“My times are in your hand…” – Psalm 31:15
After two years of graduate studies at the university, I felt that I did not have a sufficiently good education to merit the degree of Doctor in Philosophy. I confided my worries to one of the professors, who said: “What would you like to have in education?” I said: “I should like to know two things—first, what the modern world is thinking about; second, how to answer the errors of modern philosophy in the light of the philosophy of St. Thomas.” He said: “You will never get it here, but you will get it at the University of Louvain in Belgium.
— Fulton J. Sheen, Treasure in Clay
I arrived to the Brussels airport on Sunday morning. From there, I found my way to the train and purchased a ticket to Leuven where I would meet my friend Dan, who is studying there, and who I met at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute First Principles seminar this past summer at Samford University in Alabama. At the closing picnic, he and I had struck up a conversation, along with Vinny, who was studying at Leuven with Dan, too. We hit it off quickly discussing existentialism, phenomenology, and mysticism. They both encouraged me to consider studying at Leuven and to, at the very least, visit. So the seeds planted during that one conversation in Alabama were now bearing fruit in Belgium.
Although it was my first time to the Met, being there reminded me of attending “Museum School” as a child. For one full week in Grade 3, my class and I had daylong visits to the Glenbow Museum where we explored art, artifacts, exhibits, historical documents, and international collections. We were given journals and encouraged to be curious and careful observers. The goal was to be still and observe with a sense of wonder, reflectively considering the “5Ws” – who, what, when, where, and why. We were encouraged to not try to observe everything, but rather to observe a few things well. We were educated to not race throughout the museum saying superficially, “That’s nice” and “That’s interesting.” In short, the most memorable lesson of Museum School was: “Don’t be a nodder.”
Before arriving to Reno, my only impression of it had been what I had gleaned from a couple of scenes in the film Sister Act. I landed in the Reno-Tahoe airport after arriving from Birmingham. A local in the airport advised me against my plan to take a cab and find a hostel for the night. She said, “Reno’s hurtin’ bad. Take a free shuttle downtown and you can stay at a hotel for $35.” Praise God for putting locals in every single city I visit.
I took the shuttle to Circus Circus hotel and was told that the room would be $47, plus tax and plus some additional fee. For a hotel room it wasn’t bad, but I thought that I could do better. When I said I might go down the street and compare prices, they dropped the price $10 and I checked into the hotel.
I had arrived to Reno two days early for the 31st Annual G.K. Chesterton Conference taking place at the Silver Legacy Hotel and Casino. After settling into my hotel, I strolled the streets of downtown Reno observing the hotels, restaurants, movie theatre, and street names.
On August 1, I woke up and soon after phoned Joan and Michael who agreed to host me during the conference. I arrived to their home on Wednesday afternoon. Asked if I’d like a drink, I said yes and Mr. Cassity offered to make me a martini! As we drank our martinis we discussed liberal arts education, great books, tradition, conversion, conservatism, travel, and more. Mrs. Cassity made a delicious dinner and served wine. I was well taken care of by my Chestertonian host parents.
The next day, they offered to take me to Lake Tahoe. I am so glad that they did. It was a beautifully scenic drive. They told me that their children can ask themselves in the same day whether they’d like to go skiing or golfing. The Cassitys told me about Mark Twain’s visit to the region in 1861. Of Lake Tahoe Twain wrote:
“At last the lake burst upon us–a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft three thousand feet higher still! As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole world affords.”
After returning home, Joan and I prepared for the conference. Then, we drove to the venue. Walking through the Silver Legacy Casino en route to the conference room was an interesting experience. Chesterton would probably get such a kick out of conferences being held in his honour in Reno, of all places! Joan and I arrived to the conference with plenty of time to register and browse the various tables that were set up to feature various organizations, initiatives, and books for sale.
I approached one very eye-catching display for Titanic Heroes. “Tell me about your display,” I said to the young woman waiting to greet passers by arriving early to the conference. An impressive young woman named Cady explained that she and her brother Benjamin had taken an interest in studying the Titanic. “Here is my new book,” said fifteen year old Cady holding up a copy of her just-published book A Titanic Hero: Thomas Byles. It’s the story of “One man…one ship…one night that was to be remembered forever. Thomas Byles, a Roman Catholic priest on board the R.M.S. Titanic, had the saying, ‘Give what you have,’ instilled into him from a very young age. His training, commitment, and love for others culminated into one shining example of fortitude in the face of danger. This book, historical fiction, narrates the life of Thomas Byles.”
