we forced Charles to pay a fine and that was fair: we see this as wrong as surely and in a similar way to how we see a syllogism to be false, but it has an ingredient of disapprobation which a syllogism lacks. We don’t think that A is violating it’s duty if it tries to be the same as Not-A; we don’t say it’s unfair. But we do say that the involuntary punishing of Charles for the theft of Tom is both incorrect and unfair. (Charles might, of course, volunteer to pay Charles’ fine, but that gets into the next area– into love.)

Anne: And what about love?

Zach: Oh, well, love… love is that which is desired as well as that which desires, and so in a way we seek it by definition, we live in it by definition, we need it by definition. It’s sort of an analytic truth. But it’s also an analytic good, if you can put things that way: it’s not just the case that you seek love and seek to love others, but it’s the case that you SHOULD seek love and seek to love others. You both need it and should need it and should have it and should give it.

To deny any of this is a self-defeater, and it’s related to the self-defeat of logical positivism/verificationism: “only those things which can be proved scientifically or are true by definition count as true” can neither be proved scientifically, nor is it true by definition.

Anne: I– I have to think about it, but… Look, I have to be at this lecture in twenty minutes at Cooper Union…

Zach: Listen, what are you doing later?

Refs:  Lots of podcasts I’ve been listening to lately; Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (haven’t read the paper but listened to an interview), this guy Glenn Peoples who is wrong about some stuff and right about some stuff; probably C.S. Lewis.

On Charles Taylor (Again) and Mickey Mouse and Totalitarianism and Enchantment and the George Washington Bridge, and Why it Doesn’t Fall Down

Oh Charles Taylor.  You have disappointed me by tipping your hand in Chapter 13.  THOSE were the cards you were holding?  Common post-Vatican 2 modernism?  What annoying cards!  And you got so goopy in your analysis, when you started talking like that!

BUT.  You still are on to something (isn’t it big of me to admit that?) and thank you very much for the Enchanted World category.  Which I know you didn’t really invent but boy, you ran with it like Walt Freaking Disney.  Oh wait.  That was the Magic Kingdom.  Which was different, in that it had more people dressed as cartoon mice, and fewer intersections of the imminent and the transcendent.


Just after this week’s CTAG (Charles Taylor Accountability Group, natch) in which we were talking about this section, I came across this, from Natural Right and History:

There was only one fundamental objection to Hobbes’s basic assumption which he felt very keenly and which he made every effort to overcome. In many cases the fear of violent death proved to be a weaker force than the fear of hell fire or the fear of God. The difficulty is well illustrated by two widely separated passages of the Leviathan. In the first passage Hobbes says that the fear of the power of men (i.e., the fear of violent death) is “commonly” greater than the fear of the power of “spirits invisible,” i.e., than religion. In the second passage he says that “the fear of darkness and ghosts is greater than other fears.”1 Hobbes saw his way to solve this contradiction: the fear of invisible powers is stronger than the fear of violent death as long as people believe in invisible powers, i.e., as long as they are under the spell of delusions about the true character of reality; the fear of violent death comes fully into its own as soon as people have become enlightened. This implies that the whole scheme suggested by Hobbes requires for its operation the weakening or, rather, the elimination of the fear of invisible powers. It requires such a radical change of orientation as can be brought about only by the disenchantment of the world, by the diffusion of scientific knowledge, or by popular enlightenment. Hobbes’s is the first doctrine that necessarily and unmistakably points to a thoroughly “enlightened,” i.e., a-religious or atheistic society as the solution of the social or political problem. This most important implication of Hobbes’s doctrine was made explicit not many years after his death by Pierre Bayle, who attempted to prove that an atheistic society is possible.


From this, you could develop a pretty strong case that the disenchantment of the world (the breaking down of people’s belief in God, to be specific, although that’s not really what Taylor means, and the strange tin ear that both Taylor and Strauss have for actual theology and/or lived Christianity is amazing) was absolutely crucial for the development of a modern political science, or a modern system of totalitarian politics.

Which is pretty obvious in retrospect, and it’s not like Jesus didn’t talk about this dynamic: you either worship God who actually loves you and made you and has genuine authority over you, or you’re held captive to the fear of death, and thus to the fear of those who can kill you and aren’t that fond of you: which looks like the better situation?  And we see this play out when the Apostles refuse to stop preaching, saying “we ought to obey God rather than men.”

Strauss would probably say that this impulse is just exactly the same thing that led Antigone to insist on burying her brother in defiance of what’s his name, Creon?  <googles> Yes. Creon!  Yay long-term memory!  Weird: I wouldn’t have said I’d read Antigone, but maybe it’s one of those things that I actually did read, when I was assigned it Senior year of high school.  Anyway.  But would he say that, or would he want to identify Antigone’s decision with a fundamentally skeptical/zetetic/philosophical way of thinking, rather than one that belongs to the pious?

Here’s the deal: here’s what I think, or part of what I think.  The pious, the sense of enchantment, and the sense of the natural law are all in one big barrel.  They’re not identical.  But they line up on one side of my own experience, while the purely materialistic view that fears violent death above all things (or fears pain, or a lack of pleasure, or etc.) is on the opposing side.  In other words, unless Strauss is just secretly a Nietzschean after all– if he has ANY belief in natural law, including the law of non-contradiction– he is in that barrel with the believers in Christ’s resurrection. Who are also in the barrel with believers in pagan gods, IF those gods are believed to be actually good.  The existence of the Good, of deontology, of the ought, is the source of enchantment.

