Archive for August, 2022

Douglas: Natural Symbols

August 29, 2022

Natural Symbols
Mary Douglas
(Penguin, 1973) [1970]
216 p.

When, in the course of my reading, a particular book is cited by a number of different authors, I begin to think about peering into it, and such was the case with Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols, a work of anthropology that develops a framework for understanding how social restraints and social roles are interrelated. I think. She said the book was “an attempt to develop Durkheim’s programme for a comparative sociology of religion,” which doesn’t sound like the same thing, and is probably why I was baffled much of the time.

The title sounds contradictory; aren’t symbols, almost by definition, conventional signs that vary with social context? She argues that certain basic features of human life, however, such as our bodily reality and our fundamental social relationships (to children; parents, friend, authority, etc.) provide a basis for a fundamental set of natural — that is, based on these basic features of life — symbols that govern human societies. That’s an interesting argument that I’m not in a position to evaluate.

My primary reason for interest in the book turned out to be somewhat peripheral to its main lines of argument. In her discussion of social controls she argues that certain social contexts give rise to anti-ritualism, and one of her case studies for anti-ritualism is the tide of reforms that overtook the Catholic world after Vatican II. She argues that the clerical and academic class were driving the anti-ritualist push, often against the grain of the ordinary churchgoer. The anti-ritualist reforms were promoted as a means of heightening commitment to the faith, but Douglas points out that an attachment to ritual is itself a form of commitment, and that a precipitous effort to undo the ritual risked undoing the commitment as well, which is indeed what happened, at least in some cases.

Ritualism is not a shining word for us; indeed, our leading churchmen sometimes use it as a term of abuse, but for Douglas ritualism is a positive capacity, “a heightened appreciation of symbolic action”. Ritualism, she argues, is absolutely essential for a sacramental religion, which relies on symbolic (and more than symbolic) acts throughout. Lose the ritual, and a strong sense of symbolic power, and you will start to lose the sacramental sense too.

Where ritualism is strong, and symbols are valued, external actions are considered important, and, for instance, what counts as a sin is specified clearly in terms of acts; but where ritualism withers everything moves to the interior, and people will talk instead about internal dispositions and intentions. This internal focus has arisen every time I have asked a priest about the difference between mortal and venial sins.

She identifies three phases in the migration from ritualism in religion: first, a contempt for ritual forms; then, an internalization of religious experience; and finally, a move to humanist philanthropy. On bad days I worry that Pope Francis is already in phase three, but I hope I’m wrong about that.

A main idea of the book, which I’m skirting around here, is that the degree of ritualism in a society is closely tied, by mutual influence, to the structure of social groups in that society, and in particular to the strength of social ties. She gives various arguments for this, and presents various case studies drawn from the anthropology literature to support the claim; all of that is too complicated for me to go into here.

An interesting and provocative corollary of her theory is that anti-ritualism, and indeed outright irreligion, is not at all a disposition unique to modernity, but arises whenever certain social conditions obtain:

Secularization is often treated as a modern trend, attributable to the growth of cities or to the prestige of science, or just to the breakdown of social forms. But we shall see that it is an age-old cosmological type, a product of a definable social experience, which need have nothing to do with urban life or modern science… The contrast of secular with religious has nothing whatsoever to do with the contrast of modern with traditional or primitive. The idea that primitive man is by nature deeply religious is nonsense. The truth is that all of the varieties of skepticism, materialism, and spiritual fervor are found in the range of tribal societies. They vary as much from one another on these lines as any chosen segment of London life.

In a similar way, she sees our contemporary anti-ritualism — a general preference for casualness and a sense that formality is foreign or fake — as a consequence of larger social forces that have weakened social roles and social stability.

Interestingly, she argues that anti-ritualism is typically a posture of protest, raised against a prevailing symbolic order, and that, when it is successful at weakening or overthrowing that order, anti-ritualism fades out as a new set of symbols and rituals assert themselves. Were I adept at thinking, and seeing, like an anthropologist, I might be able to assess whether this is likely to happen, or has already happened, to us.

