What do we seek to conserve?

“But nature gave the word ‘glory’ a meaning for me.” – C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

After a short flight from Pennsylvania to Alabama, I arrived to the Birmingham airport. There I was greeted by Chris, a program officer at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). We drove to the Samford university campus where the First Principles of Freedom Summer School for the Thoughtful Conservative was to be held. Since I arrived early, I seized the opportunity to complete the assigned readings for the seminar. It was exciting when all of the other participants began to arrive to Samford though because then I got to listen to their Southern accents.At registration, ISI gave us about a dozen books, hard copies of the texts that we had been reading in PDF formats and few additional texts pertaining to the American founding, conservatism, and liberal education.It was during this warm reception that I first met Dr. Rich Brake, the National Director of Education for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Then I returned to the dormitory to meet my fellow participants.Most of the students at this conference are from the South and I was the only foreigner. My new friends gave me an immediate taste for the spirit of the South. My roommate Taylor and her friend Mary belong to the same sorority and they asked me if “Greek Life” is a part of Canadian university culture. Not really, I said. “Well, if you are not Greek in the South,” they explained, “then you practically have no life.” Mary said, “I joined for political reasons.” They informed me that they both spend about $3500 annually for membership in their sorority, which they explained is the most well-reputed sorority on campus and the one whose students have had top grades for twenty years. I was shocked that sorority dues were that expensive, but Taylor and Mary said that this is their only expense at university since they have been awarded scholarships. They said that approximately 25% of the university population belongs to a sorority or fraternity and that these are the only people who have any authentic social life on campus. “It’s more than good parties,” they insisted. “It’s about reputation, grades, opportunities, scholarships, and even future political connections.” All of this fascinated me. “Furthermore,” they said, “the sororities and fraternities are completely racially segregated and that’s the way everyone wants them to be.” Seeking a point of reference, I asked: “So, it’s like Mean Girls?” referring to the 2004 film. “Pretty much,” agreed Taylor and Mary, “Except we’re not mean.” All of this I learned in my first ten minutes with Southerners.

“And if anyone asks me what I think the chief cause of the extraordinary prosperity and growing power of this nation, I should answer that it is due to the superiority of their women.” – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

As we got ready for the evening activities, I was mildly intimidated by both the candor and poise of the young women, but thankfully I was here to attend a conference and not to be “rushed” before a panel of punctilious judges.In the evening, Dr. Brake gave a lecture “On the Conservative Intellectual Movement in America.” To begin, he posed several
questions: What does it mean to be a conservative? What kind of culture are the Americans seeking to conserve? What does conservatism have to do with the acceptance constraints and limits? Does reverence for the Constitution mean that American conservatives are paradoxically seeking to conserve a revolutionary act? Dr. Brake spoke about prudence, custom, and tradition; he spoke about Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London coming together in Philadelphia; and he spoke about the three main factions of conservatism that he considers to include: traditionalists, libertarians, and anti-communists. For several decades, anti-communism was the glue that bound traditionalists and libertarians together. Will the conservative factions be united to counter the ‘soft despotism’ of which Tocqueville speaks and the ‘road to serfdom’ of which Hayek speaks? Dr. Brake then emphasized what conservatism is not. He said, “It is not an ideology, it is not a cult of personality, it is not relativistic, it is not utopian, and it is not centralized. After all, he explained, a conservative is simply someone who sees the glass 10% full.”

“For God, For Learning, Forever” Motto of Samford University

Speaking of glasses, ours were always filled with lemonade since Samford is a Baptist university and a dry campus. The environment made me recall the phrase ‘Bootleggers and Baptists’ which refers to “opposite issue positions lead[ing] to the same vote. Specifically, the criminal bootlegger favor prohibition because decreased supply generally equals a higher profit margin for the criminal bootlegger. The preacher favors prohibition, citing religious reasons. Both the criminal bootlegger and the preacher vote in support of prohibition.” I had been vaguely familiar with historical temperance movements and the issues surrounding prohibition. Being on a Baptist campus brought this history to life to the extent that I felt I was grasping the political and religious culture through some participation in it.In the morning, I awoke to the sounds of bells tolling. I realized how much I love waking up to the sound of bells. Better than any ring tone or alarm, bells inspire me to wake up quickly. Every time I heard the bells ringing I felt as though I was being summoned to some purpose. And whenever I heard the bells ringing, it was as though dignity was being added to the day.

