Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Rhetoric of Amazement: What children's literature tells us about the world

The following is the text of my article "The Rhetoric of Amazement," which appears in the Summer issue of the Classical Teacher magazine:

Dr. Seuss is my favorite modern philosopher. I say this because of the view of the world his poetry betrays. Dr. Seuss writes what has been called “nonsense” verse. Yet it may be the books like Dr. Seuss that, in the end, make the most sense.

In Dr. Seuss books, we encounter creatures that we are tempted to think God forgot to create: creatures that will have you so surprised you’ll “swallow your gum.” You’ll ask, when you see these strange animals come, “Where do you suppose they get things like that from?”

We discover, with his help, the tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurka, whose neck is so long that if he swallows an oat the first day of April, “it has to go down such a very long way that it gets to his stomach the 15th of May.”

Hike all the way up to the mountains of Tobsk, and one finds the singular dwelling place of a thing called an Obsk, “A sort of a kind of a Thing-a-ma-Bobsk/Who only eats rhubarb and corn on the cobsk.”

Dr. Seuss, of course, follows Edward Lear in the pantheon of “nonsense” writers. Lear, the author of such words as:
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!’
Along with the Pobble Who Has No Toes, the Pelican Chorus, the Quangle-Wangle’s Hat, the Owl and the Pussycat, and, of course, the Jumblies (“who went to sea in a sieve”), we have an entire bestiary of the seemingly bizarre. But, even as we are lured into believing that we are in another world than our own, we all of a sudden realize that it is our own world we are being introduced to—or, more accurately, reintroduced to.

“It is Mother Goose,” says John Goldthwaite, in his excellent book, The Natural History of Make Believe, “who first introduces us to who we are in the world … Our infant imaginations are jollied awake as she translates the toes on our feet into pigs going to market, sends a cow over the moon, and tucks the world’s biggest family into bed in a shoe.”

What is it that nonsense verse and nursery rhymes—indeed, all imaginative fiction—tell us about the world? Imaginative literature employs what I call the “rhetoric of amazement.” And lying behind it is something deeper: metaphysics of amazement—a view of reality that is implicitly transmitted to the reader—a view that underlies these books and that is necessary in understanding what this kind of literature does.

What is the world like, according to this literature? I think I can state it in one simple sentence: the world is enchanted.

We have often heard that “familiarity breeds contempt,” and indeed this is true. We take the world for granted. But what imaginative literature does is this: it turns things upside down and helps us to see them as if for the first time. The world is enchanted, and, in order to see it, we only need a little help from Mother Goose and her friends.

What Dr. Seuss and Edward Lear and the writers of fairy tales and other imaginative literature do is to take the created order apart and put it back together in new and unusual ways, allowing us to be surprised again at the things of this world. We are introduced to elfland only so that we can look in wonder once again on what Lord Dunsany calls “the fields that we know.”

“The mind is stubborn in its need for order,” says Goldthwaite. “Upset its expectations with a spiel of gibberish and, like a turtle looking to right itself, it will seek the stability of meaning every time. Nonsense might be defined more accurately as a flirtation with disorder, a turning upside down of the world for the pleasure of seeing it come right side up again.”

There is no greater defense of the rhetoric of amazement than the essay, “The Ethics of Elfland,” by G. K. Chesterton. “My first and last philosophy,” said Chesterton, “that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery … The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.” Thus begins his great explanation of the rhetoric of amazement.

“This elementary wonder,” he says, “is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this.” Enchantment is a metaphysical reality, and fairy tales serve merely as a way to reveal it. “It is not earth that judges heaven,” he says, “but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticized elfland, but elfland that criticized the earth.”

In explaining this philosophy, Chesterton first draws our attention to certain facts about the world that do not contain their own explanation:
I am not concerned with any of the separate statutes of elfland, but with the whole spirit of its law, which I learnt before I could speak, and shall retain when I cannot write. I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts. It might be stated this way. There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it … If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit … that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it.
But then Chesterton turns his attention from the true rationalism of fairyland, and looks upon the irrationalism of our own world:
But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened—dawn and death and so on—as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.
One of the themes of modern thought is a sort of mechanistic materialist determinism: the idea that the world is nothing more than a vast, self-contained machine. This view sees everything, including the repetitions in nature, as merely a physical unfolding of what came before:
These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton’s nose, Newton’s nose hit the apple. That is true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike. We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions.
If Chesterton sounds fanciful here, we should remember that this argument had been made 150 years before by the 18th century British empirical philosopher David Hume. Hume argued that
just because we see one event repeatedly follow another, we have no basis on which to say that the first thing “causes” the second. No one has witnessed a cause; he has only witnessed event A repeatedly followed by event B. The belief in causation involves the assumption that the future is always like the past. Since B has always followed A in the past, therefore it will do so in the future. But we have no strictly rational justification for saying these sequences will occur in the future.