She argues also that anti-ritualism is usually accompanied by a heightening of ethical sensitivity. In religion it has not been at all uncommon that churches in which dogma and doctrine soften adopt instead a commitment to social reform, etc., so there may be something to this idea. It is consistent with the notion that ritualism tends to focus on external actions, and its negation to involve an inward turn toward motivation, intention, and so forth. A ritualist can find purpose in life through conscientious performance of set practices, but an anti-ritualist feels a burden of conscience and must do something in the world.

Moreover, a trend to anti-ritualism affects religion in other ways as well. For an anti-ritualist, for instance, the person’s relationship to God is conceived as an intimate, inward one, rather than as an objective one governed by rituals. But at the same time the idea of God, because it is captured in the orbit of “friendship” or “personal relationship”, tends to be drained of glory and power. One doesn’t typically find the Pantocrator in an evangelical revival church.

As a case study in the decline of ritualism, or the attack on ritualism, she takes the Catholic custom of abstinence from meat on Fridays. After Vatican II this obligation was nuanced: no longer a strict obligation, Catholics were given the option to replace the long-standing practice with a personal act of charity. It sounds harmless enough, perhaps, but the result was the wholesale collapse of the custom. Why did that happen? She argues that it was foisted on ritual-oriented Catholics by well-meaning but symbol-blind clergy, who did not understand what they were doing. The clergy wanted their people to deepen their faith, and considered the Friday fast to be “mere externals”, mere habit, without the religious depth that they thought preferable. But Douglas argues that any custom strongly adhered to is serving some important purpose, and can be tampered with only by the bold or careless. As Chesterton said, a fence should not be taken down until you understand why it is there. Undermining the symbolic order tied to the Friday fast, whatever it was, sowed confusion that reverberated in that space where Catholics related to the Church, and to one another. The Friday fast disappeared, but not because everybody was conscientiously doing good deeds. It was just gone. But even if they had been conscientiously carrying out acts of charity, something basic would have nonetheless changed:

Friday no longer rings the great cosmic symbols of expiation and atonement: it is not symbolic at all, but a practical day for the organization of charity. Now the English Catholics are like everyone else.

It might be worth noting that many Catholics whom I know, myself included, have returned to the Friday fast, albeit without much encouragement from our pastors and bishops. I won’t try to specify exactly what purpose it is serving, but that there is one I do not doubt.


There is a great deal more to this book than these notes would indicate. As I said, I didn’t understand most of it. I suppose what I take from the book are a few things. First, as a general observation, the way anthropologists see things is quite intriguing; the conceptual framework, and the habit of perception it makes possible, was unfamiliar and felt kind of exciting and kind of dubious at once. Second, I was surprised by her claim that the drift from religious sensibility to irreligious isn’t at all a peculiarly modern one, but rather a commonplace in the anthropological literature in all sorts of contexts. Third, the specific association she makes between formality, ritualism, religion, hierarchy, and strong social structures on one hand, and anti-ritualism, irreligiosity, and weak social structures on the other looks, in retrospect, rather plausible and even obvious, but it’s an association I hadn’t seen fully made before. Finally, I found that the application of her ideas to the post-Vatican II Catholic Church valuable insofar as they cast new light on a much-mulled phenomenon.

I also learned two new words from this book: cachinnation and eleemosynary. Perhaps you already knew them, but let’s not have any cachinnation, even in an eleemosynary spirit, on that account.

Richard Taruskin, RIP

August 26, 2022

The great American musicologist Richard Taruskin passed away last month, and this week Alex Ross has written an appreciation in the New Yorker:

The imperiously brilliant music historian Richard Taruskin, who died on July 1st, at the age of seventy-seven, combined several qualities that are seldom found together in one person. He was, first of all, staggeringly knowledgeable about his chosen field. His near-total command of the history and practice of classical music engendered “The Oxford History of Western Music,” a five-volume, forty-three-hundred-page behemoth, which Taruskin published in 2005. His ability to hold forth with equal bravura on Gregorian chant, polyphonic masses, Baroque concertos, and Russian opera was grounded not only in profound learning but also in deep-seated musicianship.

His Oxford History of Western Music is one of the glories of my home library. Way back when, I wrote about it in this space, and at some length. It remains a staggering achievement, and it is probably the work for which Taruskin will be best and longest remembered, and rightly so.