The first lecture on day one was by Dr. Scott Beaulier, a professor of Economics at Troy University. He spoke on F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. After each session, we had a question and answer period with the professor. The second morning lecture was by Dr. Art Caden, professor of Economics at Samford University on Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Both sessions were excellent. In the afternoon, we discussed the sessions and the texts in small groups. During the session on Hayek, I raised question about Walter E. Williams’ forward to Hayek in which he discusses the need to make “unassailable arguments for personal liberty” and says “Any part of the socialist agenda can be shown as immoral under the assumption that people own themselves.” I asked about whether or not Hayek shared Williams’ conception of self-ownership as the basis for property rights and free markets. I also suggested that many conservatives would contest self-ownership (at least in the way the idea is being advanced now) and that these people are conservatives, not socialists. Are our lives an extension of our right to property? Or, are our rights to property an extension of the rights that we have first in virtue of our existence?

When discussing Adam Smith, we discussed the question of whether there is a necessary link between patriotism and protectionism. But the favorite excerpt that we read from Smith concerns his ideas on education. We could see that a lot of his ideas are relevant to contemporary education policy. Inspired by this session, my friend Alex and I made this short video during our free time one afternoon.

In the evening, we had a special guest lecture with Stephen Moore, member of the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board and Founder of the Club for Growth on “The Future of Economic Freedom.” He began his lecture by telling us that if we want to  be the smartest person in any room, we should read the Wall Street Journal daily. He also said that a study has shown a relationship between reading the Journal and increased income. During his lecture, I felt like I was at home in Alberta. He spoke about the Bakken region in North Dakota where there is currently a major oil boom. Job hunters are flooding the  region, cost of housing is sky-rocketing, and North Dakota is now the state with the lowest unemployment rate in America. He spoke to us about “fracking” and said, “To be against hydraulic fracturing is like being against a cure for cancer.”

From the little that I have studied on the topic recently, I find that the investors and financial advisers I read say that you should pay yourself first and the entrepreneurs and business owners I read say that when you’re an entrepreneur, you’re the last person to get paid. Both cases involve paying oneself. Most students are lacking advice from both investors and entrepreneurs and so they think not about paying themselves, but about receiving a regular paycheck or fixed salary. It is important to find good mentors who encourage entrepreneurship and investment and who point out the foolishness that “Liberals love jobs, but they hate employers”, as Stephen Moore said to us.

The following day, Dr. Donald Prudlo gave a lecture on Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community and Dr. Rich Brake gave a lecture on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Dr. Prudlo’s lecture was excellent and reminded me of the lectures at Acton University. He encouraged us to think about the questions: What is an individual? What is a person? What is society? He reminded us of Edmund Burke’s quote: “Society is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

I raised the question: How do we promote a culture of associations rather than allegiances? referring to a distinction that Nisbet draws. How do we cultivate virtues rather than the mediocrity that is fostered in a system of bureaucracy? Dr. Prudlo said, “We need to make people feel bad and let them fail sometimes.” It is important to celebrate virtues and successes and to recognize failure for what it is and to acknowledge that it exists.

We also discussed the idea of modernity beginning with William of Ockham (Richard Weaver holds this view) and the extent to which nominalism is the foundation of the modern project.

During our discussions on Tocqueville, we asked: What is the relationship between democracy and utilitarianism? Why did ancient democracy not tend to utilitarian morals? Someone quoted Thomas Jefferson who said, “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”

We also discussed the extent to which democracy leads to homogeneity.
Tocqueville explains that when the majority is sovereign then many, of course, will want to join the majority to exercise to comprise that body which wields the sovereign power.

I recalled a story of when I was in high school on the Graduation Committee. I was conducting a survey to determine which song would be the preferred graduation song of the majority of students. One student asked which song had received the most votes, which song was the most popular. When I informed him that my telling him the answer would not be very productive to the survey, he said with resignation, “Add me to the majority.” I think this revealed something interesting about many people’s participation within a democracy.

Another evening we had guest lecture by Luther Strange, Attorney General of Alabama. He spoke on the lawsuit that he is helping to file against the Obama administration on the HHS mandate on the grounds that the mandate violates religious liberty. During the question and answer period, I asked a question about whether he thought that the religious liberty arguments could go too far and extend to allow acts that we now consider criminal. He said that such cases are cases for the courts, that they can exercise judgment on these particular cases. He himself said that he would rather consistently err on the side of religious liberty.

A definite highlight throughout the week included lunchtime conversations with faculty members and many of the interesting and engaged students. I was pleased to meet Dr. Brickey LeQuire who studied Social Thought at the University of Chicago and whose dissertation was titled “Political Theology in Eric Voegelin’s Philosophy of History”. My conversations with fellow students inspired me to greater dedication to my studies. I am so pleased to have met so many students who are passionate about ideas, and so much so that they devote a week during the summer to learn through reading, lectures, and discussion.