Hume’s argument shows that, from the point of view of the materialist, there is no basis upon which to believe in causation, since causation itself is a metaphysical, not a physical thing. From a non-theistic perspective, there is no way to justify science, which relies precisely on the assumptions Hume refuted. There is no rational basis for causation in the strictly mechanistic world that exists outside of Christian belief. Modern scientistic thought has given up on metaphysics, and because of this it has found itself in an intellectual cul-de-sac out of which it cannot reason itself.

Chesterton continues:
The man of science says, “Cut the stalk, and the apple will fall”; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, “Blow the horn, and the ogre’s castle will fall”; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause… She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the scientific men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching the ground. They do really talk as if they had found not only a set of marvellous facts, but a truth connecting those facts. They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically connected them philosophically. They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing. Two black riddles make a white answer.
Science has come before us in all its formal regalia—its beakers and test tubes and laboratory smocks—and announced that, because it knows that things happen in a certain way, it therefore knows why they happen that way. But knowing that, and knowing why are two entirely different things.
Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the “Laws of Nature.” When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is magic. It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law … that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. … All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.
Those who find Chesterton’s reasoning unscientific in its tone might be shocked to find that “The Ethics of Elfland” was included by Martin Gardner, the former editor of Scientific American, in his anthology, Great Essays in Science, along with essays by Darwin, Eddington, Fermi, and Einstein.
This state of the world, Chesterton argues—the fact that it is enchanted—is the root of the amazement we do or should feel toward the world. It is an instinct that we have as humans, an instinct that we associate with children, who have not forgotten it. When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.
One of the functions of fairy tales and nursery rhymes is to awaken what Chesterton calls the “ancient instinct of astonishment.”
These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.
“Every work of make-believe,” says Goldthwaite, “bears the same implicit message. Its miracles may be mysterious like [George] MacDonald’s, they may be tricks for fun like Helen Bannermans’, but they all announce to a credulous audience that the world is possessed of a quality that is beyond empirical knowing.”

But what is the nature of this empirical knowing? If there is not a mechanism behind the universe, then what is there? What is the origin of the enchantment we see in the world? Again, Chesterton has our answer:
Now, the mere repetition made the things to me rather more weird than more rational. It was as if, having seen a curiously shaped nose in the street and dismissed it as an accident, I had then seen six other noses of the same astonishing shape. I should have fancied for a moment that it must be some local secret society. So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot. I speak here only of an emotion, and of an emotion at once stubborn and subtle. But the repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again. The grass seemed signalling to me with all its fingers at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood. …I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were wilful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.
This world, Chesterton thought, may not be the cold outworking of some dead mechanism. It may instead be the theatre of the Divine Magician who, like an excited child, wants to see things
again and again:
They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grownup people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again before the curtain.
The rhetoric of amazement is, then, as we said at the outset, based on a metaphysics of amazement. Our attitude toward the world, the fact that we treat it as if it were enchanted, is based on the belief that it actually is enchanted. And it is only because we believe in God, who is the Divine Magician, always demanding—and bringing about—another encore.

We can, then, take this rhetoric of amazement into our classrooms—and our homes—in the confidence that we are not just engaged in some fanciful exercise in foolishness, but that we
are, in fact, making our children see the world as it really is.

I think my students wonder about me sometimes. Every once in a while, in the middle of class, I’ll get a call on the cell phone and it will be my wife, and she’ll give me the usual greeting, and say, “Hi, Daddy Bear.” And sometimes, oblivious of my surroundings, I will respond with the matching greeting, “Hi, Momma Bear.” And my students will look at each other, either thinking it is extremely humorous or, alternatively, that I might need professional help.

And sometimes, when I come home after a particularly grueling day at school (what my wife would term, “Daddy and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”), I’ll plop down on the couch, and my wife will look over, and say, “Sad Dad, Bad Had.” But come Saturday morning, when the hard week is over, we sometimes have pancakes, and we try to remember how many Almonzo and his brother ate in their little house on the prairie.

In the summer, when the corn in the farmer’s field behind our house gets to a certain height, and there’s nothing to do and the kids are getting underfoot and into trouble (“Wild Things,” we call them), they are told to go play in Farmer Maggot’s field.

And when the beans have begun to spring up in the garden, and Peter Rabbit is having his fill (such as was the case several weeks ago), Farmer MacGregor goes for his gun, making him highly unpopular among the little MacGregors. But these beans are worth defending, since they are magic beans—not because they grow a giant beanstalk that allows us to climb into the sky and sneak into a giant’s house. No. They are magic because we put them into the ground and they somehow, in a way that can only be explained by the fact that we live in an enchanted world, spring to life in new bean plants.

When things need to be cleaned up around the house, (usually because there are things people have left out—we don’t know which people because no one seems to remember leaving them out, causing us to attribute them to You Know Who—Mr. Nobody) and the children are dawdling, my wife will exclaim, “Let’s go! Spit-spot!” because that’s what a certain nanny says to Michael and Jane in a certain house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, “where the houses run down one side and the Park runs down the other and the cherry-trees go dancing right down the middle.”