Ross describes his interests as a scholar, his apparently prickly personality and pugilistic tendencies in argument, and also his (Ross’) own relationship with Taruskin over the years. He reminds us that Taruskin’s wide-ranging intellectual interest in music was always personal and passionate:

An underlying agenda of Taruskin’s work was his drive to convince nonspecialist readers that music mattered—not in some timeless fairy-tale realm but in the fraught lives of twentieth- and twenty-first-century people.

That is certainly the impression I took away from his books. RIP.

Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, III

August 22, 2022

The Sword of the Lictor
The Book of the New Sun, Book III
Gene Wolfe
(ORB, 1994) [1982]
205 p.

This third volume of The Book of the New Sun is a strong entry that continues the epic world-building of the previous volumes, introduces dramatic plot developments, and summons up several effective new characters who develop relationships with our hero, Severian.

As to the first point, although it is true that most of the main planks of the world of the novel have been laid, we continue to get intriguing elaboration of details. We learn, for instance, that the story takes place as an ice age threatens the civilization of which Severian is a part, and — I’m not sure why this surprised me so much! — that it takes place in the southern hemisphere. Some of the details we are offered are so perplexing, such as the casual observation that the moon is green, and then the even more disconcerting claim that the moon is “a sort of island hung in the sky, whose color derived from forests, now immemorially old, planted in the earliest days of the race of Man”, that I really don’t know what to make of them.

The science-fiction vibe of the novels is heightened in this volume by more details about interstellar travel and alien life forms, but at the same time the religious character of the novel is deepened. Severian continues to carry a relic called the Claw of the Conciliator, and it continues, to his considerable perplexity, to work wonders by a logic all its own. Of the Conciliator himself, also called the New Sun, a shadowy, possibly-historical figure who figures largely in the religious cosmogony of the story, we continue to learn. Severian remarks at one point, for instance:

“I found myself thinking how strange it would be if the New Sun, the Daystar himself, were to appear now as suddenly as he had appeared so long ago when he was called the Conciliator, appearing here because it was an inappropriate place and he had always preferred the least appropriate places”

which is rather suggestive. There is some evidence that the influence of the Claw — so called because it is a gem with an apparent claw-shaped defect at its heart — is affecting Severian’s own heart without his knowing it; it is, perhaps, the Claw’s influence that sends Severian into the mountains early in the novel, and we even learn, later, after yet another miraculous episode, a suggestion that Severian’s will is being conformed to the will of the Claw:

I came to understand that I should never reach any real knowledge of the tiny thing I held, and with that thought (for it was a thought) came a third state, one of happy obedience to I knew not what, an obedience without reflection because there was no longer anything to reflect upon, and without the least tincture of rebellion.

The Claw is something like the inverse, then, of Tolkien’s One Ring. It is gentle, and it leads its possessor, step by step, toward goodness. Or so it seems. The real nature of the relationship between Severian and the Claw, which in some real sense is the central relationship in the books so far, is still mysterious. Why has it come into Severian’s possession? Where is it taking him?

Two fine new characters appear in this novel, one a young boy, also named Severian, whom our Severian befriends for a time, and one a monstrous creature whom Severian encounters atop a dizzying mountain peak in what was, for me, the best scene in this series thus far.

On the other hand, several characters from previous volumes returned, and, because I didn’t think they were particularly well-developed earlier, and not particularly well-developed here, I found their segments of the book, including the climatic sequence, rather confusing and arbitrary. It is possible that I missed details earlier that would have helped. (People say that this series is one that improves on re-reading.)

Still a bit of a mixed bag, then, but, on balance, the best so far in my judgement. There are still a number of gigantic loose threads dangling, so I’m very curious to see what transpires in the fourth and final volume.

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, VI

August 14, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 6
Edward Gibbon
(Everyman’s, 1993) [1788]
xxv + 684 p.

The previous volumes had brought the story to roughly the eleventh century, on the cusp of the Crusades. In this final volume Gibbon gathers up all the dangling threads and follows them to the middle of the fifteenth century, when, with the fall of Constantinople, the decline and fall of the Roman empire was completed.

Naturally, the focus is mainly on the eastern empire during these centuries, but he also keeps an attentive eye on the city of Rome. Along the way, we learn about the rise of the Ottoman Turks, the Crusades, religious controversies and schisms and councils, the sack of Constantinople in 1204 (after which, for a time, it was in the hands of Latin-speaking Crusader emperors), the migration of the papacy to Avignon, the Mongol invasions, and, of course, the final defeat of the eastern empire in 1453.