“The first principles of freedom are easier than the first principles of basketball, because the principles of freedom come from the heart. Basketball is a sport.” – Dr. Brake

On the last night of seminar we had a BBQ and played some basketball and kickball. It was a lot of fun. I am grateful to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute for all of the excellent work that they do to support students in studying and advancing liberty for the sake of truth.


Liberty, then what?

“May the intellectual winds occasioned by each conference carry you out onto the philosophical seas, upon which the shores of mediocrity cannot be seen on even the remotest of horizons.”
– my good friend Walter Reid

I begin composing this blog from the City Tavern in Philadelphia where I am drinking Thomas Jefferson’s 1774 Tavern Ale. According to the menu, Jefferson made beer twice a year and this ale is made following his original recipe. After ditching my backpacks at the Apple Hostel on Bank Street, I strolled through the historic streets for a while. The city has character; it’s not pristine, but it is established. Before coming here, if you had said “Pennsylvania” I would have thought of the Pennsylvania Avenue and Pennsylvania Railroad squares on the Monopoly board.* If you had said “Philadelphia” I would have thought of cream cheese and if you said Pittsburgh, I’d have said “Penguins.” Before I came here I didn’t know that Philadelphia was a temporary capital of the United States, that it was here that the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, and that William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges helped to create a bastion of religious liberty. The city of brotherly love was so named for its “Holy Experiment” that had many failures, but also various successes.  So, as I often say, I am traveling the United States this summer to get an American education without paying American tuition, and also to learn some American geography.

I mentioned Tocqueville in my previous post and indeed this thought continues to come to mind: Tocqueville came to America to study the prison system and ended up writing about American democracy, constitutionalism, and liberty. I came to America to study liberty and am ending up learning about welfare statism, the unconstitutional expansion of state jurisdiction, and coercion.

This past week I attended a summer seminar hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies at Bryn Mawr College. Accommodations, meals, tuition, and books are funded for students accepted to the seminars through the generosity of private donors. Throughout the week, we study the ideas of liberty through the various humane disciplines or liberal arts.

I chose to come this particular week because I knew that Dr. James Stacey Taylor would be here and I had met him last year. He is a professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey. He is also notorious for pushing the boundaries in libertarian thought (Are there boundaries?), especially with his arguments for the commodification of human organs, votes, and parental rights. His biography notes that his book Stakes and Kidneys: Why markets in human organs are morally imperative led to him being branded a heretic in the London Times.

WTF do positive rights come from?

Prof. J.S.T. argues that if J.S. Mill’s “Harm Principle” guided public policy, then many actions that are presently illegal would become decriminalized. He introduces students to central ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, especially Francis Hutcheson’s notion of “moral sense.” Additionally, Prof. J.S.T. encourages us to consider why positive rights are less important than negative rights (and might not even exist).

I mentioned to Dr. Taylor my interest in bioethics. Through conversation, he helped me to clarify my interest in philosophical anthropology over practical medical ethics. One of the best parts of Institute for Humane Studies seminars is the evening socials where debates rage on between professors and students, except they become much more interesting because there’s beer involved. So my friend Marc and I engaged in an intense philosophical chat with Dr. Taylor. He proposed numerous trolley cases. The first and most well known is this: There is a trolley about to hit five people. Would you switch it to another track if it meant killing one? I initially and consistently said, “No.” My answer is likely a combination of my study of Plato, Aquinas, Machiavelli, and Dostoyevsky.  I would not choose to destroy life for the sake of life. “But there’s more life,” said Dr. Taylor. The end does not justify the means. I am a Christian and not a utilitarian. One should not commit certain evil so that some possible good may come from it.

This is Marc.

Dr. Taylor is a utilitarian and he rigorously challenged my position. Eventually the hypothetical choice became between an anencephalic [meaning “no brain”] newborn and my new friend Marc, who was sitting across the table from me. I knew little about the particular condition of anencephaly, but resolved that I would not act. Essentially, Dr. Taylor was asking me the same question that Polus asked Socrates: “Would you rather suffer than do injustice?” Socrates replies, “I should not like either, but if I must choose between them, I would rather suffer than do [injustice].” The extension to allowing someone else to suffer rather than choosing calculatingly to commit injustice is simply an act in accordance with the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

C.S. Lewis says, “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” I am interested in what miracles (or mysteries) tell us about the truth of what constitutes human life. A quick search online leads me to find examples of people living when nobody imagined it was possible. According to this article, Nicholas Coke, an anencephalic infant, is still alive at nearly four years old. Then, there is the incredible story of Chase Britton who was born without a cerebellum or pons – which control motor skills, emotions and sleeping and breathing. His mother Heather says, “’No one had ever seen it before. And then we’d go to the neurologists and they’d say, ‘that’s impossible, he has the MRI of a vegetable.’” Cases like these affirm my conviction that all human life is sacred not because of what we can accomplish, but because of what God can accomplish through us. These lives are changing the lives of those around them.