Recently, our veterinarian convinced my wife (when I was away on a business trip last year) to take two cats that needed a good home—just like it happened in Hilda Van Stockum’s book, Friendly Gables. They were orphaned when their mother was killed in a tornado, and had been raised thus far in a cage with only each other for company. When they arrived in their new
home, they quickly warmed to their new freedom and proceeded to terrorize everyone in the house by chasing each other all day and long into the night. For several days, the question before the family was what to name them. But there was no doubt in my mind what to call them.

They were Thing One and Thing Two.

When you want to express affection for a child around my house you say, “I’ll eat you up I love you so.” When the dog comes in out of the rain, “You never yet met a pet, I bet, as wet as they let this wet pet get.” When someone is not nice, “their heart is three sizes too small.” And you don’t play with the telephone, because you might call Australia.

And, of course, by that time it’s getting late, so we spank the children all soundly and send them to bed. But it’s okay. Because they are where someone loves them best of all.

In children’s imaginative literature, says Goldthwaite, “the miraculous becomes real by association with the mundane and the mundane is transformed by its association with the miraculous. When you hold a volume of Mother Goose in your hand,” he concludes, “you are holding a weight of proof that the world is real and a thing of make-believe both.”

A few years ago, my youngest son came up to me with a little plastic star. He wondered where it came from. I informed him that it must have fallen from the sky, an explanation he readily accepted. So I got out the ladder, placed it on my back lawn, and put the star back. I later noticed the same occurrence when we read Mary Poppins.

I'm not sure, but I think P. L. Travers got the idea from me.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Conservative Agonistes: Does Glenn Beck represent conservatism?

I have refrained from saying anything about Glenn Beck, but yesterday's rally makes my reticence more difficult. I'll just say (and I hope I am not hiding my understatement very well) that if I had to pick someone to be the titular head of the conservative movement, it wouldn't be Beck.

Although I am no fan of the apotheosis of Martin Luther King--and I don't appreciate the fact that we now celebrate Martin Luther King day in place of the birthdays of several of our presidents--if I had to choose between the relative merits of the two, I'm choosing King. For one thing, I think some conservatives have engaged in a severe overreaction to King based on the actions of his contemporary followers. I don't think it's fair to assess someone on the basis of the words and actions of their followers in the case of King any more than someone's followers should be judged on the basis of who thinks he's their leader in the case of Beck.

The mercifully few times I have tuned into Beck's show have been occasions of almost complete embarrassment. His lack of knowledge of what he is talking about (One of these occasions involved a discussion of the philosopher Martin Heidegger that was positively ludicrous) and lack of real substance should be a scandal to any thinking conservative. I realize this is supposed to be entertainment, but his goofy manner doesn't even provide that.

There are legitimate questions about King's personal life and even a few of his less savory influences, but his message of non-violent resistance to injustice on the explicit basis of Christianity was unassailable. Some conservatives seem to think it a damning indictment of King and his cause to say that he was a sinner, unaware that that standard cuts many ways. But great leaders have an ethos--a personal credibility. King had it, and many of the de facto leaders of the conservative movement (and I include Beck in that number) don't.

It is unfortunate.

I also note that several Christian social conservative groups have come out and condemned Beck's recent and more vocal advocacy of Mormonism. To this, all I can do is to employ a complex technical term which I only use in rare circumstances when special emphasis is needed:


It isn't exactly like no one knew this until now. Did they think his Mormonism was never going to raise it's head?

I'll have to take the Christian King over the Mormon Beck on August 28--or any other day.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bob Sexton, RIP

I just heard about the death of Bob Sexton, the head of the Prichard Committee. Bob and I locked horns many times on education issues, since he was probably the leading advocate of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 and I was probably its loudest critic. But you could never question his sincerity, and whatever you think of the correctness of someone's positions, you've got to think that sincerity and dedication count for something, and Bob had these virtues in spades.

I don't know what Bob's spiritual state was when he died, but you pray in these cases the same thing you pray for yourself: that God might be merciful. And He is.

Requiescat in pace.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Live Racing with Dead Horses: Brought to you by the Beshear administration

There is good news for horse racing: euthanizing horses will no longer necessarily end their racing career. At least not if the Beshear administration has its way.

While it has always been thought that "live racing" involved living, breathing horses making a dash for the finish like, lawyers at the state's Revenue Department are now arguing that "live racing" can actually involve dead horses.

In a brief filed by Kentucky Revenue Department lawyers with the Franklin Circuit Court, they argue that current laws allowing them to collect taxes on "money wagered on live races at the track" can be interpreted to allow them to collect taxes on money wagered on slot-machine like games called "Instant Racing" in which betters bet on the outcome of videos of old horse races which include horses that long ago assumed room temperature.

We now go live, so to speak, to Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Greg Hall, who must have thought he had fallen down the rabbit hole when he read the Department's brief, filed today, which asks the court to go along with its interpretation of the state's pari-mutuel excise tax which would allow it to tax Instant Racing revenues:
The department argues that state law does not define “live racing,” and that all forms of gambling at tracks not specifically exempted by the legislature are covered by the tax.

