Briefest of Commentaries: Confessions of a Heretic

Confessions of a Heretic by Roger Scruton

A lovely collection of essays about a wide range of topics, including government, the environment, animals, architecture, art, and how we die. This is the third book by Scruton that I’ve read; I’ve also read several uncollected essays, seen/listened to some interviews, lectures, etc. While his Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy perhaps gives the more nuanced overview of his thought, this collection, in being less abstract and permitting his wit, charm, and sometimes-acid critiques to shine through, reveals the essential touchstones and first principles of his thought clearly, cogently, and entertainingly.

Essentially, what we see in different ways and to different extents in every essay is an exploration of the relationship between an “I” and another “I.” In Scruton’s thought, subjecthood is contingent upon the recognition of the subjecthood of others, and expected reciprocation of that recognition by others unto us. From this “I” & “I” flows a concept of mutual obligation and duty, and a sense that statist, technocratic diktat and fiat destroys this “I” & “I” relationship, and thus undermines our status as thinking subjects–and ultimately our humanity. All of Scruton’s thinking in these essays seems to be based in some articulation of the relationship of a subject to other subjects, governed by mutual obligation and duty, and the way these first principles play out in considerations of art, environment, government, and the many more subjects he considers here are fascinating, challenging, and illuminating.

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“Benign Shabbiness”

In an essay I struggled with (if for nothing else, because part of its logic would seem to be a defense of euthanasia, as well as the fact that the essay also seems to confirm my long-held suspicion that he is ultimately a Greco-Roman pagan with the excesses of such worn down by cultural Christianity), Sir Roger Scruton posits an compelling vision of how the virtue of courage prepares us for dying a timely death:

With courage a person can go about living in another way…This other way is not the way of the welfare culture in which we are all immersed. It does not involve the constant search for comforts or the obsessive pursuit of health. On the contrary, it is a way of benign shabbiness and self-neglect, of risky enjoyments and bold adventures. It involves constant exercise–but not of the body. Rather, exercise of the person, through relationships with others, through sacrifice, through the search for opportunities to be involved and exposed…Of course you should drink, smoke, eat fatty foods–but not to the point of gluttony. The purpose is to weaken the body while strengthening the mind…

Each of us must decide for himself what the life of benign shabbiness requires of him…The main point, it seems to me, is to maintain a life of active risk and affection, while helping the body along the path of decay, remembering always that the value of life does not consist in its length but in its depth.

“Dying in Time,” from Confessions of a Heretic, pp. 149-150

This is a decidedly different view of life from that promoted to us by various industries and our popular culture; this is a vision of life that tells us that death is to be accepted and embraced–but not heedlessly run towards in suicidal hedonism!–and that, having understood the reality of death, we must live, as beings that are a part of a world, a culture, a civilization. The last bit–depth, rather than length–is something the ancients (and even our grandparents) understood, but that we, sometime in the last generation or so, have forgotten. Well, most of us–including, I must admit, myself sometimes.

How can I live in benign shabbiness? How can I embrace the reality of death? How can I do that while still being true to my ethics, metaphysics, and faith?

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Epicurus on the Good of Philosophy

From Letters and Sayings of Epicurus, translated by Odysseus Makridis

A philosophy which cannot heal any one of the maladies afflicting human beings is empty. This is not unlike the case of medicine: It is of no benefit whatsoever unless it can effectively expel illness from the human body. So it is with philosophy too: It is of no worth whatever unless it can expel the ailments of the soul. (64)

I know little of Epicurus, but I suspect that he and I would have disagreement on what such “maladies” and “ailments of the soul” are; he, as my very limited gloss of him would lead me to believe, is likely to think of “pain” as one of the chief of such ailments. I, on the other hand, see perhaps the principle ailment of the soul to be based in man’s inability to accept his own finitude and limitedness. But regardless of these differences, Epicurus is correct about the purpose of philosophy; his analogy to medicine can be taken further–should a philosophy not point a man towards a means for dealing with the “ailments of the soul,” it is at best a drug that creates a dependency that obscures life, and at worst a poison that destroys life altogether.

