Archive for the 'Book Note' Category

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)

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?

Serraillier: The Ballad of Kon-Tiki

March 27, 2017

The Ballad of Kon-Tiki, and other verses
Ian Serraillier
(Oxford, 1952)
71 p.

When I bought this book I assumed it was intended for children, it not occurring to me that there might have been times and places where adults would read narrative poetry for their own pleasure. Nonetheless, that seems to be just what we have here: a verse account of the adventures that befell the Kon-Tiki expedition, not especially intended for children.

This expedition, if you do not know, was undertaken in the late 1940s by Thor Heyerdahl and five companions. They sailed a balsa-wood raft, “one flake of foam darker than the rest”, 7000 km across the South Pacific, from Peru to Polynesia, as an anthropological experiment. The story has been told, in prose, in Heyerdahl’s wonderful book The Kon-Tiki Expedition (which I wrote about some years ago). Everybody thought they were crazy to try it, and they sort of were, but they succeeded.

The poem begins with their preparations, with the warnings against rashness, and with the launch. We meet each of the sailors, and encounter a huge storm:

And the trade wind swept them northward
to a raging hell of waters, niagara confounded.
They were whirled about and pounded,
gulped down the ocean’s greedy throat
and spewed out again, up-ended,
checked in mid-somersault
yet still afloat.

Landlubber that I am, the thought of a storm at sea doesn’t immediately put me in mind of a throat. But I note with interest that the same connection is made by Eliot:

Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them…

so perhaps I’m missing something. Serraillier goes on to relate some of the more dramatic episodes in the expedition, such as the encounter with a whale shark, and the time one of the men fell overboard and seemed to be lost. But the greatest drama is reserved for the harrowing landing on the Raroia reef, a massive, bone-crushing coral reef against which they were pushed at their journey’s end, and which they, seemingly by a miracle, survived, though the Kon-Tiki was reduced to wreckage:

the cabin battered,
a house of cards collapsed on deck;
the helm in splinters, and the steering block
a mangled crock;
crossbeam and hardwood mast snapped off,
the bamboo deck ripped up and slapped
like pasted paper on the cabin wall.

There is nothing greatly profound about a poem like this, no layers into which to delve, but, on its own terms, considered simply as a narrative poem about a great and true adventure, I found it enjoyable.

*

“The Ballad of Kon-Tiki” takes up about half of this volume. The rest consists of a number of other poems, including (sans illustrations) “The Ballad of St Simeon”, which I wrote about last month; seeing it printed in sober black and white reinforces my sense that even that poem is not really intended for children. In addition we get “The Weaver Birds”, which tells an affecting fable about a bird who rescues his mate from trouble, and “The Bishop and the Devil”, a comedic poem in which a medieval French bishop uses the devil’s cunning against him, and a few shorter poems as well. Some of these I liked more than others, but I liked all of them to some extent.

Kelly: Rediscover Catholicism

March 19, 2017

Rediscover Catholicism
Matthew Kelly
(Beacon, 2011) [2nd ed.]
336 p.

Matthew Kelly is by reputation a lively and engaging Catholic speaker and author. When an opportunity arose to peer into one of his books, I took it. This particular book, I understand, has often been given away at parishes, and is one of his most popular.

Based on the title, one would expect the book is written to half-hearted or lapsed Catholics who have to some extent lost their faith and need to rediscover it. And there are sections that seem to be written to that audience. But the book also seems to be intended for dedicated Catholics looking for ways to improve their spiritual life and to bring others to the faith.

The best part of the book for me was the long central section on “the seven pillars of Catholic spirituality”, which Kelly enumerates as: Confession (and he even calls it “Confession”!), daily prayer, the Mass, the Bible, fasting, spiritual reading, and the rosary. I’m sure we all have room to improve our relationship with these touchstones of Catholic life, and his remarks about them were instructive and encouraging.

Kelly appeals throughout the book to a rather chipper formulation of the goal of Catholic life: “to become the best possible version of yourself”. I’m sympathetic to this way of framing the matter (viz. the Biblical idea that Christ came “that you may have life, and that more abundantly”, or the Thomistic notion that the implicit objective of all human action is happiness, or the counsel of St. Irenaeus that “the glory of God is man fully alive”). But somehow Kelly’s formulation also grates on me.  Naturally I do want to become the best possible version of myself, and yes, I do think that my Catholic faith helps me to do that, most importantly by teaching me what that means — but his way of putting it still has for me too much of the self-help / personal-actualization aura about it.

