pityitspithy

Depth in the Shallows

The Prince of Planes

A Flight Of Fancy

Flight to Arras by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Saint-Exupéry, throughout his short life, was many things. But he is best remembered as a writer and a pilot. In the early days of commercial flight, he flew routes in Africa and South America. During an international race in 1935, he and his navigator crashed in the Libyan desert and nearly died. They were saved only when a Bedouin on a camel discovered them and rendered aid. This experience is memorialized in Saint-Exupéry’s book, Wind, Sand, and Stars. He also fictionalizes a bit of the experience in his best known work The Little Prince. In Flight to Arras, Saint-Exupéry tells of a terrifying mission over France following the German invasion during WWII. So much of what he wrote is poetic, and yet, it is rooted in harsh realities. It is as if we see the fragile beauty of life best when death lurks in the background. Saint-Exupery went missing on a reconnaissance mission over France in 1944 and was never heard from again.

“No single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born. It would be a bit too easy if we could go about borrowing ready-made souls.”

Horizon Lost

Paradise Gained

Lost Horizon by James Hilton 

James Hilton (1900-1954), novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, is perhaps best remembered, if he is remembered at all, for his novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips. It is a shame, really, since Lost Horizon is an especially enjoyable book. Written in the tradition of the best adventure novels, it tells the tale of four people who, by circumstance, end up on the same plane. The plane is hijacked and the group is taken to Tibet where they seek shelter at a lamasery called Shangri-La. As you might guess, the remainder of the tale is concerned with what happens to the group while at this utopia and the changes that overcome them. Hilton tells a very entertaining story, with an eye for exotic detail and the nuances of personalities under stress. It is high adventure for those with low energy. Little is required of the reader, but much is gained. The quote below, despite its fictional context, offers us something to think about in our own day.

“We believe that to govern perfectly it is necessary to avoid governing too much.”

The Science of Goodness

The Good Science

The Life and Work of Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Lawler (1951-2017), writer, blogger, political philosopher, scholar, and professor of Government at Berry College, died last week. Nationally known as a member of the President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, he was a regular on the lecture circuit. His range was wide, his intellect intimidating, and his contribution to a postmodern understanding of the human condition both challenging and refreshing. No cliches or reactionary rants here. He was a clear thinker, cogent writer, and in the Age of Groupthink, Lawler was fiercely independent. He had much more to say, and is gone too soon, but we have more than a dozen books, hundreds of essays, and an internet trove of thoughtful blog posts to read. He left us with a treasure.

Perhaps what most will encounter when they first read Lawler is the idea that we, despite the apparent evidence, do not live in a post-virtue age. Virtue, as he has it, is a necessary part of the human condition. Virtue is the path God has chosen for us, and it is infused with, and rounded by, love. We all choose the virtues or the vices everyday of our lives. Denial of the existence of virtue is not proof of its non-existence. Thus, we do not live “after virtue” as some have argued. We are stuck with it.

“So we’re stuck with virtue as human beings. There are natural reasons for that. We’re hardwired for virtue, so to speak, because we’re hardwired for a kind of language and or speech that opens us to the truth about ourselves and our world that no other animal can acquire. And we really can’t change our hardwiring in a way that will make us both human and happy—and we want both—without virtue.
So we need, above all, a science of virtue that incorporates what we know through natural science, philosophy, theology, and the humanities generally. We need to get over the modern error that the best way to get ourselves happy is to free ourselves from our natures. And we need to get over the error that by nature we’re pretty much one species or one mechanism among many.”

The Men Of No Man’s Land

The War In Between

War Poems by Siegfried Sassoon

This year marks the centenary of America’s involvement in the Great War. It is often neglected in popular media, sandwiched as it is between the American Civil War and WWII. But in recent years, due in no small part to centennial commemorations in Britain and Canada, more books and documentaries have emerged to fill the gaps of our collective memory. They are long overdue.

The Great War, when scholars can agree, was born of several causes. And yet, not one of them seems to justify the carnage that followed. Millions killed, landscapes seared and scarred, and a world that once seemed to be on a recognizable course was torn apart. The conflict did, however, spawn a literary phenomenon known as the War Poets. War and poetry, going back to the Iliad, often go hand-in-hand. But something was different about this war, and about these poets.  It is why they are still read today. They have a particular poignancy, an urgency even, emanating from lives lived so closely to death. And not death merely, but sinister, shocking, and mechanized deaths such as the world had never seen.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) survived the war. Barely. But thanks to his fiction and poetry we are able to have some sense of the devastation he and many others experienced. He ranges from life in the trenches to grisly death in battle to being fully awake to the beauty of the countryside. He is not without humor, though, as he once said “As regards being dead, however, one of my main consolations has always been that I have the strongest intention of being an extremely active ghost. Let nobody make any mistake about that.” In the lines below, he writes of a world few of us have seen. He reminds us that the history of the war is not about battles and statistics, but about each human person.