Cady and Benjamin and the other three Crosby siblings are a shining example of homeschooled children. Since they are homeschooled, they have plenty of time to participate in speech and debate, publish books, and to “cultivate titanic virtue” by sharing the stories of Titanic heroes through their presentations across America.
The conference kicked off with an introductory lecture by Dale Ahlquist, the president of the American Chesterton Society. He encouraged attendees at the Reno conference to “put their money on the Chesterton table” and to support the Society by buying Chesterton books and even the “CHE-STERTON” t-shirt. The Chesterton Society has plenty of quirky rituals and this is exactly what a good society requires. From allowing whoever experiences the greatest series of unfortunate events throughout the conference to drink from the “cup of inconvenience” and then be awarded the “mug of consolation” to having an annual clerihew contest where the prize-winning four-line biographical poems are recited and celebrated at the final banquet.
Next, Joseph Pearce delivered a lecture titled, “The Humor and Humility of Chesterton.” Pearce’s message celebrated tradition and repudiated what he terms “DWEM-ism”, which represents the contempt held by progressives for “Dead, White, European, Males.” Joseph Pearce asks, “Can a person help that they are dead? Can a person help that they are white? Can a person help that they are European? Can a person help that they are male?” Of course not. Hating tradition is like racism. This is Pearce’s message and it is a very sincere one. It comes from a man who was formerly aligned with a white nationalist party in England before his conversion. Pearce’s conversion from racism to Catholicism was greatly motivated by his reading of Chesterton. Pearce is now a tremendous apologist for the faith, an excellent biographer, and active in promoting homeschool education, the great books, and liberal education.
The following day, there were many excellent lectures given by: Cameron Moore, PhD at Baylor University; Ralph Wood, Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University; Jason Jones, President and Founder of Whole Life America and Producer of the film Bella; Mark Shea, Author and Master of Blogosphere; and Kevin O’Brien, President and Artistic Director of Theater of the Word Inc. Needless to say, the conference far exceeded any expectations that I had. The lectures were top-notch and paid good tribute to Chesterton. Key themes of the lectures included: transcendence and mystery, wisdom and humility, the goodness of existence, paradoxical truth and conversion, and wonder and awe.
My favorite speaker was Jason Jones who delivered one of the most extraordinary speeches I have ever heard. He began by joking that he is a Chesterton fan “more like a twelve-year-old girl feels about Justin Beiber.” For Jones, reading Chesterton also played a significant role in his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Jason was raised a scientologist, but rejected scientology in eighth grade and became “a hardcore Randian objectivist” until his early thirties. Jason grew up in south-side Chicago, surrounded by anti-Catholic bias.
I knew that Jason Jones had helped to produce Bella, a pro-life film released in 2006. Jones said to us, “As of today, 581 women who were going to have abortions saw Bella, changed their minds, and let us know.”
He said that receiving text messages informing him that another woman has chosen life for her child is the very best part of his job. All of these details become even more beautiful in light of Jason’s conversion story.
Jason was sixteen. It was two days before his seventeenth birthday and a Saturday morning after a Friday night high school football game. His girlfriend came into his bedroom, “the room of a boy” and informed him that she was pregnant. “There I was with my girlfriend and we needed a strategy,” recalls Jason. The plan we came up with was this: On my seventeenth birthday, I could drop out of school and join the army. She would wait for me to come back.” His parents were supportive and the principal was happy to sign the papers. And so that’s what Jason did. He piled his belongings into a pillow case, along with a razor that he didn’t yet need and went to join the army so that he could support his family upon his return.
One day, a call came in and Jason took the phone, though he knew he wasn’t meant to leave his station. His girlfriend was on the phone and she was crying, “like I’ve never heard a woman cry before. And the only way that I can describe it is that her soul was crying. She kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Then, her father picked up the phone and said, “Jason, I know your secret and your secret is gone. I took Katie to get an abortion.”
Just then, someone came and hung up the phone and told Jason to get back to task. Jason, angry and shaken, said, “Sir, call the police. My girlfriend’s father just killed my child.” In reply the man said to Jason, “Why would I call the police? Don’t you know that abortion is legal?”
