Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Tangled in the web

March 4, 2019
  • Art thieves are the aristocrats of the crime world, retaining something of the aura of a dashing gentleman. Michael Finkel writes about Stéphane Breitwieser, one of the most successful — until he was caught, and caught again. Meanwhile the story of Vjeran Tomic, an art thief whom the French press called “Spider-Man” for his dramatic techniques, is told at The New Yorker.
  • Randy Boyagoda is a Canadian author whose new novel, Original Prin, is both “deeply Catholic and deeply funny”, says André Forget in The Walrus. I’m reading the book now, and Forget is right; the book is delightful — except, perhaps, for my wife, who has to put up with my late night guffaws.
  • Speaking of guffaws, James Geary writes in The Paris Review in defence of puns.
  • Puns may be the highest form of literary comedy, but literary hoax cannot be far behind. J.W. McCormack digs into the history of such hoaxes at Literary Hub.
  • Meanwhile, perhaps perpetrating a hoax of his own, Robert C. Koons argues at First Things that T.S. Eliot was a populist. Actually, his argument is an interesting one.
  • At Catholic Herald, Michael White writes about the premiere of a new piece for tenor and orchestra by Sir James MacMillan, The Hills and Vales Along, based on the war-time poetry of Charles Sorley, who was killed in WWI. We’re MacMillan enthusiasts around here.
  • To wrap up: if you’ve ever wondered if your construction worker might be a well-disguised liberal, or whether your journalist friend might be a secret conservative, put your musings to rest. Business Insider breaks down the political biases of different professions based on campaign contributions in the US. They look about how you’d expect, although it is interesting that the liberal professions (journalism, tech, entertainment, academia) tend to be markedly more liberal than the conservative professions (farming, construction, mining) are conservative. Actually, maybe that is what you’d expect.

For an envoi, let’s hear James MacMillan’s Ave maris stella, beautifully sung by a local parish choir:

Cicero: Political Speeches

August 25, 2018

Political Speeches
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Translated from the Latin by D.H. Berry
(Oxford World Classics, 2009) [70-43 BC]
400 p.

Cicero was considered, in his own time, the greatest orator of the Roman world, and his reputation has not faded greatly in the meantime, for those Latinists equipped to appreciate it. This volume gathers together a number of his most famous speeches — not all of them actually given in public, but all intended, at least, to be considered as contributions to Roman politics.

The earliest, from 70 BC, when Cicero was 30 years old, are two In Verram speeches which he prepared for the prosecution of Verres, a former governor of Sicily who had been arrested for corruption. Verres had two main characteristics: he was plainly guilty, and he was immensely wealthy. If acquitted, therefore, the reason would be plain: the courts were corrupted by bribery. Cicero therefore cannily turned the trial into a test of the Senators’ competence to sit as jurors over their peers: “This is a trial in which you will be passing verdict on the defendant, but the Roman people will be passing verdict on you.” This first speech was so effective that Verres fled before the trial could proceed. Nonetheless, Cicero later published a set of five speeches that he would have given, had the trial occurred, in which he set forth his evidence. The fifth of these is included here.


In 66 BC Cicero gave a famous speech in praise of Pompey. In the previous year Pompey had, against all expectation, succeeded in clearing the Mediterranean of the pirates who had long plagued Roman traders, and, his star ascendant, was being considered for command in the war in the east against Mithridates. Cicero’s speaks in favour of granting Pompey this honour:

“My subject is the outstanding and unique merit of Gnaeus Pompeius — a subject on which it is more difficult to finish speaking than to begin.”


In 63 BC Rome was upset by the Catiline conspiracy, an attempt by Catiline to overthrow the government and assume power. This is one of the most famous episodes in all of Roman history, thanks largely to the four great speeches, the Catilinarians, which Cicero, who was consul at the time, composed. The first was given to the Senate on 7 November, the day after the discovery of the conspiracy. Catiline himself was present, and much of the speech is addressed directly to him. A well-known fresco depicts the scene. Cicero advocated Catiline’s exile, rather than his execution, on the grounds that Catiline’s conspirators were likely to follow him, thereby cleansing the city of the trouble that has threatened it. And Catiline did flee the city, that very night.

The second Catilinarian was given the next day, this time to the people of Rome. Cicero described the conspiracy, marshaled the evidence, and urged any remaining conspirators to follow him out of the city. It is a sometimes humorous speech, in which the invective is inventive and powerful. A few weeks later, on 2 December, he laid a trap and intercepted correspondence between conspirators. On this evidence he arrested several of them who remained in Rome, and the next day he spoke again to the people of Rome to describe these developments; this is the third Catilinarian. Finally, on 5 December, Cicero spoke again before the Senate, presenting two main proposals for what to do with the captured conspirators: execute them (as advocated by Silanus) or condemn them to life in prison (as advocated by Caesar), and calling on them to make a wise decision.

