Archive for July, 2017

Louth: Discerning the Mystery

July 31, 2017

Discerning the Mystery
Andrew Louth
(Oxford, 1983)
160 p.

T.S. Eliot used the phrase “dissociation of sensibility” to describe a disorder that he saw afflicting the Western mind: a fault line between heart and head, between love and knowledge, between the inner world of human thought and feeling and the outer, objective world of scientific facts. Eliot discerned this dissociation in the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets and traced its origins as far as Bacon and Descartes, but the point is of wider application and may well have deeper roots. (Louth sees in, for example, Abelard and St Bernard an earlier example of the same bifurcation.)

This little book is an attempt to understand the effects of this dissociation on theology, and more generally on the humanities, which have suffered a crisis of confidence in comparison with the sciences, and also to explore whether anything constructive can be done about it.

Louth begins by noting the centrality of method to the modern understanding of knowledge. The sciences succeeded in finding a method that produced reliable discoveries, and thereby became the modern exemplar of how the right method leads to secure knowledge. The humanities, including theology, have been looking for a comparable method pertinent to their own domain and subject matter ever since, but without any convincing success. The humanities have adopted the “research model” prevalent in the sciences: humanities professors busy themselves with making “discoveries”, and publishing their findings in journals, just as their colleagues across campus do, but in spite of this, there is no cohesion in the humanities, no widespread agreement on what those findings are and what they signify.

Louth sees the historical-critical method as the leading candidate for a “scientific” approach to knowledge in the humanities: the text is analyzed, the context is explored, and the meaning of the text for its original readers is sought and interpreted as having a privileged status. Louth understands why humanist scholars are tempted by this method, but he also believes that its adoption has impoverished the humanities and distorted its subject matter.

This impoverishment he describes with an analogy to conversation: historical criticism is like the conversation of a therapist and a patient. Questions are asked, but the relationship is all one-way. The therapist does not allow himself to enter personally into the relationship on anything like an equal footing. But another model of conversation is provided by that among friends, in which there is both take and give; I learn about my friend, but I also learn about myself through engaging with my friend. We can engage literature, including the literature of the past, and including religious literature, in this way, cultivating a personal relationship. To such relationships we bring not just our analytic powers, but all that we are, including our prejudices and presuppositions, and this is necessary if we are to present ourselves honestly. Such relationships are dialectical inasmuch as we revise our views based on what we learn, yes, but what we learn is also informed by the views we bring to them.

Louth recommends this richer, more personal view as suitable for the humanities in general, and for theology in particular. I’ll return to that in a moment, but first I’d like to ask: when is it appropriate to read in this way? Consider, for example, the reading of authoritative legal texts. Here the forensic, I-ask-and-you-answer, what-did-the-lawmakers-think-they-were-saying approach seems more fitting than a freewheeling what-does-this-say-to-me approach. Similar remarks would apply to authoritative religious texts, if, perhaps, not quite to the same degree, and this raises some doubt in my mind as to its suitability for theology.

Nonetheless, with this “humanistic” counter-proposal to historical criticism in mind, Louth embarks on a two-pronged critique of the cultural supremacy of scientific knowledge, with the intention, it seems, of defending the humanities against assimilation to the scientific model. First, he draws on the ideas of Giambattisto Vico and Hans-Georg Gadamer to mount an argument that the humanities offer us something valuable that science does not, a way of knowing that differs from the scientific way of knowing but is nonetheless sound. And second, he builds on the ideas of John Polanyi to argue that scientific ways of knowing are not, in fact, qualitatively different from those common in ordinary life and in the humanistic disciplines. In this way, he breaks down the dichotomy between the sciences and the humanities that underlies our “dissociation of sensibility”, making room, in the process, for theology to recover its full resources.

We’ll take the first line of argument first. Vico argued that we should not, a priori, expect the humanities to yield less secure knowledge than the sciences, for it is the human world that we know best, from the inside: “In the sciences we study what is alien to us–physical things; in the humanities we study what is connatural with us.” The kind of knowledge we get, and the way we get it, is different from in the sciences, but there is no reason to be radically skeptical about the methods and results of the humanities, in his view. Rather, we are confronted with a great plenitude of worthwhile truths in art, literature, and religion; we can become bewildered, but should not become discouraged. Gadamer followed up on this line of thinking; he argued that the humanities are “subjective”, but not in the sense of being “not true”, but in the rich sense of engaging the whole of a subject. On this view, “the humanities are not primarily concerned with establishing objective information (though this is important), but with bringing men into engagement with what is true”. As Kierkegaard memorably said, “To understand and to understand are two different things.” And since we benefit greatly from this second, deeper understanding, in which truths penetrate our souls and give us depth and even wisdom, we stand in need of this knowledge that the humanities in all their richness can provide.