Jason did not know.
Jason was a poor student, but he says that he knew then that life began at fertilization. He was heart-broken. When he had the opportunity to phone his girlfriend back, he said to her, “Katie, I promise you that, even if no one cares about abortion and if it takes me the rest of my life, I will end abortion for you and our daughter Jessica.”
Jason and Katie know that the abortion ended the life of their daughter because when the abortion was done, the abortionist then said to Katie, “By the way, your baby was a baby girl.”
Since this experience, Jason truly has dedicated his life to striving to end abortion and to help create a culture of life and build a civilization of love. He converted to the Catholic faith and now has six children. He is producing more life-affirming films, directing the organization I Am Whole Life, and travelling the world advancing respect for the sanctity of all human life from the moment of fertilization until the moment of natural death.
Conversion stories are awesome. They make the most beautiful stories because they bear witness so wonderfully to the path of salvation history consisting in passion (suffering), death (dying to self), and resurrection (new life in Christ).
On Friday evening at the Chesterton conference, there was the world premiere of the film Manalive, based on Chesterton’s novel by the same title. Manalive is the story of Innocent Smith, a character who is tried for such crimes as burglary, desertion of a spouse, polygamy, and attempted murder. If I may excerpt from Wikipedia, here is a summary of the wonderous Chestertonian paradoxes in the film:
“[Innocent Smith] fires bullets near people to make them value life; the house he breaks into is his own; he travels around the world only to return with renewed appreciation for his house and family; and the women he absconded with are actually his wife Mary, posing as a spinster under different aliases so they may repeatedly re-enact their courtship.”
After watching the film, I thought: I am a “cradle Catholic” yet I think I ought to convert to Roman Catholicism. I imagined myself taking Rite of Christian Initiation for Adult (RCIA) classes. Of course, life is a continuous experience of conversion, of return to God. Chesterton’s wit and wisdom adds wonder to the experience and reminds each reader that he is also “the man who with the upmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.”
On Saturday the conference sessions included a lecture by Nancy Brown on The Plays and Poetry of Frances Chesterton, a session by Julian Ahlquist on Chesterton and Aliens, a small group discussion on the economic ideas of distributism, and finally a closing lecture by Dr. Andrew Tadie contrasting Chesterton and H.G. Wells.
There was 5:00pm mass on Saturday evening celebrated at St. Thomas Aquinas Cathedral with the Most Reverend Randolph Calvo, Bishop of Reno.
Then, everyone returned to the casino to a ballroom where the closing banquet was held. There were jokes, toasts, songs, drama and musical performances, clerihew readings, a live auction (a signed Chesterton book was the top prize), plenty of wine, and lots of other fun.
The conversations that evening at my table centred around the presidential election, Austrian economics versus distributism, summer travels, music, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Catholicism, and our favorite Chestertonian aphorisms. It was an absolute delight to dine with young people who light up while discussing Chesterton because of how instrumental he has been in helping them to see more colourfully. Chesterton helps souls become poetic optimists. Chesterton writes:
“The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in light of the supernatural.”
I look forward to reading more works by Chesterton.
To everyone, I recommend his book Orthodoxy.
G.K. Chesterton, pray for us.
This blog post is dedicated to Joan and Michael Cassity in gratitude to them for having hosted me in their home and for having shared many wonderful conversations during the 31st Annual G.K. Chesterton Conference in Reno, Nevada. God bless you!
This past week I attended Mises University, a weeklong summer university in economic science. The sessions covered theoretical and applied economics, including epistemology and methodology, pricing, entrepreneurship, comparative economic systems, welfare economics, law and economics, industrial organization, environmental economics, money and banking, political economy, and the history of economic ideas. Hosted since 1986 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Mises University brings together knowledgeable professors and keen students for a week of immersion in the Austrian School of Economics.
I became interested in the Austrian School after attending an Institute for Humane Studies summer seminar last year during which I volunteered to read Leonard Read’s essay “I, Pencil” aloud during an opening session. That week, I also read F.A. Hayek’s essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society“. What was impressed upon my economic views through reading these introductory texts was akin to the influence that reading Plato’s Apology and the Simile of the Cave had on my elementary philosophical views. In both cases, the central message is that there is a need for humility that stems from the recognition of the limits of human knowledge.