As it happened, Cicero himself ordered the execution, without trial, of five captured conspirators, which caused great controversy in Rome and eventually led to Cicero’s being exiled for several years. His part in the drama saved the city (if his own account is to be believed) but nearly ruined his public career.


By 46 BC Rome was in a quite different situation. Caesar was gaining power, and the Republic was under threat from within. Six years earlier Cicero had fought on Pompey’s side against Caesar, and, when Caesar had been victorious, Cicero ceased speaking in the Senate for fear of giving its proceedings a legitimacy he denied that it possessed. But in 46 BC Caesar offered clemency to Marcellus, a friend and ally of Cicero, and in response Cicero rose in the Senate and spoke in honour of Caesar, beginning with a phrase that became famous: “Diuturni silenti…” (The long silence…”). This speech’s unstinting praise of Caesar, in Caesar’s presence, strikes our ears as sycophantic, and we cannot help noting the change of tone from his earlier speeches to a healthier Republican Senate.


The final speech in this collection comes from September 44 BC, about six months after the assassination of Caesar. It is the Second Philippic, a speech directed against Mark Antony, against whom Cicero, siding with Octavian, was fighting for control of Rome. The speech was originally called In Antonium (Against Antony), but acquired its peculiar title on account of a jesting comparison Cicero made, to a friend, between himself and Demosthenes, the most famous orator of the Greek world, who had composed a series of speeches, the Philippics, against Philip of Macedon.

Cicero had reason to later regret his Second Philippic, for in 43 political alliances changed, and Antony joined with Octavian (and Lepidus) to form the so-called Second Triumvirate. They drew up lists of those they wanted executed to consolidate their power, and Antony put Cicero’s name at the top. He was captured, and killed, on 7 December of that year.


Reading these speeches is a crash course in the Roman history of the period, for Cicero stood at or near the center for most of his public life, and this is reason enough to get to know them. But surely part of the attraction, too, is the famous eloquence of Cicero, who is credited with turning the Latin language into an instrument of supple power and charm, and whose greatness as a rhetorician was admired for as long as Latin was spoken. Unfortunately, this aspect of his genius is hard to preserve in translation, and is, perhaps, ultimately unavailable to those of us who cannot read his original words with appreciation. Such is my lamentable condition.

D.H. Berry is, I am sure, a conscientious translator, but his renderings of these great speeches in this edition are not, I dare say, great English prose to compare with Cicero’s great Latin prose. We can appreciate the large scale structure of the speeches, and some of the rhetorical techniques, but the sheer beauty of the language, which seduced generations of admirers, is occluded. Damn you, John Dewey!

Lecture night: psychology and politics

August 23, 2016

Jonathan Haidt is an unusually interesting academic. He is a psychologist who has in recent years turned his attention to matters of public import, and has especially emerged as an advocate of greater “viewpoint diversity” in the academy. To that end, he has founded Heterodox Academy, a forum for highlighting findings that run counter to received opinion in academic disciplines, particularly in the social sciences.

Earlier this month he gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Assocation. His lecture is entitled “What’s Happening to Our Country? How Psychology Can Respond to Political Polarization, Incivility and Intolerance”, and in it he considers a number of long-term polarizing trends in American society and what to do about them.

He’s an engaging speaker. If you’re interested in understanding the Trump phenomenon, or fancy the thought of seeing a crowd of left-wing academics called out for bias by one of their own guild, this lecture might be for you. If you’re of conservative temperament, you might be pleasantly surprised to hear that an eminent academic considers you anything other than roadkill on the upward way of enlightenment. As he says in the lecture, every healthy society needs a party of order and stability as well as a party of change and progress. It sounds sensible to me (except the bit about change and progress). The lecture is about 50 minutes long, once the introductions are over.

If you enjoy this talk, you might also enjoy a TED talk he gave on the respective moral motivations of liberals and conservatives.

A constitutional right to palliative care

June 6, 2016

Starting today physicians in Canada can commit acts of assisted suicide and euthanasia without facing criminal penalties. The deeply flawed law proposed to regulate these “procedures” is still under debate in the Senate, so the present legal framework is murky. Looking for a silver lining in these dark clouds, I propose an argument I’ve not seen elsewhere.

In Carter v Canada the Supreme Court of Canada claimed to discover a right to assisted suicide (and euthanasia?) in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and more specifically in Section 7, which reads

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

Initially — and perhaps also persistently — it seems mysterious that the Court would seek to ground a right to death in a constitutional provision protecting the right to life, but here is the Court’s reasoning in the Carter decision:

The right to life is engaged where the law or state action imposes death or an increased risk of death on a person, either directly or indirectly. Here, the prohibition deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable. The rights to liberty and security of the person, which deal with concerns about autonomy and quality of life, are also engaged. An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person.