“From the perspective of a wagerer, a historic horse race is very much ‘live’ — the wagerer does not know the outcome of the historical horse race in advance any more than a wagerer at a track knows the outcome of a race physically conducted at that track,” the eight-page brief says. “Consequently, in this context, ‘live’ simply means ‘being in play’ or ‘of continuing or current interest.’”
Now, since the Finance Department's lawyers apparently neglected to do it, I have taken the liberty of checking a dictionary for the definition of the word "live." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines the adjective "live" as "living." Hmmm.

Another dictionary defines "live" as "actually being performed at the time of hearing or viewing." As far as I can determine, no dictionary defines "live" as "pre-recorded many years ago and having no possible relation to anything actually going on now except if it involves a way for someone to make money."

Incidentally, while I was at it, I also looked up the word "deception," and it did not, as I thought it might, have any pictures of State Finance Department lawyers.

So there you have it. The State Finance Department thinks you can have live racing with dead horses.

Now the question is, if the people who collect our taxes take this much liberty in interpreting what they can tax, can we take the same liberties in interpreting the laws they use to tax us?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Governor Beshear should stop being KEA's ventriliquist dummy on charter schools

Jake at Page One Kentucky has taken time off from hyperventilating at practically everything I have ever said to point out that Gov. Steve Beshear, despite fashioning himself as working to resolve problems in Kentucky education, is actually one of the problems in Kentucky education. Not only did he fight Senate Bill 1, which set the educational captives free from the state's ridiculous testing system, but he has yet to come out in full support of the one thing that would result in the state receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top grants: charter schools.

Go Jake!

Folks, all the state has to do is pass charter school legislation and millions of dollars all of a sudden start flowing into Kentucky school coffers. That's all. Just that one little thing.

But that requires that the Governor Beshear remove the hand of KEA ventriloquist that has been shoved up his ... back and take control of himself once again and ask the General Assembly to pass charter school legislation.

Is that so terribly hard, Governor?

The KEA Strikes Again: Kentucky loses millions more in latest Race to the Top grants

For Immediate Release
August 24, 2010

"The state teachers union and the state lawmakers who carry their water have once again caused Kentucky to lose out on millions of dollars in federal money for schools," said Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst with The Family Foundation Kentucky. The comments came in response to today's news that Kentucky lost out on another round of federal Race to the Top money because of the opposition of the politically powerful Kentucky Education Association (KEA), the state's teachers union, and their intransigence on the issue of charter schools.

"State policymakers who have kowtowed to the KEA now have a choice to make," said Cothran: "continue to do the bidding of the teachers unions and punish Kentucky's children, or tell the teachers unions to start looking out for the good of students, teachers, and schools and approve charter schools." Today's failure of Kentucky to receive Race to the Top funding is only the most recent round of awards it has lost out on due to its position on charter schools.

Cothran said state lawmakers have taken too long to act on this issue. "That little horned creature with the pitchfork whispering into the left ear of state lawmakers that they should vote against charter schools is the KEA; the little creature with wings and a halo whispering into their right ear is their common sense telling them to allow charters. If they can't figure out which one they should listen to, then their constituents need to bring them back home."


Monday, August 23, 2010

Same-sex "marriage" and the myth of liberal neutrality

Ed Feser takes a look at Judge Vaughn Walker's bit of legal legerdemain in striking down California's Proposition 8:
Judge Walker’s decision, he tells us, is based on the principle that the state ought not to “enforce ‘profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles’” or to “mandate [its] own moral code.” But that is, of course, precisely what Walker himself has done. His position rests on the question-begging assumption that “same-sex marriages” are no less true marriages than heterosexual ones are, and that the only remaining question is whether to allow them legally. But of course, whether “same-sex marriages” really can even in principle be “marriages” in the first place is part of what is at issue in the dispute. The traditional, natural law view is that marriage is heterosexual of metaphysical necessity. Rather than staying neutral between competing moral views, then, Walker has simply declared that the state should stop imposing one moral view – the one he doesn’t like – and should instead impose another, rival moral view – the one he does like.

What we’re seeing here is just one more application of the fraudulent principle of “liberal neutrality,” by which the conceit that liberal policy is neutral between the moral and metaphysical views competing within a pluralistic society provides a smokescreen for the imposition of a substantive liberal moral worldview, on all citizens, by force. (Of course, liberals typically qualify their position by saying that their conception of justice only claims to be neutral between “reasonable” competing moral and metaphysical views, but “reasonable” always ends up meaning something like “willing to submit to a liberal conception of justice.”)

That “liberal neutrality” is a fraud is blindingly obvious to everyone except (some) liberals themselves. (I say “some” because it is very hard to believe that many liberals are not perfectly well aware that the “neutrality” of their position is phony, but maintain the pretense of neutrality for cynical political reasons.) ...