When confronted with the recognition of his own ignorance, Socrates could have resented the limitations and stopped philosophizing or tried to philosophize beyond his scope of ability, to transcend the limits. But he did not stop and instead realized that insofar as “whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know”, he had grasped the beginning of wisdom.
What attracted me to Austrian School Economics is its a priorism, that is to say, its beginning with deductive first principles, the most fundamental of which is the action axiom. We begin with a true premise: humans act. Any attempt to refute this axiom would be a contradiction because refutation is an act. I became intrigued with Mises’s magnus opus Human Action, of which I have only read excerpts. Still, what led me to Mises University is the idea of economics not as a “dismal science”, as Thomas Carlyle termed it, but rather a science of human action, and thus a humane discipline intersecting with and relevant to the various liberal arts.
My first night in Auburn I had a dream about a random shooting on a train. It was obviously a result of my recent transportation combined with all the news about the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. From the Greyhound terminal, I had shared a cab with a student to the campus. The student and the cab driver discussed other shootings in recent memory and the cab driver kept repeating, “And to think, this guy in Colorado was going for his PhD.”
Using the Catholic mass app on my iPhone, I walked two miles and found St. Michael the Archangel Church where I attended Sunday mass. To be each week at once in a different church and in the same Church is an awesome thing. It’s also very comforting to find a Catholic church in a new city. It’s like finding a Starbucks. Every Catholic church contains the Blessed Sacrament and every Starbucks has complimentary wifi. So when I ritualistically genuflect in church and order a caramel macchiato at a Starbucks, I never feel too far from home.
As I walked through the streets of Auburn, I noticed so much football paraphernalia. Everywhere I went I saw Tigers-themed merchandise. As I peered in a window, someone stopped to say to me, “Football is a religion here.” Every day of Mises University I passed the football stadium, which has a capacity for 87, 451 people.
Traveling across the United States, I find that it is more common here for students to wear clothing with the names of their colleges or college football teams on them. Students here seem to derive a greater sense of identity from their colleges than Canadian students. It is not uncommon to ask a student where he or she is from and to receive the name of a college rather than a hometown or state. As for me, my inclination is to first call myself a Western Canadian, then to say I am an Albertan. When this is meaningless to them, I specify that I am from the “Texas of North.”
After mass, I went to Waffle House. It was packed. There I met a Chinese student named Sonya who is studying environmental engineering at Auburn. We decided to share a table when one became available and enjoyed one another’s company over brunch. She told me many interesting things about China. Her father works in the civil service granting fishing licenses and her mother is a retired banker. I told her that she is brave to leave her country for her first time to study in America, especially since she is not even returning home for a visit. I asked if she is an only child and she said, “Of course. And every one of my friends is an only child.” Sonya is from Shanghai. I didn’t resist asking her views on the one child policy, which she said she considers understandable given the population of Shanghai. I found this particularly bizarre given that not a minute later she asked me what I thought about animal testing in scientific experiments. She had been shocked to learn of students killing mice in pharmecutical experiments. I cringed when we discussed manipulating human populations, but not mice populations.
Then, we discussed education. She said that there is a lot of pressure in China because there is one exam that students take to determine what university career they will pursue. “The government determines you program of studies based on your score. If you don’t do well on it, you have to wait a full year to take it again,” explained Sonya. She continued, “The reason that Chinese parents often send their child to the United States is not because they have money, but so that their son or daughter can study whatever he or she wants.”
As we were paying our bills at Waffle House, Sonya asked if I had ever heard of the Tiananmen Square Protests. “Yes, I studied that,” I told her. Sonya said, “Well, my parents never told me about it and I never learned about it in school. I learned about the events at Tiananmen Square from Wikipedia two days after coming to the United States. If you search the Internet in China, the Web will only yield pages that say there is no information relevant to your search.”
After saying goodbye to Sonya, I returned back to the Cambridge dormitories at the University of Auburn. Soon after, my roommate Lorraine arrived. She and I decided to go for a walk. Lorraine studies German and History. I was impressed that she too had decided to come to a weeklong intensive seminar on economics, a field outside of her own program of studies. While my summer may seem extraordinary, it is not particularly exceptional relative to the summer adventures of many of the other students I am meeting along the way. It is not uncommon for me to meet people who have attended half a dozen conferences, travelled across the world, studied multiple foreign languages, and who are dedicated, well-rounded, and ambitious people. They inspire me tremendously by raising the standard of excellence.