Which is not to say that all things in that barrel are equally true, or equally false. Clearly they are not.  They are in contradiction to each other: one may be true, or none may be, but all cannot be true.  But what you start sensing as you consider these various metaphysical representations of, or assertions about, an enchanted universe, is that they all partake in something– something shining, something beyond, something that is a breaking-in and yet is deeply homely and familiar– something that you see in your response to the beauty of a sunset over the Palisades, and in your response to your own conscience if you do something wrong, and even in what goes on in your head and heart when you understand the logical relations of a math problem.  These things, these responses, are real: and the math is real, too, and intersects in our material reality enough to launch rockets and build the George Washington Bridge.  So we know at least that ONE of the things in the Enchanted World Barrel is correct, although we may not know yet which one.


And at this point, your Reality Investigation Program might do worse than to consider whether one of these hypotheses, one of these metaphysics swirling around in the Enchanted World Barrel, seems to be– oh, call it the distillation of all the others, the one that brings everything else into it.

And when you’ve identified what that one hypothesis might be, then what you’d do– or what I would do, if I were you– is to start some serious forensic history.  I say forensic, because at the heart of the hypothesis which I consider to be this distillation is a crime.

And your job could be described at this point as CSI Jerusalem.  Because something happened there.  And something happened after that, which was even more surprising.  And– under the enchanted ought-ness which we have seen must be part of the truth– you should find out what it was: this is a call, an assignment, a cold case that has landed on your desk.

You might ignore it.  But if you do, don’t be surprised if your ability to think clearly about other things suffers, because a dodge is a dodge, and changes the dodger, and as clever as Charles Taylor is, it is no coincidence that the section in which he starts disagreeing with Christian ethics in one area is precisely the section in which he starts flinging around some serious vagueness, some seriously fallacious arguments.

Be willing. Think, research, investigate– and act on the truth you have.

Secular Age High-Context Braindump Thus Far: Probably Not the Only Charles Taylor Blogpost With a Harry Jaffa Reference, but Almost Certainly the Only Charles Taylor Blogpost With A Rick Moranis Reference


in response to Artur Rosman of Cosmos the in Lost.  I’m only about half way through but this is the impression I’m getting, confirmed by book group members who meet regularly in what we are calling a Charles Taylor Accountability Group to eat Sim Johnson’s brie, and try to figure out what Taylor’s getting at:

Secular for Talyor isn’t about being non-Christian or non-religious, it’s about having a public sphere where there are all kinds of menu options, of which Christianity is one. He doesn’t necessarily think that it’s bad for Christians to live in a secular age, or that we should be trying in a revanchist way to hike back to the Age of Faith. He’s not pulling an “it’s all gone downhill from the 13th century.” And he actually seems to see a lot of the religiosity of various bits of the middle ages as pagan, and (by implication, although he’s very good at keeping his own opinions out of things) problematic for genuine Christianity.

There’s another thing that’s going on too, which we haven’t talked much about at the brie-fueled jam sessions.  (If I bring actual jam to the next one I suppose they could become jam-fueled brie sessions.  Perhaps I will, in a nod to Rosman’s earlier Dark Helmet reference, although given this blog’s tagline I shouldn’t be encouraging anyone to “Jam the transmission.”)


That other thing is the fact that along with the religious secularity Taylor talks about, and the massive pluralism that he describes as a “nova” of new philosophies or ways to understand the world (kicked off in the 17th c), there’s a kind of… you might almost call it a philosophical secularity.  Or philosophical loss of coherence.

From what I can tell (and here’s where I stick my standard disclaimer about really feeling not well read enough in the primary sources to talk about this, and then my standard secondary disclaimer about how maybe I actually did read a lot more than I think I did, in college), a lot of people who discover what might be called the Great Tradition in political philosophy love the coherence of the Classical philosophical story that existed prior to Descartes: it was all one big philosophical project, building on itself, moving forward in precision, maybe, but not in the sense of progress-as-rejection-of-the-past.  Especially Christians who see continuity between classical and Medieval philosophy, who see providence in Plato’s ability to write what he wrote, see this coherence unambiguously.

But non-Christian classicists see it too, even if they have to pretend that later Christian philosophers who drew on Classical sources were more classical than they were Christian, and couldn’t possibly have believed all that about Jesus rising from the dead.

We are– as Taylor describes it– now at a point of massive philosophical pluralism– that’s why you get textbooks of philosophy organized by philosopher, each of whom spawned his own system which doesn’t necessarily relate to any of the others.

But this may be another reason that secularity, in Taylor’s sense, isn’t a bad thing.  There’s something unChristianly tidy about a lot of scholastic philosophy, and so anything that shakes that certainty, shakes our smug tendency as Christians to think that we have a system that started with Plato and continued uninterrupted through to Aquinas, might be good.

And certainly anything that shakes the smug certainty of the medieval and early modern non-Christian (whether explicitly or otherwise) classicists who enjoyed their Platonic playground, enjoyed feeling superior to the rabble of believers, enjoyed their “enlightenment” the more because their brothers were still in the cave looking (as they believed) at shadows… almost anything that smacks THAT kind of certainty upside the head is probably a good thing.

Almost anything.  I still somehow feel like Platonism is a step up from nihilism, the nihilism that you sometimes get with massive pluralism in philosophy.  It is, it is, it is better.  It’s just not going to save you.

P.S. You may have noticed that there was in fact no Harry Jaffa reference in this blog post.  That’s ’cause I redacted it. :)


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