Polanyi, in his book Personal Knowledge (which I’ve been meaning to read for years), called into question the claim that the sciences have privileged access to truth and reliability. Instead, he argued that “all knowledge is either tacit, or rooted in tacit knowledge. It is not simply objective, but knowledge which has been grasped and understood by a person.” There is always a certain amount of “know-how” involved, and of acculturation into the particular discipline of study. There are always traditions to inherit: ways of thinking, standards of evidence, accepted assumptions, and so forth. Education has an element of apprenticeship in the sciences as it does elsewhere. On this view, the reason the sciences converge to a common understanding of the world is not because its method is so far superior to others, but because of the simplicity of the objects it studies. In all learning there is an encounter between the knower and the thing known, and the importance of the knower — of his or her particular interests, habits, and commitments — varies according to the nature of the thing known. For the objects studied by the sciences, the knower’s characteristics are of low importance, but for the objects studied by the humanities they are high, and this is enough to account for the disparity in agreement that we see in practice.

Polanyi’s stress on the tacit dimension of knowledge, and of the importance of tradition to the reception of tacit knowledge, provides Louth a bridge back to theology, for, given the Christian understanding of God and his dealings with mankind, tradition is inescapably important, and much of what it means to be a Christian is discovered tacitly: “Christianity is not a body of doctrine that can be specified in advance, but a way of life and all that this implies. Tradition is, as it were, the tacit dimension of the life of the Christian…” And Louth emphasizes that central to this inherited tradition is sacred liturgy, which embodies and transmits the tacit and the tradition as nothing else does: “The liturgy unfolds the varied significance of the mystery of Christ, and the fact that it cannot all be explained, the fact that much that we do, we do simply because we have always done it, conveys a rich sense of the unfathomableness of the Christian mystery.”

This suggestion — that the effort to make Christian experience “clear and distinct” is misguided — is one that I have encountered before when reading about Dante, and seems, based on my limited exposure, to be more influential in the Orthodox tradition than in the Catholic. (I note that Andrew Louth is himself an Orthodox priest.) I am sympathetic to it, for it answers to my own experience of Christian faith, which has been interested in systematic theology and apologetics to some extent, but which has been formed to a far greater extent by aesthetic experience, liturgy, and devotions, and by a persistent attraction to “the unfathomableness of the Christian mystery”. Louth comments that much liturgical reform since the Reformation — and, I would add, since Vatican II for Catholics — has consisted in efforts to make the liturgy more easily and clearly understood, which has not only thinned out the experience of the liturgy but also disrupted its continuity with what came before. But if Louth is correct then such efforts have been detrimental to the richness of Christian experience, and perhaps to the robustness of Christian faith.

If the preceding arguments are successful, they have the effect of carving out for theology some “breathing space” within which she can live her own life according to her own lights, without being beholden to foreign methods and standards of argument. Louth takes advantage of this space to present a case for the use of allegory in theology. Allegory “sticks in the gullet of modern theology”, and is alien to most Protestant theology (with its stress on the “plain sense” of Scripture), but it was common, and, it seems, natural to the Church Fathers, and Louth sees it as a valuable way of exploring the riches of Scripture. Allegory “does not prove anything, but it is not meant to”; rather, it is a means of entering, prayerfully and imaginatively, into the mystery of Christ. I found this section of the book interesting, but less interesting than what preceded it. I think this is consistent with the overall argument of the book; the main substance comes in the book’s central sections, and the final application is really just an illustration.

The ambitions of the book are so great — quite out of proportion to its slender size — that it cannot be said to succeed unequivocally. It leans heavily on a heavy-weight trio in Vico, Gadamer, and Polanyi, and the weight of its arguments could not be fully felt without consulting those authors, and those objecting to them. Still, the structure of the argument is clear enough, and I am basically well-disposed toward it: there are ways of knowing other than scientific ones, and the humanities risk selling their inheritance for a mess of pottage if they allow themselves to be in thrall to the scientific model; traditions and the tacit are essential to religion; and in some realms one dispels mystery only by doing violence to the subject.


