He’s Baaaack

Tuesday, 07-26-2016

People have been asking whether I’ve given up the blog.  No, I haven’t, though for the last few months I’ve taken a break from it to finish a large book project and begin another.  Now that the former is done and the latter is well underway, I’ll resume occasional posts, though I won’t go back to posting daily – that was exhausting, and other work is more important.  Tell you what, faithful readers:  Just to show I mean it, you may expect a post tomorrow.  How’s that?

Don't overlook:  Book Trailer

Advice for the Future Ted Cruz

Friday, 05-06-2016

A political movement can be based on shared virtues, shared interests, or shared passions.  The Founders of our republic hoped for the first, expected the second, and feared the third.  They desired the citizens to elect persons of virtue.  They tried to pit competing interests against each other so that none could overwhelm the common good.  As to passion, their best hope was to keep it from bursting the dams, and if it broke forth nonetheless, at least to delay decision until it dissipated:  For passion, once released, is a torrent that scorns boundary and restraint.

My slight acquaintance with Senator Cruz outside of politics had suggested that he was a person of good character who believed in the principles of the Founding.  For this reason, I was surprised and disappointed when he based his senatorial career on neither shared virtues nor shared interests, but shared passions.  Let me restate this point with more precision:  On a single shared passion, the passion of anger.

He did not create the anger.  The people were already disgusted and heartbroken by the failure of the political class.  But he stoked the passion, tried to make himself its representative, and sought to direct it to his ends.

This was a fundamental error.  Once unleashed, passion can no more be directed than a tidal wave.  It takes its own course, plunges through all obstacles, and chooses its own representatives, not only in defiance of virtue, but even in defiance of self-interest.

Enter The Demagogue, who despite his slight intelligence understood this fact this better than Senator Cruz.  Rather than trying to direct the flood, he rode it like someone surfing a tidal wave, slipping and skidding across the sloping water, now this way, now that, at each moment contradicting what he had said just a moment before.

The Senator was swept aside.  It is a wonder that he was not drowned.  This was a hard but necessary punishment for following a course he should have known better than to choose.  I hope he draws the right lesson, and next time follows a different course.  I believe that he can, and I hope I am right.  God knows that somebody has to.

Don't overlook:  Book Trailer


The Sign of Jonah

Tuesday, 04-26-2016

Don't overlook:  Book Trailer

I was refreshed the other day by a conversation with a young man I know.  It was not so much his wisdom that refreshed me, but that one should meet with it in a person so young.  Had I asked him where he got it, he would credit his father, whom he considers the wisest man in the world.  Perhaps he is.

Let me tell you about him.  He is recently married and has the beauty of it upon him.  Before long he will have children and have that beauty upon him.  As they grow up there will be beauty upon beauty entrained.

My young friend saw the oncoming winter of our institutions – withering marriages and families, increasing loneliness, declining trust -- and knew quite well that the green buds of Spring might be very far off.  So many give in to discouragement.  Not he.

He was confident that eventually the natural order of things would reassert itself -- partly just because it is the natural order, in which such great restorative powers persist despite the Fall, and partly because of providence of God, who does not allow nature to be so utterly ruined that its restorative powers are wholly overwhelmed.

The people who adore the gods of Winter have no such hope.  They cannot resolve to do the right thing and trust the results to God’s providence, because they believe neither in right nor in God’s providence.  Results is all they have.  Everything is all up to them.

Though my friend knew that the green buds of Spring might not open and sprout in his own lifetime, he was content to do what he could to make the winter a little warmer, and perhaps, God willing, to help the thaw to come a little sooner.  In the background – I know him well – was the thought that if the end of all things comes first, well, so much the better, for that too is in the hand of God.

He was confident that a man who does all he can, with all his heart and intelligence, has done enough.  So to discouraged young people I say:  Think like that.

And to the discouraged of my own age I say:  We too must think like that.  Many of the young people we know think differently than my young friend.  They are swallowed and go into the belly of the whale.  At such times we too become discouraged, because all we can do is pray for them.

