Christmas Eve, 2016

December 24, 2016


Who is rising in the east
like the light of many suns?
Bridegroom coming to the feast:
eagerly his race he runs.
Splendor of the rising day,
reaching out from end to end,
all creation in his sway—
and he calls the sinner “friend.”

Camel through the needle’s eye,
for our sake becoming poor,
so the Lord of earth and sky
enters through a humble door:
enters through a Virgin womb,
rises from a borrowed grave.
So he wills to gently come.
Powerfully he comes to save.

He comes forth to be our food
reigning from the Father’s hand.
Eat and live: be filled with good.
Drink, and you will understand.
Every morning mercies new
on the altar, grace for grace,
fall like never-failing dew
till we see him face to face.

Kathleen Pluth



La Sapienza

December 15, 2016


I wrote a final contribution to the 52 Movies series at Light on Dark Water, this time about the 2014 film La Sapienza. When you take pictures of buildings, do you like them to be symmetric? If so, you’ll probably like this movie.

My other contributions to this series have been on The Tree of LifeMagnolia, and Stations of the Cross. Those aren’t the films I volunteered to write about at the beginning of 2016, but that’s how it turned out. It has been fun to be involved in this series, from which I’ve learned about quite a few interesting movies.

Benson: Lord of the World

December 6, 2016

Lord of the World
Robert Hugh Benson
(Martino Fine Books, 2015) [1907]
392 p.

A blessing of contemporary secularism is that in its flight from religious faith it has fled also religious rites and devotions. It is true that the French revolutionaries tried to institute secular rites with dignity sufficient to justify their occupation of French churches, but it didn’t last, and since then we’ve seen no sustained attempt to sacralize the City of Man. This is a blessing because it means that those who find within themselves a desire for these natural human things have had nowhere to go but home.

In Lord of the World Robert Hugh Benson imagines a future in which secularism has taken an alternate course, one in which it acknowledges worship as “the deepest instinct in man”, and accordingly adopts for itself the language and trappings of the sacred, while still forcefully setting itself against the transcendent. As one of the priests in the story says, “The world is beginning to range itself against us: it is an organized antagonism — a kind of Catholic anti-Church”, and a formidable one. It is a world in which “natural virtues had suddenly waxed luxuriant, and supernatural virtues were despised. Friendliness took the place of charity, contentment the place of hope, and knowledge the place of faith.” This quasi-religion, which advances under the banner of Humanitarianism, has ambitions to re-make all society in its own image, and it has a familiar ring:

“There shall be no more an appeal to arms, but to justice; no longer a crying after a God Who hides Himself, but to Man who has learned his own Divinity. The Supernatural is dead; rather, we know now that it never yet has been alive. What remains is to work out this new lesson, to bring every action, word and thought to the bar of Love and Justice; and this will be, no doubt, the task of years. Every code must be reversed; every barrier thrown down; party must unite with party, country with country, and continent with continent. There is no longer the fear of fear, the dread of the hereafter, or the paralysis of strife. Man has groaned long enough in the travails of birth; his blood has been poured out like water through his own foolishness; but at length he understands himself and is at peace.”

Or, seen from the point of view of the Catholics in the story:

“It was a world whence God seemed to have withdrawn Himself, leaving it indeed in a state of profound complacency — a state without hope or faith, but a condition in which, although life continued, there was absent the one essential to well-being.”

The novel therefore presents to us a global confrontation between the City of God and the City of Man, the one “telling of a Creator and of a creation, of a Divine purpose, a redemption, and a world transcendent and eternal”, and the other “self-originated, self-organised and self-sufficient”. Representing the ideals and interests of the former is the Pope, John XXIV. (Other Christian groups have, by the time the story commences, either withered under the pressure of Humanitarianism or returned to the Roman flock from whence they first departed.) Representing the latter is Julian Felsenburgh, a politician of consummate artistry and diplomatic genius who has successfully united the world’s principal political powers and seems the embodiment of Humanitarianism’s highest aspirations.