[An apostolic Church]
What unites us with the writers of the Scriptures is the life of the Church from their day to ours.

[The richness of Scripture]
It is in point to notice also the structure and style of Scripture, a structure so unsystematic and various, and a style so figurative and indirect, that no one would presume at first sight to say what is in it and what is not. It cannot, as it were, be mapped, or its contents catalogued; but after all our diligence, to the end of our lives and to the end of the Church, it must be an unexplored and unsubdued land, with heights and valleys, forests and streams, on the left and right of our path and close about us, full concealed wonders and choice treasures. Of no doctrine whatever, which does not actually contradict what has been delivered, can it be peremptorily asserted that it is not in Scripture; of no reader, whatever be his study of it, can it be said that he has mastered every doctrine which it contains. [quoted from Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine]

A prejudice against prejudices is an attempt, which was the aim of the Enlightenment, to deprive tradition of its power.

[Intellect and moral character]
It may be that no element of our compound nature is entirely shut out from taking part in knowledge. It is at all events certain that the specially mental powers will never be able to judge together in rightful relation when the nature as a whole is disordered by moral corruption. There is no evil passion cherished, no evil practice followed, which does not cloud or distort our vision whenever we look beyond the merest abstract forms of things. There is a truth within us, to use the language of Scripture, a perfect inward ordering as of a transparent crystal, by which alone the faithful image of truth without us is brought within our ken. Not in vain said the Lord that it is the pure in heart, they whose nature has been subdued from distraction into singleness, who shall see God; or, we may add, who shall see the steps of the ladder by which we may mount to God. The steadfast and prescient pursuit of truth is therefore itself a moral and spiritual discipline.” [quoted from Hort, The Way, The Truth, The Life]

Serraillier: Robin and his Merry Men

July 24, 2017

Robin and his Merry Men
Ballads of Robin Hood
Ian Serraillier
(Oxford, 1969)
60 p.

I came to this book almost wholly ignorant of the Robin Hood stories, my main exposure until now having been pretty much limited to that old animated film. I usually have thought of these stories as the poor English cousins to the (originally French) tales about Arthur and the Round Table. Even if true — and I don’t know if it is true — it can, naturally, still be enjoyable to spend time with one’s poor cousins from time to time.

This book relates a set of stories, tied together by an overall arc, about Robin Hood’s dealings with Sir Richard of Lee, a woebegone knight whom Robin helps at a crucial juncture, an act of generosity which Sir Richard is, eventually, able to reciprocate.

Serraillier, to his credit and my delight, tells the story in verse. If you believe (as I fondly do) that tales of Robin Hood ought rightly to be told in song, around a fire, and under a greenwood, then this will satisfy, for it is admirably suited to the purpose. In a series of abcb quatrains (with occasional sallies at sestets), beginning with

Come, gather round and listen awhile
To a tale of the good greenwood
And a courteous yeoman, a brave outlaw
Whose name was Robin Hood.

and bounding, through field and forest, to the concluding

Meanwhile in the musty cheerless court
King Edward’s hopes grew chill.
He waited, waited … And for all I know,
He may be waiting still.

it works splendidly. The poetry is simpler than other examples of Serraillier’s verse that I’ve enjoyed, and I read sections of it, with only occasional difficulties, to my older kids (5yo and 7yo, at the time). The words are complemented by a set of illustrations; while fine, they did not particularly appeal to me.

The bad guys in the poem are the Sheriff of Nottingham (naturally) and the rich, including the bishops, archbishops, and abbots. This aspect took some explaining to the kids, who didn’t understand why a bishop should be behaving so badly, and why Robin Hood, with all the courtesy in the world, should be trying to take his money. This, combined with the forthright piety of the poem — for Robin is devoted to Our Lady, and his men express a sturdy reverence for Our Lord — took some time to untangle. But if those complications can be overcome this is a book easy to recommend. I believe it is presently out of print, but it was not too difficult to track down a reasonably priced second-hand copy.

If anyone knows of a particularly good source for further tales of Robin Hood and would like to recommend it, please do so!

A Roman reading list

July 19, 2017

To get my house in order I’ve decided to plan two fairly extensive reading projects, one in ancient Greek history and literature, and another in Roman. A feature of both will be that I will restrict myself, as much as possible, to Greek and Roman authors. I will, alas, read in translation.

