Archive for May, 2017

Just praise of the past

May 31, 2017

“Men do always, but not always with reason, commend the past and condemn the present, and are so much the partisans of what has been, as not merely to cry up those times which are known to them only from the records left by historians, but also, when they grow old, to extol the days in which they remember their youth to have been spent. And although this preference of theirs be in most instances a mistaken one, I can see that there are many causes to account for it; chief of which I take to be that in respect of things long gone by we perceive not the whole truth, those circumstances that would detract from the credit of the past being for the most part hidden from us, while all that gives it lustre is magnified and embellished. For the generality of writers render this tribute to the good fortune of conquerors, that to make their achievements seem more splendid, they not merely exaggerate the great things they have done, but also lend such a colour to the actions of their enemies, that any one born afterwards, whether in the conquering or in the conquered country, has cause to marvel at these men and these times, and is constrained to praise and love them beyond all others.

Again, men being moved to hatred either by fear or envy, these two most powerful causes of dislike are cancelled in respect of things which are past, because what is past can neither do us hurt, nor afford occasion for envy. The contrary, however, is the case with the things we see, and in which we take part; for in these, from our complete acquaintance with them, no part of them being hidden from us, we recognize, along with much that is good, much that displeases us, and so are forced to pronounce them far inferior to the old, although in truth they deserve far greater praise and admiration. I speak not, here, of what relates to the arts, which have such distinction inherent in them, that time can give or take from them but little of the glory which they merit of themselves. I speak of the lives and manners of men, touching which the grounds for judging are not so clear.

I repeat, then, that it is true that this habit of blaming and praising obtains, but not always true that it is wrongly applied. For sometimes it will happen that this judgment is just; because, as human affairs are in constant movement, it must be that they either rise or fall. Wherefore, we may see a city or province furnished with free institutions by some great and wise founder, flourish for a while through his merits, and advance steadily on the path of improvement. Any one born therein at that time would be in the wrong to praise the past more than the present, and his error would be occasioned by the causes already noticed. But any one born afterwards in that city or province when the time has come for it to fall away from its former felicity, would not be mistaken in praising the past.”

— Niccolò Machiavelli,
Discourses on Livy.

Doerr: Four Seasons in Rome

May 29, 2017

Four Seasons in Rome
On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World
Anthony Doerr
(Scribner, 2007)
211 p.

I love Rome: I love its pomp and grandeur, its crumbling antiquity, its bustle, its beauty, its cobblestones, its quiet corners, its saints and relics, its fountains and its parks. When I walk the streets of Rome I feel eight feet tall. As such, it is always a delight to me to find a good book about Rome, and this book is one such.

Anthony Doerr, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of whom I confess I had no previous knowledge, was offered a year’s residence, with his family, at the American Academy in Rome. The offer arrived in the mail on the morning that he and his wife returned home from the hospital with newborn twin boys. Consequently they arrived in Rome, a few months later, with two bouncing bambini, the barest smattering of Italian, and no idea what they were getting into. The book recounts their experiences of Rome, yes, but also the challenges and joys of fatherhood, and, as a minor theme, the difficulties of writing a book (his ostensible purpose during his year in residence) in the midst of so many distractions and delights.

Doerr hailed from Boise, Idaho, and had not been to Rome before. Part of the fun of the book comes from his observations of the things that first strike a North American when he arrives in the city: the noise, the rows of parked vespas on the street (which he is tempted to push over, to see if they’ll all fall like dominoes), the tendency of Italians to cluster rather than queue, the inadequacy one feels when trying to speak a halting and insecure Italian to a busy merchant. In one amusing passage he describes entering a hardware store and, realizing he doesn’t know the name for anything he wants, asks for the only thing he can think of — a night light, a luce del notte — and retreats in shame. In another he enters a shop to get tomato sauce, but a request for sugo di pompelmo sets off a storm of confusion, the store-keeper offering him everything under the sun except tomato sauce; only afterwards did he realize he’d asked for “grapefruit sauce”. Anyone who has travelled has had similar experiences, and although I personally feel less embarrassed about my bad Italian in Rome than I do, say, about my bad French in Paris, this has much to do with the geniality of Romans, which one learns of only by experience.

Having infant twins at home meant that he and his wife didn’t get out much, at least at first, but as the year turned, as sleep schedules were slowly re-established, and after they found a good nanny, they were able to snatch a few hours here and there to explore the city. Essentially everything was new to them, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the city again for the first time through their eyes. Like many visitors from the New World, they were most impressed by the sheer antiquity of Rome, its (literal) layers of history, all compressed into such a small area. Rome is “an iceberg floating below our terrace, all its ballast hidden beneath the surface”. Rome is also, considering the density of the important monuments and works or art it boasts, rather large; it is “a Metropolitan Museum of Art the size of Manhattan”. It is a city that no man can fully fathom.