Focusing for a moment on the first part of the argument: the Court claims that a prohibition on assisted suicide violates the right to life because it forces some people to kill themselves before they otherwise would were assisted suicide permitted.

Let’s try to put this into the form of a syllogism:

(a) Forcing someone to kill himself violates his right to life.
(b) Failure to provide assisted suicide forces someone to kill himself.
(c) Therefore, failure to provide assisted suicide violates the right to life.

This reasoning is obviously tendentious — premise (b) is false — but for the moment let’s take it for granted. I want to suggest that this same reasoning implies that Canadians enjoy a constitutional right to palliative care.

The argument is simple: absent effective palliative care some individuals will be “forced” to kill themselves — whether directly or through activation of our newly-minted right to assisted suicide — earlier than they would had they access to palliative care. Therefore failure to provide such palliative care to Canadians violates their right to life. In the syllogism above, just replace “assisted suicide” with “palliative care”.

The other arguments deployed by the Court in the section above, pertaining to the rights to liberty and security of the person, are just as relevant to the case of palliative care: without access to palliative care Canadians cannot truly “make decisions concerning their integrity and medical care” (for at least one option for which they might decide is unavailable), and failure to provide palliative care abandons patients “to endure intolerable suffering” and so “impinges on their security of the person”.

Today only 16-30% of Canadians have access to palliative care.

Euthanasia update

April 14, 2016

Today the Liberals tabled their proposed legislation to regulate assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada. I wrote about this issue a few weeks ago when a Parliamentary Committee issued a set of appalling recommendations to those drafting the law, and I had intended to return to the topic occasionally, but, alas, blogging is only my fourth job, and sometimes I don’t find the time.

The good news is that the proposed law ignores most of the recommendations from the Parliamentary Committee. It’s still a terrible law, inasmuch as it legalizes assisted suicide and euthanasia, but it is not as terrible as it might have been, and that is a significant victory. Almost all of the commentary in Canada’s leading papers over the past few weeks was critical of the original recommendations, and perhaps that helped. Many people have been working hard over the last month or two to convince Parliament to introduce safeguards and restrictions into the law, and they deserve some credit for the fact that we’re staring down a law that’s not quite as dire as it might have been.

The proposed law differs from the recommendations insofar as it restricts these “procedures” to adults, disallows advance directives, requires a minimum waiting period (15 days) except in exceptional circumstances, and places stricter requirements on who would be eligible (tending toward only terminal patients, although it doesn’t say so directly). The law — which I have not actually been able to find yet — is apparently silent on the issues of who will be coerced into participation and to what extent, leaving those details up to the provinces or the regulatory medical Colleges. The proposed law does apparently specify that regulations should “respect the personal convictions of health care providers.” What that will mean in practice is hard to say.

So, overlooking the fact that such a law cuts the heart out of the medical profession, undermines the oath each physician took, concedes that people have a constitutional right to require another to commit a grave evil, is confused about whether suicide is good or bad, accepts that killing is an acceptable response to suffering, and provides for a group of Canadian citizens to legally kill another group of Canadian citizens, we can be fairly pleased with this development.

UPDATE: Andrew Coyne, writing for The National Post, has been one of the most astute commentators on the euthanasia ruling and legislation. His column today is no exception. He argues that once one concedes that killing people (or helping them kill themselves) can be an act of beneficence it becomes impossible to impose restrictions on the practice. This is not even a slippery slope argument; it’s just a logical one:

For the logic of assisted suicide permits no other outcome. Once suicide has been accepted, as a formal matter of law, not as something we should wish at all times to prevent, but as relief from intolerable suffering; once it has been established that an individual has a right to such relief, not by his own hand but by another’s; once assisting in suicide has been transformed from a crime into a public service, there is no grounds to limit that relief, that right or that service to some sufferers and not to others.

I believe he is right about that. The sad game is, very probably, up. All in time.

A vulnerable persons standard

March 2, 2016

In an effort to get more and better safeguards for vulnerable patients into the forthcoming assisted suicide/euthanasia legislation, a Vulnerable Persons Standard was launched yesterday.

This Standard is consistent with the Carter ruling that legalized these “procedures” in Canada, but it proposes much tighter restrictions and better oversight in order to provide protection for patients who might request assisted suicide or euthanasia “when what they want and deserve is better treatment – to have their needs for care, respect and palliative and other supports better met.”

For those of us who are opposed to assisted suicide and euthanasia, this Standard can only be a half-measure. It cannot prevent all such “procedures”, but it may prevent some. Under the straitened circumstances imposed by the Supreme Court I see it as a morally praiseworthy initiative.