I’ve planned the Roman reading list first, partly because I’ve been spending a lot of time with Livy, and so my mind (along with my heart, of course) is in Rome, but also because I’ve read very little Latin literature, and consequently I feel that this Latin side of the house needs more work.

I would gratefully receive suggestions for additions, replacements, or deletions. Historical works are listed here by the historical period treated, rather than (as with the literary works) by the author’s dates.


Books 1-10 [early-292 BC]
Books 21-30 [218-202 BC]
Books 31-45 [201-167 BC]

Plautus (c.254-184 BC)
The Braggart Soldier; The Brothers Menaechmus; The Haunted House; The Pot of Gold

Cato the Elder (c.234-149 BC)
On Agriculture

Terence (185-159 BC)
Andria; Hecyra; Heauton Timorumenos; Phormio; Eunuchus; Adelphoe

The Civil Wars [113-70 BC]

Sallust (86-c.35 BC)
History [78-67 BC]; fragmentary
The Catiline Conspiracy [63 BC]
Supplement: Jonson’s Catiline His Conspiracy

Cicero (106-43 BC)

Catullus (c.84-c.54 BC)

Julius Caesar
The Gallic Wars [c.50 BC]
The Civil War [49-48 BC]

Virgil (70-19 BC)

Horace (65-8 BC)

Seutonius (c.69-after 122)
Lives of the Twelve Caesars [c.50 BC-96 AD]

Ovid (43 BC-17 AD)
Love poems

Seneca (c.4 BC-65 AD)
Dialogues and Letters

Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD)
Natural History

[Tiberius, Claudius, Nero]
Annals [14 – N]
Histories [N – 96]

Lucan (c.60 AD)

Petronius (c.60 AD)

Martial (c.40-c.103 AD)

Statius (c.45-c.96 AD)

Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD)

Juvenal (late 1st-early 2nd c.)

Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD)

History of the Roman Empire (180-238 AD)

Big Finale:
Gibbon – Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Chesterton: William Cobbett

July 17, 2017

William Cobbett
G.K. Chesterton
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1931) [1925]
277 p.

Following my wild introduction to William Cobbett last year, I decided I’d like to know more about him, and so turned to this relatively slim biography. Now, reading one of Chesterton’s biographies with the aim of learning about the subject of the biography is a risky venture, for often his books are as much about himself, or about everything under the sun, as they are about the name on the cover. However I believe that in this case the risk paid off; at least, I finish the book feeling that in addition to having learned something about Chesterton, and about everything under the sun, I have learned something about William Cobbett.

What struck me most forcefully as I read Cobbett’s History was the fierce force of his rhetoric, “every homely word like a hatchet”. Chesterton remarks that his contemporaries praised him for his command of the language, and often did so instead of listening to what he was saying: “He who was so stuffed with matter has been admired for his manner; though not perhaps for his manners.” It was an understandable diversionary tactic on the part of his targets, but one that Cobbett played into by an habitual excess:

“He was ever ready to urge a wise economy of expenditure with the wildest extravagance of words. He praised prudence in a series of the most appallingly imprudent speeches ever made by man. He howled and bellowed all the beauties of a sober and sensible and quiet life. But he was perfectly sincere; and it was really thrift and forethought and sobriety that he recommended. Only, it was the trouble with his forethought that it was, among other things, thought; and of his foresight that he could see a little further.”

And what did his far-seeing foresight show him? One of Chesterton’s recurring themes in the book is that Cobbett was prescient. He felt the onset of things, discerned the shape of things to come, before his contemporaries did:

“Of all our social critics lie was by far the most fundamental. He could not help seeing a fight of first principles deadly enough to daunt any fighter. He could not help realising an evil too large for most men to realise, let alone resist. It was as if he had been given an appalling vision, in which the whole land he looked at, dotted with peaceful houses and indifferent men, had the lines and slopes of a slow earthquake.”

He lived at a time when the Industrial Revolution was beginning to transform English society, when banks were becoming large and powerful, when urbanization was accelerating:

“What he saw was the perishing of the whole English power of self-support, the growth of cities that drain and dry up the countryside, the growth of dense dependent populations incapable of finding their own food, the toppling triumph of machines over men, the sprawling omnipotence of financiers over patriots, the herding of humanity in nomadic masses whose very homes are homeless, the terrible necessity of peace and the terrible probability of war, all the loading up of our little island like a sinking ship; the wealth that may mean famine and the culture that may mean despair; the bread of Midas and the sword of Damocles. In a word, he saw what we see, but he saw it when it was not there.”

