The New Tabula Rasa

lee's statue

It is almost impossible, today, to become lost when we leave the comfort of our homes. Whereas, in the past, traveling to a new location involved, at least, the very real possibility of losing one’s way, now, with the advent of the smartphone, every driver now has the means of triangulating his position. Save for the absence of a signal for the phone, the modern man can never become lost. After purchasing my first car while I lived in Virginia, I had many golden opportunities for burning metaphorical incense to the altar of Steve Jobs in thanksgiving for his marvelous invention. With it, I managed to navigate myself and others across Virginia, through the twists and tumbles of DC and even took a fourteen hundred mile roundtrip between Virginia and St. Louis, Missouri.

But, in another sense, it is much easier for a resident of the 21st century to become lost than it was in the past. While geography and roads may no longer pose a challenge to the modern traveler, time and thought have so twisted many modern peoples’ thinking that, in a very true sense, our culture and our generation may be said to be lost. One of the anchors to keep men from becoming lost in the seas of time is History. Rather than being just a list of names, places, dates, and events–a chronological dictionary of entries–History is much more integral to us and our lives, whether it is recognized as such or not. We like to ourselves as the beginning of a glorious future when, really, we are the end of a long lines of people, decisions, events, ideas, beliefs, and actions that extends to the very beginning of history itself. History, thus, is vital for that crucial, but often forgotten faculty–memory.

The changing or the eradication of History, rather than a benevolent or, at worst, inconsequential act, only noticed and complained of by dusty professors in their crumbling towers, is something far more serious as it is a declaration of war against the past itself. Edmund Burke gave more than a hint as to why this was so when he gave his description of society. “Society” is a word which is used less and less frequently, perhaps because of the new and correct sensibilities that have come into fashion. Society, as a concept, implies a union of different people in pursuit of a common goal, or end, or good. It implies that all who are part of the society all have a stake in the success of the society. But today, with the dichotomy between thinking of each individual as an atomistic individual, with the power to create his own reality and the equally fashionable idea that every individual must be catalogued as part of some group, “society”, as a word and concept, cannot hold as much force. After all, if we are all, unequivocally, either aimless atoms or merely cells in some particular group, how can there be a common goal? Whenever the word is used, however, what is usually meant is the living as they stand today. Society is composed only of those who walk upon the earth. Contrary to this line of thinking, Burke stated that society is not composed only of the living in the present but also includes the dead of the past and the unborn of the future. What connects all three parts of society together is a shared culture and this shared culture can only be in the present and handed to the future through memory. That is the glue which holds the three parts together because it is through memory that the collective experience of a family, a city, a country, a people–their history and story–is kept alive,

The key word, besides memory, is “story.” People require a narrative, a structure by which they can make sense of the world. Of course, there must be a true narrative among all the different possible ones for, if there were not, relativism and all its contributions would rule the day yet again. But that is not the main point which I would like to bring up at the moment; the important truth at present is that people require a story by which the history which their memory informs them, makes sense. This is true even if the narrative is wrong. Whitaker Chambers, in his autobiography, Confessions, confessed that he believed that the Communists would win the Cold War for the sole reason that they not only had something to die for but also had something to live for. This “something” was the world wide Communist revolution followed by the promised and inevitable (in the words of Marx) Communist utopia. In other words, it was adherence to their story that made the Communists such a formidable enemy. This is why history is vital for, if it is changed, the story will be changed, as will memory, and, if these elements are changed, will not the people be changed too?

That, through a very roundabout way, brings me to the decision of the New Orleans city council to remove four monuments erected in the past to honor the old Confederacy which, in the Twenty-first century, has become a much greater bug-bear than it was in the actual Civil War. During the war, the Confederate battle flag was feared because it marked the position of Lee, or Jackson, or Stuart and yet, Union men still went out to face it and them. Today, rather than herald the presence of superb generals who have it in their power to change the course of history, the old flag is now regarded as so potent that it, by itself, will warp anyone who comes too near to it, or cause people to fly into apoplectic spasms  which is quite a feat for a flag that was used for four years by a country that has been gone for the last hundred fifty years. The less real–in a sense–the Confederacy becomes, the more power people give to its battle flag. The four monuments in New Orleans in questions are of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and the Liberty Monument. Mayor Mitch Landrieu attempted to have his cake and eat it too when the construction men, flanked by snipers for their protection, began to take down the monuments; he declared that there was nothing political about the removals while, at the same time, declaring that it was necessary so as to show the world that New Orleans had moved from its racist past. No one, apparently, thought to ask how, if the four monuments had allowed the Confederacy to keep a grasp of New Orleans, how it had ever become a “chocolate city,” in the words of former Mayor Ray Nagin.

The mayor would have been more correct if he had said that the statues remaining where they were was not political. The statue of Lee was erected in 1884, the work of fourteen years fundraising and negotiating on the part of the Robert E. Lee Monument Foundation, which formed a month after Lee’s death in 1870 to preserve his memory. The statues of Davis and Beauregard were erected to honor these men because both died in New Orleans; Davis in 1889 and Beauregard in 1893. The most political monument of the four is the Liberty Monument , erected in 1891, to commemorate the Battle of Liberty Place which occurred between the desegregated city police department and the state militia and the Crescent City White League. Although the fight had racial components (the desegregated police force being hated by the League) it was caused, primarily, by the contested gubernatorial race of 1872. It is true that in 1932 an inscription was added to the monument that possessed overt racism:

[Democrats] McEnery and Penn, having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored).

United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.

But what is not stated is that numerous changes have already been made to the Liberty Monument. In 1974, a marker was added to the Monument by the city government which acknowledged the events of the past while giving the contemporary city’s disapproval of those events; in 1993, some of the original inscriptions were removed so that the Monument now read,

In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place…A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.

Not only that but also in 1993, the Monument was moved from its prominence on Canal Street to the river end of Iberville Street where it was placed between a parking garage and a floodwall. This seems to tear a hole in Mayor Landrieu’s claim that the Monument was glorifying the Confederacy. Rather than be apolitical, the decision to remove the statues seems to have been decided by nothing other than politics.

By making this political decision, New Orleans has decided not merely to remove some pieces of stone; rather, it has opted to change the story of its past and, thus, to obliterate it. This dire-sounding but unescapable fact follows logically from what was proposed regarding history, memory, society and story. By removing the four statues, the city is attempting to change its history and story; by erasing the monuments from the city’s landscape, New Orleans has declared war on its own memory and, to an extant, the memory of the whole country. Some might protest by arguing that history is still preserved in museums; anyone can enter museums and immerse himself in the history and stories therein. But public landmarks are a very potent memorial to history as they declare some person or event public–one does not have to squirrel oneself away in a museum in order to remember the story since society keeps the story open. Imagine if Monticello or Mount Rushmore were enclosed in a building so that only those who entered would be able to see them. Ask yourself, which is more conscious in the public memory: Mount Rushmore or Charlie McCarthy in the Smithsonian? The memory is destroyed because, as the old adage says, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Without the memories and the history attached to them in the public mind, the public mind will, naturally, forget about them. This might seem ridiculous; who, after all, would ever forget the Civil War and its causes? But, it is true that without vigilance, memory fails. In the seven years that I took violin lessons, I memorized fifty pieces. Today, I only remember one or two completely, with a few scattered bars from various other pieces tossed in. I did not practice and so the music left my memory. This assurance invites another question: Who is supposed to remember? Historians and experts may always remember but, to be healthy, a society cannot just rely on these guardians, as indispensable as they are. A society must remember itself through all its members.

Another question is raised: Can a society really survive without its history? On the practical side of the question, there is the observation of George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” If knowledge of the Civil War is lost, for example, this is not to say that we will find ourselves thrust into the same situation that we were in the 1850s and 1860s. But we definitely will forget the rhythms which brought us to the Civil War; as Mark Twain observed, “History does not repeat itself, but it certainly does rhyme.” What Twain meant was that human nature, being constant, causes history to fall into broad, repeatable patterns–the circumstances and accidentals may differ–and often will–but the substance is eerily similar. If we d not remember the accidentals, though, will we remember the substance? Will we recognize the familiar ebb and flow f history in order to have it as the lamp of experience?