My other criticism is that the book is long-winded. Asked what I was reading, I might well have answered as did the young prince: “Words, words, words”, in plenty. Although you’d never guess it from my gregarious manner on this blog, as a reader I generally favour compression and concision, and in consequence I confess I skimmed through much of this book. But the parts that were good were really quite good, and I think I would recommend it with only slight reservations.

Benson: The Dawn of All

March 13, 2017

The Dawn of All
Robert Hugh Benson
(Aeterna, 2005) [1911]
226 p.

In Lord of the World, written a few years prior to the present novel, Benson had imagined a future confrontation between the Catholic Church and a global secular power, a conflict in which the Church was, in its capacity to assert strength at least, severely over-matched, and reduced to a scattered remnant. The Dawn of All is in many respects a companion piece, a thematic complement to the earlier book, for in it Benson again imagines a global future, but in this case the power balance is reversed: the Church is ascendant, nearly the whole population of the earth has been converted to Christianity, and its truths are taken for granted in all spheres of life.

One might think that for Benson, a Catholic writer, this would be an opportunity to paint an attractive portrait of a harmonious world informed by the truths of the Catholic faith, and one might think that such a portrait would appeal to Catholic readers. Strange to say, this isn’t the case. It is an odd, odd book, either too inept, or too cunningly sly, I’m not sure which.

Our central character is an English prelate, Monsignor Masterman, who, in the opening scene of the novel, finds himself in the middle of a public ceremony with no idea what is happening or what he is doing there. It turns out that he has suffered a sudden amnesia, and remembers nothing of what has happened for at least a half-century. Everything seems strange to him.

Everything seems strange because so much has changed. The wholesale conversion of the world’s peoples to Catholicism has taken place more or less entirely in the interim, so that he finds himself, psychologically at least, suddenly transported from a world like our own, in which Catholicism vies alongside other religions and is largely sidelined in halls of power, to a world transformed, in which Catholicism reigns supreme, occupying a place in culture, law, and government much like the place liberalism occupies in our own, “the centre and not merely a department of national life”.

This amnesia is a — well, I’ll stop short of saying it’s “effective”, but it is helpful — a helpful literary device, because of course the reader is in precisely Masterman’s position, transported suddenly to a world unlike that we know, and it gives Benson a plausible reason to dump a lot (a lot!) of exposition on the reader without being too tedious about it.

Benson has to give us some explanation of how Catholicism suddenly conquered the world, so to speak. This he does by annexing, more or less, the authority of the sciences, for he argues that the findings of maturing sciences, especially medicine and psychology, began to corroborate the claims of Catholicism. Illnesses, it is discovered, are almost all psychosomatic, and it is Catholicism’s cure of souls that is found to most effectively cure the body too. Miracles are confirmed by scientific observation. And so the Catholic faith comes to be generally accepted, but not really on spiritual grounds. It’s just due to an objective finding, rather than an interior conversion.

Is this a problem? I have to be careful here not to prejudge. The scenario Benson describes, for instance, is perhaps not so different from how things looked in medieval times, when the Church was powerful and generally acknowledged as a teacher of truth, and when there was harmony between faith and reason. People believed in the Church more as a brute fact, like we view the political sphere, yet weren’t always greatly devout in consequence. By contrast, a common line in Christian apologetics since at least Pascal has been that the claims of faith are possibly but not certainly true, and that this in-between status is important, indeed essential, to the Christian faith, for had they not that status the appropriate response would be something other than faith, other than trust in God; it would be knowledge or irrationality. But is it really the case that having faith is preferable to having knowledge? To claim so strikes me as, possibly, an instance of using lemons to make lemonade. Indeed, it is contradicted by Catholicism itself, which says (for instance) that the existence of God, at least, can be known by reason, or, to make the point more forcefully, that ultimately the articles of faith, which we see at present through a glass darkly, will become knowledge.

Benson anticipates this response in his readers, and Masterman himself wrestles with these questions, for he too is taken aback. He struggles to adjust to a world where religion is “concrete and effective”:

“somewhere in the back of his mind (why, he knew not) there lurked a sort of only half-perceived assumption that the Catholic religion was but one aspect of truth—one point of view from which, with sufficient though not absolute truth, facts could be discerned.”