All of this he opposed: “There lies like a load upon him the impression that the whole world is being reformed; and it is being reformed wrong.” In other words, Cobbett was substantially what we should today call a conservative, though he was not an ideologue. He saw, quite rightly, the traditional ways of life being upended, and he saw, more clearly than we can see today, what was likely to be lost in the process, even as we see, more clearly than him, what was to be gained. But both the gain and the loss ought rightly to be considered.

What Cobbett loved was “liberty, England, the family, [and] the honour of the yeoman”. Chesterton described his “single creed” as this: “God made man to plough and reap and sow.” He was concerned with more than just the “welfare” of workers, but with “their dignity, their good name, their honour, and even their glory.” Therefore he wanted to encourage thrift and self-control among the poor, in part by granting them control over their own affairs, and he feared and despised an economic system that should make them dependent on others.

In his early life Cobbett had been a patriot — an instinctive one, rather than an ideological one. And he remained a patriot his whole life, though, in Chesterton’s words, a disappointed patriot, for he came to understand that the political powers in England were dens of corruption, and he himself suffered at their hands. He, as a fairly young man, protested to Parliament over the flogging of British soldiers, and for his trouble he was put on trial, and sentenced to two years in prison. Chesterton marks this period of trial and imprisonment as a turning point in his life, the crucible in which Cobbett the fearsome controversialist emerged for the first time:

“The man who came out of that prison was not the man who went in. It is not enough to say that he came out in a rage, and may be said to have remained in a rage; to have lived in a rage for thirty years, until he died in a rage in his own place upon the hills of Surrey. There are rages and rages, and they ought to have seen in his eyes when they opened the door that they had let loose a revolution. We talk of a man being in a towering passion and that vigorous English phrase, so much in his own literary manner, is symbolic of his intellectual importance. He did indeed return in a towering passion, a passion that towered above towns and villages like a waterspout, or a cyclone visible from ten counties and crossing England like the stride of the storm. The most terrible of human tongues was loosened and went through the country like a wandering bell, of incessant anger and alarum; till men must have wondered why, when it was in their power, they had not cut it out.”

A prime example of that “most terrible of human tongues” at work is Cobbett’s History of the Protestant Reformation, which, judging from the attention he gives it, Chesterton takes to be Cobbett’s masterpiece. In this book Cobbett tried to straighten out the distorted collective memory of the English people:

“The impression was one of paradox; the mere fact that he seemed to be calling black white, when he declared that what was white had been blackened, or that what seemed to be white had only been whitewashed.”

Chesterton is able to fill in some details about the reception of this fiery work. Although some historians did quibble with this or that detail in Cobbett’s case, his critique survived substantially intact, being substantially true. The most common response to it was, again, to charge him with being impolitic: “It was not really Cobbett’s history that was in controversy; it was his controversialism. It was not his facts that were challenged; it was his challenge.”

Late in his life Cobbett was honoured with a senatorship, a position that called for a willingness to compromise and to speak in platitudes, and therefore a position to which his “cranky common sense” was ill-suited. Chesterton puts it wonderfully:

“The truth is that he was simply a bull in a china shop. His sort of English, his sort of eloquence, his gesture, and his very bodily presence were not suitable in any case to senatorial deliberations. His was the sort of speaking that may make the welkin ring, but only makes the chairman ring a little bell. His attitude and action had about them the great spaces of the downs or the sweeping countrysides; the lifting of the great clouds and the silent upheaval of the hills. His warnings and rebukes sounded more homely and natural when they were shouted, as a man might shout across a meadow a rebuke to a trespasser or a warning against a bull. But that sort of shouting when it is shut up in a close and heated room has the appearance of madness. The company received the impression of a mere maniac. Yet there was not a man in that room who had a clearer head or a clearer style, or a better basis of common sense.”


In the end, then, Cobbett appears as a man at odds with his time, a man who loved greatly and who fought the powerful forces that were threatening the things he loved. He was, says Chesterton, a “model husband and father”, but a difficult friend and a fearsome enemy. He was a man who perceived the shape of things to come, an uneducated man who nonetheless grasped the foundations and never forgot them, a man who seemed paradoxical to his contemporaries because he was wider and larger than they were. (Subtract the fearsomeness from this portrait, and, mirabile dictu, one has a decent portrait of Chesterton himself.)