The first night of Mises University kicked off with a lecture by Dr. Robert Higgs titled “Warfare, Welfare, and the State.” Employing lots of religious metaphors to criticize the state, he said at one point, “Even a shepherd keeps his sheep only so that he can shear and kill them.” This was quite a different use of the sheep metaphor than what I had heard in mass that morning. The psalm had been Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. […] thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Needless to say, I was very struck by how I had heard a similar metaphor to symbolize two very different points in the very same day.
After this talk, I approached Dr. Tom Woods and mentioned what I described above. He told be he had been to mass in the Traditional Rite and so had not thought of it. I asked him what he thinks of Murray Rothbard and how he reconciles Rothbardian views on such things as children and rights with his Catholic faith. Woods told me that he had met Rothbard and said that Rothbard was changing his positions later in life, becoming more conservative, and that he even considered joining the Catholic Church. Woods insisted that one should not “throw the baby out with the bath water” when it comes to thinkers who hold inconsistent or even highly objectionable views.
The following evening Woods gave a lecture during which he said it was his aim to “inoculate [us] against the cult of anti-Rothbard.” As when a priest gives a homily that resonates in such a way that you feel it was written for you, this talk was an important wake-up call. Though he was addressing a broader factionalism within the libertarian movement, for me Woods was warning against being hastily dismissive of thinkers whose ideas I have not studied in depth or whose ideas I have not given the respectful consideration they deserve. Although, I still believe that you can learn a lot about a thinker by what he or she says about “the least of [our] brothers and sisters.”
On Monday morning Dr. Joseph Salerno gave an excellent lecture on “The Birth of the Austrian School”. He explained that there were two dominant theories in classical economics: cost determined by production and cost determined by scarcity. The key problem with these theories is that they failed to account for human want. Carl Menger, the father of the Austrian school, contested the cost-of-production theories of value and pioneered the theory of marginal utility and economic analysis centred around the idea that value truly lies in ability to satisfy for human wants. Dr. Salerno pointed out that when we say about a person, even a small child: “he knows what he wants” or “she knows what she wants”, we have a budding entrepreneur. Good entrepreneurship is the ability to successfully predict future wants and often develops from an individual considering his or her own wants and extending those to others and to the future.
The next lecture was delivered by Dr. David Gordon. He explained that Mises thought that economics could contribute to the field of epistemology. People are purposive. Every actor uses means to achieve ends. Gordon told us that Mises defined action as involving “felt dissastifcation.” You act because you want to change things for the better. All actions involve choice.
After this lecture, I had lunch with a student named Darren who just completed his bachelors degree in the United Kingdom. And it so happens that he wrote his undergraduate dissertation on praxeology, relying primarily on the work of Ludwig von Mises and other Austrians. Over lunch we aimed to distinguish between actions and instincts, correlating means and ends with purposive action and causes and effects with instincts and teleology in nature. We discussed whether nature is causal or purposive and whether rationality is implicit in human action. We also confronted the challenge of discerning the point at which a person begins to act.
Other lectures throughout the day were on the topics of: subjective value and market prices, the division of labour and social order, and Austrian capital theory. During the afternoon I overheard David Gordon recommending an Eric Voegelin book to a student. Afterward, I asked him about it and he began to tell me stories about Voegelin, whom he knew personally. I enjoyed listening to him and when he asked how I had heard of Voegelin, I told him that I have taken classes with Barry Cooper, whose name he recognized, although he has not met him. Voegelin keeps coming up throughout my travels this summer, enticing me to immanetize my reading of his six-volume Order and History.
I began to wonder whether Voegelin had a connection to the Austrian school of economics. A quick search led me to a Voegelin View article that discusses Voegelin’s
relationship with the Austrian School. Voegelin was invited to seminars hosted by Mises that he attended with F.A. Hayek and other students. Voegelin would have been about nineteen years old.
It struck me that, while Voegelin took an interest in the economic ideas within the developing Austrian School tradition, he found the focus to be somewhat narrow. Austrian Economics was not accounting for complexities factoring into the realities of human action that Voegelin considered essential to understanding the political order.