Dr. Taylor argued that he would call dolphins persons, but not fetuses on the basis of self-awareness as the fundamental criterion for personhood. Dr. Taylor raised many important questions that I intend to continue to explore including: What is a person? Why are persons more significant than other forms of life? Why do we have a moral responsibility to protect life?

I appreciated how he challenged me with the utilitarian argument that if you value life, then should you not value the choice in favor of saving more lives over fewer? “There would be so much more dignity and flourishing. It is multiplied,” he said. I could not agree. I was firmly opposed because life that is intrinsically valuable cannot be held up against other lives of the same intrinsic value. It reminded me of a line in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (which I am reading slowly): “True, we love life, not because we are used to living but because we are used to loving.” It is as though the utilitarians are saying: True, life is valuable, not because we value life itself but because we live to value.

One of the most important things I learned in History 200 is to not consider a philosopher apart from his or her biographical and historical context. I had read Dr. Marco Navarro-Genie’s paper on J.S. Mill and Auguste Comte’s correspondence and considered myself mildly more equipped this year to critique Mill’s utilitarianism, positivism, and even millenarianism. I also had a powerful line from his Autobiography on which to dwell throughout the week. Mill wrote about the “crisis of [his] mental history” that occurred when he was twenty. He said:

“Suppose that all the objects in your life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, ‘No!’ At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interests in the means? I seemed to have nothing to live for.”

That sounds like downright Augustinian restlessness. I bit my tongue from asking Dr. Taylor, “What’s the most pleasurable thing on earth?” and changed the question to this: “If life is about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, then what is the height of pleasure and is pleasure really the best we can get?” To this he simply said that pleasure is good enough and that pleasure is “pretty darn good.” I wasn’t satisfied.  There are too many testimonies of pleasure failing to please.

Throughout the week, we had sessions on such themes as: spontaneous order, the harm principle, constitutionalism, rational ignorance, formal versus informal institutions, natural morality, libertarian class analysis, schools of economic thought, the Great Depression, the failure of foreign aid versus market-based development success, war, and property rights.
It was an intensely enriching week. I joked that the reason I choose to be a university student during the year is mainly to be eligible for these summer conferences. Of course, both university and summer education is wonderful. I like to, as the mottos go: “Vacation with a purpose” and “Think more, sleep less.”

We had a very interesting debate during the week on whether or not someone can alienate his or her liberty. I raised the point that J.S. Mill makes when he says, “The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate his freedom.” This issue is raised under the applications section of Mill’s “On Liberty” where he discusses suicide and voluntary slavery. Prof. J.S.T. disagrees with this point and says that voluntary slavery is perfectly morally acceptable because liberty is instrumentally valuable in enabling individuals to lead lives that they see fit and secure the goods that they prefer.  He said:

“Imagine this: Somebody is a devout Catholic and they decide to enter a monastery. They want to enter an order where every one of their actions is controlled by their abbot. They’re going to give up their liberty. They’re doing so freely and voluntarily; to secure a good that they believe is worth it: A regimented life in service of God. I think that people should be allowed to do that. And indeed, we do allow people to do this. […] I believe that liberty is extremely valuable, but it’s valuable instrumentally, as a means to securing the ability of persons to live their lives as they see fit.”

Cloistered Nuns. Voluntary Slaves?

I found this account very interesting and appreciated that he, one of the staunchest defenders of liberty I know, clarified his position that liberty is essentially instrumental, not an end-in-itself. In one session, Prof. J.S.T. discussed legal rights versus moral rights. He teasingly calls legal rights the Lego blocks of rights that we give to lawyers to play with. Moral rights are much more interesting and moral rights are the ones with which philosophers are concerned. At the end of the week, I thought: moral rights are fun, but moral truths are even more exciting. Once we have freedom from coercion and our actions have moral weight, what are the very best actions we can choose to be flourishing human persons fulfilling our freedom in truth? And then, I find myself returning to Aristotle’s Ethics and spiritual reading and gaining increasing enthusiasm for ordered liberty.

This year, I found more people at the seminar to be sympathetic to religious ideas, or at least a bit less hostile. I met some students from Latin America and asked if any of them are planning to attend World Youth Day next summer in Brazil. From there, I had a conversation with a young woman from Guatemala.

She asked, “Have you also been struggling to reconcile libertarianism with your Catholic faith? I thought I was the only one!” So we sat down on some steps and had a very good discussion. We were warned in our conference binders that: “Through all this learning and sharing, new ideas can create a sense of what some researchers call ‘disequilibrium.’” I asked my new friend, “What do you think of the young men at this conference? Do you find yourself asking: Would they make good husbands? Would they make good fathers? As soon as I started speaking like this, I could tell that what I was saying was resonating with her. It is unattractive when people confuse liberty for sheer license and this is the tendency that we had observed.