Chesterton sums up the man and his legacy in a passage worth quoting at some length:

“There was never a Cobbettite except Cobbett. That gives him an absolute quality not without a sort of authority. He was a full man and a ready man, but he was not an exact man. He was not a scientific man or in the orderly and conscious sense even a philosophical man. But he was, by this rather determining test, a great man. He was large enough to be lonely. He had more inside him than he could easily find satisfied outside him. He meant more by what he said even than the other men who said it. He was one of the rare men to whom the truisms are truths. This union of different things in his thoughts was not sufficiently thought out; but it was a union. It was not a compromise; it was a man. That is what is meant by saying that it was also a great man.


That is the paradox of Cobbett; that in a sense he quarrelled with everybody because he reconciled everything. From him, at least, so many men were divided, because in him so many things were unified. He appeared inconsistent enough in the thousand things that he reviled; but he would have appeared far more inconsistent in the things that he accepted. The breadth of his sympathy would have been stranger than all his antipathies; and his peace was more provocative than war. Therefore it is that our last impression of him is of a loneliness not wholly due to his hatreds, but partly also to his loves. For the desires of his intellect and imagination never met anything but thwarting and wounding in this world; and though the ordinary part of him was often happy enough, the superior part was never satisfied. He never came quite near enough to a religion that might have satisfied him. But with philosophies he would never have been satisfied, especially the mean and meagre philosophies of his day. The cause he felt within him was too mighty and multiform to have been fed with anything less than the Faith. Therefore it was that when he lay dying in his farmhouse on the hills, those he had loved best in his simple fashion were near to his heart; but of all the millions of the outer world there was none near to his mind, and all that he meant escaped and went its way, like a great wind that roars over the rolling downs.”


The three principal literary works of Cobbett which Chesterton selects for praise are an English Grammar, the history of the Reformation in England, and Rural Rides, which I gather is a kind of opinionated travelogue. Having already read the second of these, and therefore confronted with a choice between the first and last, I believe I’ll opt for the last.


[Cobbett and Johnson]
So many things united these two great Englishmen, and not least their instinctive embodiment of England; they were alike in their benevolent bullying, in something private and practical, and very much to the point in their individual tenderness, in their surly sympathy for the Catholic tradition, in their dark doubts of the coming time.

Rationalism is a romance of youth. There is nothing very much the matter with the age of reason; except, alas, that it comes before the age of discretion.

Aristotle: Politics

July 9, 2017

Translated by Benjamin Jowett
(Everyman, 1941) [c.325 BC]
264 p.

Obviously this is a great book, and these notes make no pretence to be anything other than jottings. I might begin by confessing that I’m not, all things considered, very interested in politics or political theory, but I chose this of Aristotle’s works because I’d already read some of those more interesting to me (Ethics, De Anima, Physics), and because some of the others more interesting (Metaphysics, Logic) looked too hard to tackle in my current state of life.

It had been some time since I last spent any extended time with Aristotle. I know people say that his works as they have come down to us lack personality – and may well not be from his pen at all – but that lack of personality is itself a kind of personality, and it was nice to be back in his company.

Aristotle can be counted on to state basic principles clearly. Sometimes these principles are obvious, and sometimes not, but anyway it is part of his thorough method to state them. It feels good just to say them aloud:

The state is a creation of nature, and … man is by nature a political animal. (Bk I)


A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature. (Bk I)

Obvious, as I say, but contrary to the founding principles of much modern political philosophy, and refreshing. Or he says this of the rule of law:

Two parts of good government; one is the actual obedience of citizens to the laws, the other part is the goodness of the laws which they obey. (Bk IV)

With this consequence:

In some states the good man and the good citizen are the same, and in others different. (Bk III)

Sometimes his declarations have the force of aphorisms:

Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all. (Bk I)


The law is reason unaffected by desire. (Bk III)


To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls. (Bk VIII)

Or, in a claim that I am sure must be cited in The Abolition of Man:

Virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright. (Bk VIII).

Of course, the Politics is more than just aphorisms; it’s a set of arguments. His principle purpose, as I understand it, is to inquire into the nature of states, and to survey different models of governance, studying their characteristic strengths and weaknesses.