... All of this would be bad enough if the policy in question were a result of a popular vote, but Walker has essentially imposed his will on the people of California by sheer judicial fiat. Pope Benedict XVI has famously spoken of a “dictatorship of relativism.” But I think that that is not quite right. Most liberals are not the least bit relativistic about their own convictions. A more accurate epithet would have been “dictatorship of liberalism,” and in Judge Walker that dictatorship has taken on concrete form.
Read the rest here.

Friday, August 20, 2010

So-called Paul critic plans on voting for him

Lest anyone think that I brought it up, let me make it clear that my quote in the Associated Press story on a contribution received by Rand Paul from a founder of a porn website resulted from my answering a question addressed to me from a reporter who happened to call this afternoon.

Let's explain how this process works:
1. Bored reporter sits at his desk looking for what to write about that day;
2. Bored reporter thinks about what he can say about the Rand Paul campaign that hasn't already been said;
3. Bored reporter turns up something which could possibly attract attention: a donation to a conservative candidate from the founder of a porn website.
4. No longer bored reporter calls me (known conservative) for a response;
5. Me says "Well, he can't control who he gets contributions from, and we're confident he'll return it," along with a few other brief comments;
6. Positively enthusiastic reporter writes the story including those comments;
7. Some news sources delete the comments that indicate I think this is not Paul's fault, leaving only the ones that say he should give the money back;
8. Liberal wacko bloggers (I'm thinking specifically of Jake here) spin it as a big fight between me and Paul.
Of course, it's nothing of the kind. Yeah, he needs to return the money (I can't imagine he won't), but I'm also personally planning (barring any good reason not to) on voting for the guy.

Christianity as the Church of What's Happnin' Now

Brett McCracken's article on hip Christianity in the Wall Street Journal:

Recent statistics have shown an increasing exodus of young people from churches, especially after they leave home and live on their own. In a 2007 study, Lifeway Research determined that 70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly.

Statistics like these have created something of a mania in recent years, as baby-boomer evangelical leaders frantically assess what they have done wrong (why didn't megachurches work to attract youth in the long term?) and scramble to figure out a plan to keep young members engaged in the life of the church.

Increasingly, the "plan" has taken the form of a total image overhaul, where efforts are made to rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant. As a result, in the early 2000s, we got something called "the emerging church"—a sort of postmodern stab at an evangelical reform movement. Perhaps because it was too "let's rethink everything" radical, it fizzled quickly. But the impulse behind it—to rehabilitate Christianity's image and make it "cool"—remains.

Read the rest here.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The modern liberal rejection of tradition

What? This man is not on our list of Modern Wise Men? What is wrong with the Induction Committee? Oh, wait. That's me. Well we won't be too critical then.

Here is Jim Kalb, author of the seminal The Tyranny of Liberalism, on the modern liberal rejection of tradition:

The problems among us today are unusually radical. People aren't dissatisfied with this tradition or that, or at a loss how to achieve old goals in new settings. Instead, they want to reject the authority of tradition as such, along with the goods it proposes. They adopt views like liberalism that claim to possess a universal rationality that trumps all tradition, and insist that the only acceptable standard for social life is giving people what they want, as much and as equally as possible. Hence the California Proposition 8 decision that declared legal recognition of marriage unconstitutional.

The current situation results from an ever-greater insistence on a clear but extremely limited understanding of rationality that tells us that knowledge and conduct must be modeled on modern natural science and technology. That understanding works well if you're putting a man on the moon, not so well if you're figuring out how to live and relate to other people. It can't deal with identities, essences, or ultimate ends, so it has no way to make sense of our lives and those of others. The result is that belief and conduct lose their ability to order human life in a satisfying and non-arbitrary way.

That means the current state of affairs isn't going to last, and we'll have to go on to something else. Some would describe the current situation as the collapse of the Western tradition. I think it's better to describe it as the distortion and suppression of that tradition as a whole by part of it that has become too dominant. The scientistic outlook has to be ditched in any event, since it's at odds with the needs of human life. Once that's done the obvious way to proceed is to stick with the remainder--actually by far the greater part--of the tradition of the West, and try to bring it into a workable form. We can't get by without a tradition, the tradition of the West is our tradition, and there's no superior one to adhere to. So isn't the way forward obvious?

Read the rest on his blog here.

Should the Kentucky Farm Bureau listen to moralistic lectures from a group called "W.E.N.C.H."?

A veritable cornucopia of left-wing groups, including the Kentucky "Fairness" Alliance, the ACLU, and a group (get this) called "W.E.N.C.H," along with some less exotic groups that really should know better, is trying to intimidate the Kentucky Farm Bureau into changing several of its policy positions, among them, its pro-life position and its position in support of traditional marriage.

The Farm Bureau and its 470,934 members need to tell these groups to mind their own business, whatever (and we do wonder, especially in the case of "W.E.N.C.H.") that may be.