And so I am wary of my own initial response to Benson’s setup — that the “conversion” it contemplates is superficial and disappointing. Perhaps then, at a deeper level, I find his scenario discouraging simply because this coincidence of science and religion that he imagines does not seem to be true. Not that I think there is irreconcilable disharmony between them, but we have witnessed nothing like the “hand in glove” relationship between them that he puts into his book.

Setting aside how the world came to be as it is, what does Benson imagine it is actually like? The best part is that Ireland has become an island inhabited almost exclusively by religious orders, full of monasteries and retreat houses. This is nice — although also rather depressing when compared with the contemporary reality. Family life is strong and healthy: divorces are rare, large families are common, and adultery and fornication are censured. But Benson’s picture of what Catholic society would look like is not wholly attractive: there are heresy trials, monarchic government (no more the “intoxicating nightmare of democratic government”), and an educational test for the vote (only 1 in 70 pass).

But the bigger problem for Masterman is that as the Church becomes authoritative for society, and as her power increases, she must exercise that power, and doing so seems to Masterman to be inconsistent with her nature. He believes that the Church, like Christ, must be always ready to suffer, not to inflict suffering. He witnesses a heresy trial, for instance, which greatly disturbs him, all the more so because the man condemned fully accepts the verdict and the authority from which it issues.

The principal action of the novel, insofar as there is action in the novel, addresses precisely this worry of Masterman’s. Has the Church forgotten how to suffer after all? There is a plotline involving the Holy Father and a small group of rebels holding out against the Church that speaks directly to this point, and does so fairly satisfyingly.

**

An oddity about The Dawn of All is that it spends a great deal of time fascinated by volors. These flying ships, sort of like airborne trains, I believe, appeared in Lord of the World too, but peripherally. Here they sometimes seem to be the main attraction, as Benson returns to them time and again, dilating on exactly how they work, how they dock at platforms to let passengers on and off, how it feels to ride on one, what can be seen from one, how quickly they travel, and so on. I grant that thinking about flying machines is interesting, but Benson’s interest in them, or the interest he presumes in his readers, begins to feel excessive.

**

In the end I found The Dawn of All to be disappointing, partly on account of its leaden plotting and long exposition, partly because its portrait of a Catholic society seemed unappealing, and also partly because I felt cheated by an eleventh-hour revelation that cast a different light on much of the novel, and in an extremely annoying way.

**

Some passages:

[Welfare, from Church and state]
The State can only give for economic reasons, however conscientious and individually charitable statesmen may be; while the Church gives for the Love of God, and the Love of God never yet destroyed any man’s self-respect.

[The family as the model of society]
The Socialist saw plainly the rights of the Society; the Anarchist saw the rights of the Individual. How therefore were these to be reconciled? The Church stepped in at that crucial point and answered, By the Family—whether domestic or Religious. For in the Family you have both claims recognized: there is authority and yet there is liberty. For the union of the Family lies in Love; and Love is the only reconciliation of authority and liberty.

[Two poles]
The Pope attended by princes—the Pope on his knees before a barefooted friar. These were the two magnetic points between which blazed Religion.

Johnson: Life of Savage

March 2, 2017

Life of Mr Richard Savage
Samuel Johnson
[1744]

On a bulk, in a cellar, or in a glass-house, among thieves and beggars, was to be found the author of “The Wanderer,” the man of exalted sentiments, extensive views, and curious observations; the man whose remarks on life might have assisted the statesman, whose ideas of virtue might have enlightened the moralist, whose eloquence might have influenced senates, and whose delicacy might have polished courts.

johnson-savageCases in which one reads a biography principally from an interest in the biographer are comparatively rare, but here is one. Nothing against Richard Savage, of course, who was a friend of Johnson’s and an accomplished poet who lived a noteworthy life, but I, at least, decided to read his biography mainly from a desire to spend time with Johnson.

Richard Savage came into the world the son of a vindictive woman who, in a strange reversal of natural inclination, did all in her power to ruin him from the outset, first by refusing to care for him, later by attempting to disinherit him and, later still, scheming to send him into exile. When a man and finding himself accused of a crime, his mother entered the lists to testify against his good character. He never knew the love and comfort of a home.

Johnson, in a sally of dry wit, traces the influence of this harsh childhood on his later vocation as a man of letters:

[He] was reduced to the utmost miseries of want, while he was endeavouring to awaken the affection of a mother. He was therefore obliged to seek some other means of support; and, having no profession, became by necessity an author.