Also, she goes to Universidad Francisco Marroquin, a free-market, pro-liberty university in Guatemala. (Yes, in Guatemala. You read that correctly.) We discussed how it is practically a competition there, much like at this seminar, to be dogmatically libertarian. (For example, I was called a fascist for supporting laws against drunk driving and age of sexual consent laws. One of the sessions was titled: “Why Not Anarchy?”)

So she was curious about my views on libertarianism and faith. I shared with her some of my experiences. Last year I had attended my first Institute for Humane Studies seminar. I became quite enamored with libertarian ideas, especially since I found them fairly easy to learn and quite difficult to refute. I was beginning to think that freedom makes truth. On a World Youth Day pilgrimage this summer in Madrid, I began to reflect on John 8:32. It says: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” I saw libertarianism as a reversal of this passage and thought about how I was confusing the means for the end. In the Gospels, the disciples are confused too: “”We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’” Jesus explains to them that they are slaves to their sin.

Throughout the week, many idealistic visions of a libertarian utopia completely free from coercion were envisioned. I thought about how a book might be written in the same vein as Thomas More’s Utopia with these ideas. Still, there would be human nature. Still, there would be pride. Still, we would not be able to redeem ourselves. Libertopia would not satisfy, nor could it possibly exist. Liberty is the indispensable condition for moral choice. That’s why I want to defend and advance it. But liberty exercised in a refusal to respond rightly to moral truth is misdirected and unfulfilling.

During some of the sessions at World Youth Day, I thought: Wow, I have never heard anything so beautiful, so good, and so true! I asked my friend: Did you ever find yourself thinking that the sessions throughout the week were pointing to something beautiful, good, and true? We concluded that, as much as we learned from the sessions and found them to provide a solid foundation, they did not point very far. She summed up the conversation best when she said, “We need transcendence.”

At the end of the week, Prof. J.S.T. gave another good explanation of the nature of liberty. He said that he considers liberty both “a means to” but also “a necessary part of” the ends which it is instrumental to securing. Oftentimes, a child will be drawing or painting a picture and not doing a very good job. He may sometimes realize that he will do a worse job than the adult supervising him. Still, the child will say, “I want to do it myself.” Dr. Taylor says he thinks that this behavior can give us important insight into human nature and he thinks this desire “to do it myself” is carried through beyond childhood. This reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s character Bernard Marx in Brave New World who says, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.”

The Institute for Humane Studies seminar was another enriching educational experience. I am grateful to the students, faculty, organizers, and donors for making it happen. I appreciated the opportunity to explore the philosophical foundations of free society and to question my assumptions. Dr. James Stacey Taylor was particularly helpful. He challenged me rigorously, welcomed me to conversations, and was respectful, patient, and kind.

At the very end of the week, I asked him if there is one thing that he advises that students bear in mind. To this he replied: “Remember that most people genuinely want to make the world better.” Since most people seem to attest to this by their lives, I am inclined to take it to heart and try to repair the world (Tikkun Olam), but not to redeem or recreate it.

*I have since learned that Pennsylvania Avenue is “America’s Main Street” actually located in Washington, D.C.

Thoughts on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Current Affairs Along with Some Reflections on Travel Experiences and Political Philosophy

I decided to read Crime and Punishment upon the encouragement of a former professor.  He and I had been discussing the Montreal student protests. This year, tens of thousands of students have been “on strike” in what has been called “the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.” University students are protesting both the increase in their already extremely heavily state-subsidized tuition and Bill 78, a short-term emergency law that requires protests on or near university campuses to first be granted police approval.

Students consider themselves entitled to higher education and more students than ever are attending post-secondary institutions. It seems that the student status is a major source for their sense of self. A student’s identity is wound up in his or her affiliation to an institution of higher learning and to a program of studies.

Hungry for belonging and purpose, students live in relativistic times where commitments are made to trends rather than principles. They don’t know who their heroes are and cannot imagine something worth dying for. I recall hearing a speaker recently who said, “People who do not know what is worth living for will sell their lives cheaply.”

A much different scene in Québec compared to Alberta

So this professor of mine called my attention to Dostoyevsky’s character Raskolnikov, noting that the character consistently refers to himself throughout the book as a “former student.” And so I picked up a copy of the book while in Ottawa, the capital of Canada that borders the province of Québec. I had been across the bridge to the French province and seen the pubs brimming with “poor” students, all wearing red squares of fabric pinned to differing parts of clothing… a strange effort at diversity amid conformity.