There is a deeper issue as well. If history can be erased and changed, can a people, a society, have a solid identity? Much as how the past helps to form a man, the past does the same on societies and nations. This does not just include the good but the bad as well. And if history cannot help to form people, who will? A people needs an identity; nations require an identity; and nature abhors a vacuum. If history is thwarted from being a teacher, something else will take its place. More likely than not, what will take its place will be the leviathan of the state. George Orwell, in 1984, painted a picture of this very scenario. The protagonist, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth which is charged with altering history so that Big Brother and the Party will never be wrong. When the chocolate ration is reduced from thirty grams to twenty grams, the story is rewritten so that the party had always promised an increase of the chocolate ration to twenty grams. The people, the society, is nothing but wet clay in the hands of the Party. Some will scoff but when Thomas Jefferson–a pivotal member of the Founders–is denounced at his own university, a scenario such as Orwell painted does not seem so far fetched.

T.S. Eliot described history as a pattern of timeless moments. In trying to control those timeless moments, men, confined to time, are trying to become masters of the timeless and, thus, gods. The problem is that man is not a god. As unpleasant as it may be, as it will include all the warts, history must be allowed to do what it does so that men will be free to learn from it and to be men.

 

The Banning of Beauty

 

                  Shakespeare

                         Perhaps, in the future, historians will ponder why the later 20th and the 21st century felt compelled to make everything of national importance. Completely made up “holidays”—such as National Bosses’ Day and National Mustard Day—will be fodder for many future doctoral dissertations and historical debates. It may even be wondered why some of these “holidays” spilled out from their twenty-four hour bed and infected an entire month, such as what has happened now with the month of April being consigned to “National Poetry Month.”

 

                Now, there is nothing wrong with poetry per se; poetry is a very beautiful art form when it is done correctly. The irony, though, is that now that “National Poetry Month” is an official purpose for April, the quality of poems and the poets who pen them have declined compared to when poetry was not seen as having to be given a month in which to be commemorated but was a universal art form that was appropriate and heralded throughout the year. This thought was recently placed in my head when I stumbled across a piece by Diana Whitney on the website Ozy.com. Miss Whitney listed five women poets that, according to her, should be read because their work will inspire “the resistance.” The common theme running through these five poets is the unapologetic dedication to contemporary, left-wing politics. Evie Shockley’s poetry addresses race, gender, “stands up” for “gay marriage” and Black Lives Matter, and “exposes Thomas Jefferson’s racism,” while JP Howard has declared that her identities as a black woman, a lesbian, a “wife” and a mother, inform and inspire her poetry, which she has read in front of one of President Trump’s tower during “a recent vigil.” Even when there may not be a particular, political message in the poetry or book, the climate of the poetry is still definitely in the realm of the political. Sharon Olds, who is so well secluded from the general public’s gaze that she won a Pulitzer Prize, pens poetry that, “[t]hough not explicitly political…refuses to play by patriarchal rules” since her new collection, Odes, “celebrate[s] the clitoris and hymen praise[s] stretch marks and withered cleavage.”

 

                It is very true that poetry can be quite political. James Ryder Randall, for example, penned his poem, “Maryland! My Maryland!” after he learned that the Union Army had entered that state in order to keep it from linking hands with the growing Confederate States. No sane man could accuse Randall of being unpolitical as every stanza screams against the perceived injustice committed against his home state:

 

The despot’s heel is on thy shore,

 

Maryland!

 

His torch is at thy temple door,

 

Maryland!

 

Avenge the patriotic gore

 

That flecked the streets of Baltimore,

 

And be the battle queen of yore,

 

Maryland! My Maryland!

 

 

 

 

 

Hark to an exiled son’s appeal,

 

Maryland!

 

My mother State! to thee I kneel,

 

Maryland!

 

For life and death, for woe and weal,

 

Thy peerless chivalry reveal,

 

And gird thy beauteous limbs with steel,

 

Maryland! My Maryland!

 

 

 

Thou wilt not cower in the dust,

 

Maryland!

 

Thy beaming sword shall never rust,

 

Maryland!

 

Remember Carroll’s sacred trust,

 

Remember Howard’s warlike thrust, –

 

And all thy slumberers with the just,

 

Maryland! My Maryland!

 

 

 

Not only was Randall’s poem political but it was also powerfully contemporary for 1861; Randall was not reaching out for universals at first glance but was speaking in the context of a very specific event. But, it cannot be denied that though the motivation and the event which birthed the poem were specific, many of the themes woven throughout the poem were completely universal. There is the love of homeland, which moved Randall to write his poem in the first place; there is the continuation of history and tradition, seen in the reference to Charles Carroll and John Eager Howard, both Revolutionary patriots; and then, there is the certainty that Maryland is the defender of goodness and truth, since she is seen as having “peerless chivalry” and her limbs are to be bound with steel and her sword—the weapon of the knight—will never rust. Randall’s poem is actual poetry then, because it was beautiful, as it spoke of beautiful things.

 

                Beauty is a concept that can be tricky to pin down. We are often are—or at least were—assailed with the phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but like with subjectivism in general, it cannot stand on its own two feet. One person may look at a golden sunset after a thunderstorm in the middle of summer and see beauty; another man may look at a pile of garbage or a rotting corpse and see beauty. According to the well worn saying, both objects of admiration, the sunset and the garbage or the corpse, are equally beautiful because they find their worth thrust upon them by their gazers. But it should not take much to see that every real person should and would choose the sunset over the garbage, just as we would expect a person to accept a gold brick in payment instead of a mud brick. But the question then, still remains: What is beauty? The philosopher, Roger Scruton, is correct when he says that beauty is a sense of the sacred and of the sublime. This is more correct than even Sir Roger may be aware of since beauty must tie in somehow with the sacred since it is one of the three transcendentals that, ultimately, lead to God. Peter Kreeft, another of the few true giants of our time, following in the footsteps of C.S. Lewis, has said that the three transcendentals are Truth, Goodness and Beauty  with each one being related to an aspect of humanity. Truth, which is the revelation or the showing of Being (What Really Is), is related to the mind and in allowing the truth inside, the mind can see what truly is; Goodness relates to the will and Beauty to the heart. Not only are the three transcendentals related to different aspects of a person but they are also intimately linked with one another. Truth is true because it conforms to reality; Goodness is good because it is true; Beauty is beautiful because it is good. This leads to an interesting detail; if Truth is universal (which it must be or else it is not truth) then Beauty, being so intimately related to Truth, must also be universal. Beauty must be able to cut across time and space and present itself to be seen by every man who has and ever will live. O course, the different paths taken by history in the different parts of the world, as well as the different languages and cultures that dot the world and its past, mean that there have been different expressions of Beauty over time. The poetry of the Orient and the Occident is one obvious example, but even in Europe, poetry differed between ages. But does not follow from this that there are no universals at all. Although the expressions were different, they show each culture approaching the sacred. To take honor as an example: both the medieval knight and the samurai believed in honor but each had a different way of expressing their honor. The knight was to protect the weak and defenseless while the samurai was to ritually kill himself to regain his honor in case of defeat or dishonor.

      Poetry, as one of the arts, has, as its goal, the expression of Beauty. Its end is to give expression to those universal truths that tie humanity together and to allow people to encounter the sacred. Of course, authentic love is one of those universal truths of which the poets have sung the most. Even a poet of lesser quality can be inspired to compose a masterpiece when love overtakes his heart. The Cavalier poet, Richard Lovelace, is not one of the brightest names in the book of poets but his “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars,” is a tender expression both of the love he possesses for his Lucasta and the love he has for higher things:

 

 

 

 

TELL me not, Sweet, I am unkind,

 

  That from the nunnery

 

Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind

 

  To war and arms I fly.

 

 

True, a new mistress now I chase,

         5

  The first foe in the field;

 

And with a stronger faith embrace

 

  A sword, a horse, a shield.

 

 

Yet this inconstancy is such

 

  As thou too shalt adore;

  10

I could not love thee, Dear, so much,

 

  Loved I not Honour more.

