Blessed John of Fiesole

April 17, 2016

I’ve written a short appreciation of the painter Blessed John of Fiesole (aka Fra Angelico) for the 52 Saints series at The Three Prayers. I’ve loved Angelico for years, and, with this opportunity to write about him, I’d really hoped to turn out a thoughtful essay on art, beauty, and holiness. Alas, the best I could manage was to witlessly point at a few of his paintings. If you’re interested, it’s here.


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.


Kalb: The Tyranny of Liberalism

April 12, 2016

The Tyranny of Liberalismkalb-tyranny
Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command
James Kalb
(ISI, 2008)
317 p.

To judge by its cover, and by its title, and especially by its subtitle, this is a book to which I would normally give a wide berth. I haven’t any interest in reading partisan political rhetoric. It was only on the recommendation of several friends whose judgment I respect that, with my eyebrows forming a skeptical arch, I sat down with it to have a look. I am glad that I did so. The book is not only good, but unusually good: perceptive and clear, written in a close analytical style, and devoid of partisan rhetoric. Sometimes you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

In a sense, it was easy for Kalb to remain non-partisan, because the liberalism he criticizes is found across the spectrum of contemporary Western politics. “What pass as battles between liberals and conservatives are almost always disputes between different stages or tendencies within liberalism itself,” he writes. This makes his critique a radical one, of course, and even perhaps quixotic, since it contests nearly every animating principle of contemporary political and intellectual life. But it is also an honest and incisive one, and worthy of a hearing.

Before getting into the details, it might be worthwhile to pause over an initial difficulty: the very word “liberalism” may be an impediment. I don’t know how it is where you live, but where I live (in the frosty true north, strong and free), “liberal” is a kind of synonym for “good”. “Liberal” means welcoming, generous, and kind. To be against liberalism is like being against smiles and free daycare. So I had occasion more than once while reading to wish that we could have replaced that word “liberal” and its cognates with “X”. It would be easier to see the thing as Kalb wants us to see it if all of the associations of the word weren’t creeping in from the margins. The reader must be prepared to make the extra critical effort to treat “liberal” as a mere descriptor, not a word with an aura around it.

Kalb argues that liberalism is committed, at bottom, to one principle: equal freedom. Liberals believe that governance committed to equal freedom will be just and rational, and Kalb acknowledges that their intentions are, by and large, good: “Liberalism is inspired by the dream of political principles that rule without oppressiveness because they have the universality, transparency, and power of logic.” However, the very simplicity of liberalism means that it lacks balance:

Freedom and equality are abstract, open-ended, and ever-ramifying goals that can be taken to extremes. Liberals tend to view these goals as a simple matter of justice and rationality that prudential considerations may sometimes delay but no principle can legitimately override. In the absence of definite limiting principles, liberal demands become more and more far-reaching and the means used to advance them ever more comprehensive, detailed, and intrusive.

The trouble is that human life is complicated, and resistant to liberal requirements. There are things people think are important, such as ethnicity, sex, religion, nationality, and family ties, all of which liberalism cannot permit to matter because they treat people unequally. Since we have a natural tendency to behave as though such things do matter, a liberal social order requires constant nagging interference to ensure things run “correctly”. And because there are always new things to “correct”, and because liberalism has no built-in moderating principle, it cannot help but go on “correcting” them:

Liberalism loosens and disorders the connections and particularities on which it depends. It cannot keep from doing so, because it is progressive and idealistic… As liberalism develops, consciousness is raised, the remaining illiberal aspects of the social order become plain, and liberals, in order to remain liberal, must attempt to eradicate them. Attempts to get rid of particular inequalities bring to the fore others, so that liberalism continually radicalizes itself.

The result is the creation of a politically correct managerial regime to ensure that traditional social distinctions and institutions give way before rational ones: a liberal tyranny. This, in a nutshell, is the argument of the book.

**

It is worth taking a closer look at the reigning principle of liberalism: equal freedom. It implies that within a liberal framework all preferences, being equally preferences, must be accorded equal value and respect. This means that hierarchies of preferences, or moral evaluations of preferences, have no legitimate place. Hence liberalism must deny the value of both tradition and transcendent authorities, both of which typically favour certain desires and disfavour others. Only individual desire — the will of man — enters into consideration for liberalism, and the goal of a liberal social order is to ensure that as many as possible of these individual preferences are met: in Kalb’s words, mature liberalism is “a universal, technically rational system for the equal satisfaction of desire.” Thus it comes about quite naturally that the basic moral goods in a liberal society are “equality, autonomy, and hedonism” (this latter being understood in the literal, rather than the pejorative, sense).