Daybook–13th July 2016

Readings:

The last reading is of particular enjoyment to me, as I’ve found myself in many cases feeling as if I’m the only person on earth who’s read a certain book in some time. These things often do feel like personal and private treasures, and there’s an associated intimacy. Two such books are Robie MacAuley’s The Disguises of Love, which I read just a few weeks ago, and Vernon Lee’s Hortus Vitae: Essays on the Gardening of Life. With some other works, like The Men’s Club by Leonard Micheals, the collected works of James Salter, and the collected works of my beloved Peter Taylor, I feel as if I am a part of an exclusive club, and meeting with others who know those works leads to a sense of joy and comradeship from the opening moments. Minor literature is always something to share, and it is something always enjoyed, loved, and rejoiced in–while major literature normally enjoys its status for a reason, those reasons often lead to appreciation, not outstanding and overwhelming joy. When I design literature courses for my students, I try to include a work of minor literature or two, just for these very reasons.

Today’s Commemoration:

Today, the Church commemorates the life, the work, and the faithful witness of Silas, a companion of the Apostle Paul and a fellow-worker with the Apostles in spreading the Gospel. He is mentioned extensively in the 15th and 16th chapters of the book of the Acts of the Apostles, as well as a few other places in the New Testament.

SilasAlmighty and everlasting God, we thank thee for thy servant Silas, whom thou didst call to preach the Gospel to the peoples of Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia. Raise up, we beseech thee, in this and every land evengelists and heralds of thy kingdom, that thy Church may proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Something Else:

I read a fascinating little Edwardian-era pamphlet on using time responsibly yesterday. It’s something one can read in an hour or so, and it has some real and significant suggestions for its titular subject: How to Live on 24 Hours a Day:

Daybook, 11th July 2016

Spent a lot of the weekend thinking and reading about beauty and faithfulness. Today’s Daybook reflects such things.

Readings:

Today’s Commemoration:

Today, the Church commemorates the life, work, and faithful witness of St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism. St. Benedict is all the rage in certain corners of the internet these days, because of the so called “Benedict Option” proposed by the writer Rod Dreher. Like most things, I have incredibly complex feelings about the “BenOp,” some very positive, some incredibly negative, that won’t do for discussion here. But leaving those questions and issues aside, St. Benedict is a fascinating figure, and his work to preserve the good, the true, and the beautiful in the face of often violent social chaos, political uncertainty, and decadence is something that all Christians should seek to emulate in some way or another, methinks, and he Benedictine Rule is something I am curious to see if there are ways in may be applied to the life of non-monastics.

st-benedictAlmighty and everlasting God, whose precepts are the wisdom of A loving Father: Give us grace, following the teaching and example of thy servant Benedict, to walk with loving and willing hearts in the school of the Lord’s service; let thine ears be open unto our prayers; and prosper with thy blessing the work of our hands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Something Else:

For the last several months, I’ve been struggling with various issues related to various doctrines of faith. As a new father who was finishing a dissertation and starting a fairly demanding new job, I’ve not had a whole ton of a lot of time to explore these issues in any detail. But this last weekend, I read a small book that explored one such issue with which I’ve been struggling–John Wesley’s Predestination Calmly Considered. Now, I’ve not read Calvin, but the glosses I’ve read and have been taught present a version of the Gospel that, well, I’ve always found troubling and unsatisfying. As a result, I’ve thought of myself as an Arminian, inasmuch as “Arminian” seems to be the opposite of “Calvinist.” Wesley’s little book, written, as is true of all of his works, as more pastoral than theological, explains and articulates the position my reading of Scripture has lead me to–or at least explains why my reading of Scripture ensures I cannot be a 5-point Calvinist.

Again, having not read Calvin, I can’t be certain that Wesley is actually giving the tenents of Calvinism a fair shake. But he does take Scripture very, very seriously. While I’m certain Reformed folk would surely disagree with Wesley, I think this little book might, indeed, be something useful for them to read as well.

Daybook, 8th July 2016

Another heavy heart this morning. Police killed in Dallas, and I’ve had a sick feeling in my stomach for the last twelve hours (I slept rather restlessly) that there’s….something….coming. We’re reaching a tipping point, it seems, at which America must figure out how it will survive. I don’t think this has anything to do with the upcoming presidential election; this isn’t an electoral issue, but rather a much more basically, radically, essentially political issue, inasmuch as it concerns how we Americans, as political animals, as social creatures, can live together. Christ, have mercy.

Readings:

Commemoration:

Today, the Church commemorates the life, work, and faithful witness of Ss. Aquila and Priscilla, companions of St. Paul and laborers in the Gospel.

aquila priscillaGod of grace and might, we praise thee for thy servants Priscilla and Aquila, whom thou didst plenteously endow with gifts of zeal and eloquence to make known the truth of the Gospel. Raise up, we pray thee, in every country, heralds and evangelists of thy kingdom, that the world may know the immeasurable riches of our Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A prayer especially pertinent for today.