 

There is the universal love of man for woman expressed but also the equally important duty of men to love honor and ideals as well, the need to stand and fight for what is right, a sentiment that often seems overclouded today. But Lovelace’s inspiration was to see that these loves are not in opposition but that his love for Lucasta demanded that he go to war for, if he did not stay true to his principles, would he stand up for her? Of course, when it comes to the theme of love, Shakespeare is the undisputed master. Many of his plays—comedies and tragedies—have love as their central force. It is also, unsurprisingly, the theme of many of his sonnets, with Sonnet 29 being one of the most well remembered:

 

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

 

The Bard had a keen understanding into human nature and knew that a man could always be envious of another man’s successes and often would be. But, even in all that, the love of the lover is supposed to bring him back to the world, in a sense, and remind him of what he has and not of what he does not. And what he has is infinitely more precious than anything that he does not.

 

                Not all truths, of course, are happy. Some are quite sad. That may be why death is also such a constant theme in poetry since it is the one thing that every inhabitant of the world will have to encounter. There is dispute in literary circles whether Edgar Allen Poe was moved to write “Annabelle Lee” because of the death of his wife, Virginia, or whether another woman acted as the muse for. At the end, it really does not matter from the perspective of the beauty of the poem as Poe ably put to paper the sorrow felt of having lost one’s love. If Shakespeare and Lovelace’s poems gave quiet assurance of love and its power, Poe displayed the truth of pain after the love is lost by death:

 

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,

 

Went envying her and me—

 

Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,

 

In this kingdom by the sea)

 

That the wind came out of the cloud by night,

 

Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

 

 

 

But our love it was stronger by far than the love

 

Of those who were older than we—

 

Of many far wiser than we—

 

And neither the angels in Heaven above

 

Nor the demons down under the sea

 

Can ever dissever my soul from the soul

 

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

 

 

 

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams

 

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

 

And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes

 

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

 

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side

 

Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,

 

In her sepulchre there by the sea—

 

In her tomb by the sounding sea.

 

 

 

But even though a poem may express an unhappy truth, that does not mean that death and loss are the only subjects which the poet can speak. Percy Shelly’s “Ozymandias” is an elegant and sobering laugh in the face of hubris and the belief that momentary greatness will somehow shield one from death or from the sands of history and, more generally, what occurs when man makes himself the end of his own existence:

 

I met a traveller from an antique land,

 

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

 

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

 

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

 

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

 

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

 

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

 

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

 

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

 

My name is OzymandiasOzymandias Pharaoh Rameses II (reigned 1279-1213 BCE). According to the OED, the statue was once 57 feet tall., King of Kings;

 

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

 

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

 

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

 

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

 

 

 

Allowing the reader to come near to the sacred by expressing universal truths is not the only thing that makes a poem beautiful though; the elements of composition, such as rhyme, meter, rhythm, also play a hand. This has to do because of what Aristotle taught concerning beauty, that beauty is that which is pleasing to the senses because the parts are proportionate to the whole which they make. To give the obvious example of the Mona Lisa: da Vinci’s most famous painting would not have lasted in the mind of the world for as long as it has if the painted woman possessed warts, crossed-eyes or a balloon nose. Instead, since every part of her fits in proportion to the rest of her body, the Mona Lisa is not a freak or an oddity but a beautiful woman whose small smile has enchanted and puzzled people for centuries. The same principle holds in poetry. Language is musical, in that it can flow and dance with a magic and energy that one usually does not find in the commonplace college textbook. In order to flow, however, the words cannot be thrown into a bag and mixed in the hopes that it will come out right. Just as in a musical composition, where the notes must follow the tempo and the key of the piece or movement, so, in poetry, the words and rhythm must fit together. An illustrative example of this is Percy Shelly’s “Ode to the West Wind” in which Shelly recreates the wind itself through the chosen words:

 

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

 

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

 

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

 

 

 

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

 

Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,

 

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

 

 

 

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,

 

Each like a corpse within its grave, until

 

Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

 

 

 

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill

 

(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)

 

With living hues and odours plain and hill:

 

 

 

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

 

Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

 

 

 

Through the use of alliteration (the repetition of a consonant sound) coupled with the use of single syllable words in the opening, “O wild, West Wind,” the sound and the feel of the west wind itself is placed into the poem; the rhymes hold the poem in audible unison and their placement in the poem, in a more erratic style (compare it to the placements of the rhymes in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29), the unpredictability, the sudden starting and stopping of the wind is made manifest.

 

Poetry, in its greatest and most pure essence, if we may give over to hyperbole for one moment, is a combination of matter and form, in true Aristotelian fashion: the matter is the words, chosen for their rhythm, rhyme, meter and tempo and the form is the universal truth or truths which the poem deals with. With that very technical definition expressed, it might be better seen why the five women poets, uplifted by Ozy, are not really poets at all. This is not merely to attack them since there may not be very many actual poets left in the West. Last year, the UK Daily Mail ran a story detailing how the Poet Laureate of Britain, Carol Ann Duffy, instead of celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday in verse, as was customary with other laureates, had announced that she was writing a poem about the coin fed gas meters that were going to be completely replaced by 2020. As the author of the piece, Christopher Hart, said at the time, other laureates, such as Tennyson and Mansfield, had written of beautiful things, England being one of those beautiful things. But, in the modern age, where universal things such as love of one’s country or the love of natural things, such as the sea, is viewed with suspicion and scorn, there really is nothing left to talk about. And that is the rub: the modern poets have dismissed the reality of beauty and universal truths in general. This phenomena extends back prior to the Second World War; Roger Scruton says that the desecration of beauty began sometime after the coming of modernism when expression, not beauty, was made the primary end of art. Scruton says:

 

In a seminal essay—“Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in 1939—critic Clement Greenberg starkly contrasted the avant-garde of his day with the figurative painting that competed with it, dismissing the latter (not just Norman Rockwell, but greats like Edward Hopper) as derivative and without lasting significance. The avant-garde, for Greenberg, promoted the disturbing and the provocative over the soothing and the decorative, and that was why we should admire it.

 

The value of abstract art, Greenberg claimed, lay not in beauty but in expression. This emphasis on expression was a legacy of the Romantic movement; but now it was joined by the conviction that the artist is outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it, so that artistic self-expression is at the same time a transgression of ordinary moral norms. We find this posture overtly adopted in the art of Austria and Germany between the wars—for example, in the paintings and drawings of Georg Grosz, in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (a loving portrait of a woman whose only discernible goal is moral chaos), and in the seedy novels of Heinrich Mann. And the cult of transgression is a leading theme of the postwar literature of France—from the writings of Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre to the bleak emptiness of the nouveau roman.

 

Because Beauty is intimately tied to Truth, when Beauty was run out of the world of art, so was Truth. The result is that poetry cannot be about anything really substantial but can only be about the subjective feeling of the poet. Now, poetry has often been fueled by feeling but, again, those feelings were tied to the universal truths that poetry also expressed. The poet’s feelings were his own experiences with those universal truths. But now, with the eradication of Beauty in favor of “expression,” there is nothing holding poetry except to the poet’s own will to power. This can lead–and has lead–to several deteriorations in poetry.

 

One such deterioration, as mentioned previously, is that much poetry today is fueled by politics. Again, poetry before modernity could delve into politics to some degree but the difference is that the politics was relative to the universal truth which the poet was giving voice. Without those universals, however, politics can be seen as all that there is in the world, the only thing that we scattered, atomistic, pieces of humanity can share in common. Art can only be about politics and from there, it is only a short step to saying that poetry can only be about the right sort of politics which is why so much modern poetry concerns the affairs du jour of the left today. But there is another deterioration. If poetry, and art in general, is only about expression, then we are quickly taken to very strange places. In her poem, “Any Lit,” Harryette Mullins writes:

 

You are a ukulele beyond my microphone
You are a Yukon beyond my Micronesia
You are a union beyond my meiosis
You are a unicycle beyond my migration
You are a universe beyond my mitochondria
You are a Eucharist beyond my Miles Davis
You are a euphony beyond my myocardiogram
You are a unicorn beyond my Minotaur
You are a eureka beyond my maitai
You are a Yuletide beyond my minesweeper
You are a euphemism beyond my myna bird

 

Perhaps my mind is not sophisticated enough to understand the meaning of the poem but it seems to be held together by chaos. In fact, chaos seems to be at least one of the points since the author highlighting Mullins, Adam Fitzgerald, praises “the mayhem” of the poem, asking, “Who else writes like this?” What is the connection between a unicycle and a migration and how is the poet the former and the person to whom she is speaking the latter? Or, again, what is the connection between “a Yuletide,” and a minsweeper? Why is the poem only a series of comparisons between the poet and a second person made of incomprehensible comparisons? With objective Beauty, these would be serious questions but with expression as the only end of art, and expression that transgresses especially, these concerns fade into the distance and disappear. But things do not just remain chaotic with the inversion of art. They can become evil. In the same piece, Adam Fitzgerald also highlights Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, a self proclaimed, “trans poet.” The poem which Fitzgerald chooses to highlight reads:

sometimes in a moment of deja vu

I forget where I am and my hands bleed

into the bed and the bed bleeds into the wall.

there are colors becoming other colors

and it doesn’t mean anything.

this is always happening and we never notice.

one layer

what’s a layer?

we’re touching through layers.

two tin cans and infinite strings in all directions.

talk to me. say something.

use words I don’t have to go back

to college to understand.

do you care that the world is trash?