That, then, is the set-up, but I’ll resist the temptation to say more. I knew nothing going in, and I was glad of that, because the surprising twists and devastating turns caught me off guard. (I really need to find someone with whom to discuss the ending!) Simply considered as a thriller, it is excellent, but it is also more than that, for there is a good deal of rich content in it, and the general conflict it dramatizes on a global scale is one which plays out in each Christian soul. Pope Francis has recommended on more than one occasion that people read it, and, for what it’s worth, I concur.


Part of the fun of reading futuristic novels from the past is to see how well the author foresaw the future. Benson did pretty well: he predicted routine air travel (conceived, rather quaintly, as being like travelling by train, but aloft), telephones, and frighteningly powerful military ordnances. More penetratingly, he foresaw euthanasia being a natural concomitant of secular individualism; in his world, “individualism was at least so far recognised as to secure to those weary of life the right of relinquishing it”. “Since men were but animals — the conclusion was inevitable.” But he misses the mark in some cases too: the onset of rapid global communications he does not foresee at all.


In summary, it’s a very good novel, highly recommended especially to Catholics. Benson subsequently wrote a companion novel, The Dawn of All, in which he imagined yet another alternative future for the Church. It’s not been as popular as this one, but I hope to read it soon.

Lecture night(s): At Notre Dame

December 1, 2016

A couple of weeks ago the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame held their annual fall conference, this year on the theme “You Are Beauty: Exploring the Catholic Imagination”.

I wasn’t able to be there, and neither, I expect, were you, but they’ve just published a set of the lectures to their YouTube channel, and quite a number of them look intriguing. Roger Scruton was there, Mary Ann Glendon, Alasdair MacIntyre, Daniel Mahoney. Here is a list of the featured presentations, with links to the videos. Where to begin? Right here, of course:

Fermor: Mani

November 22, 2016

Travels in the Southern Peloponnese
Patrick Leigh Fermor
(John Murray, 2004) [1958]
336 p.

This is the first of two volumes Fermor wrote about his travels in Greece mid-century. In this case he was exploring the Mani peninsula, the southernmost tip of Greece. The peninsula is mountainous and has historically been largely separate, culturally and politically, from the rest of the country. At the time of Fermor’s travels it was still a traditional society, with its own dialect, clothing, and culture, into which radio and tourism had yet to make inroads. His travelogue therefore provides a fascinating look at a European society in a state that could hardly be found anywhere else in the modern world.

“Go toward the Good,” one of them said, and the other, “May you have the Good Hour!”

The immobile figures of these two little Byzantines dwindled as we zigzagged downhill. Even at a distance we could sense the wide effulgent gaze which those four eyes aimed from ledge half-way to the sky. They waved when we were just about to dip out of sight. There are very few people in these surroundings, Yorgo observed. “They are wild and shy and not accustomed to talk.” He pointed straight up into the air. The canyon was closing round us. “They see nothing but God.”

Because there were no roads (today there are a few) the Maniot villages were accessible only on foot or by boat; Fermor and his wife did walk a bit, as in the passage just quoted, but for the most part their itinerary involved boating around the perimeter of the peninsula, stopping in villages along the way.

An account of their travels is interwoven with reflections on aspects of Maniot culture — or is it the other way around? We learn about the custom of the blood feud, a cause of much destruction and sorrow; we learn of the not-unrelated Maniot reputation for sung dirges, a skill taught especially to young woman and admired throughout Greece; we learn of the greatest Maniot of the modern era, Petrobey Mavromichalis, who led the war of independence which the Maniots waged against the Ottomans in the early nineteenth century.

The Mani peninsula is not a hub of activity, and among the many pleasant qualities of its people is an appreciation of leisure, which Fermor summarizes thus in his marvellous prose:

One compensation of this kind of travel is the unchartable and unregimented leisure between the rigours of displacement. Letters build their vain pyramids on some table in Athens; weeks pass; their mute clamour dies down unanswered; dust and oblivion enshroud them and the flight of months makes them obsolete and strips them of all but antiquarian interest. This arduous and Olympian sloth is made more precious still by the evidence all round of arduous and boring toil. Here, too, in the absence of lofty theories about the intrinsic virtue of work regardless of results, no northern guilt comes to impair its full enjoyment. Such mephitic ideas cannot long survive the clear and decarbonizing sun.