But if that is really all we can do, and we do it with all our strength, then we too have done enough.

This is the last of my daily posts.  I will still post occasionally, as the thought strikes me, but I will no longer try to keep up the daily grind.  If you would like to be notified of new posts, I encourage you to subscribe to the RSS feed.


What Maketh an Exact Twelve Year Old

Monday, 04-25-2016

Don't overlook:  Book Trailer


I've been following your blog for a few years now, and I wonder if you could help me.  Recently I've recently decided to homeschool my daughter, who will be twelve soon, and was excited at the prospect of having some sort of logic textbook that she and I could delve into together.  You wouldn't happen to have a title handy, would you?  I am far from being an expert, so she and I will be at almost the same level.


More power to you.  We began home-schooling one of our own daughters at the same age.  Though I have no logic textbook to suggest for that level, I think twelve may be a little early for a logic textbook anyway.  Our approach was to have our daughter keep a logical fallacies notebook.  We emphasized the fallacies of distraction, which are challenging enough for an early middle schooler.  The formal fallacies can probably wait for a year or two.

Each day our daughter had to come up with at least one fallacy.  It might come from any written or spoken source, including literature, newspapers, and conversations, but it had to be unintentional – contrived fallacies like the examples in logic textbooks weren’t allowed.  Each time she found a fallacy, she had to record it, classify it, explain how it went wrong, and indicate where she had read or heard it.

As you might guess, she became quite adept at recognizing some kinds of fallacy.  These she would pounce upon with glee.  Other kinds were more difficult to spot, but by the end of the year, with just a few hints, she had found at least a few examples of even the hard ones.  She took it as a challenge.

Since I love to encourage home schoolers, may I throw in another suggestion?  As one English author said, “writing maketh an exact man” – so consider giving your daughter a daily brief writing assignment too!

Make each writing assignment different.  Give each one a twist.  Something like this:  Tell which you think better, asparagus or broccoli, and justify your answer.    Vividly describe what it might be like to be a fish, without using adverbs or adjectives.  Rewrite this week’s newspaper weather forecast, in the style of Edgar Allen Poe.  Compose directions from our house to the grocery store, making sure they could be followed even by someone who didn’t know the neighborhood.  Solve the following simple puzzle, then explain how you worked out the answer.  A wicked witch has turned you into a toad.  Describe how you could get our attention and explain what has happened, bearing in mind that we don’t know who you are and don’t normally let toads in the house.

Just a thought.  I hope you both have fun!



Sunday, 04-24-2016

Don't overlook:  Book Trailer

“Every religion is equally valid.”  But most religions hold that not every religion is equally valid.  So if every religion is equally valid, then it is equally valid to deny that every religion is equally valid.  Let us give up the silly pretense of agreeing with everyone; courtesy and reason are enough.


Liberty License

Saturday, 04-23-2016

Don't overlook:  Book Trailer


You write in your post “How the Meaning of Liberty Did and Didn’t Change” that history presents us with two nearly opposite meanings of freedom.  Among the classical thinkers, you say, the term referred not to the absence of governance, but to a certain kind of governance.  But among the modern writers, it comes to mean not freedom from the wrong kind of rule, but something more like freedom from rule.

How did this shift take place?  I suspect that it was messy.


Your suspicion is right.  It was messy.  In the first place, the ancient meaning of liberty is not entirely unknown to the moderns:  When Alexis de Tocqueville writes in Democracy in America about “free” local institutions, he means local institutions of self-government.  In the second place, the meaning of liberty which predominates today was not entirely unknown to the ancients:  Florentinus is quoted in Justinian’s Digest as defining liberty as “one’s natural power of doing what one pleases, save insofar as it is ruled out either by coercion or by law.”

Usually, however, the classical writers called liberty in this sense mere “license,” distinguishing it from liberty in the sense of being able to govern oneself properly.  And although the modern writers too distinguish liberty from license, they become less and less able to explain the difference.