Savage become a poet, specifically, though never a greatly successful one in the commercial markets, and, like Johnson himself, never quite successful at obtaining the patronage of the great. He lived the life of a vagabond, drifting from one “situation” to another, dependent on the charity of others for his basic needs. He was inconstant and heedless in his handling of money; writes Johnson:

To supply him with money was a hopeless attempt; for no sooner did he see himself master of a sum sufficient to set him free from care for a day than he became profuse and luxurious.

And he was generous not only to his friends. Johnson relates the story, already alluded to, of Savage’s arrest over a violent altercation, for which he stood trial under penalty of death. A woman testified falsely against him during the trial, yet, upon his eventual acquittal, she, being destitute, nonetheless approached him to beg assistance, to which he responded by giving her what money he had, on which act Johnson comments:

This is an action which in some ages would have made a saint, and perhaps in others a hero, and which, without any hyperbolical encomiums, must be allowed to be an instance of uncommon generosity, an act of complicated virtue, by which he at once relieved the poor, corrected the vicious, and forgave an enemy; by which he at once remitted the strongest provocations, and exercised the most ardent charity.

It is hard not to feel admiration and affection for a man capable of such a gesture, and Johnson certainly did feel both for him. He is praised especially for his good heart, keen intelligence, fine if modest poetic gift (Johnson is, as ever, an honest judge), and eloquent conversation. Yet such sentiments were not universally held, for Savage’s wayward manner of life, moral courage, and sharp wit variously earned him enemies in many quarters:

Those who thought themselves raised above him by the advantages of riches hated him because they found no protection from the petulance of his wit. Those who were esteemed for their writings feared him as a critic, and maligned him as a rival; and almost all the smaller wits were his professed enemies.

Johnson doesn’t overlook his friend’s faults, and indeed part of the appeal of this biography is the combination of frank criticism and tender affection with which the biographer views his subject. Savage was a complex man, and his biographer is a match. It is precisely the manner in which he tempers justice with mercy that makes Johnson such a superb chronicler of a difficult life:

Those are no proper judges of his conduct who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty; nor will any wise man easily presume to say, “Had I been in Savage’s condition, I should have lived or written better than Savage.”

**

One interested in reading some of Savage’s poetry might follow the link above to his poem “The Wanderer”, or, for a shorter example, to “The Bastard”, a witty, autobiographical ode to his ruthless mother:

O Mother, yet no Mother!—’tis to you,
My Thanks for such distinguish’d Claims are due.

**

The Life of Savage was written in 1744, one year after Savage’s death, and was later collected in Johnson’s Lives of the Poets.

**

In closing, here are several jewels of Johnsonian moral judgment and observation gleaned from these pages:

[Power and resentment]
Power and resentment are seldom strangers.

[Gratitude and resentment]
Those who had before paid their court to him without success soon returned the contempt which they had suffered; and they who had received favours from him, for of such favours as he could bestow he was very liberal, did not always remember them. So much more certain are the effects of resentment than of gratitude. It is not only to many more pleasing to recollect those faults which place others below them, than those virtues by which they are themselves comparatively depressed: but it is likewise more easy to neglect than to recompense. And though there are few who will practise a laborious virtue, there will never be wanting multitudes that will indulge in easy vice.

[Judgement and flattery]
He contented himself with the applause of men of judgment, and was somewhat disposed to exclude all those from the character of men of judgment who did not applaud him.

[Virtue, in love and in life]
The reigning error of his life was that he mistook the love for the practice of virtue, and was indeed not so much a good man as the friend of goodness.

[Judging degrees of understanding]
As many more can discover that a man is richer than that he is wiser than themselves, superiority of understanding is not so readily acknowledged as that of fortune.

Serraillier: The Ballad of St Simeon

February 23, 2017

The Ballad of St Simeonserraillier-st-simeon
Ian Serraillier
Illustrated by Simon Stern
(F. Watts, 1970)
28 p.

The subject of this poem is St Simeon Stylites, who, because “his ways were lonely and he loved God”, leaves ordinary life behind and, of all things, lives atop a pole for most of his life. He suffers exposure to the elements, and the jeers of those below, but he offers counsel to humble souls as well, and when a fearsome dragon threatens the city it is St Simeon whose prayers save the day.