These pages are peopled by a remarkable cast of characters, from great Crusaders like Tancred (in whom “we discover all the virtues of a perfect knight”) and St Louis IX of France (“the father of his people, the friend of his neighbors, and the terror of the infidels”), to admirable foes such as Saladin, Timur, and, at the last, Mehmed II. Nearly an entire chapter is devoted to the life of Rienzi, who tried to revive Rome in the fourteenth century (and who, for his trouble, became the subject of a Wagnerian opera).

It’s a big story, bursting with incident, and boasting a sometimes bewildering surfeit of narrative paths to tread. Some, such as those about the Crusades, were fairly familiar; others, such as those about the Turks and Mongols, were not. Generally speaking, the predominant focus on the long denouement of the eastern empire made this volume the least engaging in the set for me. In these notes I’ll not attempt anything like a thorough overview. Instead, I’ll simply pick out a few aspects that particularly interested me.


The tendency today is to look askance at the Crusades, for a variety of reasons that are too familiar to bother with here. Gibbon, for his part, sees them generally as motivated by an unseemly fanaticism, but he is not unwilling to acknowledge individual excellence among the Crusaders when he sees it, nor does he overlook what he sees as their positive consequences. We saw in the previous volume, for instance, that he thought contact with the western powers en route to the Holy Land gave a very salutary spark to the ailing, inert cultural life of Byzantium. He also, in this volume, makes an argument that the Crusades benefitted western Europe by breaking the feudal system:

“The independence, rapine, and discord of the feudal lords were unmixed with any semblance of good; and every hope of industry and improvement was crushed by the iron weight of the martial aristocracy. Among the causes that undermined that Gothic edifice, a conspicuous place must be allowed to the crusades. The estates of the barons were dissipated, and their race was often extinguished, in these costly and perilous expeditions. Their poverty extorted from their pride those charters of freedom which unlocked the fetters of the slave, secured the farm of the peasant and the shop of the artificer, and gradually restored a substance and a soul to the most numerous and useful part of the community. The conflagration which destroyed the tall and barren trees of the forest gave air and scope to the vegetation of the smaller and nutritive plants of the soil.”

“Unmixed” and “every” strike me as exaggeration; no doubt feudalism had its weaknesses, but the testimony of medieval Europe is more mixed than Gibbon allows here. All the same, it is interesting to me that he makes this argument at all. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was a theory that the Crusades were undertaken by those members of European society who had nothing to lose: unpropertied second sons, and the like. On that view, the Crusades were a kind of greedy violence by which Christendom enriched and employed itself by spilling the blood of Muslims. This theory has been overturned in medieval scholarship, I believe, and has reverted to something very much like what Gibbon argues here: that the wealthy families of Europe impoverished rather than enriched themselves by taking the cross. I’d not have been surprised to find that Gibbon was the originator of the earlier theory; it is instructive to learn that he was not.


At one point, Gibbon discusses the work of the Byzantine historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles (c.1430-c.1470), and the result is quite diverting. By this time quite a lot of Crusaders had come through Byzantium, spinning tales about home, and it is amusing to read what the easterners — or at least this one easterner — thought about the western nations.

Of Germany, for instance, Laonikos writes that

“The soil, except in figs and olives, is sufficiently fruitful; the air is salubrious; the bodies of the natives are robust and healthy; and these cold regions are seldom visited with the calamities of pestilence, or earthquakes…and the Germans may boast of the invention of gunpowder and cannon.”

I’d not be at all surprised to learn that the Germans did indeed boast of it.

Of the French, he notes that they

“…are an ancient and opulent people; and their language and manners, though somewhat different, are not dissimilar from those of the Italians. Vain of the Imperial dignity of Charlemagne, of their victories over the Saracens, and of the exploits of their heroes, Oliver and Rowland, they esteem themselves the first of the western nations; but this foolish arrogance has been recently humbled by the unfortunate events of their wars against the English, the inhabitants of the British island.”