I picked up the book and was captured by this sentence on the back cover: “In the slums of czarist St. Petersburg, Raskolnikov, a sensitive intellectual, is driven by poverty to believe that he is exempt from moral law.” Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France lamented, “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.” Today, we may lament that it is the age of relativists, subjectivists, and utilitarians that is succeeding.

I read Crime and Punishment leisurely over the past month, not because it wasn’t gripping, but because it was a busy month. A part that really struck me is the scene where Raskolnikov is eavesdropping on a conversation between a young officer and a student in a restaurant. The student says:

“This old woman’s money, which is going to be sequestered in a monastery, could beget a hundred, a thousand good deeds and fresh starts! Hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives could be put on the right path, dozens of families rescued from poverty, from ruin, from collapse, from decay, from the venereal wards of the hospitals – all this with her money! Kill her, take her money, dedicate it to serving mankind, to the general welfare. Well, what do you think – isn’t this petty little crime effaced by thousands of good deeds? For one life, thousands of lives saved from ruin and collapse. One death and a hundred lives – there’s arithmetic for you!”

Evening Stroll in Gisenyi, a City that Borders the Congo, with Genocide Survivor and Our Rwandan Guide, Faustin.

In May, shortly before beginning the book, I was in Rwanda studying the genocide with fifteen Canadian students who have similarly utilitarian inclinations to those expressed by the student above. While in Rwanda, over dinner in Kigali, I asked my peers, “If you had to choose between saving a thousand animals or a single person, what would you do?” These students with whom I had been touring genocide memorial sites replied nearly unanimously, “It depends on the animal” and “It depends on the person.”

A Rwandan Boy Standing on the former site of the Murambi Technical School where an estimated 45,000 people were murdered in 1994.

I was frustrated by their utilitarianism, exhibited all throughout the trip from their views on “overpopulation” to their excuses for all sorts of government intervention. It was especially disconcerting as I sought to discern and affirm the dignity of human life amid studying the horrors of genocide. I sought to understand what a genocidaire who slaughtered people he had in common with an adorable grinning African child, waving to us on the side of the street and calling out, “Muzungu!” – that we should call both of them persons.

When I read the scene of the student and the young officer in the restaurant, I recalled the scene in Machiavelli’s “Mandragola” where Ligurio aims to persuade Friar Timothy to procure an abortion for a young, unmarried woman. He says:

What is there to think over? Just look at how many good things will flow from this action. You’ll maintain the honour of the convent, of the girl and her relations; you’ll restore a daughter to her father; you’ll be doing a favour for his Honour, for all his relations; you’ll do as many good works with these three hundred ducats as you can. And on the other hand, you’re not harming anything except a bit of unborn flesh, devoid of feeling, that could be lost in a thousand ways. And I do believe that a deed is good when it is good for the majority and the majority is happy with it.”

Here is foreshadowing of the doctrines of pleasure-maximizing and the “greatest-happiness principle” that would be promoted by utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

The next section of Crime and Punishment that had the greatest impact on me is where Raskolnikov describes his desire to be a Napoleon and to “do everything in a big way.”

“All right. So be it! It was like this: I wanted to make myself a Napoleon: that’s why I murdered…  Well, now do you understand? […] It’s like this. Once I asked myself a question sort of like this: suppose Napoleon had been in my place, without Toulon or Egypt or the passage across the Mont Blanc to launch his career, but instead of those beautiful monumental, epoch-making events there had simply been some absurd old hag, a stinking clerk’s widow, and she had to be killed so he could steal some money from her trunk (for his career, mind you) – well, suppose there had been no other way – would he have brought himself to do a thing like that? Would he have shrunk back because it wasn’t monumental enough, because it was … sinful? Well, as I say, this ‘question’ tormented me for a terribly long time, so I felt horribly ashamed when it finally occurred to me – all of a sudden, somehow – not only would he not have shrunk back, it would never have occurred to him that what he was doing wasn’t monumental … and he wouldn’t have understood what there was to shrink back from.”

This was a bit startling to me since I had recently been considering the relationship between great and pivotal events and great and pivotal people. I have thought about this concerning saints. Would they be saints in more ordinary circumstances or does the greatness of their suffering and their circumstances help to make them holy people? It’s a bit of a different sort of question, but still related. And it is the wrong view to take, of course, since it is not their greatness, but the greatness of God in them, as all the saints would surely say. God’s grace is the source of the saints’ magnanimity.

On another note, the idea of wanting to be exceptional does not seem that extraordinary. “What writer or scholar hasn’t started out by trying something original!” one character asks Raskolnikov rhetorically. These days it seems to be enough for many to be granted the illusion of exceptionalism, such as when every student gets a gold star or when an entire class graduates with “highest honours.” Maybe the illusion suffices to maintain mediocrity to the extent that individuals do not seek to prove or assert their exceptionalism?