It has already attracted the support of numerous medical and legal organizations. (Full disclosure: my wife is one of the advisors to the Standard.)

Read the Standard here.

Pundits weigh in

March 2, 2016

Last week I wrote about the recommendations to Parliament made by a committee of MPs to guide legislation of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada. As I said then, the recommendations are irresponsible in the extreme. In the past few days, a number of responses to the Committee’s report have appeared in Canada’s leading newspapers, and I think it is worth drawing attention to them.

The Toronto Star, which is Canada’s largest left-leaning paper, was gently but unequivocally critical of the recommendations, seeing them as needlessly inflammatory and potentially dangerous:

Given the fraught nature of this file, compassion and caution, not compulsion, should be the government’s watchword as it goes ahead. A physician’s first duty is, after all, to do no harm.

A Toronto Star columnist, Thomas Walkom, also highlighted the apparent unwillingness of the Committee to consider the implications of its recommendations for the vulnerable. “Death, it seems, is easier.”

And just today — and frankly rather astoundingly — the Toronto Star has run an op-ed by Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, arguing for conscience protections for doctors:

When the state goes beyond its legitimate but limited role and suppresses conscience rights, I am reminded of a man whose employer told him to do something against his conscience. He courageously replied: “You employ me; you don’t own me.”

Just before the recommendations were issued last week, the Globe & Mail ran a prescient column by Margaret Somerville of McGill University, who has been one of our leading public voices urging skepticism about the putative goods of assisted suicide and euthanasia. She focused on the Liberal Party’s plan to whip the vote on the grounds that assisted suicide and euthanasia are allegedly “Charter issues”:

This “hide behind the Charter” strategy resonates with an “obedience to higher orders” defence to wrongdoing (“it wasn’t my decision, I was forced to do it”), which the law has never accepted as valid.

Also in the Globe & Mail, constitutional lawyer David Baker and University of Toronto professor Trudo Lemmens have written a scathing critique of the Committee’s work:

Essentially all disabilities can be included in the open-ended criteria for access, extending the law beyond the persons with irreversibly declining capacities at the end-of-life that the Supreme Court ruled upon, and disregarding the court’s determination that “psychiatric disorders” were expressly excluded, as well as children, even if children would only have access three years after the new legislation is introduced. The committee further recommends access by advanced directive for people suffering from dementia, which most agree would create a practical and ethical minefield.

In the National Post, Andrew Coyne puts the Committee’s report in context, arguing that each step in the process of legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia has extended the conditions under which it would be permitted:

So the court not only opened the door to assisted suicide, but opened it a little wider than it had been asked to. Nonetheless, it remained confident that the door would open no further. Indeed, the ruling arguably depended on it. The Crown’s case for retaining the prohibition, after all, had rested on the concern that the logic of assisted suicide would not permit it to be limited to the sort of narrow circumstances the court had in mind. Expert testimony was called on the experience in Belgium and other countries, where eligibility for assisted suicide has been extended to children, the mentally incompetent, and others.

The court found this sort of “anecdotal” evidence unpersuasive. These countries, it said, had a very different “medico-legal culture” than ours. In Canada, the “risks” of legalized killing could be limited “through a carefully designed and monitored system of safeguards.”

That was a year ago. The court’s ruling has not yet taken effect, and already we have the report of an all-party joint committee on “physician-assisted dying” recommending legislation that would go far beyond what the court prescribed.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Medical Association has expressed its disappointment with the Committee’s failure to recommend protections for health-care workers who refuse to participate in death-dealing. The CMA has consistently been strong on this point, opposing also the provincial medical colleges, such as those for Ontario and Saskatchewan, who have abandoned conscientious protections for their physicians.

There have been some hear-no-evil, see-no-evil responses to the Committee’s work as well, but all in all I take the above commentary to be broadly encouraging. There may yet be the will to override the Joint Committee’s awful recommendations.

Unassisted, Canada commits moral suicide

February 26, 2016

Last year the Supreme Court of Canada, in Carter v Canada, struck down legal prohibitions of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, alleging to have discerned a right to such procedures lurking somewhere in the background, unnoticed until now, of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Court ordered Parliament to draft legislation to regulate these procedures, and gave it a deadline. Today the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying tabled its recommendations to Parliament, and, my friends, the situation is about as bad as it could be.

Two weeks ago, before the recommendations were public, our Prime Minister announced that all members of the ruling Liberal Party would be required to vote in favour of the legislation, whatever it turned out to be. This was the first indication that it was going to be very bad indeed.

As for me and my house, we have been fighting this every step of the way — writing editorials, writing letters, making phone calls, drafting submissions, attending meetings — and I must say that the Committee’s report is profoundly disappointing.