Some things, it seems, just don’t change. Although the English cannot smile too broadly at this appraisal, for they are next:

“…the land is overspread with towns and villages: though destitute of wine, and not abounding in fruit-trees, it is fertile in wheat and barley; in honey and wool; and much cloth is manufactured by the inhabitants… Their language bears no affinity to the idioms of the Continent: in the habits of domestic life, they are not easily distinguished from their neighbors of France: but the most singular circumstance of their manners is their disregard of conjugal honor and of female chastity. In their mutual visits, as the first act of hospitality, the guest is welcomed in the embraces of their wives and daughters: among friends they are lent and borrowed without shame; nor are the islanders offended at this strange commerce, and its inevitable consequences.”

In the face of this scandalous reputation, Gibbon protests that poor Laonikas has “confounded a modest salute with a criminal embrace”, and draws this lesson: “to distrust the accounts of foreign and remote nations, and to suspend our belief of every tale that deviates from the laws of nature and the character of man.”


For me, as, I expect, for many readers, the most engrossing section of this volume concerned the siege of Constantinople in 1453. I was startled to realize, while reading, that although I consider this siege as historically important I did not know much of anything about how it happened. I did not know, for instance, that the siege was led by a young (just 21 years old) Ottoman commander, the Sultan Mehmed II. I did not know that the attacking force numbered in the vicinity of 200,000 men, while the defenders, under the command of Constantine XI Paleologus, were fewer than 10,000. Nor did I know that the attack on Constantinople is important in the annals of military history because it made use of the new technology of gunpowder, which was to so profoundly change both tactics and strategy in the centuries to come.

Most poignant to me was the account of how, after nearly two months of siege,  the people of Constantinople prepared for what they could see was imminent defeat. Of the eve before the city was finally taken, Gibbon writes:

“They wept, they embraced; regardless of their families and fortunes, they devoted their lives; and each commander, departing to his station, maintained all night a vigilant and anxious watch on the rampart. The emperor, and some faithful companions, entered the dome of St. Sophia, which in a few hours was to be converted into a mosque; and devoutly received, with tears and prayers, the sacrament of the holy communion. He reposed some moments in the palace, which resounded with cries and lamentations; solicited the pardon of all whom he might have injured; and mounted on horseback to visit the guards, and explore the motions of the enemy. The distress and fall of the last Constantine are more glorious than the long prosperity of the Byzantine Cæsars.”

And so the city fell. Mehmed II, who earned in this affair the cognomen “the Conqueror”, allowed his soldiers three days of looting, slaughter, and rape, after which about 30,000 civilians, the last remnant of the Roman empire, were sold into slavery.


Around the same time — technically, a few years earlier, but from this distance they look nearly simultaneous — across the sea in Rome, a scholar named Poggio Bracciolini stood with a friend overlooking the ruins of the Roman forum, meditating on the transitoriness of human endeavours, and he later composed a memorable lament for the city, which Gibbon preserves for us:

“Her primeval state, such as she might appear in a remote age, when Evander entertained the stranger of Troy, has been delineated by the fancy of Virgil. This Tarpeian rock was then a savage and solitary thicket: in the time of the poet, it was crowned with the golden roofs of a temple; the temple is overthrown, the gold has been pillaged, the wheel of fortune has accomplished her revolution, and the sacred ground is again disfigured with thorns and brambles. The hill of the Capitol, on which we sit, was formerly the head of the Roman empire, the citadel of the earth, the terror of kings; illustrated by the footsteps of so many triumphs, enriched with the spoils and tributes of so many nations. This spectacle of the world, how is it fallen! how changed! how defaced! The path of victory is obliterated by vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill. Cast your eyes on the Palatine hill, and seek among the shapeless and enormous fragments the marble theatre, the obelisks, the colossal statues, the porticos of Nero’s palace: survey the other hills of the city, the vacant space is interrupted only by ruins and gardens. The forum of the Roman people, where they assembled to enact their laws and elect their magistrates, is now enclosed for the cultivation of pot-herbs, or thrown open for the reception of swine and buffaloes. The public and private edifices, that were founded for eternity, lie prostrate, naked, and broken, like the limbs of a mighty giant; and the ruin is the more visible, from the stupendous relics that have survived the injuries of time and fortune.”

It could hardly be said better.