Aristotle has a high view of the state. He writes:

If all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good. (Bk I)

This is broadly consistent with the political vision set forth by Plato in Republic, and once again at odds with the main trunk of modern political theory, which (insofar as I understand it) rolled back the state from pursuing a vision of the highest good, opting instead for a more modest role as custodian of peace and guarantor of certain individual freedoms. Of course, highest goods are hard to ignore permanently, and a reasonable argument can be made that those “individual freedoms”, which were originally an alternative to a politics of the highest good, have become in time themselves that highest good. But that’s another story.

Aristotle’s view that the state “embraces all the rest” gives his vision of politics an uncomfortably totalitarian flavour. Here, for instance, he comments on the place of the family and the individual in politics:

The state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part.” (Bk I)

The citizen should be moulded to suit the form of government under which he lives. (Bk VIII)

Neither must it be supposed that any one of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state… (Bk VIII)

That first statement is the opposite of what I would argue: in fact the family is the most basic political community, prior to all others, because parts are of necessity prior to the whole. The second is less objectionable, and can be taken in a banal way – in a democracy, for instance, citizens should be virtuous, since they can hardly govern a polity well if they cannot govern themselves. But there’s something ominous about it too, especially that “should”. The third statement comes from his remarks on education, in which he criticizes the practice of parents deciding for themselves how to educate their children, and argues instead for public education specifically on the grounds that it is necessary to cultivate in children the virtues required for the preservation of the common good: “since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all.” One can see the force of the argument, of course, but I’m wary of any attempt by the state to form the souls of children — especially my children.

The principal forms of government Aristotle analyzes are monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government – rule by one, few, or many. He proceeds by looking at a number of real cases, as well as some theoretical ones (such as that described in Republic). He notes that each of these forms of government can become corrupted, with monarchy devolving to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy, and constitutional government to democracy. By “democracy” he doesn’t mean exactly what we usually mean, but specifically that form of “rule by the many” in which the will of the majority has the force of law (rather than operating under the law). He argues that, whatever the form of government, a healthy government is one that rules in favour of the common good.

As far as I could see, he took no strong position on which form of government was to be preferred, but he did express a mild preference for rule by the many, both because “passion perverts the minds of rulers, even when they are the best of men”, and because the many, on account of their wide variety of knowledge and experience, may be able to act more prudently and with better reason than the few. I do not find this entirely convincing.

Bad Aristotle makes a number of appearances in these pages. We get, for instance, his famous statement that slavery is natural (“the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master”). Those of us who admire Aristotle would like to chalk this up to limitations in the moral vision of the time and place in which he lived, and this is true to some extent, but he makes things more difficult by acknowledging (in Bk I, 3) that this view of slavery is contested. At least as reprehensible are his views on infanticide (“let there be a law that no deformed child shall live”). He would permit abortion, but only “before life and sense have begun”; he may be bad, but on this point he is, at least, not so bad as we are.

In the eighth and final Book, he has a very interesting discussion of leisure, and in particular of music-making and music-appreciation as leisure activities. As Josef Pieper argued in his wonderful book, Aristotle had a high view of leisure, seeing it not as a time for mere amusement, but for activities which are valued for their own sake. Precisely because leisure activities are intrinsically valuable, they are better than servile work: “The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end” (Bk VIII). I’m not sure just what he means by calling leisure “the first principle of all action”, but when he says that leisure is the “end” of occupation, he means that we do our servile work in order to have leisure. I remember that Jacques Barzun somewhere says that it is the sign of a healthy soul to hate one’s job, precisely because for most of us it prevents us from spending our time on what is intrinsically worthwhile; this chaffing against employment obligations, while wearisome and frustrating, is fundamentally sound. And leisure, on this view, should not be confused with “idleness”, but might be very vigorous and even exhausting. Philosophy, for instance, is a good example of a worthy leisure activity, as are the arts, religion, and maybe even sports. Music enters into this discussion because it is one of those things which we can enjoy for its own sake. It amuses us, but also gives us a kind of intellectual enjoyment which is the special purview of rational creatures.

Music can also serve instrumental purposes, and in this role is crucial to education, in Aristotle’s view, because it has the power to influence and shape the soul and the character of the hearer. He discusses the different musical modes and their effects on listeners, and goes on to argue that its capacity to evoke emotional responses makes music of special value for teaching virtue, which, as was already said above, “consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright”. That music can bear resemblance to moral qualities is almost unique among objects of sense.