HT: Page One

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Southern Critics: An Anthology

My favorite publisher is ISI Books. ISI itself (the "Intercollegiate Studies Institute") has manned the barricades in the defense of Western civilization with more enthusiasm than just about any other single entity, and ISI Books, their publishing arm, is probably the single most solid and stalwart publisher in what sometimes seems a losing fight. Their journals too are one of the things that makes my daily trip to the mailbox exciting. Modern Age, and the Intercollegiate Review are among the five or six journals I get that I depend upon for intellectual satisfaction.

I have several reviews in various stages of completion I need to post of their books, but rather than wait till I read them, I am going to start posting the publishers blurbs to these books as they are published until I finish the full reviews of some of them.

The thing that has provoked me to this is their latest release: The Southern Critics: An Anthology. Since reading At War with the Word, by R. V. Young (now editor of modern age), I have had an insatiable interest in the role of Southern writers in the history of literary criticism. One of the implicit themes in Young's book was the significant involvement of southern writers in the New Criticism of the early and mid-20th century.

The New Criticism refocused criticism on literary works themselves, away from what one new critic, W. K. Wimsatt, called the affective fallacy--that a literary work should be judged according to its subjective effect on the reader--and the intentional fallacy--that a works should be judged according the intention of the author. A work, they said, should be judged on its own merits, apart from these other considerations. A few of the New Critics took these ideas too far, but the movement as a whole resided squarely within the tradition of Western literature and still serves as a bane the postmodernist critics in our universities who, disdainful of Western culture in general, still can't totally stamp it out.

Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransome, Allen Tate, and Cleanth Brooks, southerners all, were at the center of the New Criticism--in fact, were a necessary part of it.

Just go back and look at the influence just two of these had on English teaching: Brooks & Warren. The wrote what seem like countless textbooks on how to teach literature. Indeed, one wonders what other way there is to effectively teach literature than the way they did it. It certainly beats the current way of teaching literature, which consists primarily of doing something else.

Here is the publisher's blurb on this book:

In the early 1920s a collection of young Southerners at Vanderbilt University formed the literary group known as the Fugitives. Over the next few decades they and their followers would exert an enormous influence on the study of literature. Indeed, the "Southern Critics" included some of the most important American writers and critics of the twentieth century: Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O’Connor, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Cleanth Brooks, to name just a few.

In The Southern Critics: An Anthology, editor Glenn C. Arbery gathers the most penetrating essays by these and other writers, bringing their significant contribution back into focus. Arbery’s enlightening commentary allows us to understand how the Southern Critics' concern for the history and culture of the South informed all their work—not just the landmark Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930) but even their writings on literature and poetry, including their revolutionary "New Criticism."

Remarkably, the essays collected here speak to our time as much as to the Southern Critics' own. In the twenty-first century we recognize the prescience of their warnings about what would happen to art, leisure, and time itself when everything fell under the sway of the industrial model.

Do yourself a favor and visit ISI's books page.

Monday, August 16, 2010

What males and females are for

In the newest issue of Touchstone Magazine, Anthony Esolen puts the Supreme Court decision on California's Proposition 8 in perspective even before it happened. In his article, entitled "Sanctity & Matrimony: Ten Arguments in Defense of Marriage," Esolen writes,
The acceptance of homosexuality is predicated upon the assumption that male and female are not made for each other.
I had not thought of it this way before. But, of course, this is just a species of the larger problem of the abandonment of final causality: nothing is for anything. Nothing has any intrinsic purpose at all --except when you are a scientist and you forget yourself and start muttering about parts of things being for this or that despite your rejection of the same things outside your discipline.

In fact it is interesting that those who will talk about every other bodily organ being for something (a heart is "for" pumping blood, a kidney is "for" filtering the blood, etc.) will turn right around and deny that the sexual organs are for what they are obviously for (and what, by inference, they are not for).

This just underscores the vast divide that exists between those of us who consistently accept that there are intrinsic purposes in things (including all bodily organs), and those who inconsistently reject it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Is there favoritism towards women in sports coverage?

Is it only my own impression or are readers of newspapers being pressured to pay more attention to women's sports? Every time you open a sports page, the coverage of women's althletics seem completely out of proportion to the actual interest in it. You feel like you should have an interest, even if you don't--that there's an implicit finger being wagged at you.

Well, turns out the coverage does appear to be out of alignment.

It's one thing to watch men sweat and grunt and spit, but another to watch women do it.

Nothing personal.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

P. Z. Myers: Not Understanding Even the Simple Things

P. Z. Myers thinks he’s starting to understand David Bentley Hart. Is it because he’s studied Hart’s work on the meaning of suffering in the context of the doctrine of evil as privatio boni? Has he read Hart’s comparison of Heidegger and St. Gregory of Nyssa’s ontology? Or maybe it’s more modest: maybe he’s studied up on the basic philosophic vocabulary used in the cosmological argument that had him completely baffled.

Nope. He’s read Hart’s new essay on Julian the Apostate, and he claims to have understood Hart’s worldview. But almost every claim in his post is flatly wrong.