In a letter to Hayek, Voegelin wrote:
I think that I can agree with you on almost everything you have said. There is however one point where I should suggest a certain qualification of your argument. I do not believe that the problem is one of the economic system and state intervention exclusively, but I am afraid that the evolution of the religious state of mind towards collectivism not as an effect but as a cause of economic evolution plays important role in the structure of modern civilization. – Eric Voegelin to Friedrich A. von Hayek, April 14, 1938
I read your article The Intellectuals and Socialism. Reading it I had the same impression that I had when I examined Road to Serfdom. We are approximately concerned about the same problems and we are dissatisfied by the same grievances. As I see it, we differ on the interpretative issue. You understand the difficulties of socialists intellectuals observing the economic contrasts and maybe ethical between socialism and liberalism. For me, this contrast does not approach the issue deeply enough. You know my prospective from our discussion and from my lectures. I think that it is impossible to deal with the contemporary problems of intellectuals without taking into consideration the religious scenario, the “Gnostik” problematic. I have the impression that you come closer to this problematic in your work Counter Revolution of Science than in your economic interpretations? – Eric Voegelin to Friedrich A. von Hayek, February 5, 1951
As mentioned above, it struck me that Voegelin took such an interest in economic ideas but found them to be lacking important dimensions. It also struck me that Voegelin stayed in touch with his friends from Mises’s seminars. As I attend seminars hosted by the Mises Institute and read books by Voegelin and visit with people who knew him, I am starting to see more and more what it means for there to be a tradition of scholarship and how much politics and political philosophy has to do with friendship.
I recall a conversation I had during a meal with my friend Ross who I had met at a Liberty Fund seminar. Ross said, “I am tired of discussions where man is considered solely as human capital. I am a man!” he declared light-heartedly, yet sincerely and pounding his fist theatrically on the table.
And so I would sneak up to the Massey Library at the Mises Institute to read excerpts from Voegelin’s Order and History. A few paragraphs was a sufficient dose to enrich the Mises sessions with a broader perspective rooted in philosophical anthropology. I read the line: “Government is an essay in world creation.” Throughout the week I reflected on this single line the most. I found myself again asking: In what way are we made in God’s image and reflecting on the human experience of tension between being co-creators and sub-creators.
When I read this, I remembered what Cooper says about essays:
“An essay, as I understand it, tries to push an argument to its limit, with a minimum of qualification or second thoughts, and in a mood of considerable speculative confidence. An essay presents a perspective rather than new information. Much of the argument is, therefore, allusive.” – Barry Cooper, The Restoration of Political Science and the Crisis of Modernity
Spending the week with anarchists who consider government both unnecessary and evil, I reflected on the extent to which government is an attempt to imitate the divine ordering of the cosmos. It’s a poor imitation, counterfeit even, but it strives toward a resemblance. What we see in governments is plenty of ‘speculative confidence’ without the restraint that should follow from a recognition of limits.
Samuel Gregg writes:
The Catholic vision of the state underscores the legitimacy and limits of government authority. From the standpoint of Catholic doctrine, the authority of governments is derived from the divine and natural law. But the same state is subject to the demands of revealed and natural truth: the state is neither the source of truth nor is it above the truth.
On Tuesday, Walter Block offered a lecture titled “An Austrian Critique of Mainstream Economics”. Block is a well-known Austrian scholar and anarcho-capitalist. He worked at the Fraser Institute in Canada for many years. He follows Rothbard in many respects, but differs from him in some important ways too. Block describes himself as a devout atheist. He began his lecture with an overview of praxeology saying, “We don’t test things; we illustrate them.” Block was “converted” to libertarianism after attending a lecture by Ayn Rand and to anarcho-capitalism after attending a lecture by Murray Rothbard. Since many thinkers count meetings with key thinkers in their day among the most influential moments of their intellectual and personal development, I made sure I had a few conversations with professors one-on-one or with a couple of other students.
One afternoon I had a conversation with Block. We discussed Catholicism, libertarianism, the divine right of kings, self-ownership, abortion, and ordered liberty. Discussing ordered liberty, Block asked the question that he is known for asking and that seems to be the primary measure of his judgment: “Are they real libertarians?” He had asked this to me after I had told him about the Acton Institute. “What are they adding to liberty with this order business?” he asked skeptically. I explained that they are interested in promoting a free society and also discerning how to live out that freedom in accordance with truth.
“But what if I don’t want truth? I like falsehood. Two plus two is five,” challenged Block.