I do. I am trash.

I’m in love with the feeling of it.

 

 

The same cacophonous mixture is present here but, mixed in, is the idea that the world is trash, the poet is trash and that he loves the is in love with the feeling of the world and himself being trash. The world can be uncaring; it can be cruel; it can be harsh. All great poets have acknowledged that fact. But to describe the world as trash is to say that all is ugly, corrupted and rotted, and that there is no goodness at all to be found in the world. Not only that, but to say that one loves the feeling of the world being nothing but trash is to rebel against the natural longing for Beauty and Goodness which we all hold. It is to make oneself ugly in the service of ugliness.

 

Compare the poetry of today, one more time, with “Sea Fever,” which John Masefield, another Poet Laureate of England, wrote:

 

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

 

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;

 

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

 

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

 

 

                                I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

 

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

 

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

 

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

 

 

 

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

 

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

 

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

 

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

 

 

 

                What so many of the modern poems and poets lack is a sense of wonder, which Aristotle said was the beginning of wisdom. They have been so consumed by their own cynicism and by the lie of expressionism that wonder has shriveled and withered away. It is another paradox that in trying to be free of wonder, modern poets have restricted themselves to the point where they are the prisoners, trying to hold the rest of the world hostage. G.K. Chesterton wrote poems ranging from doggerel to epics, a feat he was able to accomplish because he saw the wonder and Beauty of the world, and captured that wonder and Beauty in his verse. What Chesterton and all the great poets understood was that man needs Beauty, just as surely as he needs air and water. As Roger Scruton, again, argues, the fact that we take extra time in setting the family table for the Thanksgiving or Christmas feast, bringing out the good silver and dishes and table clothes, demonstrates our need for beauty that goes beyond beautiful paintings and poems. We need beauty in our everyday humdrum lives. We require this beauty because he are heads and hearts. Rationality encompasses both. We need Beauty in order that our rationality may be more fully fulfilled. And we need Beauty to guide us along the path to Being itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Two Orders

UofChicago

 

In the dark ages, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, feudalism arose to replace the civilized order lost with the collapse of the Eternal City with the (in the beginning) rougher and simpler order of the strong. Feudalism, though it has become repugnant to our sensibilities, came about so that peasants and anyone else who was not strong enough to care for themselves, could barricade themselves behind the castle walls when the barbarians arrived to sack and pillage. In a sense, it is a pity that feudalism has gone into such ill repute; if it had not, then castles might still be fashionable or, at least, seen as practical. As it is, there are no real fortifications to hide behind when the post-modern barbarians disembark to kill.

 

By now, many are aware of what occurred at Middlebury College on March 2. Dr. Charles Murray, the libertarian political scientist and sociologist, was invited to speak to the small, liberal arts, Vermont based college, specifically regarding his 2012 book, Coming Apart, in which Murray observed that changing patterns, particularly concerning marriage, were in large part responsible for the decline in civilization since the 1960s. Naturally, for today, there were protestors. Unusual still, even for today, was the fact that the protestors managed to keep Murray from speaking publicly on campus as was planned. Murray therefore went into an empty classroom and streamed his talk and took questions via Twitter. The postmodern barbarians found out Murray’s location though and proceeded to congregate in the hall, stuffing the air with chants and pulled fire-alarms. But the coup de grace occurred when Murray and his interviewer, Dr. Allison Stranger of Middlebury, attempted to leave the room and campus; masked assailants physically shoved the two professors (Dr. Stranger even had her neck strained when someone pulled her hair) and once they were outside and in their car, protestors rocked the car back and forth and jumped on the hood. As Andrew Stuttaford pointed out, this was not just a protest since Murray was attempting to leave campus and not speak. This, Stuttaford declares, was punishment for perceived thought crime.

 

Many have taken this incident to speak—correctly—on the erosion of tolerance and freedom of speech. Several have also taken the opportunity to demonstrate that though some on the left are beginning to speak out against the fascism that has reared its head on our campuses, they have no room to speak out since they are the ones responsible for the situation as it now stands. But there is another aspect of our society which has been made apparent by this affair and that is the death of the university. Not death, as in the process but death as in the fact.

 

Two years ago, in First Things, philosopher Roger Scruton declared that the university, as it had existed since the Middle Ages, was dead. It was a curious declaration since by all intents and purposes, universities are far away from being dead. Currently, there are over three thousand four year colleges in the United States; almost nineteen million students attend undergraduate programs and another four million attend graduate programs. But this is looking at the situation only from the angle of quantity. When the focus is shifted to quality and, even more so, essence, it can be more clearly understood why Scruton declared the university, understood as a universal category, is dead. According to Scruton, borrowing a theme from John Henry Newman, the university is supposed to be “quasi-monastic,” a place that is, in a sense, separated from the world in order to renew the world. This, like all good paradoxes, seems counter-intuitive at first glance. What Scruton and Newman meant was that the university is supposed to be an oasis where students could gather and debate, think, and learn from the great books and languages. In effect, the university was the place where culture could be renewed within the minds of the students attending there. It was where men could be transformed into gentlemen. This was necessary because, in Scruton’s words, “the university is so important in an age of commerce and industry, when the utilitarian temptation besieges us on every side, and when we are in danger of making every purpose a material one—in other words, as Newman saw it, in danger of allowing the means to swallow the ends.”

 

As Scruton makes clear, this lofty end of the university extended back to the very beginning of its history, from the schools of the Greeks unto the universities of the Middle Ages.. Even with the advancement of the Renaissance and  Enlightenment, this idea of the university held sway, as the 18th century gentlemen saw the scholarly life as one of discipline, with its own rules and procedures which distinguished it from the other vocations. Until the 19th century, the university was seen as place where men could learn virtue. As Dr. Bradley Birzer has written, a liberal arts education–and so the university in general, where the liberal arts were housed and taught–was seen as necessary for the instillation of virtue in the young men who attended it. Birzer points out that virtue was seen as “involv[ing] duty, loyalty, mercy, justice, and, ultimately, being willing to lay down one’s life for one’s beliefs…” which, as Plato put it, adhered itself to a standard of morality and which was also channeled toward the common or public good. In this sense, universities were means not only of preserving the culture which had given birth to the universities and the intellectual, religious and artistic heritage of the culture, but the only means of reaffirming and re-strengthening republican government.