Myers says that Hart has written “a column praising Julius the Apostate”, an article that not only praises him, but “heap[s] praise on him.” How he got this from Hart is a bit of a mystery. Here’s Hart’s judgment of him:
[W]hile he was a gifted ruler, his errors of judgment were legion, his hatred of the Christians often degenerated into childish spite, and he was destroyed more by callow egotism than by tragic hubris.
Myers adds that Hart “acknowledges” Julian’s intelligence. Here’s Hart on the subject of Julian’s intelligence:
Far from being any sort of rationalist, he was a particularly credulous religious enthusiast, who delighted in blood sacrifice, magic, astrology, and mystery; when he tried his hand at philosophy, the results were embarrassing.
Indeed, Hart claims that it is precisely Julian’s “naivete” that he finds interesting. There’s nothing particularly difficult about this essay: Hart doesn’t engage in much philosophy or theology at all. If Myers cannot even understand a whimsical essay that simply explicates the sensation of standing at a turning point in history where an old order is passing away, how credible is his claim to “tackle all the arguments for the existence of God"?

There are other silly falsehoods in Myer's post. Myers claims that Hart believes everything in the past was better, when Hart has written at length about the cruelty of the pre-Christian Classical world. Myers claims that the Middle Ages were a "trough" in terms of scientific progress, burdened by an "anti-scientific" Church, when in fact the Middle Ages were a time of great learning, sponsored by the Church; the Middle Ages were the time when science came into its own as a discipline (primarily because of the Aristotelian development in theology). The idea that the Middle Ages were a dark time for science or that the Church bore down on scientists is a well-known myth, and I think it not unlikely that Myers will soon be telling us that Christians believed in a flat earth. These falsehoods are simply Myers' historical ignorance on display.

Myers' central claim about Hart's piece is that Hart believes that:
Substance is unimportant, just so long as he believed. It's a strange world the modern defenders of religion live in, where they've given up hope in fighting for the specifics of their dogma, and are reduced to desperately hoping that someone somewhere will be nestled in a delusion of some kind.
Where Myers got this is a mystery. The claim that Hart doesn't believe in fighting for the specifics of dogma is absurd given Hart's well known track record of harshly criticizing other theologians over theological matters. Further, this claim contradicts Myers' own (atrociously misguided) summary of Hart's essay: Myers at least recognized that Hart "doesn't admire [Julian] for his views" (one of the very few propositions in Myers post that is correct). So where does the claim come from?

My own view is that he's just making it up. Myers has no concept of rigor for any kind of inquiry outside biology (and for all I know, not even in biology). He claims to attack every formulation of the arguments for the existence of God, yet he expresses dismay upon encountering the basic terminology. His description of Hart's assessment of Julian is directly contrary to Hart's own words. He thinks the Middle Ages were a dark time for science, overrun by an anti-scientific Church. And so on.

Which just gets me back to my original point: Myers shouldn't be taken seriously.

Putting things together in education

The following is the text of my "Letter from the Editor" in the new Classical Teacher magazine:

When my first son was young, I would come home from work and had would want me to pick him up. When I did, the first thing he did was to reach into my shirt pocket and grab whatever pen or mechanical pencil he would find there, at which point he would proceed to take it apart. Of course, being so young, he was not able to put them back together again. That was a job left for me.

One of the tendencies of modern education, is to take the discipline of education apart--and it doesn't do a very good job of putting it back together again.

I have spent more than a little time in my professional career dealing with public school education policy. I have served on various state education committees, including our state's Goals 2000 Committee, and the Character Education Committee. In all of these cases I have noticed the same tendency of wanting to take the education process apart in order to make it clearer to people when, in fact, it does exactly the opposite.

For example, every state has a set of education standards of some sort. If you go online, you can find them. But instead of clarifying things, they only make them more mysterious by ignoring the old educational disciplines--arithmetic, history, reading--in favor of long lists of discrete abstract skills. They have abstracted these skills from the whole disciplines of which they were once a part, and now ask professional educators to think of the education process in terms of hundreds of these isolated skills.

This tendency has even reached physical education. People taking degrees in physical education are apparently trained to emphasize the discrete skills of particular sports, so that children spend less time actually playing a sport, than training in the particular skills that were a part of these sports.

Instead of playing basketball, volleyball, or baseball, many physical education instructors break out little orange cones and try to mimic the individual physical movements that these sports once required of the player, but are now to be performed all by themselves, outside of the context of what you to be, in addition to good exercise, actually fun.

It is a tendency from the whole to the parts abstracted from the whole, with no acknowledgment that the parts benefited from being a part of the whole.

In the old system of classical education, language was taught using the classical trivium. Once a child learned how to decode and was reading English, he began his Latin study. Latin is a discipline which includes in it a whole range of skills: vocabulary, grammar, and the thinking skills involved in distinguishing between person and number, case and gender--not to mention the skills involved in such an organized and systematic study.

But in the early 20th century, when classical education was displaced by progressives and pragmatists intent on changing the purpose of schools toward more political and vocational purposes, Latin was first driven out of the elementary curriculum and forced to take refuge in high schools. It was eventually driven even from there.