First a word about language. As usual with issues of this sort, euphemisms abound. The Committee adopts the phrase “medical aid in dying” to cover both assisted suicide and euthanasia, preferring it to “physician assisted dying”, which had been used by the Supreme Court. Both are highly objectionable, and for the same reason: they blur the distinction between palliative care, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. In this post I shall use the acronym ASE for assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The report makes 21 recommendations to legislators. Among them are:

  • ASE for minors. “Mature minors,” to be sure. The meaning of this phrase is unclear. It is worth noting that this recommendation is in direct conflict with the Supreme Court ruling, which restricted access to ASE to adults.
  • ASE for non-terminal conditions. Adopting the vagaries of the Supreme Court nearly word for word, the Committee recommends only that patients have a “grievous and irremediable condition”. The Committee actually recommends against Parliament clarifying what that phrase might mean.
  • ASE for psychiatric patients. There has been great concern over how patients suffering from psychiatric disorders might be treated under the incoming law. The Committee recommends both that psychiatric patients have access to ASE, and that psychological suffering be a legitimate criterion for accessing ASE.
  • No required waiting period. The Committee recommends that “guidelines” for “a period of reflection” be “flexible”. This puts at risk patients suffering acutely or terrified by a recent diagnosis.
  • No advance oversight. The Committee recommends against a review process where eligibility under the law could be assessed. This recommendation, if adopted, will make it very difficult to know if the law is being abused.
  • Public funding? This one is unclear. The Committee recommends that only individuals who are insured under Canada’s health care system have access to ASE — in other words, no euthanasia tourism — but it does not directly say that the procedures themselves should be insured.
  • Coercion of conscientious objectors. This is an issue that has been fiercely contested in the past couple of years in Canada, as many physicians have been fighting to carve out a space for themselves to practice medicine without being undermined by this assault on the principles of their profession. There are two targets here: individual physicians, nurses, and pharmacists on one hand, and Catholic hospitals on the other. Last year the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, which regulates the practice of medicine in Ontario (where I live), changed their policies on conscientious objection, henceforth requiring physicians to either provide the objectionable procedure or provide an “effective referral” to someone who would. But those who provide an “effective referral” — meaning a referral to someone who will do the procedure, and a referral for that express purpose — are complicit. Again, many physicians fought that policy change at the time, partly on the very grounds that the Supreme Court was about to rule on ASE, to which the new policy would apply. Those physicians were told they were alarmist and that everything would be fine. Now the Joint Committee has adopted exactly the same language as the Colleges did: “effective referrals” are to be required “at a minimum”. I’ve not seen that last phrase used in this context before, and I really wonder why it was included. It is very troubling. Also troubling is that institutions will not be permitted to abstain from performing ASE. If a patient is worried about being subjected to pressure to consent to ASE, there will be no safe hospital in Canada.

The report is also notable for what it does not recommend. It does not recommend a mandatory psychiatric assessment for those requesting ASE. It does not recommend that the cause of death (ASE) be put on the death certificate — though it does recommend that statistics on ASE be collected, so perhaps the legislation itself will mandate the former in order to facilitate the latter. It does not recommend that the next of kin of a patient who requests ASE be notified. It does not recommend that patients have access to palliative care before becoming eligible for ASE. All of these safeguards were advanced during the consultation process, but were apparently rejected by the Committee.

One safeguard which the Committee does recommend is that ASE can only be provided if two physicians sign off on it. But it could be any two physicians, not necessarily ones who know the patient well, and not necessarily the first two physicians consulted. In other words, patients can shop for physicians who will sign off.

All in all, an appalling set of recommendations that bodes exceeding ill. If these recommendations are adopted by Parliament — and they almost certainly will be — Canada will have the most radical ASE policies in the world. In particular, the requirement that conscientiously-objecting physicians provide an “effective referral” is not in force in any other jurisdiction, much less “at a minimum”.

We’ve got a bona fide fight on our hands.

The sole bright light is that a small group of four Committee members (including a vice chair) issued a dissenting opinion which is stapled to the back of the Committee’s official report. It is sensible and humane and I recommend that you read it.


If anyone is interested in learning about how Canada got into this mess, I recommend reading “A Right to Voluntary Euthanasia? Confusion in Canada in Carter,” John Keown’s scholarly overview of the court cases, and the principle arguments deployed therein, that eventually led to the Supreme Court’s decision last year. Or, if you prefer, here is a lecture in which he covers much of the same ground.


Smith: How (Not) to be Secular

November 25, 2015

smith-taylorHow (Not) to be Secular
Reading Charles Taylor
James K.A. Smith
(Eerdmans, 2014)
160 p.

