How to Be Full and Exact

Monday, 01-14-2019


Bacon, who was wrong about many things, spoke truly when he said, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.  And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not.”

Although I am not often asked about conference, I am often asked about reading and writing.  Here are a few of things I have learned over the years.


Preparation for the Act

Build quiet into your life.  Listen.

Turn off the television and social media.  Don’t monitor messages continuously, but only at fixed times.  Don’t pretend that you can multi-task.

Turn off anything that thumps, even if it is supposed to be a pleasant thump.

Spend time with friends.  Love those entrusted to you.  The strings of the mind lose their tone if their tension is never relieved, so play sometimes.

Don’t skip necessary sleep.  You will lose more time through fatigue and confusion than you think you have gained by staying awake.

Never suppose that if your subject is one of the humanities you don’t need to learn logical reasoning and mathematics – and conversely.

Learn your mind’s rhythms.  There is a time for lying fallow, and a time for sending up shoots.

Learn how your mind understands.  An example:  Some can’t teach anything until they understand it, but others can’t understand anything until they see how they could teach it. 

Fish don’t know they are wet; and not just fish.  Try to become aware of what you take for granted.

Don’t worry about the fact that everything can be doubted.  The question is whether you have good reason to believe it.

Don’t worry about finding yourself.  If you try to acquire the virtues, your self will take care of itself.

Do not be misled by those who say that seeking is an end in itself.  Seek the truth to find it; find the truth to yield to it.


The Act of Reading

It is better to read a few good books well than to read many books poorly.  Seek guides who can tell you what they are.  But don’t rely exclusively on them; explore.

Whenever you read something difficult, read it out loud.  Whenever you read something beautiful, do the same.  Do not shun the difficult; seek the beautiful; avoid the foul.

If a book is worth reading, it is worth reading more than once; and in order to take it in, you may have to.

Read about subjects other than the one you are studying.

Read real books, not just internet postings, and read in many styles and genres.

Avoid reading books about books until you have read the books they are about.

Read more old books than recent ones.  Get outside the little island of your own time.

Learn what an author teaches not for the sake of knowing what he teaches, but in order to find out whether it might be true.

Reach across time to ask the authors questions.  Have them reach across time to ask you questions.  Make them ask questions of each other.

Never confuse a mere rebuff with a thoughtful objection.

If you do raise an objection, give the author a chance to answer.

Don’t worry if you find yourself reading more slowly.  You will.


The Act of Writing

Don’t write “about” a “topic.”  Claim something; solve something; answer something.  Everything begins with asking something.

Don’t just write about theories of things.  Write about things.

No matter how much you love and cherish that unnecessary part of your book, essay, chapter, paragraph, or sentence, remove it.  This is the only meritorious form of murder.

Don’t hurry in framing your questions.  A badly framed question invites a badly reasoned answer.

Write often.  If you have no reason to write on Tuesday, think of one.  You don’t have to write all day.

If you suffer writer’s block, warm up by writing something else for twenty minutes.  A letter.  A limerick.  Anything will do.

Outline your arguments before you write them.  Eventually you will do this in your mind.  Eventually it will be second nature.

Don’t talk too much, or too soon, about what you are writing.

Don’t revise your draft until a day or two has passed since writing it, so that you can read it as if it were written by someone else.

Always remember that your reader can’t read your mind; all he has are your words.

Whatever you can’t make interesting isn’t interesting to you.

Whatever you can’t explain in simple language, you don’t understand.


Seduction and Consent

Monday, 01-07-2019


Seduction is persuading someone to commit a moral wrong which the person might not otherwise have committed by manipulating the person’s own motives.  Its particular brand of loathsomeness is that it draws the victim into the seducer’s guilt.

To be perfectly clear about which wrongs we are speaking about, please understand that I am speaking of adult persons, and I am not speaking of using force or threats.

Usually, the word “seduction” is used for seduction to sexual intercourse; this is the focal meaning of the term.  Surprisingly, the kinds of illicit persuasion we find easiest to condemn are the non-focal kinds, for example seduction to commit fraud or theft – for which we usually use different terms.  In fact, we find it so difficult to criticize seduction in the focal, sexual sense that the term “seduction” has almost dropped out of our language.  It sounds curiously old-fashioned.

Yet seduction was not always so difficult to mention or condemn.  Along with pandering, it earned an entire circuit of torment in Dante’s version of hell.  Why is it so difficult in our own times to admit that seduction is wrong?