 

With all of that having been said, it may come as a surprise that universities have not changed structurally or in their end goal since their beginning in the Greek city-states. The modern university today still a semi-monastic or quasi-sacrosanct  place that devotes itself to the teaching of virtue and good. The problem is that the understanding of what these things mean is so widely divergent from their past definitions and understandings, they have effectively mutated into something quite different, though they share the same name. The root cause of this is that the university still teaches a religious world view and is itself still a religious space. The religion, however, has changed radically. The religion is that of leftism. Leftism is a true religion in a sense because, as Dr. Robert P. George explained in First Things last December, the social liberalism–or leftism–that we witness today is another variation of Gnosticism. Although Gnosticism has taken many different varieties, from when it first appeared in the First century A.D. to its various incarnations throughout history, but, as Dr. George points out, these various forms of Gnosticism, have all shared a fundamental premise: That there is an irrevocable divide between the material and the spiritual and that the latter is what truly matters. Persons are thus spirits inhabiting material bodies; we are ghosts caught in fleshy machines. This understanding of leftism as a religious reassertion of Gnosticism helps to understand the basic positions which those on the left take. Abortion does not violate anything because the organism inside the mother is not a person since it possesses no spiritual dimension and thus, cannot think, emote, will, or act–things that only a person can do. Homosexuality, “gay marriage,” and the newest fashion of transgenderism, all explain themselves because the psychic, or spiritual person, is the real person and thus the body is merely an afterthought. With that established, marriage has no objective nature in and of itself that demands that it can only be the union of one man and one woman; the body, which has its sex stamped upon it in every cell, means nothing if the “person” dwelling inside the vehicle of the body believes itself to be something other than the body’s designed sex. Social justice and large government programs are needed so that persons can be “free” to enjoy the pleasures which they desire, and which material constraints might prevent them from tasting without government support.

 

 There is a reason why the university has succumbed to the leftist religion and that is because nothing can really escape from the clutches of religion, of some stripe or color. People cannot really gather together apart from a religion of some sort. This is not to say that people cannot gather at all without a binding religion but that these bonds are much weaker than bonds that are religious. The reason for this is because of the need for order. Russell Kirk, in his Roots of American Order, explained that order is the first necessary consideration for any group of people. Without order, there can be no survival since the opposite of order is chaos and a society cannot survive in a state of continual chaos; nor can individuals. Kirk goes on to say that order can really only come about from religion. Religion is what forges bonds between people who are not related by blood; religion focuses the attention of the people on something outside of themselves; the religion, because of this focus on the outside, also determines the moral norms and taboos of the society in all areas of life and not just the sexual. In this light, the political contests between the left and the right become deeper because the opposition between the two groups is not about politics per se but about two different orders, stemming from two radically different world views and religions.

 

 These two orders, on the left and the right, are contradictions; they therefore cannot both be right. Even more importantly, they both cannot exist in the same space. If we take the “space” as being all of the United States, then both orders cannot co-exist together. Abraham Lincoln foresaw that America could not survive as a nation half free and half slave. One or the other would win the whole country. The same situation is present again. This is not a new revelation nor is it really something that original to say; many people have spoken about the “second Civil War” in America, Dennis Prager being one of the most recent. The real trouble is two different approaches to this news. One reaction–or more appropriately inaction–is not recognizing that we are in a civil war at all. In mid-March, Kevin Williamson wrote a piece for National Review Online in which he discussed why CEOs became such devoted “social justice warriors.” One of the most fascinating aspects of the piece, to my mind, however, was when Williamson contrasted the mindsets of the left and the right on different and important issues. Williamson gave the example of  “gay marriage”–whereas for ” the Right, the question of gay marriage is an important moral and political disagreement, but for the Left the exclusion of homosexual couples from the legal institution of marriage was something akin to Jim Crow…” The fascination comes from the two different attitudes expressed. Only the left seems to see the issue in its proper light in that it is either right or wrong; it cannot be considered wrong but then ignored. This, again, comes from their religious sentiment. The right, on the other hand, sees “gay marriage” as something which can be accommodated since they see it only as a “disagreement” and, therefore, something that can be put aside. Williamson went on to give an example that was particularly illuminating: In 1996, several groups on the right, including Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention, called for a boycott on Disney theme parks because of their friendliness toward the “gay agenda.” The effort failed dismally because, as Williamson implies, families did not see the issue as that important. They may have disagreed with Disney’s position, but they were not strong enough in their order to actually give Disney up.

 

 The second reaction–and it truly is a reaction–is the one that realizes that we are in a war and that the war is of some importance. The problem comes from the fact that there is nothing of substance holding this reaction together.  Charlie Kirk’s organization, Turning Point USA, is one example where this fact is revealed. To be fair, what Charlie Kirk has accomplished in creating and spreading his organization and its motto–“Big Government Sucks”–though rather crass, does tell a truth. The problem comes from the fact that the idea that big government is wrong because it impedes me is not a durable idea for a sustained movement and it certainly is no match for the left’s religious zealotry. Whereas the left has an order which springs from their Gnosticism and which, in turn, gives them their positions, many on the right, such as Turning Point USA, see their unity only as a way to free themselves, the individual, from the shackles of modern society (in this case, the intrusion of government). Whereas the left at least has an anthropology and seeks to take what might be called the “full man” (though their idea of the “full man” is horribly wrong) and an ethics system and a system of metaphysics, the contemporary right, has discarded much of that and has simply tied itself to the proposition that what elevates the individual and diminishes the government is good. It has, in other words, no moral imagination nor any appreciation for the “permanent things,” as Russell Kirk called them.

 

 Many on the right claim that America is under assault from the left. This is entirely true. What the right needs to understand is that it must become deeper and wider than it is now. Only by forming a genuine order will the right be able to stand firmly against the left.

 

Tomi, Truth & Conservatism

St. Augustine once famously said that he knew what time was until someone asked him. Augustine put his finger on a common problem with words: the more they are used, understanding their meaning does not increase but is more likely to decrease.

 Conservatism is another word and concept which is suffering from this increased lack of understanding. Others have pointed out this reality; John Murdock in 2014 remarked that many of the attendees of that year’s CPAC were not conservatives in the real sense of the word; last month, Steve Deace made the same point, that the meaning of the word “conservatism” has mostly been lost. Examples of this fact have increased: former JPTV commentator, Bill Whittle, has described conservatism as loving “fast cars, loud guns, and hot women;” Milo Yiannopolis became a sensation on the Right because of his attacks on the left and his pop-cultural credentials, even though he is not a conservative. Last Friday, Tomi Lahren made herself the latest example when she revealed herself to be pro-choice on The View.

 What does conservatism mean? Before any other question can be answered or any position on any issue be taken, that first question must be answered. Although many answers have been given, they, of course, cannot all be correct. An aid in answering the above question might be found in another question: What is conservatism for? It seems that many people today see conservatism as whatever they wish it be–as long as they oppose the Left in some fashion. This can help explain the rise of so many different factions within modern conservatism; there is now, Christian conservatism, social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, libertarian conservatism, moderate conservatism, compassionate conservatism, even “conservatism with liberal leanings.” One of the reasons for this split may be the obsession that many on the Right now have for freedom. This obsession is not hard to understand when every action requires an equal but opposite reaction. As the Left has increasingly called for more and more government power over every facet of life, the Right has called more and more for freedom, so that freedom is equated with conservatism. But this obsession with freedom has polluted and corrupted modern conservatism. This perhaps, was put on display in the clearest light when Tomi Lahren, in defending her pro-abortion comments on Twitter, said, “I speak my truth…I will always be honest and stand in my truth.”

 With 1,842 shares and 12, 355 likes on Twitter, it seems that a sizeable number of people share Tomi’s view. The problem is that this is nonsense of the greatest and wildest quality. This is not a personal or ad hominem  attack on Tomi; that is simply the nature of the argument she made. If there is such a thing as Tomi Lahren’s truth, then, logically speaking, there must be such a thing as my truth, and your truth. Everyone, in essence and practicality, must have his own truth. But this is an impossible situation. Tomi says that abortion is licit since the unborn child is not a person; I say that abortion can never be justified because the essence of abortion is the killing of an innocent person. Which of us is right? According to Tomi and her defenders, we both are since we are both “standing firm” in our truth. But this is an impossibility; an act cannot both be right and wrong at the same time; likewise, an unborn child cannot both be a person and not a person at the same time. One position must be right and, since the other option is a contradiction of the first, the other must be wrong. To hold otherwise is to throw the principle of non-contradiction out the window. But to do so is to acknowledge that a thing can both be and not be at the same time. This is not philosophical quibbling, the equivalent of the medieval discussion of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. In the first place, rejection of the principle is wrong and, therefore, should not be tolerated. In the second place, rejection of the principle creates a world ruled by the will to power. If everything is in flux and there is only “my truth” and “your truth” and no objective, transcendent order, there is no reason to say that a particular action is wrong or evil. Communication becomes impossible. There is, in fact, no reason why limited government, the reason Tomi gave for being pro-choice, is a good thing, other than that is what she wants. Further, there is no logical reason why she should continue to attack people on the left for their views and actions since they are simply standing in their truth.