The Maniots are Christians, but they are also Greeks, and Fermor notes that the old Greek paganism has retained a foothold in the culture, despite the efforts of the Church:

The supernatural ancien régime presented a conundrum to the Early Fathers. When the Fathers came into their own after long persecution in the name of the old gods, they adopted, as we have seen, bold and sweeping tactics. The gods and the more presentable figures were captured, baptized and camouflaged; their headquarters were either wrecked or re-garrisoned by the winners and up fluttered, as it were, the new victorious flag. Some of the dispossessed managed to keep a leg in both camps. Others–insignificant as possible leaders of counter-revolution or totally ineligible–were (as supernatural beings can only be burnt or smashed in effigy) outlawed en bloc. A banished mythology was left to skulk and roam in the mountains, eventually, it was hoped, to die of neglect. But from a mixture of ancient awe and, perhaps, Christian charity, the country people befriended them, and they are with us still.

In one of the most memorable passages, they pass a famous cave found at the southernmost tip of the peninsula, a cave which is the legendary entrance to the Underworld, through which Psyche passed in her quest for the casket which would restore her beauty, through which Orpheus passed to rescue Eurydice, and through which Herakles dragged triple-jawed Cerberus in the execution of his labours. “There is always something about these earthly identifications with Hades that fills one with awe,” he remarks.

As for Christianity among the Maniots, Fermor found it rich and integrated into the lives of the people, but focused more on practices and rituals than on doctrine. This character he attributes largely to its having passed through a long “Eastern dark ages”, covering the period from the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century until the period of Maniot independence in the 19th century. He writes rather beautifully on the theme:

Long gone were the days when the subtle Eastern theologians could with difficulty make the blunt Western prelates grasp the delicate shades of dogma; indeed the shoe was on the other foot. But the outward observances, the liturgy, some of the sacraments, prostrations, rigorous fasts, frequent signs of the cross, the great feasts of the Church — the cross thrown into the sea at Epiphany, the green branches of Palm Sunday, the candles and coloured eggs celebrating the risen Christ at Easter, the monthly censing of houses, and the devotion to ikons before which an oil-dip twinkles in every house — all this became rigid and talismanic: and so it has remained. Its scope is different from what is usually conjured up in the West by the word “Christianity”; but there is a tendency in the most peaceful nations to identify religion with the tribe and the reasons in Greece are more cogent than most. All the outward and visible signs are there and it would be a bold critic who would unburden them completely of inward and spiritual grace. There is nothing laggard or perfunctory about these signs; they are performed with reverence and love. They have the familiarity and the treasured intimacy of family passwords and countersigns. The day is punctuated by these fleeting mementoes, and pious landmarks in the calendar, usually solemnized with dance and rejoicing, space out the year; with the result that few gestures are wholly secular. They weave a continuous thread of the spiritual and supernatural through the quotidian homespun and ennoble the whole of life with a hieratic dignity.

As in Greek culture writ large, Maniot devotion is heavily invested in holy ikons, and I cannot resist quoting a passage in which Fermor tackles the daunting challenge of describing the style of Greek (well, specifically Cretan) iconography in prose. Quite apart from the interest of his argument, this is magnificent writing:

The detail is subtle and delicate: the cartographic wrinkles and circling contour-lines on the saints’ faces, the line of nose and nostril, the sweep of those hoary eyebrows over each of which beetles an outlined irascible and thought-indicating bulge; the dark and, by contrast, etiolating triangles that project point downwards from the lower lids, the bristling curl of the white locks round foreheads that catch the light like polished teak, the prescribed complexity of their beards cataracting in effulgent arcs or erupting like silver quills from swarthy physiognomies — all of this, on close inspection, proves to be built up of complementary planes of brick red and apple green applied with delicate impressionism to the black phantom of the saint or paladin beneath. The emergence of this dark background under a luminous and fragmentary carapace of skilfully superimposed light and colour…is the earmark of the Cretan mode. I am tempted to relate this very strange technique, especially in ikons of Our Lord, with reasons that are not purely plastic. It calls irresistibly to mind a characteristic passage of St Dionysios the Areopagite: “The Divine Dark,” writes this other Dionysios, “is the inaccessible Light in which God is said to dwell, and in this Dark, invisible because of its surpassing radiance and unapproachable because of the excess of the streams of supernatural light, everyone must enter who is deemed worthy to see or know God.”