Discoveries awaited not only in the streets of Rome, but also at home, in their apartment atop the Janiculum Hill, as their boys grew. Doerr is good at describing the sleeplessness (exacerbated in his case by insomnia), the difficulty of getting from point A to point B with infants, the joy of seeing one’s child learning to walk, the amazement a parent feels when the child speaks (as when one of his twins greets a stranger in the hall with a “Ciao”). Even if one had no interest in Rome (were this possible), the book would retain interest as a memoir of a first-time parent.

And the book is interesting from another angle too, for the year that Doerr spent in Rome was 2004-5, and so coincided with the death of Pope St John Paul II, his funeral (viz. the book’s subtitle), the conclave, and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Doerr is not a Catholic, and so not himself intensely concerned with these events, but, living just to the south of the Vatican, he cannot help but take an outsider’s interest. He observed John Paul II’s gradual decline, the prayer vigils that attended his final days, the astounding avalanche of mourners who filled the city for the funeral, the descent of the world’s press onto Vatican City, and, finally, the white smoke and the ringing of all the church bells of Rome upon the election of the new pontiff, whereupon Doerr found himself, somewhat to his own amusement, running through the streets, stroller and all, to reach St Peter’s in time to see Benedict XVI emerge onto the balcony for the first time. “Is it Ratzinburger?” he asked a neighbour, only to be rudely corrected. Ah, well.

My principal reservation about the book is that Doerr decided to write it in the present tense; I always find this off-putting in a narrative. He also sometimes indulges in vices peculiar to contemporary novelists: sentences bereft of verbs, or missing subjects, or even stranded adjectives. On the other hand, he has encouraged me to add a few items to my “wish list” for my next visit, especially to visit Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, and, were it ever possible, to climb the spiral staircase which winds up through the interior of Trajan’s Column. Alas, I know that this last will never happen.

The ideal audience for this book would seem to consist of North American Catholics who are parents of young children and love Rome. Paint a bull’s-eye on my forehead.


My thanks to Janet for recommending this book to me.

Scruton: Culture Counts

May 23, 2017

Culture Counts
Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged
Roger Scruton
(Encounter, 2007)
118 p.

This book is a reflection on education, aesthetic and moral judgment, the value of a shared culture, and contemporary threats to each of them.

Scruton begins his discussion of education with a statement that brought me up short:

It is one of the most deeply rooted superstitions of our age that the purpose of education is to benefit those who receive it.

On the contrary, he argues, the purpose of education is to perpetuate a culture. We educate so the next generation can inherit the knowledge and judgments by which our culture has been formed and in which it consists. No doubt this education will benefit the students, but this is not its purpose, or at least not its primary purpose. “Knowledge gained is a gain for all of us; knowledge lost, a loss that all must bear… This is what education does for us: it keeps knowledge alive…” On this view, core curricula and academic competition make good sense, for not only is there an essential body of knowledge to be learned, but those best able to receive and understand it should be preferred.

And knowledge means more than just facts of history, science, or civics. It includes knowledge, for instance, of “what to feel”: the education of the emotions and the aesthetic sensibility (cf. The Abolition of Man). We must learn what things are good and beautiful, and how we ought to respond to them.

Naturally, this kind of knowledge involves making judgments, both moral and aesthetic, and rather than avoid this point Scruton underlines it: having a culture means making judgments. Indeed, he argues that culture largely consists in a set of shared judgments. They are subjective in the sense of being held personally and based on personal experiences and tastes, but not subjective in the sense of being arbitrary or indefensible. They are rooted in real experience and shared reflection.

As a practical matter, Scruton advises that this understanding of education is well-served by the notion of a “classic” or “touchstone”: an artistic, literary, or religious artifact “whose significance endures across generations and provides a point of comparison for other and lesser creations”. Not only do such works provide an education in excellence, but they also emphasize the shared judgments by which cultures cohere. From the idea of a classic, the formation of a “canon” emerges naturally.

Of course, everything Scruton advocates is vigorously contested in our culture today. Aesthetic judgments (and, I would add, moral judgments, though with less consistency) are habitually relativized, so much so that the whole sphere of distinctively aesthetic experience has nearly disappeared from view; “desire alone remains”. Moreover, even the basic project of passing on culture from one generation to the next is attacked. Scruton writes, here and elsewhere, about the West’s “culture of repudiation”, which no longer aims at appreciation and appropriation of its own heritage but instead attacks the means by which and vessels in which culture is transmitted. Whether this is truly the objective, or whether it is merely the prelude to the reconstruction of culture on other grounds, embodying different values and judgments, is hard to tell, but that it has weakened both our educative institutions and our shared culture is evident.