 This leads to the very word, “conservatism.” If the principle of non-contradiction is still in place (as it must be) then conservatism, like everything else, cannot both be and not be something at the same time. Conservatism, for example, cannot both be for the protection of innocent life and for its murder. To be sure, there are several areas where conservatives of good will can disagree; the correct remedy for educational reform, for instance. But on issues such as the personhood of the unborn, there can be no divergence of opinion as there can be only one right answer with justice then demanding that we follow the right answer.

 What then, again, is the meaning or purpose of conservatism? The common definition today seems to include limited government, low taxes, both staples of conservatism since the days of Ronald Reagan, and a mania for freedom, that, in reality is an obsession with “freedom from” with no regard for “freedom for.” None of these things, in and of themselves, is bad; they are, in the right proportion, good things. The key though is right proportion. Let us take freedom as an example since that is taken to be the root of modern conservatism. Forgotten in all the chatter is that freedom is not a uniform entity but a multifaceted one. The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen differentiated between freedom from, which he defined as freedom from restraint, and freedom for, which he described as the freedom to pursue a specific goal. Neither aspect can exist without the other; freedom from restraint is pointless unless one uses that freedom in order to pursue some goal. The question then becomes, what sort of goal or end should we pursue? As Abraham Lincoln said, “Freedom is the right to do what we ought, not what we want.” The question then becomes: What are those things which we ought to choose with our freedom? The correct answer is that which allows us to flourish. This answer does not allow subjectivism to enter through the back door of our thinking since what we want to do and what allows us to flourish are not the same thing. In other words, what we ought to choose are those things which allow us as human beings to flourish which, in turn, will allow us to flourish as persons. Let us take the virtue of honesty as an example. Honesty is when we express the objective order in the world; it is (to make an obvious example) saying that the clear sky is blue, or that 2+2=4. There are many times when honesty seems to work against our interests; if we are honest, we may be punished, such as when we run a red light, or we may not “get ahead” as when we do not take credit for another’s work. Even if it is not to our immediate advantage though, we ought to choose the truth and honesty. In the first place, we should choose honesty because that is what our minds and our power of speech is for; our minds are there to see and discover the order of the world, the way things are, and our speech is present so that we may communicate that order to others. In the second place, we should always be honest because, as much as it might hurt us in the moment, being honest allows us to truly flourish. On the practical level, we will be known to be honest and so our word will be good on whatever we say. But on a deeper, metaphysical level, honesty allows us to be truly human, since we will be using our faculties as they are supposed to be used and we will thus be aligned with the objective and true order of the world.

Conservatism, then, can be broadly said to be concerned with genuine human flourishing, which comes from allegiance to the “permanent things” as Russell Kirk called them. This is why limited government, low taxes and unrestricted “freedom from” cannot be the essence of conservatism, nor its most important features. Men need beauty, art poetry, history, stories, family, moral order, goodness and truth in order to flourish because we are made for these things. A conservatism that ignores these necessities and which sinks to subjectivism, where everything is chaos, is not conservatism at all but a petty sham.

 

The Adventure of Romance

norman-rockwell-marriage-license.jpg

 

It has been said that the present time is the best of all because it is the present and, as such, it is superior to the past. This is as true in philosophical matters as it is in any other sphere. In the old days, one had to work in order to gain divine wisdom, whether it was waiting for the Opet festival in Egypt, traveling to the oracle of Delphi in Greece, or divining intestines from the right animal in Rome. Today, gods and philosophers no longer need to be sought but walk boldly above us and sometimes besides us.

 

 This past St. Valentine’s Day was one such occasion. Scarlet Johansson, probably best known for her part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, gave an interview for Playboy in which she said that monogamy was unnatural. Her proof for her statement was that it is very hard for a lot of people to actually do.

 

 To be fair to Scarlet, she did say that the idea of marriage was “beautiful” and, unlike so many people today, she did acknowledge that marriage was a responsibility. But, despite these pearls of truth, her matter-of-fact declaration that monogamy is unnatural leaves much to be admired.

 

 In a sense, it’s not so much that Scarlet was wrong (which she was) as it is the reasons for why she is wrong. Anyone can have a flaw in their reasoning since, as Aristotle said, of the three different ways to reason, there is only one correct way—from correct premises to correct conclusions. With that in mind, it is quite easy to see how people can be wrong and to make room for their error. The problem with Scarlet’s method, however, is that is that there seems to be no method besides a vague and hazy inductive method by which, from the fact that “[monogamy] is such work for so many people,” she reasons to the conclusion that it is not natural. But couldn’t this all be, in a sense, circumstantial and cultural evidence rather than objective facts? Our grandparents and great-grandparents were much better at monogamy than their spoiled grandchildren and great-grandchildren; many times, combing through obituaries in the local papers, you will see that the deceased who are seventy-eight years old and older, were married for anything between thirty and sixty years. There were still exceptions, of course—human nature, by any other word, remains the same indifferent to time and space—but the fact remains that monogamy was much better practiced in the past then here in the present. Perhaps then, rather than monogamy being unnatural in essence, it is the culture that has made it seem unnatural. With the sexual revolution of the late Sixties and Seventies, faithfulness and monogamy were laughed to the curb and now, so called “sex experts” such as Dan Savage can say flatly that monogamy is “sexual death” and no one—at least no one in a position of cultural power—bats an eye. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, when we laugh at monogamy, we should not be surprised that people find it hard to practice.

 

Another problem, however, is the fact that if Scarlet’s conclusion is true, then many other habits which the world still declares to be good are equally unnatural and, implicitly, wrong. Many people struggle with weight, many struggle with alcohol, many struggle to control their anger, many people struggle with kindness; are we really, in this time of absolute skepticism, ready to say that a healthy weight, patience, sobriety, and kindness are all unnatural?

 

There is a scene in The African Queen where Katherine Hepburn tells Humphrey Bogart that nature is what we are set on earth to overcome. We hear a great deal of overcoming nature from technocrats and libertines but, here, Hepburn was speaking of overcoming nature in the right context; not so that it leads to the abolition of man but so that the dignity of man will not be corroded by giving in to every whim and baser instinct.

 

That leads, in a round-about-way to the question of what is romance. We have an idea that romance is a feeling which involves candle light dinners and long walks by moonlight, preferably along a beach. But keeping romance there does not so much dirty it as cheapen it by leaving it incomplete. Romance is not just a sensation that we feel but an adventure to be lived. The real romantic is one who is so in love with the subject of his affections that he can never know enough about it nor spend enough time with it. The real romantic knows that his subject is not a shallow but a well that can never be exhausted. In this way, his subject is like a rich book which he cannot put down and which he must start reading again after he has finished it because a single reading cannot do it justice. Why is this an adventure? Because like with any rich book or anything which one devotes oneself to, you never know where it will lead, and that is the very definition of adventure—to set out without knowing what exactly will happen. Trips planned in minute detail—even to foreign countries—are not adventures in and of themselves because the planning gets in the way of the spontaneity. It is only when our love and our enthusiasm and our faith allows us to pursue the end of the journey without a map that we can say that we are on an adventure. And, added to that, is the fact that when the romantic’s adventure is with another, that is the most spectacular adventure of all. Unlike an adventure simply to a place, an adventure with another means that the uncertainty—and the adventure—is increased, since we are not just adventuring on our own but with another with their own mind, will, emotions, likes, dislikes and story. The clash of these elements in the two people leads to more adventure than being alone much as a chemical reaction is more interesting than a pure chemical sitting by itself. And this, coming full circle, is what deepens the romance of the romantic for even with the clash of the different elements, there is no one else that he would rather be with or to know than his love. It is much like how riding a horse is much more interesting and romantic than driving a car which is why knights always ride them.

 

Why does romance have to be this way? If it is not, we are simply dead leaves, flitting by each other with the wind with no aim and no purpose to our lives. You can only really be romantic with someone that you love, otherwise, you are not being a romantic but a con-man, running through the steps simply in order to get what you want. As soon as you get it or as soon as you become bored, you are off the next victim to repeat the process all over again making one not a romantic but a vampire. Love, on the other hand, requires monogamy—how can one really say that you love someone if you are willing to leave them, cheat on them, or to treat them no differently than anyone else? For the real romantic, the real lover, monogamy is the most natural thing in the world since there is nowhere else he would rather be than with his love.