In this large-format edition the poem is illustrated by Simon Stern. The drawings are charming and a bit amateurish, and clearly pitched at young children. Not so the poem itself, I dare say, which seems to me addressed to fairly accomplished readers:

Years Simeon stood, sat, slept
on his pole, communed with God and wept
for the sin-smudged city. Some, not many,
brought him their troubles and he offered
prayers for them but could do no miracle.
How he suffered!
The seasons steam-rollered him. In summer
the flaming sun made him boil
and the pole pain bubble and pop, and
when winter was a turmoil
of flying icicles, in spite of his mother-knitted clothes,
his goose skin hugged his skeleton. So cold was it
that chilblains marbled and the people’s oaths
froze on the air (thawing out in Spring
with a bang).

There are rhymes here, both at line ends and internally, but the rhythm is irregular and a bit tricky, and the poem doesn’t condescend. Somewhat to my surprise, therefore, my 5 year-old son loves it, and has had me read it to him numerous times over the past few weeks. Does that mean I’ve succeeded in finding its music?

As far as the subject matter goes, it’s a good story, and it is well told. Sometimes modern authors treating saints’ lives are tempted to skirt the religious elements, especially when there’s something as distracting as a dragon in the tale, but Serraillier doesn’t do this, and in fact the poem contains Biblical allusions that will render it partly unintelligible to readers without a decent religious formation. A similarly demanding poem, and a poem demanding in a similar way, would probably not be published today in this format. Let us raise a glass, once again, to oldish books.

Benedict XVI: Last Testament

February 14, 2017

benedict-xvi-last-testamentLast Testament
In His Own Words
Benedict XVI, with Peter Seewald
(Bloomsbury, 2016)
xx + 257 p.

This is the latest, and reportedly is to be the last, in a series of book-length interviews which Peter Seewald has conducted with Joseph Ratzinger. The first was The Ratzinger Report, issued when he was Prefect of the CDF, and now, of course, he is our Pope Emeritus. This week marks the fourth anniversary of his resignation from the papal office, and seems a good opportunity to reflect on his life and contributions to the Church.

Given the drama of his resignation from the papacy and the turmoil that has roiled through the Church during Francis’ pontificate, this is a remarkably even-keeled and unsensational entry in the series. They do discuss his decision to resign, putting to rest worries that he was somehow pressured to do so, but for the most part the focus is on Benedict’s biography: his childhood, his decision to become a priest, his theological training, his participation in Vatican II, and his eventual move to Rome. In this sense it retreads, to a certain extent, the ground covered by his memoir, Milestones, but it was good to be reminded of certain details that I had forgotten, or had never known in the first place.

Among these was the surprising discovery that he had had a fairly close relationship with Hans Küng in the early days; they had taught courses together in Tübingen. At that time, they were both considered “progressives”, but obviously their paths parted as the years went on. I was also surprised to learn that when teaching in Münster Ratzinger had been friends with Josef Pieper, meeting at his home, with others, every Sunday afternoon for conversation. I suppose it makes sense that these two great Catholic intellectuals, being contemporaries and both Germans, would know one another, but I hadn’t known it to be actually the case.

One of Benedict’s acts as Pope — one of the more striking and unexpected — was to canonize and elevate to a Doctor of the Church the medieval mystic and composer Hildegard of Bingen. In this interview we learn that he has had a fascination with her since childhood: “The figure of Hildegard always followed me; it was always engaging, always precious to me.”

About his papacy, which Seewald’s introduction aptly describes as “the great retreat the Church needed, to buttress the interior castle and to strengthen her soul”, his modesty is remarkable — or would be remarkable, did we not already know the man. He reiterates his statement that his election in 2005 was like “a guillotine”, which he accepted strictly from obedience to the Holy Spirit and not from anything remotely like personal ambition. It’s well-known that he repeatedly asked John Paul II if he could retire from the CDF and return to academic life, but his request was always denied. When Seewald asks him what he’d really liked to have done in his life, he answers:

“I would have liked to have worked intellectually more… But I’m nevertheless content with the other turn of events, with what has happened… What I could do, as I said, is something other than what I wanted — I wanted my whole life long to be a real professor — but afterwards I see it was good how it went.”