Greek iconography, of all Christian art that includes the outward forms of sacred beings, seems to me to have set itself the highest and most difficult task. […] They sought ingress to the spirit, not through the easy channels of passion, but through the intellect. Religion and philosophy were as inextricably plaited as they had been in pre-Christian times and this was due to the same philosophical temper which had saved Judaic Christianity (a brief and local thing) and made it Greek, then universal. Skilled in the handling of abstractions, knowing that the representation of Christ as God was as impossible a task as uttering the ineffable, they tried to indicate the immediately assimilable incarnation of Christ in such a way that it gave wings to the mind and the spirit and sent them soaring through and beyond the symbol to its essence, the Transcendent God, with whom, as they themselves had defined, He was consubstantial. If they failed in this aspiration it was failure on a vertiginously exalted height.

And, if it isn’t already obvious, travel writing doesn’t often rise to the “vertiginously exalted heights” where Fermor dwells. He is that perfect combination: sensitive, observant, cultured, intelligent, and gifted with a golden pen. To spend time with one of his books is an almost sensual pleasure, so richly and evocatively does he write. I’m looking forward to going to Greece with him again.


I’ve just learned, from this essay, that Fermor and his wife actually bought a home and settled in Mani during their later years. It seems the journey recounted in this book made a lastingly good impression.


I cannot resist quoting one more passage, simply for its beauty. Here he writes about treading grapes in a Cretan village.

Now and then one finds oneself, in the dilettante fashion of one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting, helping in some pleasant and unexacting task: gathering olives onto spread blankets in late autumn, after beating fruit from the branches with long rods of bamboo; picking grapes into baskets, shelling peas or occasionally, in late summer, helping to tread the grapes. I remember one such occasion in Crete, in a cobbled and leafy yard in the village of Vaphe at the foothills of the White Mountains. First we spread deep layers of thyme branches at the bottom of a stone vat which stood breast-high like a giant Roman sarcophagus; then a troop of girls hoisted their heavy baskets and tipped in tangled cataracts of white and black grapes. The treading itself is considered a young man’s job. The first three, of which I was one, had their long mountain boots pulled off; buckets of water were sloshed over grimy shanks and breeches rolled above the knee. “A pity to wash off the dirt,” croaked the old men that always gather on such occasions. “You’ll spoil the taste.” This chestnut–which I imagine to have existed for several millenia–evoked its ritual laughter while we climbed on the edge and jumped down on the resilient mattress of grapes. Scores of skins exploded and the juice squirted between our toes… In a minute or two a mauve-pink trickle crossed the stone lip of the spout and dripped into the waiting tub; the trickle broadened, the drops became a stream and curved into a splashing arc… We were handed glasses of the sweet juice which already–or was this imagination?–had a corrupt and ghostly tang of fermentation. When the stream slackened, the manhood of the treaders, shuffling calf-deep in a tangled slush by now and purple to the groin, was jovially impugned…. For days the sweet heady smell of the must hangs over the village. All is sticky to the touch, purple splashes and handprints on the whitewash and spilt red rivulets between the cobbles and the clouds of flies suggest a massacre. Meanwhile, in the dark crypts of the houses, in huge grooved Minoan amphorae, the must grumbles and hits out and fills the house with unnerving fumes and a bubbling noise like the rumour of plots, a dark conspiracy of whispers. For as long as this vaulted collusion lasts, a mood of swooning and Dionysiac laxity roves the air.

St. Scholastica

November 21, 2016

I wrote a brief entry on St Scholastica for the 52 Saints series at Janet’s blog, The Three Prayers.