 

Although she more than likely did not mean to, the world which Scarlet implied is a cold one, where we are enslaved by sexual licentiousness. It is unfortunately arguable that such a world is already born; a recent article in Men’s Health  stated that the percentage of “open” relationships and other such arrangements are on the rise. For all of that, it does not seem that our world or our society in particular has grown better with that rise. Our society—or at least those parts that are still honest enough—are searching for something more. What they are searching for is romance and adventure. And they will be unable to find either in polyamory.

 

Values: The Ghostly Globs

john-adams

I have never had the pleasure of seeing a ghost except in some of the stories I have read. In these stories, the specters always possess a solid shape and can, on occasion, communicate with the living. This is way Hamlet went mad when he saw the ghost of his father walking along the ramparts of the castle–he saw what looked like someone he knew to be dead.

In real life, ghosts do not always have to take an actual shape. Orbs, which “ghost hunters” famously look for in their photographs, can appear as clear balls of light or as misty hints in the background. A ghost can be distinct or just an inky smirk in a photograph or the retina. And though they are bandied about in ordinary conversation, values have the same indistinct substance as the ghosts that haunt actual houses and not the pages of literature.

Both sides of the political aisle have great recourse to the talk of values. On the Right, the Values Voters Summit has gathered in Washington DC during September and October since 2006 offering a podium for social conservatives, often neglected throughout the rest of the year. On the Left, the specter of values is raised against anything which the Left opposes. One of the latest examples was the reaction on the Left after Donald Trump’s temporary suspension of travel visas which was decried as acting against “American values.” Former President Obama and Cheryl Sandburg, the CEO of Facebook, both made this same proclamation.

The first question which naturally rises from all the talk about values and “American values” is what, exactly, are American values? The question is a simple one and, as said, seems to rise naturally from the usage of the phrase. Both the Left and the Right use the term as a blanket which can cover whatever positions they hold. The Left’s conception of “American values”, when it is distilled into its most basic components, can be said to be composed of a radical egalitarianism and an atomized, self-gratifying libertinism, masquerading as liberty, which can encompass asexual insanity, infanticide, and an idea of self-expression which, paradoxically, acknowledges no borders and thus ultimately and logically, destroys itself. On the Right, “American values” usually is taken to mean some mixture of faith, family and freedom. The details of these components are hardly ever investigated after their utterance and the ration of the different components often depends on which segment of the Right one is speaking. Both sides too often reach back to the Founding of the Republic in order to justify their own definition of “American values” an endeavor that often leads to bad history on both sides. As historian, Mark David Hall noted  those on the Left will often see nothing but secular and deistic influences upon the founders and the Founding, while their compatriots on the Right, see nothing but Evangelical Christianity working in the lives and events of the Revolution. But in whatever degree the two versions of “American values” are presented, the truth remains unchanged that these two different definitions are contradictions and thus, they cannot both be true.

Then there is the question as to why, exactly, the :Left can appoint itself the arbiter of “American values.” If the things the Left espouses as values and the things which the Right claims are values are contradictions, neither side can actually claim that their values are universal “American values” without at least a semi-logical argument that attempt to explain the reasoning behind the claim. Unfortunately, neither side is really prepared to do this. Both sides begin with the a priori assumption that their values are the values for the whole country; the Left then proceeds to refuse any attempt at Socratic dialogue in seeing if their thoughts and assumptions are erroneous and, thus, false; the Right, in the meantime, has recently slipped into a low type of fideism in which anti-intellectualism has become a virtue. In both cases, discovering the truth by “reasoning together” becomes almost an impossibility.

But, there is an even deeper issue at work in the talk and references to values and “American values” one which has gone almost unnoticed by many, even those partaking of the dialogue. And this is the fundamental weakness in the concept of values in the first place. The word “values” seems strong on the surface, implying a belief, fiercely held, that unites the believers together. But, in reality, the word is completely subjective, as something only has value if someone gives it value. Rather than being anchored in something substantial, the values that people claim to have only have the value which they have because of the people who want or like them. At the drop of a hat, peoples’ perspective could change and what was valuable in the past could become a fossil in the present. The ball cap that your grandfather gave you when you were ten years old could have immense value for you, but for others, it is just an old ball cap and of no real value at all. This is the reason why the value of money–and even precious metals such as gold–can rise and fall depending on supply, demand, and a whole further host of economic factors. The fatal flaw, besides their inherent subjectivity, is that men may end of valuing something that is, in actuality, harmful for them. The rise in the use of drugs in American society seems to demonstrate that more and more people value things and experiences and feelings that are detrimental to their actual good. With this comes the question of whose subjective values win in the arena of the culture and politics. One of the values of the Right is being pro-life; one of the values of the Left is being “pro-choice.” Which position is true and correct? Because these positions are equal values, just on opposite sides of the political spectrum, there is really nothing enforcing either one except the will to power–my value is correct because I say that it is. Rather than a star to guide us, we are left with  a see-saw with contradictory values gaining the upper hand at different times simply because of a shift of opinion or political fortune.

Principles and virtues, on the other hand, are much firmer and more real than values. The word “virtue” itself, from the Latin virtutem (nominative virtus) means “moral strength, high character, goodness; manliness; valor, bravery, courage (in war); excellence, worth,” infers a strength of character which allows one to do what one ought and not merely what one wants. This, in turn, implies something else. If virtue is the strength of doing what one ought, then there must be practice, sacrifice and self-denial in order to gain the strength of the virtue. There must, in other words, be work in gaining and building this inner strength, just as there must be work in gaining and building physical strength. Principles, in much the same way, connotes a universal which has holding power regardless of time, place, culture or individual, in the same way that geometric and algebraic truths are true regardless of the passage time and the boundaries of cities and countries. This is so because, as with geometry and algebra, principles dealing with human nature must be either true or false, as dictated by the principle of non-contradiction. The word “principle” means that rather than simply finding them agreeable for the moment and liking them, we must actually conform our lives to them if we truly wish to participate fully in our humanity because, unlike the ghosts of values, principles are solid realities which we can either adhere to for our true happiness or disavow for our eventual hollowness and sadness.

This, I suspect, is the reason why we do not hear much of virtues or principals anymore. While values can easily be gathered, held and exchanged, virtues must be worked for–they, in a sense, must be earned through constant effort. In the same way, principles must be adhered to, even if the result is discomfort or some other disadvantage. They cannot simply be exchanged as values can be. As society has become progressively weaker, the effort to culturally adhere to the universal and unchanging virtues and principals has become harder and harder.

But still, if the distinction between principles and virtues on the one hand and values on the other, is sound, then there really are no such things as “American values” to begin with. There can only be American principles. In one sense, these American principles are the same that every nation has tried (or should have tried) to implement since the sunnum bonnum (greatest good) never changes, since the nature of man can never change, regardless of time, place and circumstances. At the same time, American principles, such as ordered liberty, equality under the law, belief in the natural law and in the protection of Providence, these are all deeply rooted in the Anglo-American tradition and, in a broader sense, in the tradition of the West itself. But in order to return to that tradition, we will once again need to distinguish principles and virtues from values. And, then, we will need to live according to that distinction.

The Reason for Our Rights

bill-of-rights

Anniversaries should be a time of reflection, a time for remembering the living past and realigning oneself to the vows or principles (if any) which are being marked by the occasion. This was held true last December when NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE published two articles in honor of the 225th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Although both articles spoke of the Bill of Rights, they were polar opposites. Arthur Milikh claims that it is high time American rethought the Bill of Rights. Recognizing that the Bill has been held captive by lawyers and courts, Milikh tries to accomplish something that is very rarely seen nowadays–he attempts to give a teleological reason for the rights we possess by asking the fundamental question: What are our rights for? Milikh argued that the Bill of Rights was placed inside the Constitution in order to preserve the Republic. In this light, for example, the freedom of speech was never intended to protect any speech indiscriminately but only that speech that cultivated the “virtues of deliberation among citizens” so that men may cultivate the ability to reason and to defend one’s position rationally. This, in turn, brings about “a new image of reverence” in which men respect each other for holding rationality in common, thereby overcoming the narrow tribal identifications of race, religion, and ideology. This history, for Milikh, means that many of the laws on the books today are ultimately self-defeating since many of them–such as laws protecting pornography and flag-burning–are non-rational, as they do not encourage and support rational dialogue. This, in turn, leads many people to disrespect the law, a state of being which, Milikh implies, may lead to the crumbling of the country since laws are needed to “interest men in the destiny of their country.” The implied conclusion for Milikh is that not all speech can be protected by the First Amendment and that it is a very dangerous situation for all forms of speech to be so protected.