The answer:  Because even though the object of a successful seduction may not have initially welcomed the seducer’s advances, he or she does give consent in the end – and in order to rationalize our own bad behavior, many of us have welded our minds to the view that nothing done with the consent of both parties could ever be wrong.

This is why, on those rare occasions when we do condemn seducers, we don’t condemn them for seduction itself.  To condemn them at all, we have to pretend that consent never took place, so that what they really did was something other than seduction, such as rape.  Rape also happens, and sometimes an unsuccessful seduction turns into a rape.  But seduction, as such, is not rape.

Seduction is the unmentionable sin, the sin of which we dare not speak, lest doing so undermine our pretense that everything to which we consent is all right.



Tuesday, 01-01-2019



Just finished What We Can’t Not KnowDitto on all of it.  I’m principally a documentary filmmaker, and I include elements of natural law in my Story Workshops.  To connect with audiences, a store’s fictional characters must experience the natural law consequences of their moral decisions, else the audience will disconnect.  It’s not that the audience can explain natural law, but they just can’t not know it. 

But about the broader cultural difficulty we find ourselves in, I was disappointed that the solutions you listed at the end of the book – the three counter-measures, as you call them – weren’t more complete.  They are being implemented here and there in public media, but with little effect, it seems.  Do any of your other writings offer practical solutions in greater depth or breadth?



That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question.  Though they may not be much, I do have a few reflections about it/

You weren’t asking for a Grand Strategy, but a lot of people in our position do wish for one.  So the first reflection is that we aren’t going to come up with a Grand Strategy.  We’re soldiers.  The only one who sees the whole battlefield is God.

That thought gives rise to a second one.  You suggest that what we do isn’t having much effect, but because we’re only soldiers – and for other reasons, such as the way the secular media dominates reportage of just how much effect we are having, and the fact that “current trends” are not laws of nature but wills o’ the wisp – I don’t think we can say how much or how little effect we are having overall.  All that each of us can tell is whether he is doing his own present duty.  I don’t think Benedict thought he was laying out a Benedict Option.

Third, though I would love to turn around the culture, it isn’t really about the culture.  In both the long and short run, it’s really about individual persons.  C.S. Lewis used to say that cultures are short-lived, but souls last forever.  When the stars are burnt to cinders, souls will just be getting started.  Besides, the culture isn’t going to change until more people do.  It may seem that we’re caught in a loop here, because the culture influences the people who influence the culture.  Yes, but the culture isn’t all-powerful, because it can’t erase conscience, wipe out grace, or change the natural law.

The fourth reflection springs from the fact that you are obviously laboring to do all that you can with your own gifts.  The most important thing, I think, is to motivate more people to do that.

Fifth and last, a person who has one gift can’t very often tell a person with another gift how best to use it.  What we can do is encourage people to figure it out for themselves.

As the saying goes, every bone has to turn in the joint where it’s placed.  I am a teacherly sort of bone, and I am placed in a joint where I can write.  So what I can do lies mostly in helping people think more clearly and perceive what is under their noses.  That’s why I write the sort of books I do.  You make films.  I wouldn’t have any idea how to do that.

On the other hand, people like you and me have to watch out for a certain bias.  Perhaps because we are men, we too easily slip into thinking that doing stuff is more important than becoming holy.  Perhaps because our own sorts of gifts put what we do in front of others, we also tend to think that doing stuff means doing things that everyone can see -- writing books (like me), making films (like you), producing television, passing laws, carving sculptures, and all that sort of thing.

We tend to overlook the fact that the most important work is often small and quiet.  For example, raising good and faithful children is a work of cosmic importance.  The Father arranged for even the Son to have human parents, who never wrote a book or made a film.
If this hasn’t been as helpful as I would like it to be, take a look at the strategies of face-to-face cultural apologetics that I discuss in the final chapter of an older book of mine, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man Perhaps those might be suggestive.

Thanks again for writing.  God bless your New Year.


From his response:

You’ve encouraged me.  I am ambitious -- at times to a fault.  Although I am always working productively, I am never satisfied.  Secular news depresses me.  But your response was great:  We’re soldiers.

I’ll read the book.  One further thought.  To motivate more people to labor with their own gifts is a Grand Strategy!


My further reply:

You’ve got me – it is!  Doing that will be my New Year’s resolution.  Thank you.