It was the toast of many a publishing season: people were seen hunched over it on the subway each morning, others absentmindedly wandered into traffic while poring over its pages, neighbourhood book clubs spontaneously formed so that readers could share their insights, and Facebook was flooded with pithy quotations — I speak, of course, of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Alas for me. As much as I might wish to find my place within that circle of satisfied readers, I have had to take a sobering look at my circumstances and accept that a 900 page text on culture and philosophy is not a realistic ambition for me at present.

And so, instead, I have turned to this attractively slim précis, in which James K.A. Smith takes the reader by the hand and guides him through the various stages of the argument of that unattainable magnum opus.

A Secular Age is, in part, an historical analysis of how Western culture became “secular” during the past five hundred years or so, and, in part, an analysis of what that secularity consists in and feels like for those who are living through it, and, in part, a critique of the secular age and its particular pieties. I have placed “secular” in quotation marks here (but not hereafter) because, as Taylor points out, the word has multiple senses, and he intends it in a particular sense. There is an older sense of secular (which Taylor calls secular_1) which was used simply to distinguish something from the sacred, without necessarily implying any opposition: things of this world, such as politics, agriculture, and friendships could be described as secular_1. Pushing the boundaries a little, people even used to speak of “secular priests”, meaning priests not affiliated with a religious order. But a second sense of “secular” (predictably enough, secular_2) gradually developed which was conceived as the realm of neutrality and objectivity with respect to religious or metaphysical claims. Yet Taylor points to a third sense of secular — secular_3 — which he takes to describe a society in which religious belief has become actively contested, and our age is “a secular age” in this third sense.

To begin with, Taylor wants to challenge the way we think about our secular age. There is a tendency today to believe that secular society is just what remains when religion, superstition, and credulity are stripped away. Its principles are thought to be obvious and clear to any rational person; they are, in some sense, the “natural” principles governing social and intellectual life when those are unsullied by irrational traditions. (President Obama nicely illustrated this in his remarks following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which he described as “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share”. Granted, this was boilerplate liberalism, but that’s just the point: he reflexively described his own values as universal, which, in light of the obvious fact that they are not actually universal, can only make sense if they are conceived of as somehow the natural or default position.)

But Taylor sees secularity in quite a different way, and the first part of his book is dedicated to describing why. He argues that Western secularity is an achievement, a view with a positive history of its own, with its own particular assumptions and values. It is not a default position for rational people, but rather a contingent position that happens to thrive in a particular time and place. I can but sketch the basic outlines of this constructive process by which modernity emerged from the medieval world: whereas for medieval people things in the natural world were experienced as in some sense signs, grounded in a higher reality and full of meaning, the modern view is determinedly disenchanted. For modernity, meaning retreated from things into minds, any intrinsic purposes being expelled. The interior life became impermeable to the natural world or to higher realities (giving birth to what Taylor calls “the buffered self”). Society dissolved into a collection of individuals (what Taylor calls “the great disembedding”). The conception of the good life ceased to be oriented toward the transcendent. This general withdrawal from a world of intrinsic meanings and purposes Taylor, exhibiting a kind of genius for neo-logisms, dubs “excarnation”. But since people cannot actually live without meaning, modernity substituted for the realm of intrinsic meanings a cultural project to locate meaning immanently by reference to moral notions such as “benificence” or “mutual support”, all of which Taylor gathers up under the umbrella of “exclusive humanism” — exclusive of the transcendent, presumably.

The overall effect of all these changes — changes in the way the world is actually experienced — has been a shift in the plausibility conditions for religious belief. For many people it was, and is, no longer obvious that belief in God is compelling or even responsible. At the very least, religious belief and practice are contested in the modern world.

Contested, but not routed, because for Taylor it is characteristic of our age that everyone’s position is experienced as doubtful. Believers realize that their account of things is one option among others. Unbelievers, meanwhile, experience a sense of loss, a feeling that there must be “something more”. We feel the strange pressure of an absence:

“our actions, goals, achievements, and the like, have a lack of weight, gravity, thickness, substance. There is a deeper resonance which they lack, which we feel should be there.” (Taylor)

The origin of this sense of loss is ambiguous on Taylor’s account. It might be an “historical” pressure, simply a residue from old habits, or it might be a real “transcendent” pressure, caused by what Taylor calls “solicitations of the spiritual”. In any event, these “cross-pressures”, which constantly buffet against our sense of secular complacency or religious security, are, in Taylor’s view, experienced by nearly everyone, and the prevalence of such experience Taylor takes to be the defining feature of our secular age.

In his view, cross-pressures arise from three principal sources: the experience of personal agency (“the sense that we aren’t just determined, that we are active, building, creating, shaping agents”); from ethics (the sense that our ethical motives are more than just disguised biological instincts); and from aesthetics (the sense that art has meaning and significance for us). Now, it seems to me that these cross-pressures, so enumerated, pertain especially, or even exclusively, to the secular side, for it is precisely there that determinism, relativism, and meaninglessness are most likely to find a footing, and so it precisely there that the experience of freedom, goodness, and beauty can trouble one’s complacency.