(Do you ever find it interesting how everyone seeking to rebel against this particular equation always comes up with the answer five? Not three. Not six. Or any other number. They are conformists in their attempts at rebellion.)
Block had stately clearly that libertarianism is not a philosophy of life. All that it tells you is to avoid harming others. It doesn’t tell you that Mozart’s music is beautiful. But why not harm others? I asked. He tried to argue that harming someone would involve a practical contradiction based on Hans Hoppe’s argumentation ethics. This is the same argument used for self-ownership. But to disagree with the harm principle does not by itself involve doing any harm to someone. And disagreeing with the concept of self-ownership does render argumentation impossible.
I greatly enjoyed my conversations with the professors throughout the week. However, I did not find myself converted by any of the economists. Unlike those who went from persecuting capitalists like Saul persecuted Christians, I must say I have had no similarly dramatic Road to Damascus conversion along the Road to Serfdom.
It was not an uncommon question throughout the week by fellow attendees whether I was a “cradle free-marketer” or whether I came to the ideas after reading Atlas Strugged or watching Ron Paul videos. I reflected on my parents’ example. They are both entrepreneurs. They have worked from home my entire life. My dad worked in oil and gas before inventing a product. My mother has always been spontaneous and creative. I reflect on her taking me to garage sales a lot when I was young and encouraging me to barter. I recall having garage sales and selling lemonade and cookies. I also recall making my first “investment” at age 11 in a babysitting certificate program with a small loan that I would pay back to my mom with the income from my first couple of jobs. In my early teens, I had photographic business cards that I would give to parents after playing with their children at the park to drum up babysitting business. I recalled fundraising hundreds of dollars for the Terry Fox Run annually and going throughout my neighbourhood asking for donations after rehearsing my fundraising pitch with my dad. Throughout my whole life, my parents have been modelling entrepreneurship and encouraging creativity.
Hearing so many socialist conversion stories had me counting my blessings. Working at the James Joyce Irish Pub led me to observe and reflect on what it takes to run a small business. I learned about how Anne and Gerard took a lot of risk, but had a clear goal to start the pub. Knowing their story and learning from how they ran their business meant that my part-time job was a lot more meaningful than I may have realized at the time.
My experiences at Mises University were also a cause for reflection on what it meant to grow up in Calgary, Alberta. While among anarchists who resent patriotism and think all borders unnecessary and imaginary, I still could not help but realize that I am who I am because of the particular environment in which I grew up and now live.
I found myself wanting to defend Canada, especially when the speakers would say that the Canadians have “some explaining to do” for all our socialism. We are more economically free than the United States now, I would say referring to Canada recently surpassing America in an Economic Freedom Index. Then, I would boast about Canadian federalism. How does the supposed power of the states in the U.S. compare to the provincial jurisdiction of healthcare and education in Canada now? I thought to myself: I’m not particularly patriotic, but suppose that I wanted to take some pride in my country. What is there of which I can or should be proud?
Some of the best parts of Mises University were the conversations that I had with fellow students outside of the intense periods of scheduled lectures. One evening I had several particularly good conversations about Catholicism. (I am meeting so many young converts!) With a small group I discussed Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hobbes, Dostoyevsky, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Burke, Mises, Fulton Sheen, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, and others over the course of the evening.
One young man with whom I spoke and who is converting to Catholicism from being a Baptist told the group that he has read Augustine’s City of God in its entirety and recommended it strongly to all of us. Another student who I met studies at Harvard and told me about his classes with Dr. Harvey Mansfield. “We spent fifteen minutes discussing the first words of the Republic,” he said. I smiled remembering that I too had had similar experiences being guided through the opening lines of Plato’s Gorgias (“War and Battle”) and of Plato’s Republic (“I went down”). My late-night conversations with these dedicated students was such a gift. I count myself blessed to have been in their company.
On the final day of Mises University we had a barbecue dinner at the Institute. Everyone was outside, laughing, telling jokes, eating burgers and coleslaw and cookies. Several of the professors’ families, including many young children, had arrived for this final dinner. It was good to see. As everyone gathered around for the closing ceremonies, I cherished the experience. For a bunch of individualists, it seemed we hadn’t done too bad a job at being a community.
This blog is dedicated in gratitude to James Forward who sponsored my attendance at Mises University.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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!”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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)
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.
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.