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.

Contemplative In Motion

The Wonder Of Wandering

In Defense of Sensuality by John Cowper Powys

Hemingway is reported to have said something like “never confuse movement for action.” A cousin to that line of thought, but going a step beyond, is this quote from novelist, poet, essayist, and lecturer, John Cowper Powys (1872-1963). He was born in England, lived in New York, and died in Wales. In between he traveled extensively, mostly on the lecture tours. He is best remembered for the novels, Wolf Solent, Porius, Weymouth Sands, and A Glastonbury Romance. He left a literary legacy of love and hate. Powys follows in the tracks of Thomas Hardy, especially in featuring the Wessex landscape. Powys had many other influences, yet he transcended them all. His work, even those centered on distant historical events, is quite modern. Some will come to Powys and leave, others will linger, and still others will simply stay. But the key is to read Powys patiently. His prose, sometimes clunky, digressive, and obscure, takes effort. But the payoff is paddling in some of the deepest currents of the human soul.

Here he reminds us that we are not made to do but to be. This is not to say that movement and action are unnecessary. It is to say, however, that the object of all humanity is to contemplate.

“Our rulers at the present day, with their machines and their preachers, are all occupied in putting into our heads the preposterous notion that activity rather than contemplation is the object of life.”

The Pedantry Of The Pedestrian

Life With The Walking Dead

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

Think on this one. Slowly. We often fashion ourselves smarter merely for having been born later than our ancestors. So we chuckle at their theories, assertions, and habits. We often assume, aided by science, that because we know more (debatable on an individual level) we know better. Hardly. To quote Newton, we see further because we “stand on the shoulders of giants.” We would not now be, and be where we are, and go where we are going, if those who came before had not come and went. Simple logic. But it is more than that. All the accrued wisdom of today, to the extent we bother to learn it, comes as a product of the past, of mistakes made and successes shared. We can go about our days thinking we have it figured out because we exist (and have the internet), but we do so at our peril. Soon enough, as Chesterton knew, we will be casting our votes and our voices with the Democracy of the Dead.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) is one of the many voices of the Dead that remind us of why we are alive. He was many, many things…Catholic, husband, friend, journalist, philosopher, theologian, soldier of the small, prince of paradox, critic, poet, and father of the Father Brown stories. He was a simple man, endlessly fascinated by what he saw, but more so by what he could not. A man of Mystery, not a mysterious man. A man who lived, loved, and left. But he did not leave us without. Some say he wrote too much, but much of what he wrote is worth reading.

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

Rise Of The Philodoxers

Fall Of The Philosophers

Autobiographical Reflections by Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) was born in Cologne but raised and educated in Vienna. After his doctoral work he taught at a university. Highly critical of the Nazis, he eventually lost his academic position. Voegelin emigrated to the United States where he taught at Notre Dame and LSU among other institutions. As a political philosopher, he ranged far into sociology, history, and religion. His work largely defies categorization. He is best known, perhaps, for The New Science of Politics and the multi-volume Order and History. He is, despite the titles and subject matter, anything but boring.

One of the key ideas that emerges in Voegelinian thought, and later picked up by thinkers such as Russell Kirk, is the antagonism between opinion and wisdom. Philosophy is, properly speaking, the love of wisdom. Any philosophical pursuit must have this as its guiding light and object. But what has arisen over the centuries, and is dominant–if not oppressive–in our own age, is philodoxy, or the love of opinion. It is easy to see in our politics and our pulpits, in our culture and in our conversations, that spongy opinions and “personal truths” have wrecked our thinking about some of the most difficult things. When opinion prevails over wisdom, power–naked and corrupt–prevails over prudence and patience. We need Voegelin now.

“The general deculturation of the academic and intellectual world in Western civilization furnishes the background for the social dominance of opinions that would have been laughed out of court in the late Middle Ages or the Renaissance.”

The Illiberalism Of Democracy

Some Have The Right To More Freedom Than Others

The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Ryszard Legutko

Berkeley. Yale. Capitol Hill. At town halls, universities and in social media, the Great American Shout Down rages. What passes for free speech nowadays is more akin to euphemism, virtue signaling, and North Korean propaganda. Only those with predetermined and self-sanctioned moral virtue and correct opinion are allowed the freedom to express it. All others can bugger off or be shouted down. Anyone who disagrees is not a debate opponent or a political adversary, rather, they are The Enemy. Opposing views yield personal demonization. This is not freedom. This is totalitarian tyranny masquerading as political and moral correctness. And, if unchecked, will lead to our ruin or our enslavement. Or both.