In opposition to this line of thinking, Roger Pilon declares that laws protecting free speech are based not on the “content of speech but on the right to speak.” As such, Pilon finds Milikh’s “rethinking” of the Bill of Rights, a slippery slope that immediately dissolves into tyranny. After all, the freedom to speak is a right that is inherent in every individual and which is “essential to human dignity.” By passing laws which decide which speech is to be protected and which is not to be protected in order to inoculate virtue among the people, Pilon sees statecraft becoming soulcraft since the virtuous citizens will be required to make laws outlawing all speech that they deem to be irrational and unvirtuous. This, in turn, will require the state to become larger and more powerful since sanctions against “unrespectable speech” will require more than merely “social sanctions.” In other words, the type of society which Milikh’s vision produces is a modern police state, one that is simply ruled by the right rather than the left. Pilon concludes by saying that such a “rethinking” of the First Amendment is dangerous because it is not respectable speech that is in danger of being censored but “foolish or unpopular speech that is ever in peril.” The genius of the Amendment, for Pilon, is that it does not rest on the content of speech but rather simply on the right to speak. In this vein, Pilon praises former Justice Scalia in his opposition to flag-burning bans.

Although Milikh and Pilon are in opposition, both of their views have glimmers of the truth but also contain some serious flaws that makes it imprudent for either of their views to be established within the mindset of the general people.

Why Do We Have Rights?

Pilon is right to point out that the freedom of speech is a natural right and, as such, it is inherent in the individual merely by being human. The problem that Pilon runs into is that he does not ask why men have the right of free speech as men? In other words, what is the end of free speech? The answer to that question can only be to communicate the truth. Man is a rational person; that is what separates him from the rest of the animal kingdom. As such, man is the only earthly creature which can see the truth in its fullest.  Rationality and speech are closely linked. It may be a mistake to say that the two are really the same thing but it is true that rationality and speech are tied tightly together since our rationality is publicized (not, it should be noted, actualized) by making our thoughts known to our fellows. As such, the freedom of speech and the freedom to write (the press) are vitally important since these are the means by which we communicate with our neighbors, our countrymen and our fellow man in general. Rational speech can easily be defined as such: Speech which aligns itself with reality and, thus, the truth. This does not mean that one’s speech must align itself completely with reality; individuals are fallible and our finite minds do not come pre-programmed with the entire system of the cosmos, both physical and metaphysical. That is why free speech is necessary; it allows men to come together in their shared capacity of rationality to reason and discover the truth together, as Socrates would say. There is an even deeper reason why reality and truth is end or reason of speech and this has to do with the nature of words themselves. Words are not just signs of reality, though they definitely are that; words—language—is the “house of Being” as philosopher Max Heidegger put it and “For this reason the misuse of language…destroys our authentic relation to things.”

This line of logic does lead to a very definite conclusion, however: Only rational speech is true speech since it is the only type of speech that fulfills the end or purpose of speech. Pilon seems to grasp this truth to an extent, as he does realize that speech can be used foolishly but he does not come to the logical conclusion that such foolish speech should not and cannot be protected by the First Amendment as foolish speech is actually a perversion of speech as it does not fulfill the end of speech. The reason for this is that Pilon has the danger of a powerful State ever in his mind; to stop the State from accruing too much power, such evils as flag burning and pornography must not only be tolerated but also granted First Amendment protection. But Pilon makes two mistakes in this regard. In the first place, though he says that placing limits on speech turns statecraft into soulcraft, it is true, contra Pilon, that the state does have a duty in protecting and promoting the common good. Since the nature of man is rational, man can only be truly happy with what is true and what is good. That is why so many thinkers—from Cicero and Aristotle to the Founding Fathers—declared that the true happiness of man was found in virtue. The state, as the natural and therefore good uniting of men into society, is not merely to be neutral between two contradictory propositions and allow people to decide which one to choose for themselves; the state is not to hold out a prolife and a pro-abortion position as equally valid and good. The state that has the common good truly in mind, will come down on the side of the prolife position every time. Furthermore, fears of the central government creating speech codes is a strawman argument. Such an act would be and is unconstitutional but according to the original understanding the Amendment, local polities and governments could outlaw certain types of irrational speech or expression, such as flag burning. Some local governments have done similar actions; Ave Marie, Florida, home of Ave Marie University, outlaws pornography within its jurisdiction. These are the acts of power-made polities but efforts to secure the common good for people.

Are All Laws Sacred?

Milikh’s position—his rethinking of the First Amendment—also possesses certain problems. Although he never articulates why some speech should not be protected by the Amendment (other than the fact that it is irrational) and, thus, never says what the end of speech is, he is correct in that not all speech is protected by the Constitution. Where Milikh errs is in the sacrosanct place that he places the law. Now, to be sure, the law is very important in the matter of government and society in general. Law is also a teacher, as Milikh recognizes and the law should be rational; as Thomas Aquinas says, law is rationality set down for the common good of the state. But, contrary to what he suggests, the law cannot be the only teacher of good and evil; if that were the case, morality would be reduced to legality when, in truth, morality is supposed to be much deeper and wider than legality. Following that, simply because a thing is evil, it does not follow that it should be made illegal. The reason for this is not that the evil is not recognized as evil but that it is recognized as not always prudent to do so, especially if the legal eradication of the evil would, in itself, lead to other evils, such as the curtailing of too many freedoms. For example, lying is wrong but the state can only prudently outlaw some forms of lying (such as perjury) without gaining fantastic powers over the lives of its citizens. This is where the “little platoons” of families, churches, organizations and neighborhoods, so praised by Edmund Burke, come into play. Since they should be much more intimately connected with individuals than the State, it is in these platoons that an aversion to moral and legal evils should be properly installed.

These little platoons require their own foundation, however and that foundation cannot be found in the law, making a circular argument. Rather, the foundation for Burke’s platoons and the law itself is in what Russell Kirk called the “moral imagination.” For Kirk, the moral imagination exists to teach us what it means to be truly human and it can be found most powerfully in the great literary works of the West, in the works of Plato, Cicero, Vergil, Pope, Dante, Shakespeare; even something as supposedly “juvenile” as Treasure Island, Kirk says, can instruct the moral imagination. If people have a true sense of what it means to be human—if they have a grasp of what philosopher Peter Kreeft calls the three transcendentals of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good—not only will the laws be rational and good, but people will recognize them as rational and obey them because it is the right thing to do for the community and for themselves.

The Answer to the Riddle

So many problems which face us in modern America run so much deeper than politics that political solutions will not suffice anymore. A “rethinking” of the First Amendment needs to be done, but its rejuvenation will not come merely from laws. The passing of more laws will actually be a sign of the Republic’s continuing collapse since it will demonstrate that individuals are incapable of ruling themselves. This realization is the first step that must be taken.

The second step is to destroy the nominalist distinctions present in Pilon’s thinking. The distinction that needs to be made is not between popular and unpopular speech, as Pilon does, but between speech that reflects the truth and that which does not. And, again, while it may not be prudent to legally forbid genuine foolish or evil speech in all cases, the distinction between the two must be clearly present.

Thirdly, and most challenging, the moral imagination of Americans and Westerners must be rekindled. This means that it is necessary not only to teach minds but to transform souls. This can and must be done not only in re-introducing the great works of literature and art but in creating great works, not only in reforming schools but in creating new schools. It will mean not only arguing with statistics and logic (which we must continue to do) but also through story and poetry. As C.S. Lewis said, “Reason is the natural organ of truth but imagination is the organ of understanding.” All of this will take time but Rome was not built in a day.