Indeed, if I have understood Taylor’s argument correctly there is an interesting asymmetry between believers and unbelievers when it comes to cross-pressures. For the believer they arise largely because of social factors — roughly speaking, there are atheists and agnostics to contest belief, and a political order has been erected without reference to religion, which unsettles the confidence believers have in the necessity and reliability of their religious traditions and experiences — while for unbelievers the cross-pressures arise directly from the intrinsic features of human experience. It would seem to imply that a religious society untroubled by cross-pressures is a theoretical possibility, but that a parallel unruffled secular society is not. But perhaps this is too simple, for the many transitions that drew the modern world out of the medieval did indeed affect the way that religious believers conceive of and relate to God and to the traditions to which they belong, and the overall tendency of those changes has unmistakably been to undermine or occlude the religious ethos. Religious faith today is more of an achievement, more subject to struggle and trials, than it was for our ancestors, and this is so not just because my neighbour is an atheist. But I am not convinced that the sources of cross-pressure which I listed in the previous paragraph are relevant to the believer’s discomfort.

The next stage of Taylor’s account features another memorable phrase: “the nova effect”. The idea is this: in a secular age, as both faith and doubt become contested, there arises a cultural “explosion of options for finding (or creating) significance”, or what he describes also as “a galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane”. The dynamics of the cultural cross-pressures drive the creation of a host of alternatives to both orthodoxy and unbelief. For the most part, these alternatives seek a remedy for the sense of loss, but do so within the immanent frame (that is, without reference to the transcendent), as in the Romantic notion of “the sublime”. Indeed, the Romantic movement in the nineteenth-century can, I think, be fairly understood as an instance, and a particularly impressive and important one, of this attempt to recover meaning apart from transcendence by investing the arts and human feelings with the highest ideals and significance.

In contemporary society, “spiritual but not religious” can reasonably be understood as a rubric under which the nova effect continues to generate tailor-made substitutes for religion. In a world sundered from transcendent sources of meaning and authority, the spiritual quest is left without referents, and people feel justified in finding their own path to whatever meaning and significance they discern. Hence arises the topsy-turvy notion that one can pick and choose to adhere to those elements of a religious tradition that make a personal appeal, and disregard the rest. “Authenticity” is in the ascendent, and the religious impulse is turned inward to serve the individual, his interests, and desires, adorning them with blossoms plucked from the vineyard of the Lord.

It is also possible, of course, that one of the options produced by the nova effect is a return to traditional religion, as cross-pressures propel one back toward the transcendent. This could be seen, and even intended, as a rejection of the nova effect and all its empty promises. But, as Taylor stresses, things are not so simple, for even those who want to reject this view of things are nonetheless embedded within it, and must contend with it. Given that expressive individualism is an option, it can be rejected only by choosing to reject the priority of choice, which, at the very least, puts one in a paradoxical position. Which is a rather sad thought, but it highlights the difficulty: we cannot escape the disenchanted world; we live in it.


Part of the value of Taylor’s book, it seems to me, is that it introduces a set of terms that can be used to talk about the world we’re in, and among the most useful is a distinction he makes between a “take” and a “spin”. A take is “an over-all sense of things” that “anticipates or leaps ahead of the reasons we can muster for it” (Taylor); I think it would be fair to describe it as an “interpretation” of evidence, somewhat tentative in nature but careful and honest. A spin, on the other hand, is characterized by overconfidence and brusqueness, a dismissal of the complexities of the situation. 

Taylor deploys this distinction to good effect when considering attitudes toward transcendence in our secular age. We can be either open to transcendence, or we can be closed, but in either case we can adopt a take or a spin. Taylor himself has a take on an open frame: he is a practicing Catholic, but he is aware of and interested in the cross-pressures that he feels. But there are others who have a spin on an open construal of the world: they are dismissive of the real difficulties that a religious sensibility faces in our culture; they are perhaps combative with respect to the surrounding culture and uncomfortable with doubt. Similarly for those with a closed construal of things: there are those, as I said earlier, for whom the secular view is “just the way things are”; this is a spin on closure. Taylor argues that it is “hegemonic in the Academy”, and not uncommon beyond. But the fourth quadrant of this little chart is occupied by those who have a take on a closed frame. They are oriented toward the immanent, but are aware of “dispatches from fullness” that hint at deficiencies in their own position. (An honest question: who fits that description?)