Something Beautiful:

Daybook, 7th July 2015

A heavy day, marked by the second well-publicized shooting of a black man by a police officer in as many days. On Twitter, I’m amazed at the disparate cross-section of people who are all frustrated by by this, demanding and seeking solutions and answers. There’s the social-justice Left, to be sure, which you would expect. But there is also a significant cross-section of various conservatives, law-and-order types, and libertarians working toward and seeking out the same things. As the first two of today’s readings make clear, what we’re seeing at work–and what should truly shock conservatives if death doesn’t shock them (us!)–is the failure of community, and a misplaced faith-in-government, rather than an understanding of government as beholden to Law and constituted as an entity responsive to the needs of its citizens (see the quote from Sir Roger Scruton in yesterday’s daybook for more on the “conservative” notion of government).

Other readings for today:

Something Else:

The more I read of and about him, the more fascinated I am by John Randolph of Roanoke, and the more I find much of thinking about the world articulated fairly well in his thought. A resource of his thought that I’m only beginning to work my way through is a collection of letters he wrote to a “young relative,” Theodore Dudley (a nephew, if I’m not mistaken).

The genre of letters written by an older man to a younger man is a great one, and one I’m saddened we seem to have lost. Other great examples include Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son. I know I’m missing a lot more.

Something Beautiful:

One of my favo(u)rite parts of Twitter is English country churchyard Twitter. This came across my timeline recently, and it’s just lovely:

Daybook, 6th July 2016

After long months of neglect, I bring back one of my favorite things I’ve ever done of the internet–the Daybook.

Readings:

That last reading is challenging to me for many reasons. For one, Mr. Stitman’s journey seems, in many ways, to parallel one I’ve been on myself, though I find myself not abandoning conservatism–simply because the alternatives (liberalism, anarchism, libertarianism) are impossible to reconcile with other, deeply-held, primary and principle beliefs and notions I have–but rather retreating into ever-more idiosyncratic, complex, and even sometimes downright personally vexing articulations of it. I don’t find what passes for “conservatism” in America to have much that I find good, true, beautiful, or right.

Much of my issues with American conservatism find decent articulation in one line in particular from this essay: “That deeper affinity our faith had for American-style conservatism came from the spirit of voluntarism and individualism that defined this version of Christianity.” Perhaps at the core of American conservatism–of secular, economic, political, and even religious/cultural versions of it–is this notion of the individual. The individual reigns supreme, and even when an individual is aware of his connection with a larger community–as Stitman seemed to be, and seemed to recognize his family and fellow community members as also being–this connection to larger community is a means merely for policing the expression and exercise of individuality within certain accepted limitations. The focus, then, is still on the atomized individual. This is of disastrous consequences for political and economic communities, as well as (to get to the specific point of contention the author is raising in the sentence I quoted) in religious faith, especially Christianity.

I don’t know when this occurred, and I don’t know if anyone could know that. But I do know that this focus on the individual is a serious flaw in the work and thought of American conservatives. This focus, it seems to me, lead to many of the flawed “first principles” that Stitman discusses when he notes that “This is what holds together all the myriad failures of conservative politics: a devotion to first principles that simply must be true, whatever the consequences, and whatever the human suffering left in their aftermath.” As I think about what I think, what I believe, and the “first principles” that form the basis for these thoughts and beliefs, this essay gives me pause and forces me into significant personal reflection.

Something Else:

Apropos of the last essay and my muddled comments about it, a quote from Sir Roger Scruton’s “Governing Rightly,” from his excellent little book of essays Confessions of a Heretic:

It is therefore pertinent to consider not only the bad side of government–which Americans can easily recognise–but also the good. For American conservatives are in danger of appearing as though they had no positive idea of government at all, and were in the business simply of opposing all new federal programs, however necessary they may be to the future and security of the nation. Most of all, they seem to be losing sight of the truth that government is not only natural to the human condition, but an expression of those extended loyalties over time, which bind generation to generation in a relation of mutual commitment…

…We are free by nature because we become free, in the course of our development. And this development depends at every point upon the networks and relations that bind us to the larger social world. Only certain kinds of social networks encourage people to see themselves as individuals, shielded by their rights and bound together by their duties. Only in certain conditions are people united in society not by organic necessity but by free consent. To put in simply, the human individual is a social construct.

Reading Scruton and Stitman beside one another, it seems that perhaps American conservatives have forgotten that man is what The Philosopher calls ζῷον πολιτικόν.