Because liberalism admits no substantive or transcendent goods, appeals to such goods must appear, within the system, as mere power plays, rhetorical ploys intended to disrupt the system. “Traditional morality, which makes some desires superior to others, is thus understood as a devious effort to control others and becomes a stock example of immorality.” The world is upside down.

Of course, in practice not all desires can be satisfied without conflicts, and so some measure of control and discrimination is necessary for peaceable governance. In cases of conflict, liberalism gives preference to “neutral” goals which interfere minimally with others. In this way, “neutrality” becomes a secondary, but crucial, substantive principle within liberalism.

**************************************
Kalb’s Dictionary

discrimination: “the recognition of serious nonbureaucratic and nonmarket distinctions”

tolerance: “indifference or aversion to traditional distinctions not required by liberal institutions”

intolerance: “the recognition that not all values can be turned into mutually independent and interchangeable commodities”

fundamentalism: “recognition of an authoritative principle that cannot be reduced to a unified rationalized process”

multiculturalism: “the comprehensive effort to detach social life from particular culture and inherited community”

*****************************************

Certain institutions are characteristic of liberal societies. The liberal stress on satisfaction of preferences makes it friendly to markets, and the need to manage social life so that it respects liberal principles generates bureaucracies. Courts are required to enforce the standard of equal freedom. The usual political form in liberal societies is representative democracy, but, Kalb argues, the democratic process is required to operate within definite and, if the argument about the steady creep of liberalism is sound, steadily reduced limits. The abstract commitment to freedom and equality overrules the commitment to democracy:

The insistence that concept trumps substantive choice has consequences that are greatly at odds with claims that liberalism is democratic. It means that liberalism has right and wrong answers. Since the people often choose the wrong answers, their actual views cannot be taken seriously and must often be ignored.

An important plank in the enforcement of liberalism is “human rights”. I remember reading an essay some years ago by, I think, Joseph Bottum, in which he remarked that during the Cold War the prevalence of Communist organizations bearing the word “peace” in their name gave rise to a wry observation: “Peace is a Communist plot”. Something similar might be said today about human rights vis-à-vis liberalism. Human rights are the legal form under which “equal freedom” has taken shape, and in our society they have the highest authority. Who could be against human rights? But according to Kalb such rights are understood today in a peculiarly liberal way: the dignity of the human person is rooted in the ability to satisfy desires, the freedom which human rights protect is the freedom to pursue the satisfaction of desires, and justice means equal claim of desires to be fulfilled. I don’t doubt that human rights function today to enforce liberalism and advance the liberal vision of the good, but it is not entirely clear to me how that advance is connected to “preference satisfaction” specifically. But Kalb’s main conclusion is clear enough: “As now understood, human rights are religiously and culturally intolerant in a peculiarly radical way.”

**

Obviously liberalism is the dominant force in contemporary Western politics. As I said earlier, it applies across the spectrum, albeit with different emphases. There do not seem to be any alternatives; liberalism’s position is unassailable. But Kalb believes that it is not so strong as it appears, not because there is an able challenger at present, but because it has intrinsic weaknesses. For one, it is not possible to govern without exercising authority, but liberalism has trouble making sense of authority: “if man is the measure it cannot be right to tell him what to do”. This was fine so long as liberalism was a critical perspective, but as it moves into the driver’s seat the tension between its ideals and its social role grows. Therefore liberalism must disguise the fact that it exercises coercive power. It does this, typically, by declaring alternatives out of bounds and itself the default winner, but this is a rather weak defence.

One very obvious problem with liberalism is that making freedom the highest good is non-sensical: “Freedom is always freedom to do something, so it must be subordinate to some other good that motivates it and makes it worth having.” We all know this to be true in our own lives. Of course, the whole idea of liberalism is that it is agnostic about questions of the good; it lets everyone pursue his or her own vision; and this is, with some justice, held to be one of its great merits. But the corollary is that all those visions of the good, no matter how passionately held or how compelling, cannot be allowed to really matter. They cannot be allowed any influence over social life, and, in practice, can only be contained by a battery of regulations, re-education, stigmatization, and bureaucracy. Many aspects of individual identity — “sex, religion, historical community, particular culture” — which have always been important to friendship, love, and family, and have been enduring features of most societies, are consistently suppressed and marginalized in a mature liberal culture. This makes it narrow rather than broad.