Having laid out these distinctions, Taylor devotes a considerable number of pages to interrogating the secular confidence that a closed construal is “obvious” or “natural”. In our culture tendencies toward a closed construal are reinforced by what he calls “closed world structures”, which place constraints or pressures on our construals. These “closed world structures” pretend to be discoveries, but are actually creations, and they are typically value-laden. For example, most of the “closed world structures” of modernity rely on associating modernity with “adulthood” and alternatives to modernity with “infantile” notions like authority and comfort. Such associations coax one toward a modernist affiliation, for who wants to be childish?

Other, deeper, “closed world structures” include a false dichotomy between religion and humanism, philosophical materialism, which denies the existence of the transcendent and claims for itself the authority of science, and modern epistemology, which structures knowledge in such a way that inferences to the transcendent stand at the most remote and tenuous position relative to what can be known with certainty. “The inclination to believe…is no longer the impetus in us towards truth, but has become rather the most dangerous temptation to sin against the austere principles of belief-formation” (Taylor). I won’t go into detail, but I think the idea is clear. We stand at the far end of an immense cultural project to make a closed construal seem natural, and it is little wonder that it succeeds to a great extent.

What is perhaps surprising is that a closed construal still has chinks in its armour. Taylor devotes the final sections of the book to a critique of our secular age, drawing attention to its weaknesses and highlighting those spaces where it is susceptible to “fullness”, which is his term for a kind of rumour of glory, an echo or image within our immanent frame of the transcendent realm beyond it. It is here that Taylor’s Catholicism is most evident, for, as Smith helpfully points out, his critique typically begins with him “levelling the playing field” by describing how both secularism and Christianity face similar problems, and then arguing that Christianity deals more effectively with them.

For example, both Christianity and secular modernity acknowledge that not all is well with the world, but one of the principal transitions in modernity has been from seeing evil as sin to seeing it as sickness. This was supposed to be a liberation from feelings of guilt, but its practical consequence has been that therapy has been translated from the moral plane to the technical plane; instead of submitting to a priest one now submits to a therapist, and personal responsibility has been replaced by a sense of victimization. Which is better?

Or, to take another example: a standard modernist critique of religion is that it suppresses or mutilates human desires in pursuit of some transcendent good. But Taylor points out that the same charge can be made of secularism, which also has moral aspirations which require the discipline and denial of desires. The problem, in fact, is more acute for secularism because all of the pressure is “on us” to succeed; if we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Having surveyed a number of such cases, Taylor comes around again to the possibility, and desirability, of religious conversion. He considers several notable examples of “those who broke out of the immanent frame”, or at least moved from a closed take to an open one, including Illich, Maritain, Peguy, Havel, and Hopkins — which is a pretty good list. Despite the hazards of this turn to the transcendent, outlined earlier, he finally endorses it not just as a possible course, but as the most fully reasonable one:

“In our religious lives we are responding to a transcendent reality. We all have some sense of this, which emerges in our identifying and recognizing some mode of what I have called fullness, and seeking to attain it. Modes of fullness recognized by exclusive humanisms, and others that remain within the immanent frame, are therefore respondent to transcendent reality, but misrecognizing it. They are shutting out crucial features of it. So the structural characteristic of the religious (re)conversions that I described above, that one feels oneself to be breaking out of a narrower frame into a broader field, which makes sense of things in a different way, corresponds to reality.” (Taylor)

And that, it seems to me, is a good place to stop.


Or nearly so. As I said at the beginning, I didn’t actually read Taylor’s book; I read Smith’s summary, and so everything I’ve said here has been filtered through him. I found his book, which would ideally be read alongside Taylor’s book, to be clear and well-structured. He has an accessible style, and seems to know what he’s talking about. I am grateful for his book, which has allowed me to learn about, and learn from, a rather important contribution to the ongoing conversation about our secular age, and all without breaking a sweat.

A wee bit here, a wee bit there

November 20, 2015

A few wee bits of note:

  • The recent Synod on the Family in Rome hasn’t, by and large, been a laughing matter, so this provides welcome comic relief.
  • Fr Longenecker, a long-time blogger at Standing on my Head, has recently launched a new blog: The Suburban Hermit. If you’ve an interest in things Benedictine, or like to look at old abbeys and read old books, it might be for you. Just today he wrote about our sort-of patroness, St Julian of Norwich.
  • Canada has a new Prime Minister, and he’s setting a new tone in international affairs.
  • Janet Cupo is planning to host an online book club during Advent this year; we’ll be reading Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of GodThere’s probably still time to get a copy if you’re interested; mine arrived in the mail today.
  • My day job, in part.
  • Wouldn’t it be great to have a school like this in your neighbourhood?
  • On a similar note: Russell Kirk on why one might want to learn Latin? I studied it for a year. Avis, avis, avis.
  • One possible reason: to realize more clearly that English is not normal.
  • Did you know there is an animal that can survive being dehydrated for 10 years, being kept at 200 degrees below freezing, and going to outer space? Meet the mightiest wee bit of them all: the tardigrade.