Lastly, as I’m trying to put together a manual for prayer and devotion to be used in our own home, as well as thinking about how man is connected to things outside himself through webs of mutual obligations and duties, I keep coming back to this little set of basic instructions and duties of church membership from mid-20th century England:

DutiesOfChurchMembership

Briefest of Commentaries–The Disguises of Love

The Disguises of Love by Robie MacAuley

This is no classic, but it is a truly good novel, and a perfect, realistic portrayal of marriage in the age of the Cleavers. Told from three perspectives–that of a professor having an affair with a student, his precociously, dangerously intelligent, yet incredibly naive son, & a wife the professor treats as an ignored china doll placed away in a curio cabinet–we hear of the confusions each member of this family has within themselves and towards the others, their inability to understand each other, their mutual alienation, and their various, often abortive, normally destructive, attempts at self-discovery. This is a superb novel of the deleterious effects of hyper-individualism and the very American desire to seal off the process of creating ones own identity from those who surround us.

What truly sets this novel apart is the quality and variety of MacAuley’s prose. The man can flat-out write a sentence, and he voices each of the three characters perfectly. Each character has two voices; that which he or she uses in relationship to the other two family members, and that used in reference to the self. Howard, the professor, is coldly clinical (he’s a psychologist by training) about his son and wife and their development; Gordon, the son, thinks about each of his parents in a naive, confused teenaged way that is complicated by his Holden Caulfield-like hyper-intellectual malaise; Helen, the wife, thinks of her son and husband (and her social circle, as well) in the polite, deferential somewhat flighty way that “good housewives” would have been expected to express. But each character’s self-directed voice, a self-directed voice that comes alive as a result of the conflict precipitated by Howard’s infidelity, is full of complexity, nuance, and sad humanity. Watching the characters vacillate between these voices is moving, beautiful, harrowing, distressing, and deeply rewarding.

While marred by a lack of focus in places that makes it perhaps a chapter or two too long, as well as an annoying, unnecessary subplot between Gordon and a Falstaffian art professor, The Disguises of Love is a strong novel, and one that deserves wider readership. It’s out of print, but worth searching out.

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John Randolph of Roanoke’s Christian Vision

From Adam L. Tate’s Conservatism and Southern Intellectuals, 1789-1861, an account of the religious thought of John Randolph of Roanoke (pg. 101-102):

Randolph perceived in Christianity a brotherhood of the faithful bound together by love and the traditions of the faith. Christianity, like society, was ultimately a family. Thus Christianity complemented his familial social vision. The grace of his conversion manifested itself in love and understanding. He noted, “I feel my stubborn and rebellious nature to be softened.” Randolph was able to “cultivate and cherish feeligns of good will towards all mankind” and “to strive against envy, malice, and all uncharitableness.”…Randolph experienced a commonality in religious experience as well. He remarked, ‘Taking up, a few days ago…the life of John Bunyan…I find an exact coincidence in our feelings and opinions on this head as well as others.” Christianity not only supplied links to the next life and with one’s fellow man, but also joined one to the Christians of the past. Thus Randolph’s Christianity became a remembrance of the Christian tradition in his own past…Because of the power of Christianity to link the present with the past and the future, tradition took on a new meaning for Randolph. Tradition was relevant to the present, and Christianity had made it so. Thus, Randolph’s view of religion and society complemented his traditional social vision, one that was Christian, familial, hierarchical, civilized, cultured, and part of the Western tradition.

John Randolph of Roanoke: anti-imperialist and anti-war, theorist of the proper construction of republican governments, Aristotelian concerned with the cultivation of public virtue, Christian Humanist. What he says about John Bunyan I, the more I read about him, say about him; what he says about the ways in which faith shapes and connects us to those things before and after us, I say as well.

As a younger man, I was an awful cad, a pagan of the crudest sort, but without the courage of my convictions that would lead me to embrace my crude paganism. My conversion to the Faith was not simply a recalling of my youthful faith, but a long process of measured consideration and regression back to what I had been and then progressing forward to something new, a conversion that is still going on. It is good to know that in this, I am preceded by others who felt the same, who came to the same conclusions about duty, virtue, and the need for union, the ways in which the Faith defines and shapes how we think of these things. My attraction to liturgy in the past two-three years has also been largely a part of this participation in past and present and future collapsing together in Christian time. Reading about Randolph of Roanoke, I see myself; this is both liberating and comforting, as well as frightening, sobering, and demanding. As it should be, methinks.