All good things must come to an end, and we now, at long last, have come to the end of Gibbon’s great work. Nearly two hundred and fifty years have passed since its publication, and naturally some of his scholarship has been superseded, but as a masterpiece of both historiography and of English prose it can have few, if any, rivals. To read the book is to acquire an education in Western history; its principal themes and theses are, as he says, “connected with many of the events most interesting in human annals”. To wit:

the artful policy of the Cæsars, who long maintained the name and image of a free republic; the disorders of military despotism; the rise, establishment, and sects of Christianity; the foundation of Constantinople; the division of the monarchy; the invasion and settlements of the Barbarians of Germany and Scythia; the institutions of the civil law; the character and religion of Mahomet; the temporal sovereignty of the popes; the restoration and decay of the Western empire of Charlemagne; the crusades of the Latins in the East: the conquests of the Saracens and Turks; the ruin of the Greek empire; the state and revolutions of Rome in the middle age.

The very last sentence of the book is a famous one; he, like Poggio Bracciolini, was inspired to write as he sat overlooking the Forum:

“It was among the ruins of the Capitol that I first conceived the idea of a work which has amused and exercised near twenty years of my life, and which, however inadequate to my own wishes, I finally deliver to the curiosity and candor of the public.”

I am happy to acknowledge my gratitude to him — and happy, too, to have finally finished! It took nearly 10 months for me to read the entire book, and, given my state of life, it is fair to say that this counts as a modest but, remembering the parable of the widow’s mite, fine achievement.

In any case, I believe that I have now concluded my efforts to blog about this large work. May those who think I have blogged too much, or those who think I have blogged too little, forgive me. May those who think I have blogged just enough join me in giving thanks to God.

Dickens: Our Mutual Friend

August 7, 2022

Our Mutual Friend
Charles Dickens
(Nonesuch, 2011) [1865]
925 p.

This was the last novel that Charles Dickens completed, and it marked, Chesterton thought, “a happy return to the earlier manner of Dickens at the end of Dickens’ life.” It is the story of a man who, thought dead, returns to his former life in disguise and observes the repercussions of his “death” as they reverberate through the lives of his friends and enemies.

The structure of the story reminded me of Les Miserables: a man has a window into his own previous life, and must decide whether and how to reclaim it. For Jean Valjean that former life was one of crime and suffering, whereas for John Harmon it is one of riches and happiness — yet he hesitates, convinced that he must win the heart of the woman he loves on his own merits, before she knows his true exalted station in society.

Having a character appear under false pretenses for much of the novel gives the book a juicy dose of dramatic irony, an aspect of the book that I greatly enjoyed. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and Our Mutual Friend suffers from too much, much too much, in the way of false pretenses; a late revelation that certain character arcs were wholly feigned struck Chesterton as “highly jerky and unsatisfactory”, and I agree with him. A truly splendid chapter (“The Golden Dustman at his Worst”), which I cheered my way through, turned to ash and dust in the wake of these unwelcome reversals. It would be a shame to allow a book this big and beautiful to be ruined by such a fault, but the temptation is there.

The novel gives us one of Dickens’ least characteristic, but remarkably successful, villains in Bradley Headstone, a desperate third wheel in a love triangle. He is an ordinary man, not a colourful villain in the usual Dickens manner, and noteworthy for being wholly sympathetic; we understand his pain and the actions that follow from it, and nothing about him is lurid or larger than life.

Amusing to me was a subplot involving an interminable reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I have myself been reading alongside the novel. Call me Wegg.

I have compared it, above, to Hugo’s masterpiece, but tonally the two books could hardly be more different. Dickens is a humourist, and his humour is irrepressible. Where another author, for example, might be contented to narrate that a character walked from his house to another, Dickens tells us that

He held as straight a course for the house of the dolls’ dressmaker as the wisdom of his ancestors, exemplified in the construction of the intervening streets, would let him.

It’s a small thing, but typical of his penchant to inject humour into even incidental details. Even the moments of high drama are usually accompanied by an absurd or incongruous aspect that winks our way. Or consider this happy passage on a new mother’s joy in her baby:

It was charming to see Bella contemplating this baby, and finding out her own dimples in that tiny reflection, as if she were looking in the glass without personal vanity. Her cherubic father justly remarked to her husband that the baby seemed to make her younger than before, reminding him of the days when she had a pet doll and used to talk to it as she carried it about. The world might have been challenged to produce another baby who had such a store of pleasant nonsense said and sung to it, as Bella said and sung to this baby; or who was dressed and undressed as often in four-and-twenty hours as Bella dressed and undressed this baby; or who was held behind doors and poked out to stop its father’s way when he came home, as this baby was; or, in a word, who did half the number of baby things, through the lively invention of a gay and proud young mother, that this inexhaustible baby did.