Why do Latin when we can teach the skills that it taught so well in other forms? So schools tried to mimic all of the individual skills that were once packaged within the discipline of Latin. If you read books used in teachers colleges in the 1940s, you find that those in charge of training teachers were well aware of the plight they were in: of reconstructing the benefits of Latin without the benefit involved in actually teaching Latin.

Since that time, we have seen an endless parade of attempts to do the things Latin once did. Program after program, with limitless combinations of languages skills has tried to do what Latin once did. And it never seems to work very well.

The pens and pencils I had in my pocket when I came home worked quite well. But when my son took them apart, they became a lot less useful. I had to put them back together again in order for them to work properly.

If you are jaded by the endless variety of language arts programs that are now available to Christian educators, you might try going back to the favored system of language instruction the way it was before our educational system took it apart.

It worked a lot better.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Where is the Republican Party on a constitutional amendment to defend marriage?

Well, if anyone doubted that redefining words could have sweeping social consequences, we now have the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case as clear evidence that it does. The decision concluded that the state had no "rational interest" in clarifying the definition of marriage in Proposition 8, and so struck it down.

I will have a full analysis of this case later, but in the meantime it is interesting to read about the plans of David Boies and Theodore Olsen to take the case to the U. S. Supreme Court, where Anthony Kennedy, the likely swing vote in the case, awaits its reception with the reasoning he used in Bower v. Harwick, the case that struck down the Texas sodomy law.

Gay rights groups are wary of taking this to the high court, fearing a gay rights Waterloo, but I can't fathom why. It would appear likely right now that they have five votes to establish same-sex "marriage" as the law of the land.

The political question on this whole thing is where the Republicans are on this. Are they willing to revisit the idea of a constitutional amendment to right the cultural ship?

So far, we haven't heard anything from them.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Is monogamy natural to humans? Just ask a chimp

We have taken another specimen of evolutionary romanticism into captivity and have been conducting some logical experiments on it to see how it holds up. This one comes care of Christopher Ryan, who claims, care of CNN.com, that there is no reason to believe that monogamy is natural to humans.

His argument could count as evidence that rationality is not natural to humans.
Seismic cultural shifts about 10,000 years ago rendered the true story of human sexuality so subversive and threatening that for centuries, it has been silenced by religious authorities, pathologized by physicians, studiously ignored by scientists and covered up by moralizing therapists.
We're still trying to piece together the succession of Egyptian dynasties, but Ryan knows about specific cultural shifts 10,000 years ago. Hmmm. Apparently, Ryan has never heard the term "prehistoric."

Most "mainstream therapists," he says,
insist that long-term sexual monogamy is "normal," while the curiosity and novelty-seeking inherent in human sexuality are signs of pathology. ... This is a problem because there is no reason to believe monogamy comes naturally to human beings. In fact, for millions of years, evolutionary forces have cultivated human libido to the point where ours is arguably the most sexual species on Earth.
Notice what's going on here: We talk about all the evidence against marriage we can derive from early human society, about which we know little, and ignore all the evidence in favor of it from later human society, about which we know a lot. And the one thing we know about societies for which we do have histories is that marriage in some form is almost omnipresent.

Then, of course, we assume that primitive practices are somehow more representative of what human nature really is than more recent civilized practices:
Research from primatology, anthropology, anatomy and psychology points to the same conclusion: A nonpossessive, gregarious sexuality was the human norm until the rise of agriculture and private property just 10,000 years ago, about 5 percent of anatomically modern humans' existence on Earth.
And if the behavior of early humans is to be considered authoritative in determining what proper human behavior is to be, then going even further back ought to be even more instructive:
The two primate species closest to us lend strong -- if blush-inducing -- support to this vision. Ovulating female chimps have intercourse dozens of times per day, with most or all of the willing males, and bonobos famously enjoy frequent group sex that leaves everyone relaxed and conflict-free.
Well, gee, if chimps and bonobos do it, what are we waiting for?

I suppose we could just continue going back through the evolutionary chronology to see what we were doing when we were doing the bacterial backstroke in the primordial slime and come up with some great dating tips.

But we better not give Ryan any ideas.

Finally there is the appeal to anatomical romanticism, which we will have to forgo including here since this is a nice family blog. Suffice it to say it is not pretty. But the gist of his argument is that, if you look at certain male body organs, they are bigger than these same certain body organs among primates, and this is clearly indicative that men are meant to run around copulating freely with as many females as they desire.

Ryan's argument has all the intellectual sophistication of George Carlin's argument that since the human index finger is the same size as the human nostril, it was obviously designed for nose-picking.

It is also interesting that, whenever you invoke any kind of intrinsic nature or purpose to explain any natural thing, you are told by Darwinists that this thinking is a vestige of the old Aristotelian scholasticism, and that final and formal causes were abandoned during the scientific revolution. But then they import them in the back door to implicitly justify their arguments about what human anatomical features say about our natures.

If Aristotelianism is dead, the why are they talking about the inherent purposes of body parts?

If you want more comic relief at the expense of human nature, you can consult Ryan's book, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.