As I travel the United States, I cannot resist thinking about Alexis de Tocqueville who came from France to the United States in 1831 with a friend. He was 25 years old, only a few years older than I am, when he made his journey. He was on assignment by the French government to study the American prison system, but seized the opportunity to study broader American society and eventually wrote his two volume work Democracy in America.

Then, I read an article by professors Barry Cooper and John von Heyking about Eric Voegelin and George Grant. They write:

“Voegelin and Grant had in common the biographically unique encounter of a foreigner with the United States. For both men, that experience was critical and significant. Moreover, both were aware of the link between biography and philosophy; both knew that [biographical] consciousness was somebody’s philosophical consciousness. That is, concrete human beings, with specific and identifiable names such as George Grant and Eric Voegelin, participate in the order and disorder of particular times and places. Their reflections are already under way in their pre-reflective experiences of participation in the here and now of the America they knew. Looked at in terms of the accounts they rendered of their participation in the reality of America, what they said was also an account of how they understood themselves. In order to see their respective assessments of the United States, it is first necessary to consider where they were standing and where they were going.
Voegelin learned from his experience of the United States that political science begins from an understanding of the self-interpretation of those individuals who actually participate in any particular political order, and not from an elaborate ‘scientific’ understanding.”

John Hancock Observatory in Downtown Chicago

And so after thinking about Tocqueville, Voegelin, Grant and others, I started to ask myself: What’s happening now? Is anything exciting going on? In what ways do my travel experiences constitute a sort of political philosophizing? How will these experiences of participating in a particular political order influence my soul and shape my understanding?

Peter Kreeft’s 15th thing that philosophy is according to history’s first and wisest philosopher in Philosophy 101 by Socrates is this: Philosophy is laborious.

“Socrates calls his philosophical ‘wanderings’ ‘my own Labours’ referring to the well-known legend of the twelve labours of Hercules, the Greek Superman. […] Whether philosophy is easy, like watching a movie, or laborious, like childbirth, depends on whether you are only observing some other philosophers in action, passively, or actually philosophizing yourself, actively (either in dialogue with another or alone), and on whether you are honestly trying to find the truth or just pretending, whether you are actually thinking or just imagining that you are thinking.

Keynote Address by Eric Metaxas at Acton University in Grand Rapids, Michigan

So far, this summer has been filled with activity. I have met people from so many different demographics. I’ve met Catholics, Evangelicals, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Liberals, Conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, Voegelinians, Straussians, Libertarians, Rothbardians, Randians, Hayekians, Chestertonians, etc., etc. I have not read enough about all of these many religions and philosophies, yet it is wondrous how I come to learn about them through meeting people who identify with them or subscribe to them in order that I might form an initial impression on the philosophies themselves.

I’ve met people who have attended public schools and private schools, people who were homeschooled and unschooled. I’ve been inspired to strive for excellence, especially by students from St. John’s College, Louisiana State University, Universidad Francisco Marroquin, Grove City College, Ave Maria University, and Thomas Aquinas College and by phenomenal professors and guest lecturers who I have had the privilege of learning from all summer.

It can be easy to be enamored with whatever ideas and institute I am acquainted with at the time, but attending so many summer seminars back to back affords me some distance and helps me to judge everything more carefully.For Tocqueville and his travel companion Beaumont:

“The purpose of their journey became more precise. It would concern a double and simultaneous intellectual journey whose subject would be France as well as America. ‘I will admit to you that what most prevents me from knowing what is happening on this point in America,’ wrote Tocqueville to his friend Blosseville, ‘is being almost completely ignorant of what exists in France.'”

I can relate to this. The more that I learn about America, the more that I realize how ignorant I am of Canada. Tocqueville was from France and I am from Canada. We are both foreigners coming to gain insight in a country not our own. And for foreigners, some tension seems to exist between the depth and insight achieved through immersion and the critical and reflective perspective of an outsider.

Sometimes while I travel, I observe in myself a desire to elevate my experiences, by comparison to those of others and to historical examples. It’s easy to fall into thinking that lots of commotion makes people better. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a member of the Canadian military who conveyed his surprise that the busiest times when citizens enlist are after a soldier dies. I can see how the question: What if I lived in more interesting times? quickly becomes: I shall change the times and make them more interesting. And as history and as Raskolnikov show, this desire to transcend monotony is dangerous and even disastrous when the actions are not well-ordered and lovingly directed.

There is profundity in the simplicity of what Mother Teresa says: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” And I have been reflecting on this very insightful observation of C.S. Lewis: “Doesn’t the mere fact of putting something into words of itself involve an exaggeration?”