Name me another major novelist who could, or would, write this. Dickens can be inexhaustibly happy, and even goofy, when the situation arises, and I love him for it.

About the only thing I didn’t like about the novel — apart from the structural defect already noted — was a cluster of secondary, or tertiary, characters who popped up here and there, usually only loosely connected to the story. All were unlikable figures — self-important, self-conscious, fashionable, snooty, and joyless. I found their scenes hard to follow, and unnecessary, and therefore irritating. I was delighted, and suitably chastised, therefore, to find that Chesterton, in his essay on the book, singled these characters out as being especially praiseworthy. Chesterton always loved the shaggy, unpremeditated Dickens of Pickwick the most, and in this circle of snooty killjoys he saw Dickens making a near approach to his earlier manner. “The whole point of an early Dickens novel,” he writes, “was to have as many people as possible entirely unconnected with the plot,” and in their scenes, which I found simply confusing, he found the characteristic Dickensian humour, “an unfathomable farce—a farce that goes down to the roots of the universe.”

Reading Chesterton’s remarks on Dickens is an essential adjunct to reading Dickens himself, and I invite you to peruse the essay if you are so inclined.


I conclude with a brief personal note: I believe that I have now read all of the novels that Dickens completed. I began 15 years ago with David Copperfield and, in the intervening years, in fits and starts, somehow worked through all of them. I feel good. Perhaps next year I’ll start with David Copperfield again.


[A good word]
burglarious: relating to or involving burglary

[Power and character]
Power (unless it be the power of intellect or virtue) has ever the greatest attraction for the lowest natures.

[Chesterton on Dickens’ strengths]
He was not good at describing change in anybody, especially not good at describing a change for the worse. The tendency of all his characters is upwards, like bubbles, never downwards, like stones.

Esolen: Life Under Compulsion

August 4, 2022

Life Under Compulsion
Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of your Child
Anthony Esolen
(ISI, 2015)
224 p.

Anthony Esolen, a few years before publishing this book, wrote one called How to Destroy the Imagination of your Child. It was a wonderfully diverting, sometimes trenchant satire written in the tradition of Uncle Screwtape, giving evil counsel in seeming-earnest. This newer book seems, based on the subtitle, to be something of a follow-up, but the Screwtape-ish aspect is gone. Here Esolen gives it to us straight.

The main thesis underlying the book’s various and sometimes sprawling arguments is that much of our modern society, especially though not exclusively as it affects children, is one that lacks freedoms that previous generations enjoyed. Our children, and we, live under compulsion in a variety of respects, sometimes because of how we have organized our lives, sometimes because of our habits of thought, sometimes because of our spiritual condition. That this is so despite our culture’s allegiance to individual freedom is just one of life’s little ironies.

Esolen is drawing here on an oft-made point about the vacuousness of the characteristically modern concept of freedom. “It is an extrinsic condition, and a negative one at that. It means that there are no strings upon the autonomous self.” This seems to promise a certain kind of freedom, but, paradoxically, ends up boxing us in. If we are truly autonomous, we have no natural telos that would give our life shape and direction, and we stagnate. If we are truly autonomous, there is no good or truth beyond us to which we are beholden, and we drift in meaninglessness.  This is in contrast to the older view, which was also paradoxical: constraints bring freedom. “Man’s nature compels him to love what is beautiful and to seek the truth. That drive for love and truth is itself his liberty.” We are only free if we can truly be what we are by nature.

Most of the book is devoted to exploring the implications of this false freedom in education, sex, family life, work, social life, and so on. Sometimes the pertinence of the subject matter to the main argument was obscure to me, and the book occasionally threatened to disintegrate into a hodge-podge, albeit one comprised of good things.

Much of the book, given its special interest in children, is devoted to matters of schooling. Esolen tackles, for instance, the historicist approach to the study of history, in which people of the past are conceived of as doing this or that primarily because of their having been conditioned to think and act in certain ways by historical forces. Moral judgement is out, and context and social construction are in. This seems, superficially, to be a cosmopolitan and tolerant approach to history, one that frees us from the need to bind ourselves to any particular moral judgements. But through the back door comes our jailer, for “the corollary to the lie that Shakespeare had to be that way is that we have to be this way“.