Understand that by “what has happened” he is referring to his being Pope. This indifference to power is one of the aspects of his personality that endears him to me, and to many others. Another is his self-effacement. When asked to compare himself to St John Paul II, he said, with some wit, “I had a different sort of charisma, or rather a non-charisma”, and when asked, a bit cheekily I felt, how the papacy of Francis “corrects” his own, he answered good-naturedly, averring to his preference for solitude: “Perhaps I was not truly among the people enough”. I wish Seewald had asked the same question the other way around, but he didn’t.

About his resignation, Benedict is straightforward: he was tired, and felt he could not adequately manage the many responsibilities. He recalls, with tears in his eyes, his last day as Pope, being airlifted out of the Vatican while all the church bells of Rome rang out below him.

All in all, the present volume is probably a rather minor entry in this important series of interviews, but it is one of the most personal, and for those of us who feel a filial affection for the man, it is a wonderful opportunity to spend time in his company.

Children’s books: beasts and beasties

February 3, 2017

farwell-brownThe Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts
Abbie Farwell Brown
(Kalavela, 2010) [1900]
146 p.

Teaching children about the saints is a worthy labour, and I take the view that it is good they learn the fancies as well as the facts, because the fancies, too, tell us something worth knowing about kindness and goodness. In stories about saints we imaginatively explore the happy side of life. In this book, first published over a century ago, Abbie Farwell Brown collects two dozen tales about saints and animals. The most famous of these in Christian tradition are undoubtedly those involving St Francis of Assisi, and the book closes with them, but Brown also treats us to tales about St Rigobert and the goose that followed him everywhere, about the fish who built a breakwater to shelter St Gudwell’s hermit cave, about St Launomar’s cow which was stolen but then led the robbers through the dark right back to his home, about St Kentigern who restored a robin to life, and numerous others. The stories are not especially religious in tone or content, except insofar as they are about saints. Two or three of the stories are told in verse. All are gracefully written, and were a distinct pleasure to read. My children concur; I read the stories aloud to them, and they were always clamouring for more.

***

nesbit-itFive Children and It
Edith Nesbit
(Puffin Classics, 2008) [1902]
288 p.

I assumed that the nameless “It” was nameless because frightening, and I wanted to read the book before passing it to my children, just to ensure that it was not too frightening. I needn’t have worried. The It is a cute little creature, with a furry, pear-shaped body, antennae-mounted eyes, and gangly limbs. It is easily annoyed, but harmless — at least in Itself.

But the catch is that It has the power of granting wishes — just one each day, and only until sunset — but wishes nonetheless, and for the children who find It that power might not turn out to be entirely benign. If there were ever a book to illustrate the wisdom of the old counsel to “be careful what you wish for”, this is it.

It’s quite a funny book, in its way, as the children make accidental wishes, or wish without thinking things through, and end up in pickles. I enjoyed reading it, and I think most children would enjoy it too. Of the five children, only the baby emerged in my mind as a really distinctive character. The book is well-written, and not too difficult. Nesbit hints on the last page that more adventures are to follow, and I see that she did write a few more books about the same children.

Although I enjoyed the story, and suggested it to our 7-year old, she abandoned it after a few chapters. This was precipitous, in my view — after all, not every book can be as good as the Magic Tree House books! — but the fault is partly mine: probably I gave it to her too soon.

***

grahame-windThe Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame
Illustrated by Arthur Rackham
(Everyman’s, 1993) [1908]
249 p.

Kenneth Grahame lived what seems a rather ordinary, if perhaps unhappy, life: his mother died when he was young, he was unable to attend university and worked his whole career in a bank, and his only child was sickly and committed suicide as a young man. Yet Grahame gave the world one of the great classics of children’s literature, a book so replete with humour and fresh adventure and beauty that it rejoices the heart of the reader each time it is opened. Would that we all could give such a gift.

The book is widely beloved and hardly needs me to praise it. I will just say that as I read it this time I was as dazzled and charmed as ever. It was wonderful to see Mole and Rat again, and I relished the chance to exclaim again over the foolishness of Mr Toad. Most of all, I was grateful for the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”; one doesn’t expect the numinous to come shimmering through the pages of a children’s book about talking animals, but there it is, luminous and alluring.

I am sorry to say that I have not read any other of Grahame’s books. He wrote two memoirs of childhood — The Golden Age and Dream Days — both of which were well-regarded when published (and both of which I own). I’m going to make an effort to read them sometime soon. The man who writes The Wind in the Willows is a man worth getting to know.