Enter Ryszard Legutko, professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University, former Polish politician, and current Member of the European Union Parliament. He experienced the reign of communist terror in Poland, its fall, and the rise of liberal democracy in Europe. In this profound book, he eviscerates the prevailing narrative that the dark forces of communism were defeated and liberal democratic forces of light brought freedom to those countries behind the Iron Curtain. He exposes the demon within liberal democracy. The demon that surfaced when former communists in his native Poland made the smooth transition from brutal Soviet style power players to eager advocates of democratic freedom overnight. The demon, as these men demonstrated, is the active spirit of totalitarian domination inherent in all liberal democracies in the West. It is, Legutko says, the coercion to freedom. Or, as Orwell had it, SLAVERY IS FREEDOM. One has only to look at Hollywood’s love affair with Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, or Stalin (or Jane Fonda’s active participation in the war against American soldiers), or the academic elite’s embrace of Marxism, radicalism, and anarchy to see that Legutko diagnoses a real disease.

“It seems that the idolatry of liberal democracy, which nowadays we observe among the same groups that so easily succumbed to a totalitarian temptation—their angry rejection of even the slightest criticism, their inadvertent acceptance of the obvious maladies of the system, their silencing of dissenters, their absolute support for the monopoly of one ideology and one political system—are part of the same disease to which, apparently, intellectuals and artists are particularly susceptible. It thus seems that the mental enslavement described by Milosz was not a single occurrence occasioned by a short-lived infatuation with communism, but an inherent handicap of the modern mind.”

 

 

The Audacity Of Barry

A Barry Good Time

Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States by Dave Barry

When it all gets a bit heavy, I turn in earnest to humor. A good dose everyday is a healthy habit, I think, but I am selective. Much of what passes for funny today involves teenagers-this seems to be trending upward in age now-with a selfie stick shooting a video for Youtube. Now, I am all for the operation of Darwinian principles with respect to youngsters surfing among sharks, or swimming close to lava flows, or climbing around the tops of unfinished buildings in China, but when I really want to laugh out loud, I read some Wodehouse, P.J. O’Rourke, or Dave Barry. There are many others of course, but these are a sure bet.

Dave Barry has been a newspaper columnist, novelist, humorist and all around observational troublemaker. Barry has written enough that just about anyone can find something to laugh at. And since he takes aim at everyone more or less equally, you rather joyfully have a skin-thickening experience. And if you want an interesting twist on the old crime story, read Barry’s collaboration with other Florida writers called Naked Came the Manatee. It is funny and suspenseful and wacky. The most interesting aspect, after Barry’s leadoff chapter, is how each subsequent writer deals with the loose ends and bizarre storylines. I first read it years ago when a good friend of mine pushed it on me. It didn’t sound like my thing, but I can’t stop telling people to pick it up. The same is true with anything by Dave Barry.

“We constantly see surveys that reveal this ignorance, especially among our high school students, 78 percent of whom, in a recent nationwide multiple-choice test, identified Abraham Lincoln as ‘a kind of lobster.’ That’s right: more than three quarters of our nation’s youth could not correctly identify the man who invented the telephone.”

The Light Of Day

A Beacon For The Dark Night Of The Soul

The Life And Writings Of Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a journalist, activist, Catholic convert, and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She was devout in faith, radical in politics, and unwavering in charity. At one time or another she was a communist, anarchist, distributist, and syndicalist. A spiritual searcher since youth, Day read and talked and prayed her way into the Catholic Church. Committed to helping the poor, marginalized, and downtrodden, Day took action. No act of love was too small, and no one in need was unworthy. Day, however, did not wish to be called a saint. An anecdote about Dorothy Day has her saying that calling her a saint would be to dismiss her too easily.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy Day so much. She defied categorization. She refused to be minimized by a label. In our age of identity politics and professional victimhood, Day is a welcome tonic. She refused to be defined except by Love. We can roll our eyes at her political passion, or disregard her economic idealism, but doing so misses the point. Day always sought the Truth in Love. She gave all she had to help others. She was a believer in the little way, bookended perhaps by St. Therese of Lisieux and Mother Teresa. Day fed the hungry at her front door, clothed the naked, and gave shelter to the homeless. She did what she could, with what she had, where she was. That is something all of us can do.

“Don’t worry about being effective. Just concentrate on being faithful to the truth.”

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