In principle, the picture of education and culture Scruton paints appeals to me. The culture of which I am a part, which has been formed to a large extent by my religion, and which has in turn formed me, is one which I admire and labour to appropriate. I have a conservative temperament, am inclined to honour the great achievements of the past, and am a believer in the value of cultural continuity. However, the generally happy view of culture as a network of shared judgments darkens considerably at the prospect of that culture reconstructed along other, contrary lines. If education isn’t for students, but for society, then who should decide the curriculum? If not students, then parents? Surely not, for education is not for families, but for society. Who could be entrusted with this responsibility? One fears that in practice the power would fall into the hands of bureaucrats, and one needn’t consider that real-world prospect long to arrive at a dispiriting thought: we no longer have a culture left to preserve. I begin to see the appeal of the individualized, even fractured model of education and culture (or, “culture”), for in troubled times it would, ironically, at least permit one to promote and pursue the traditional aims of education.

Livy I: The Rise of Rome

May 14, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri I-V
The Rise of Rome
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by T.J. Luce
(Oxford, 2008) [c.25 BC]
xxxiii + 372 p.

The Ab Urbe Condita (From the Foundations of the City) is one of the epic authorial feats in world history. This history of Rome occupied Livy throughout his life and in the end consisted of 142 books covering the period from Rome’s legendary founding (traditionally dated to 753 BC) down to Livy’s own time (9 BC). Although only 35 of these books have survived, they alone require about 2500 pages of text in a modern edition. Pliny the Younger tells us of a young man from Spain “who was so impressed by the name and reputation of Titus Livius that he journeyed from the end of the inhabited world just to see him, looked, turned about and went back home”, and it’s little wonder.

These first five books of Livy’s history cover the mythical foundation of Rome, the history of the seven kings, and then the course of republican Rome down to 390 BC, when the city suffered its first major military defeat, at the hands of a Gallic army. How much of this is real history and how much legendary embellishment is hard to say. Livy, who did not pretend to be an original historian and who is open about his reliance on pre-existing sources, notes that few written records survived from this period owing to the calamitous burning of the city that accompanied this same military defeat. Probably we are dealing with an admixture of legend and history, with the proportion of legend greater the more distant the past, roughly speaking.

Livy’s is an annalistic history: he narrates events year by year, rather than following story arcs one at a time and back-tracking. This has its advantages and disadvantages, of course, but I appreciated that I always knew where I was on the timeline.

Everyone knows the two founding stories of Rome — that Aeneas founded the city after fleeing Troy in the aftermath of the Trojan War, and that the twin brothers Romulus and Remus were suckled by a wolf and somehow founded the city too — but not everyone, I think, knows how the two stories are related. Aeneas was indeed taken to be the remote founder of Rome for having established what was to become Roman stock on Italian soil, but it was many generations before the city itself was formed, and Romulus and Remus were the proximate founders of the city. They argued over which of the seven hills of Rome should be the initial foundation — Palatine or Aventine, respectively — and Romulus (or one of his followers) killed Remus, and went on to become the city’s first king. The Romans dated these events to (what we now call) 753 BC.

Romulus was credited with establishing the basic political structure of Rome, dividing the people into patricians and plebs, and founding the senate. He formed an army and led it into battle against Rome’s neighbours. (One of these outings was the famous rape of the Sabine women.) The subsequent king, Numa Pompilius, was said to have founded the principal religious rites of the Romans. In later centuries Romans looked back at the actions of these first two kings as having established the Roman character as that of a fighting people who honour the gods (as opposed, say, to seeing themselves as a pious people who fight when necessary — an important difference of emphasis).

As time went on, succession of the kingship became gradually more contested, and with the seventh king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, who took the throne by murdering his predecessor and those who stood to receive the crown before him, Rome had a genuine tyrant on its hands. He was eventually overthrown and, in 509 BC, the Romans re-founded their government as a republic, maintaining a horror of kingship thereafter.

(It is interesting that the date assigned to the founding of republican Rome might be an instance of the Romans trying to upstage the Athenians, who established their democracy in 508 BC.)

In place of a king, the Romans established the office of consul. Consuls were elected by the senate, two at a time, and governed for a period of one year. The plebs, however, protesting that the consuls, drawn from the patrician class, governed with only their own class’ interests in mind, pressured their leaders to establish a second office, that of tribune, to be elected by the plebs and granted certain powers.