Lecture night: Pope vs. Hitler

November 16, 2016

The Pius Wars, contesting the role that Pope Pius XII played in World War II, seem to have waned in recent years, but a new book on the subject, by Mark Reibling, has been getting a fair bit of attention. Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler is based in part on newly available documents which reveal not only that Pius XII was aware of numerous plots to assassinate Hitler, but that he actively aided the conspirators and acted as an emissary between them and the Allies.

Though legitimate questions remain, I think, about whether Pius’ strategy of subterfuge and oblique criticism of Nazism (as opposed to open and vociferous opposition) was the wisest course, the evidence marshalled by Reibling should lay to final rest the old accusations that he was secretly on Hitler’s side, as was once claimed.

Here is an extended interview about the book that Reibling gave to NPR:

There is also a television documentary, based on the book, that is quite good.

Leonard Cohen, RIP

November 10, 2016

I’ve just heard. A great songwriter and, I dare say, a wise man despite his faults. I think that no songwriter apart from Bob Dylan and Van Morrison has meant more to me than he has. These past weeks I’ve been relishing his most recent record, marvelling at his ongoing creativity late in life. Later than I knew.

I remember once, in an interview with a CBC radio host, he was asked about his time at the Buddhist monastery. “What was it like to live in that world?”, he was asked, and he answered, in that dusky bass, “Well, there’s only one world, and we’re all in it.”

Or we were, and maybe we still are. I feel as though I’ve lost a friend. Requiescat in pace.

Stations of the Cross

November 9, 2016

I’ve written another contribution to the 52 Movies series at Light on Dark Water. This time the movie is Stations of the Cross, a very interesting 2014 film from German director Dietrich Brüggemann.

Despite its formal elegance, the film occupies a messy middle-ground in which a combination of personal, social, psychological, and spiritual elements combine to turn religion toxic. Exactly what those elements are, and in what proportion they matter to the outcome, is unclear. There is much to ponder.

Read the whole thing here.

Briggs: Uncertainty

November 4, 2016

The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics
William Briggs
(Springer, 2016)
278 p.

Being something of a beginner in the art of statistical analysis, I thought this book on the philosophical and conceptual underpinnings of statistical methods would be instructive, and I was right. I learned so much I’m not sure I want to learn any more.

In a nutshell: Briggs is critical of most of the standard apparatus of statistical methods, both technical and interpretive. Hypothesis testing, regression, data smoothing, quantification of everything, and, above all, p-values he condemns to perdition. The problem is not that such methods have no value, but that they are widely misunderstood and misapplied, with the result that the conclusions drawn from statistical analyses are often either simply wrong or the uncertainty in those conclusions is underestimated (and by an unknown amount). He gives many examples of ways in which standard techniques lead to spurious “significant” results.

By criticizing standard statistical methods, one might get the impression that Briggs’ is a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but he has plenty of citations to offer for most of his arguments. He belongs to an alternate, minority, but not negligible tradition.

Some of the important points he makes:

Probability is logical. Logic concerns relationships between propositions, and so does probability, except that in the latter case the logic is extended to propositions the truth of which is uncertain. This point was made lucidly and rather beautifully by Jaynes, and reading Briggs has made me want to return to that book to read more of it.

Probability is not a cause. Probability can tell us about correlations, but nothing at all about causes. The habit of inferring causes from statistical correlations, absent a corresponding causal model, is a bad habit that leads many astray. In general, uncertainty reflects our ignorance of causes rather than our knowledge of them.

Probability is conditional. Probability statements are always conditional on a set of premises. This is no such thing as Pr(X), but only Pr(X|Y) — that is, the probability of X given some set of premises Y. If the premises change, the probability of X will, in general, change. Thus Briggs, while not quite a Bayesian, does think the Bayesians have it over the frequentists when it comes to the debate over whether probability is objective (ie. out there) or subjective (ie. in the mind). Probabilities reflect the uncertainty in propositions given what we know; they do not exist outside our minds, and they change when our knowledge changes. A corollary is that one should never say, “X has a probability of Z”. Nothing has a probability. Probability does not exist. One should only say, “Given premises Y, the probability of X is Z.”