G.K. Chesterton wisely says:

“I am ordinary in the correct sense of the term; which means the acceptance of an order; a Creator and the Creation, the common sense of gratitude for Creation, life and love as gifts permanently good, marriage and chivalry as laws rightly controlling them, and the rest of the normal traditions of our race and religion.”
“In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves–the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.”

C.S. Lewis Statue in Belfast

Similarly, C.S. Lewis says:

“It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects – military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary [emphasis mine] happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden – that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.”

I had read an introduction to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and saw the connection between it and the scene where Raskolnikov explains the motivation for his crime to Sonia. Crime and Punishment was read in preparation to read Nietzsche. Before reading Crime and Punishment, I had just read C.S. Lewis’s beautiful and important book The Abolition of Man. The central idea in it is that: “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.”

That single line, I think, has been the most important thing to keep front of mind while reading these books and living ordinary life. There is a need for humility, for a “right response to reality” (Kreeft), for an effort toward “attunement to the order of being”, and for a golden mean or “balance between the claims that the immanent and transcendent dimensions of human experience make on the human being who lives ‘between’ them.” (Webb on Voegelin)

I have now taken to underlining the words “order” “disorder” and all their various forms in every text that I read. If you flip through my copy of Crime and Punishment, the marginalia will be a testament to what Anne Fadiman describes as a “carnal love” of books. She writes:

“A book’s physical self was sacrosanct, its form inseparable from its content; her [the Danish maid’s] duty as a lover was a Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us a books words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.”

I will look back on this first reading and probably laugh at what struck me, the connections that I drew, the responses that I made, and on how little I grasped. I had a philosophy professor who once told me that he has a handful of books, including several Shakespearean plays, which he reads again and again. Every ten years or so he buys a copy of the text to read and then compares his notes across the years. The books don’t change, but he does. It is the same with going to Mass. Why go to Mass every week? The Mass doesn’t change, but we do.

In her afterward, Robin Feuer Miller poses these questions (among others) to the reader:

What does the novel now mean to you? What does the fact that you have taken the time to read this long novel mean to you in terms of priorities in your own busy life? Has the immensely private act of reading made you more thoughtful or more compassionate, or has it hardened your heart? How will this novel insert itself into the private recesses of your living, thinking, feeling self? Will having read Crime and Punishment make you a better citizen?

They are such excellent questions that they are probably the sorts of questions better answered by one’s life than by one’s words.

The Introduction by Professors Leonard J. Stanton and James D. Hardy Jr. piqued my interest. In it the professors discuss the parallels between Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Saint Augustine’s Confessions since: “The great Christian novel parallels the great Christian autobiographical spiritual journey.”

They are stories of the soul’s return to Truth and to Love. The introduction ends with this:

“The readers of Crime and Punishment know what that reality is. It is the ‘subject of a new tale,’ one in which Raskolnikov’s heart is at rest, in which he gives over being the theorist of the ‘new word’ and becomes the bearer of the true Word.”

In the Gospel, Mary and Martha “sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’” (John 11)

Philosophy is filled with paradoxes because the truth is often paradoxical. How do we combat the desire to innovate, to contrive new theories, and to transcend nature? Perhaps “Be extraordinary!” is a silly thing to say to encourage young people. Perhaps it is better to encourage them to be ordinary, keep the commandments, love order, seek truth, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Statue of St. Augustine in Dublin

There is freedom in truth. There is freedom in the embrace of the order of history, in passion (suffering), death, and resurrection. The order of the soul’s journey mirrors the order of history. The individual life is a microcosm of salvation history. Like Saint Augustine wrote so beautifully, “Late have I loved thee! Too late came I to love you, O Beauty both so ancient and so new! Too late came I to love you – and behold you were with me all the time . . .”, we come to realize that we are part of order, and never outside it, beyond it, or above it.

St. Augustine and St. John the Baptist Church in Dublin, Ireland

We are mysteries to ourselves and we often do the things we hate. We easily confuse created things for the Creator because we are creatures, but in God’s image we also have the dignity of co-creators. That is, the dignity to bring forth new life and creative ideas, but not, as in Crime and Punishment, “a new word.” For “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Like John, we must respond to this gift by affirming that we are not the light, but we live to testify to it.

In Crime and Punishment and in all my experiences of learning and travelling, there is the consistent and beautiful affirmation that, as Tolkien says, “We make still by the law in which we’re made.”

In gratitude for her excellent afterword in my edition of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, this post is dedicated to Robin Feuer Miller and to all professors who patiently journey with their students in search of truth.

Hiking at Volo Bog State Natural Area in Northeastern Illinois.