From this point, with the principal pieces of Roman government in place, there are two main threads to the history. On one hand, there are the military and political conflicts with regional powers, and, on the other, persistent internal conflict between the patricians and plebs.

The principal regional powers with whom Rome came into conflict in this period were the Veii, Volsci, and Aequi. It is worth emphasizing just how small Rome’s reach was at this time: their most threatening neighbour was Veii, located just a dozen miles from Rome; so these “wars” are really local skirmishes. Many wonderful stories are woven into this military history — Horatius at the bridge, the courage of Mucius, the vengeful fury of Coriolanus, the reckless lust of Appius Claudius, and the splendid civic virtue of Cincinnatus. It was farmer-general Cincinnatus who led the Romans to one of their first great military victories, against the Volsci and Aequi, around the year 450 BC.

As for Rome’s internal politics, it was a slow-boiling conflict that occasionally spilled over into violence. Around the middle of the 5th century the plebs began to push for the introduction of written law, so as to be less vulnerable to the whim of the consuls. Rome sent a delegation to Athens to study Solon’s reforms, and finally committed to the production of ten (later twelve) large, public tablets outlining Roman law. To produce these Twelve Tables, the Romans temporarily replaced the two consuls with a new form of government by a group of ten men called (sensibly enough) decemvirs, but the power of this office was so badly abused that it lasted only a few years, reverting to the trusted consulship. The Romans also created the office of dictator, a temporary position to be granted to one man in times of emergency, and the office of censor, originally intended to be responsible for taking a periodic census but later destined to become one of the most powerful positions in Roman government.

In Book V Livy narrates two episodes of great importance. The first is the war with Veii. The Romans and the Veii had long been in conflict with one another over land and access to precious resources (like salt). Veii was a strongly fortified city, and a formidable opponent. As matters came to a head, the patrician Camillus, one of the most honoured figures in Roman history, was named dictator and took charge of the army. He directed that a great tunnel be secretly made that burrowed under the walls of Veii and into its sewer system. This was successfully done, and, in an echo of the story of the Trojan Horse, a group of Roman soldiers was able to surprise the citizens of Veii by appearing inside their walls, throwing open the gates and allowing the whole army to enter. The victory was decisive, and the survivors were sold as slaves, leaving the city empty.

It was, to that point, Rome’s greatest victory, but the celebrations were short-lived, for a new enemy appeared on the scene: the Gauls. Livy doesn’t go into great detail about where they came from, but I understand that they were a tribe from north of the Alps who descended into Italy and proved too strong for most to resist. Exactly how they came into conflict with Rome is unclear — Livy gives a few different versions of how and why — but somehow the Romans found them approaching the city walls. Although they mustered an army, the Gallic forces were intimidating and the Roman defenders buckled and fled. The gates were not even secured, and the Gauls entered the city to loot and burn it. Only the Capitol remained defended, and the Gauls began a siege. As the Roman summer wore on, however, the Gauls fell ill as the Romans starved, and eventually the two sides agreed to terms: the Romans would pay and the Gauls would depart. Yet, so the story goes, as the payment was being prepared the contempt of the Gauls so angered the Romans that Camillus, rallying his weakened troops, ordered a sudden attack, and the Gauls were driven out.

Rome was so thoroughly devastated that the people made plans to relocate to the now-empty city of Veii, abandoning Rome for good, but Camillus, in a stirring speech re-imagined by Livy, convinced them to stay and rebuild. For this reason, he was later honoured as the “second founder” of Rome. But though they did rebuild, the memory of this first sack of Rome remained in the Roman imagination as a great horror, and they resolved that it should never happen again. (And, indeed, their resolve was strong, for it would be 850 years before another enemy force breached the walls.)


So ends this first volume in Livy’s history. My knowledge of Roman history is middling to weak, so most of this has been new to me, and all of it has been enjoyable to read. I am looking forward to the next volume.


“Whatever activity is rewarded in a state invariably thrives the most.” (Book IV, ii)

Lecture night: On Flannery O’Connor

May 10, 2017

Tonight’s lecture is on the life and work of Miss Flannery O’Connor. This is well-travelled territory, you might think, but the lecturer, Steve Ayers, speaks with such understanding and appreciation that I was enchanted throughout, and he does so in a down-to-earth manner that I think would have pleased her. The lecture is roughly one hour in duration. Excuse me, I have to go tend my pea-chickens.

Steve Ayers also has given a very good lecture on Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Grahame: The Golden Age

May 4, 2017

The Golden Age
Kenneth Grahame
(Dodd, Mead, & Co, 1922) [1895]
174 p.