The new conception of liberty is perhaps most dramatically on display in Thomas Hobbes, who writes in his 1651 work Leviathan that “‘The right of Nature,’ which writers commonly call jus naturale, is the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature, that is to say, of his own life; and consequently of doing anything which in his own judgment and reason he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.”  He says a few lines later, “it followeth that in such a condition every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.”

In other words, my “natural” liberty is doing as I please, even if I think I need to kill you.  By this way of thinking, the fulfillment of our nature isn’t the cure, it’s the disease.

We see in Richard Price, a contemporary of the American Founders, something of how the older language of self-government became blurred so that it actually seemed to mean the mere absence of restrictions.  Here is what he says in Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, written in 1776:

“By physical liberty I mean that principle of spontaneity, or self-determination, which constitutes us agents, or which gives us a command over our actions, rendering them properly ours, and not effects of the operation of any foreign cause.  Moral liberty is the power of following, in all circumstances, our sense of right and wrong, or of acting in conformity to our reflecting and moral principles, without being controlled by any contrary principles.  Religious liberty signifies the power of exercising, without molestation, that mode of religion which we think best, or of making the decisions of our own consciences respecting religious truth, the rule of our conduct, and not any of the decisions of our fellow-men.  In like manner civil liberty is the power of a civil society or state to govern itself by its own discretion or by laws of its own making, without being subject to the impositions of any power in appointing and directing which the collective body of the people have no concern and over which they have no control.”  Price adds, “there is one general idea that runs through them all; I mean the idea of self-direction, or self-government.”

Taken at its word, this passage would seem to mean that simply by submitting to a just civil law with which I happen to disagree, I am deprived of my power of self-government.  Price doesn’t actually mean this, for in the next section he says liberty is the opposite of licentiousness.  So here, when he speaks of conscience, he probably means something like conscience well-formed by the natural law.  The difficulty is that he doesn’t say so; he doesn’t specify it in his definition.  So conscience comes to seem merely another word for will, which is how many people use the term today.

What we see is that more and more of the equipment of the classical natural law tradition was discarded with the aim of clarifying and simplifying matters.  Yet rather than being clarified and simplified, they became confused.


The Smallest Worm Will Turn

Friday, 04-22-2016

Don't overlook:  Book Trailer

Not so very long ago, many of my students would be angered by the mere suggestion that there might be anything morally problematic about abortion.  A decade or two later, the suggestion that abortion might be wrong is much less likely to provoke anger, and a greater proportion of my students concede that the practice is at least morally suspect.  So is the pro-life side gaining?

In that way, yes.  But now the plot thickens.  Fewer and fewer of the young people I meet on either side of the abortion controversy consider it a major issue any more.  These days, what stirs student emotion is the suggestion that there might be anything morally problematic about extreme sexual promiscuity.

That’s especially interesting, because for a while, attitudes toward sexual promiscuity had been going in the other direction.  I don’t mean behavior was becoming more chaste; quite the contrary.  But students were also becoming much more willing to acknowledge the tawdriness and emptiness of the hookup scene.  Sometimes they even expressed relief merely to hear that there might be a rational basis for traditional sexual ethics.

These days I hear such comments less often.  Mind you, people don’t claim that promiscuity is working for them, but they are angrier and more defensive when someone suggests that it may not be.  Not many students on the other side are willing to speak up publically.  The result is that I hear one point of view in the classroom, and an entirely different point of view during office hours.

Yet an underground movement is growing.  In 2005, students at Princeton University founded the Anscombe Society, named after the famous twentieth-century English analytical philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, for the purpose of affirming “the importance of the family, marriage, and a proper understanding for the role of sex and sexuality.”  From this seed sprang the Love and Fidelity Network, a growing alliance of student groups which now has a presence at 39 universities, including Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Brown, Columbia, Duke, UCLA, and the Universities of Wisconsin and Virginia.

These students aren’t angry, but they are very tough and smart.  Could it be that the little worm is turning?