Probability is often not quantifiable. If we know “Most people like ice cream and Sue is a person”, the probability that Sue likes ice cream cannot be naturally or unambiguously quantified unless the meaning of “most” is clarified. Moreover, it is often a mistake to force probabilistic arguments into a quantified form. Briggs argues that the habit of doing so (as with “instruments” for assessing subjective attitudes about politics or emotional responses to stimuli, for instance) often leads to misleading results and promotes the vice of scientism.

Statistical significance is not objective. No probability model can tell one whether a given probability is significant or not. This is an extra-statistical, and often an extra-scientific, question. Whether it is judged significant is a matter of prudential judgment based on the specific question at issue and the decisions to be made about it. Thus he would like to disrupt the “turn the crank” model of statistical analysis in which “significant” results pop out of the sausage-maker, returning such questions to spheres of deliberation and judgment.

Probability models should be predictive. Briggs’ principal constructive suggestion (apart from shoring up our understanding of what probability is) is that statistical models should be predictive. They should state their premises in as much detail as possible, and should predict observations on the basis of those premises (taking into account uncertainties, of course). If the models fail to predict the observables, they are not working and should be amended or scrapped. As I understand it, he is proposing that fields which lean heavily on statistics should, by following his proposals, become more like the hard sciences. True, progress will be slower, and (acknowledged) uncertainties larger, but progress will be surer and causes better understood.


Briggs has some fun pointing out common fallacies in statistical circles. There is, for instance, the We-Have-To-Do-Something Fallacy, in which a perceived imperative to do something about something (usually something political) leads to the employment of some defective or fallacious statistical method, the defectiveness or fallaciousness of which is then ignored. Or the Epidemiologist’s Fallacy, in which a statistician claims “X causes Y” even though X was never measured and though statistical models cannot in any case discern causes. (This fallacy is so-called because without it “most epidemiologists, especially those in government, would be out of a job”.)  Or the False Dichotomy Fallacy, which is the foundational principle of hypothesis testing. Or the Deadly Sin of Reification, whereby statisticians mistake parameters in their statistical models for real things. And so on.


Much of this might seem rather obvious to the uninitiated. I’m not an adept of the standard techniques, so I was at times a little puzzled as I tried to discern the particular bad habit Briggs was criticizing. But, as is increasingly appreciated (here and here, for instance), the use and abuse of the standard techniques have led wide swathes of the scientific community into error, most commonly the error of over-certainty, which is actually an uncertainty about what is true. An audience for this book clearly exists.

Were his recommendations to be followed, he argues that the effects would be

a return to a saner and less hyperbolic practice of science, one that is not quite so dictatorial and inflexible, one that is calmer and in less of a hurry, one that is far less sure of itself, one that has a proper appreciation of how much it doesn’t know.

But, on the other hand, it would reduce the rate at which papers could be published, would make decisions about significance matters of prudential judgment rather than scientific diktat, and would make scientific conclusions more uncertain. He is fighting an uphill battle.

Briggs is an adjunct professor at Columbia, and has done most of his scientific work in climate science (and is, as you would expect, skeptical of the predictions of statistical climate models, which provide a few of his case studies). He seems to be something of an atypical academic: this book, for instance, includes approving reference to Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and even John Henry Newman (whose Grammar of Assent he cites as an example of non-quantitative probabilistic argumentation). It’s quite a rollicking read too. Briggs has a personality, and doesn’t try to hide it. Personally I found the tone of the book a little too breezy, the text sometimes reading almost as if it were transcribed lecture notes (I make no hypothesis), but overall the book is smart and clear-eyed, and I’m glad to have read it. Now back to Jaynes.


I found a good video which illustrates the problem with relying on p-values to determine statistical significance. When I consider that many of the findings of the social sciences are based on this criterion I’m not sure whether to cringe or weep. No wonder there is a replication crisis. Witness the dance of the p-values:

Here is a short video illustrating why it is reasonable to doubt the putative findings of many (and perhaps most) published research papers employing statistical methods. This argument and others are set forth in detail by Ioannidis.