As a rule, indeed, grown-up people are fairly correct on matters of fact; it is in the higher gift of imagination that they are so sadly to seek.

On my most recent reading of The Wind in the Willows it occurred to me that the author of such a classic might also have written some other worthy work, and so I made inquiries, and discovered that in the last few years of the nineteenth-century he published two books, The Golden Age and Dream Days, about children. And so here I am, to write a few words about the first of them.

The book is about four children, presumably siblings, living lives of indolence and adventure. To what extent the stories are autobiographical I do not know, but certainly they are autobiographical inasmuch as Grahame himself experienced childhood, and the book is nothing if not an evocation of that experience. What is it like to be a child? We all know, but we also forget. Rare is the book that conjures up the quality and texture of childhood as does The Golden Age. It is a masterful performance. Perhaps Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine comes close, but for me Grahame is better: richer and more artful.

As in The Wind in the Willows, much of the magic is in the writing, which is gorgeous. Consider this passage:

The year was in its yellowing time, and the face of Nature a study in old gold. ‘A field or, semée with garbs of the same:’ it may be false Heraldry — Nature’s generally is — but it correctly blazons the display that Edward and I considered from the rickyard gate. Harold was not on in this scene, being stretched upon the couch of pain: the special disorder stomachic, as usual. The evening before, Edward, in a fit of unwonted amiability, had deigned to carve me out a turnip lantern, an art-and-craft he was peculiarly deft in; and Harold, as the interior of the turnip flew out in scented fragments under the hollowing knife, had eaten largely thereof: regarding all such jetsam as his special perquisite. Now he was dreeing his weird, with such assistance as the chemist could afford. But Edward and I, knowing that this particular field was to be carried to-day, were revelling in the privilege of riding in the empty waggons from the rickyard back to the sheaves, whence we returned toilfully on foot, to career it again over the billowy acres in these great galleys of a stubble sea. It was the nearest approach to sailing that we inland urchins might compass: and hence it ensued, that such stirring scenes as Sir Richard Grenville on the Revenge, the smoke-wreathed Battle of the Nile, and the Death of Nelson, had all been enacted in turn on these dusty quarter-decks, as they swayed and bumped afield.

I note a few things. First, the intricacy of the prose; Grahame belongs firmly in the “more is more” camp when it comes to style. Second, the diction: I’ll admit that “dreeing his weird” defeated me until I consulted the OED; it means, in context, “getting what was coming to him”. Third, the allusions; not even Google knows the source of that first quotation, so perhaps it is Grahame’s invention, but toward the end of the passage we get those references to incidents in naval history which provide the frame for these children’s imaginative world, and indeed this is one of the most striking aspects of their lives: they are imbued with the stories, both imaginative and historical, that they have inherited, of Greek gods and Roman statesmen, of Biblical heroes and military victors, of songs and poetry. In other words, these children had a culture. Part of the pleasure of the book, though it be bittersweet, is to experience what it was like to have a culture in this thick sense, and part of the challenge the book presents is to ponder whether and how it might be possible to give my own children a similar sense of belonging. It may not be, for reading a book like this makes it abundantly clear that between Grahame’s time and ours a chasm has opened, that “some things that should not have been forgotten were lost,” as Galadriel said, that we have been substantially disinherited by our professional amnesiacs. All of which is quite discouraging, but Grahame at least gives a portrait of what we might aim at.

The world of this book is a world of children; there are adults around the periphery — referred to as “the Olympians”, and considered, with frank honesty, as being a different order of creature — but for the most part these children are free to pursue their own inclinations and the promptings of the muses. My own childhood in rural Alberta was much like this, and I’ve always been grateful for it, but such freedoms, it seems, have eroded, whether because of changing times or just changed locale, I can’t be sure. I don’t remember helicopter parents hovering about when I was young. How I would love to allow my children such latitude, to wander, exploring and adventuring, but I dare not. (It’s not that I fear for their safety, but I do, rightly or wrongly, fear meddlesome neighbours and the legal powers of the Children’s Aid Society.)

The pursuits and enthusiasms of childhood, though they be senseless and unimportant in certain respects, have a precious immediacy and vividness that makes them worthy of honour. Indeed, are the preoccupations of adults any less senseless and unimportant?

And perhaps we have reason to be very grateful that, both as children and long afterwards, we are never allowed to guess how the absorbing pursuit of the moment will appear not only to others but to ourselves, a very short time hence. So we pass, with a gusto and a heartiness that to an onlooker would seem almost pathetic, from one droll devotion to another misshapen passion; and who shall dare to play Rhadamanthus, to appraise the record, and to decide how much of it is solid achievement, and how much the merest child’s play?