Kalb believes that the internal contradictions of liberalism, and its inability to moderate itself, will weaken and destroy it in the end: “The principles of liberal modernity are too simple and authoritative and their implications too clear to allow for changes even when those principles become obviously self-destructive.” Granted, this seems a long, long way off.

In the later part of his book, Kalb presents a case for an alternative to liberalism. He reviews various flavours of conservatism — this is actually one of the most interesting sections of the book — and, weighing their relative strengths and weaknesses, opts for a kind of traditionalism as the most promising option, principally because a social order rooted in traditions provides social continuity, can accommodate the complexities of lived experience because it doesn’t try to articulate clear abstract principles, is independent of any one group of people and so takes the focus off party politics, and can recognize standards of right and wrong, personal obligation, and so on.

But the main value of The Tyranny of Liberalism, it seems to me, is in its clear and systematic treatment of how a liberal order takes shape from the seed of its primary commitment to “equal freedom”, and its account of how that commitment gradually spreads to affect more and more aspects of life, inexorably undoing traditional, nuanced, and intuitive ways of doing things and replacing them with rational ways, narrowly understood, with a rearguard of regulations, education programs, speech codes, and stigmas to shore up its position. In the end, “only committed liberals are allowed to live as they choose”.

**

As interesting as Kalb’s argument is, there are naturally reasons to be critical of it too. Here is a summary, with links, to an interesting symposium on the book in which a variety of critical arguments are raised, to which Kalb himself responds. (Thanks, Maclin.)


All’s well that ends well

April 7, 2016

About 15 months ago I embarked on a little “listening project” to hear all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, violin sonatas, symphonies, and string quartets in chronological order. Today I’ve finally finished, with his String Quartet No.16, Op.135. (Yes, I know he wrote the final movement of the Op.130 quartet afterwards, but never mind.) I’ve had a great time.

Here is the charming final movement of that last quartet, played by the Alban Berg Quartett:


Shakespeare!

April 1, 2016

This month marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. I hope to do a few Shakespeare-themed posts over the next few weeks, but I thought I’d start by collecting some from the past history of this web log:

I’ve also covered a number of adaptations of Shakespeare in the “Great moments in opera” series:

It’s not much, considering how long I’ve been doing this.


Hither and yon

March 30, 2016

A few interesting items that came my way over the past few weeks:

  • Joseph Pieper’s wonderful book Leisure, the Basis of Culture merits whatever loving attention it receives, but I never thought I would see an admiring appraisal illustrated with pictures from children’s books.
  • My heart rose when I heard that Bob Dylan would be releasing another album later this year, rumoured to be called Fallen Angels … and then it fell when I learned it would be another batch of Sinatra songs.
  • Meanwhile, Dylan has made available a cornucopia of notebooks and paraphernalia for scholarly study. Time to book that flight to Tulsa?
  • Fr Paul Murray, O.P. delivers a very fine lecture entitled “Aquinas: Poet and Contemplative”, in which he considers the devotional life of the great philosopher saint, especially as manifest in his Latin poetry. This is a side of St Thomas which we don’t consider often enough.
  • Matthew Buckley has begun a series of articles explaining the physics under study at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, where the Higgs Boson was discovered a few years ago. I’ve not known of Matthew Buckley before, but the first instalment in his series is a superb example of popular science writing.
  • The largest ever exhibition of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch has opened at the Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands. I do love Bosch! The highlight of my visit to Madrid some years ago was spending a few hours in the Bosch room at the Prado gallery, and were I to be in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the next few months I’d be there to see those paintings, and others, again. In this overview of the exhibition, Michael Prodger argues that Bosch is not best understood as a Renaissance artist, much less a modern (as he has sometimes been said to be), but as a medieval artist through and through.
  • Roger Scruton, in an excerpt from a forthcoming book, writes about the relationship between two post-war German masterpieces: Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

For an envoi, let’s hear Metamorphosen, for 23 stringed instruments:


Easter Sunday, 2016

March 27, 2016

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

– George Herbert (1633)

Happy Easter!


Donne: Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

March 18, 2016

JohnDonneDevotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and Death’s Duel
John Donne
(Vintage, 1999) [1624, 1630]
234 p.