In contrast, when we study history in earnest, encountering people of the past as people like ourselves, failing and succeeding, as the case may be, but fundamentally inhabiting the same moral world that we do, we experience a variety of things not likely to occur to the historicist: we experience wonder at the immemorial, we rejoice at what is truly great, and we experience humility. The ambiguity of history sets our judgement free to praise or blame as we think best, we gain a perspective from which to see our own time and place in contrast, and in so doing to pass judgement on ourselves, and we do so in freedom.

He does not remark on the “woke” phenomenon which has overtaken historical studies in certain quarters. Superficially this seems much like what he admires: benign toleration and moral reticence are out, and righteousness is in. But “wokeness” is curiously one-sided; it seems capable of seeing evil in the past, but not excellence, and it is wedded to a view of social power relations that shackles people of the past — and the present — as thoroughly as historicism did.

Later he makes some provocative comments on how our public schools are organized. In his previous book, if memory serves, he remarked that they actually look, architecturally, like factories, and though the comment might seem kind of grumpy, it’s true! At least, it’s true of the schools in our neighbourhood: they are flat-roofed, non-descript, largely walled instead of windowed, lacking any sort of elegant embellishments. They look like those strip-malls one finds in industrial sections of the city.

Well, in this book he contrasts a typical public school of this kind, “built by contractors and staffed by people largely unknown and with purposes of their own, for whom parents are either compliant clients, no-shows, or pests” with the one-room schools of a hundred years ago:

“Why do people invariably enjoy visiting old one-room schoolhouses? I think it’s because they are human places, on a human scale, for the education of little humans… The school looks in part like a home, or a small town hall, or a chapel. Appropriately so, since it is a public extension of the home, in harmony with the virtues encouraged by the church.”

I do find one-room schoolhouses attractive, don’t you? Though I find them more attractive, even, than our little homeschool, so perhaps in addition to being like a home, the public character of the one-room schoolhouse is also an important part of its appeal.

Be that as it may, what about the ways in which schools organize time? Esolen is not a friend of the clock and the bell:

“The chief lesson that the bell teaches is that all things must serve a utilitarian purpose… The bell says, “Nothing is of ultimate concern, because all things end when I determine.” There are only two reasons why one would study a thing that is not of ultimate concern or that does not bring delight that carries us out of ourselves, as experiences of love and beauty do. One is that it is useful, a means to a farther end. The other is that we have no choice. We are compelled to do it.”

This is quite interesting, as are his comments on that other canard of public schooling: the benefits of ‘socialization’ (“as if it were describing a chemical process”). But in the time of COVID this seems rather backwards; now if you want your kids to be socially well-adjusted you must consider keeping them out of school.


If John Dewey is not your hero, Esolen is ready with some cheering rhetoric that I can’t resist quoting. Dewey, he writes, was

“as narrow-minded a reformer as the world has ever been plagued withal… He was what Arnold would have called a philistine with a hypertrophied brain… a man suffering an exaggerated case of intellectual myopia… He had no poetry in his heart, and he never noticed the lack.”

I don’t know Dewey well enough to know if this is fair, but … but … Damn you, John Dewey!


It’s a fine book, though I confess I did not enjoy it as much as the previous one. Esolen is incapable of writing a dull sentence, but I missed the mischievous energy of the earlier upside-down-ery, and I found the argument here a bit scatter-shot. But the book’s motive is an admirable one, and the cultural criticism he offers is learned and serious and bracing. I conclude with some brief quotes.


[Education and silence]
“Proper education and proper teaching are based on the substance of silence.” (Max Picard)

“[Alongside a] manly and lawful passion for equality … there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.” (Toqueville)

Tolerance is that important but subordinate virtue by which, instructed in our weakness, we bear with what is bad without pretending that it is good.

[Crowds and compulsion]
It is often easier to compel a hundred people to do what you could never compel one person to do. The lone man must consult his conscience, that stern and unflattering arbiter. A man in a crowd, though, can turn to the others, as the others turn to one another, each justifying the deed by referring to the next man, or to the force of all the men together.