I knew that Plato gave attention to music in Republic because of its power to affect the soul, but I was not, until reading Politics, aware that Aristotle had done the same. It would be interesting one day to sit down and compare the two treatments.


I’ve done little more in these brief notes than skim the surface, picking out a handful of things that most interested me. There’s a lot of detailed argumentation in Politics about effective policies, principles, and objectives of different types of government. For the most part this was more than I wanted, but naturally that’s a reflection of my own limitations.

Happy birthday, Mahler

July 7, 2017

Mahler turns 157 years old today. To celebrate, let’s listen to the epic final movement of his Symphony No.6, here played by the London Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle:

Screwtape on music and silence

July 6, 2017

Infernal ambitions:

Music and silence — how I detest them both! … no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile … We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in that direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.

And, I daresay, a bad deal of progress has been made since Screwtape wrote these words in 1942.

Grahame: Dream Days

July 3, 2017

Dream Days
Kenneth Grahame
(Dodd, Mead & Co., 1953) [1898]
160 p.

A few years after The Golden Age, Kenneth Grahame published this volume, which can reasonably be considered a sequel: like The Golden Age it immerses us in the experience of childhood, and at least some of its characters reappear from the earlier book.

Abandoning the beaten track, I then struck homewards through the fields; not that the way was very much shorter, but rather because on that route one avoided the bridge, and had to splash through the stream and get refreshingly wet. Bridges were made for narrow folk, for people with aims and vocations which compelled abandonment of many of life’s highest pleasures. Truly wise men called on each element alike to minister to their joy, and while the touch of sun-bathed air, the fragrance of garden soil, the ductible qualities of mud, and the spark-whirling rapture of playing with fire, had each their special charm, they did not overlook the bliss of getting their feet wet.

Unless I am mistaken, these eight mostly-disjoint chapters are more substantial than the briefer vignettes in The Golden Age. Perhaps my favourite of them was “Its Walls Were As Of Jasper”, a marvellous evocation of the experience of reading a children’s picture book with a fully alive child’s imagination.

There was plenty to do in this pleasant land. The annoying thing about it was, one could never penetrate beyond a certain point. I might wander up that road as often as I liked, I was bound to be brought up at the gateway, the funny galleried, top-heavy gateway, of the little walled town. Inside, doubtless, there were high jinks going on; but the password was denied to me. I could get on board a boat and row up as far as the curly ship, but around the headland I might not go. On the other side, of a surety, the shipping lay thick. The merchants walked on the quay, and the sailors sang as they swung out the corded bales. But as for me, I must stay down in the meadow, and imagine it all as best I could.

Of course, a child is sometimes not scrupulous about exactly which book to read, and not always sensible of the antiquity or fragility of a particular volume, which defects land our narrator in a spot of trouble.

Other stories are about a visit to the circus (“The Magic Ring”), about the death of a family friend (“Dies Irae”), and — another favourite — about an elaborate game of make-believe on the high seas replete with pirates, battles, international diplomacy, and, naturally, a princess (“A Saga of the Seas”). In each story we are immersed in the imaginative world of children, into which adult concerns intrude only fitfully and weakly.

There had never been any one like Billy in his own particular sphere; and now he was drowned, they said, and Martha was miserable, and—and I couldn’t get a new bootlace. They told me that Billy would never come back any more, and I stared out of the window at the sun which came back, right enough, every day, and their news conveyed nothing whatever to me. Martha’s sorrow hit home a little, but only because the actual sight and sound of it gave me a dull, bad sort of pain low down inside—a pain not to be actually located. Moreover, I was still wanting my bootlace.

The longest, and, I should think, best-known of these stories is “The Reluctant Dragon”, which, shorn of the narrative frame it has here, has been reproduced on its own and re-illustrated by numerous hands. A boy discovers a dragon in a cave near his home, but an immensely civilized and gentle dragon he is, and when St George arrives in town intent on fighting him to the death, our boy must intervene to preserve the peace. It’s a likeable enough story, but I confess that something about it rubbed me the wrong way — perhaps it was the rather effeminate St George — and it was, for me, among the least successful of these stories.

Being a book by Kenneth Grahame, it goes without saying that Dream Days is gorgeously written; the sheer beauty of its prose is a consolation. Grahame’s next book, published a full decade later, was to be The Wind in the Willows, which thoroughly and rightly overshadowed what came before it, but The Golden Age is nonetheless still a rewarding read.