Donne wrote his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions while he lay a-bed of a serious illness. It is a work of moral and spiritual reflection on sin, sickness, and death — which makes it perfect Lenten reading.

The book is divided into twenty-three parts which, arranged sequentially, follow the progress of a sickness from its onset, through the development of symptoms, the consultations of physicians, and their treatments, to the early stages of recovery. Donne writes at one level about a physical sickness — perhaps his own — but there is a also a metaphorical spiritual interpretation running in parallel, the sickness in his soul mirroring that in his body. Each part of the work is divided into three smaller parts: an initial meditation, an “expostulation” in which the theme of the meditation is expanded upon, and a concluding, though often quite lengthy, prayer in which Donne offers the fruit of his meditation to the Almighty.

It is written in a dense and somewhat difficult style, almost like a prose poem, and it requires a good deal of concentration to follow the often highly elaborate grammatical constructions (and all without paragraph breaks). To give a flavour for the book, here is a passage chosen more or less at random:

When wilt thou bid me take up my bed and walk? As my bed is my affections, when shall I bear them so as to subdue them? As my bed is my afflictions, when shall I bear them so as not to murmur at them? When shall I take up my bed and walk? Not lie down upon it, as it is my pleasure, not sink under it, as it is my correction? But O my God, my God, the God of all flesh, and of all spirit, to let me be content with that in my fainting spirit, which thou declarest in this decayed flesh, that as this body is content to sit still, that it may learn to stand, and to learn by standing to walk, and by walking to travel, so my soul, by obeying this thy voice of rising, may by a farther and farther growth of thy grace proceed so, and be so established, as may remove all suspicions, all jealousies between thee and me, and may speak and hear in such a voice, as that still I may be acceptable to thee, and satisfied from thee.

Meditation XVII is the source of two of Donne’s most enduring aphorisms: “No man is an island”, and “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Interestingly, the second actually appears in a slightly different form; the brief section which includes both runs as follows:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away to the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

These sayings, famous as they are, have become perhaps a bit hackneyed by being so frequently pressed into service to express human solidarity. Their undoubted eloquence and lack of religious references have made them attractive to a secular-minded people. But, needless to say, Donne was not secular-minded, and one has only to cast one’s eyes around on the same page to find the Christian foundations of the sentiment he expresses:

The Church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

All this from Meditation XVII, which to my mind was among the best. I will confess that, by and large, and with some exceptions here and there, I found the book as a whole rather dry. I love Donne’s poetry for its muscular, vigorous qualities, and the same unsparing intensity is found in many of these meditations. But when I try to call to mind particular insights gleaned from its pages, I am almost empty-handed. I say this being uncertain whether the blame lies on the page or within me, though I incline toward the latter.

Does the title of the book intrigue you? What are these “emergent occasions”? I believe “emergencies” would be a fair way to translate them into a modern idiom.

***

The short piece, “Death’s Duel”, which is also included in this volume, was the last sermon Donne preached at Whitehall “not many days before his death” in 1630. It was highly regarded in his own time (the preamble, written by an admiring contemporary, states that “as he exceeded others at first, so at last he exceeded himself”), but again I found it fairly dry. For me the principal interest in reading it was to see how linguistically rich and complex even his sermons were! We don’t hear preaching — nor, for that matter, any public speech — on that level anymore.

***

Another excerpt:

And since sin, in the nature of it, retains still so much of the author of it that it is a serpent, insensibly insinuating itself into my soul, let thy brazen serpent (the contemplation of thy Son crucified for me) be evermore present to me, for my recovery against the sting of the first serpent; that so, as I have a Lion against a lion, the Lion of the tribe of Judah against that lion that seeks whom he may devour, so I may have a serpent against a serpent, the wisdom of the serpent against the malice of the serpent, and both against that lion and serpent, forcible and subtle temptations, thy dove with thy olive in thy ark, humility and peace and reconciliation to thee, by the ordinances of thy church. Amen. (Devotions, X, Prayer)


The tree of life

March 16, 2016

I wrote a short appreciation of The Tree of Life for the 52 Movies series at Light on Dark Water. It has been posted today, and can be found here.

the_tree_of_life_movie_poster_01


Wonder and imagination

March 10, 2016

Here’s a quite wonderful lecture by Anthony Esolen on education and the imaginative life, in which he circles around that most wonderful of plays, The Tempest.


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