“Mere” Christianity – Which One?

Monday, 12-31-2018


The noble intention of C.S. Lewis’s famous book Mere Christianity was to defend not this sect or that sect, but rather those teachings which had been held by almost all Christians in almost all times and places.

Though Lewis himself proceeded differently, the idea itself goes back to a criterion of orthodoxy proposed by St. Vincent of Lerins in his famous Commonitory.  Here are St. Vincent’s own words:

“I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or anyone else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

“But here someone perhaps will ask, “Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation?”  For this reason — because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.  For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another.  Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

“Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.”

However, attempts to define a “mere” Christianity by building on that phrase “everywhere, always, by all” may go in either of two directions

One is the way intended by St. Vincent, which keeps the phrase in its ecclesiastical context.  For when St. Vincent wrote “all,” he was referring to the priests and doctors of the Catholic faith, and when he wrote “always,” he was referring to the consensus of antiquity.  Taken in this sense, plenty has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.  Taking the criterion in this way, mere Christianity would appear to be Catholic Christianity.

The other way, Lewis’s, is ecclesiastically relativist – which is a little surprising, because in other ways Lewis was light-years from relativism.  But when Lewis wrote “all,” he meant all or almost all of those who have called themselves Christians, and when he wrote “always,” he meant all times whatsoever.

I don’t think Lewis realized that in his sense, nothing really has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.  Taking the criterion in this way, mere Christianity would appear to be no Christianity.

If Lewis’s book is a great book – and it is -- the reason is that Lewis was better than his method.  Had he really followed it, he would have had nothing to say.  But he didn’t; and so he did.


The Beautiful Conversion

Monday, 12-24-2018


“This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God -- that putting off of the old man, we might put on the new; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him.

“For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so must the more blissful come out of the painful.  For where sin abounded grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the passion of Christ justify us?

“Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him who is ours, or rather as our master's; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.”

-- from a Christmas homily of St. Gregory of Nazianzus


The Turning of the Gyre

Monday, 12-17-2018


One of the ministers at an Episcopal church I attended in the ‘eighties confessed to the congregation in a homily, of all things, that he could was “no longer able” to believe in the Resurrection.  I have mentioned this before, but I keep coming back to it about it over the years.

It puzzled me how he could still call himself a priest.  Though I didn’t ask him that question, I did ask him how he could recite the Creed with us every week.  He replied, “I do it as an expression of solidarity with the community.”

Originally, then, his end was faith, and solidarity among believers was a means to that end.  Having given up the faith, he had now made solidarity an end in itself.

But having made solidarity an end in itself, I think he would have had a new problem, for the sort of solidarity which the Creed expresses is solidarity in the faith.  Solidarity without the faith would have required different means and expressions.

Moreover, this sort of thing doesn’t always stop at the first turn of the gyre.  There is certain fatal loop, which goes something like this:

1.  Give up the end.

2.  Reconceive the means to the abandoned end as an end in itself.

3.  Develop new means more suited to the new end.

4.  Go back to step 1.


Why I Can’t Talk about Integralism

Sunday, 12-09-2018



What do you think of the Catholic movement called integralism?



You won’t like this, because if you frame the question that way, I can’t answer it.

Integralism is supposed to be an opinion concerning the proper role of the Church vis-à-vis the state.  But it is also said to mean the rejection of certain other isms, the embrace of something called the “throne and altar” view, and lots of other things, and the various definitions are not consistent.

The most important thing I can say to people on all sides of these debates is that we need to argue more carefully.  It is extraordinarily difficult to state precisely either what either integralists are for, or what their opponents are against, because crucial distinctions are so often overlooked – almost always by non-Christian scholars, but often by Christian scholars too, both Protestant and Catholic.

For example, concerning the status of the Church in the modern state, it is one thing to ask whether it would be good for the state, while protecting religious liberty, to recognize in some sense the divine mission of the Church (yes), but quite another to ask whether under all circumstances the Church must seek such recognition (no).

Concerning the use of law, it is one thing to ask whether the law may be used to force persons into the faith (no), but quite another to ask whether the law may be an instrument of friendly cooperation with it (yes).

For that matter, the very phrase “recognition of the divine mission of the Church” may mean different things.  Are we speaking of declaring Christmas a national holiday, inventing a new national holiday called Thanksgiving, inscribing a cross on the coinage, requiring that the Decalogue be taught in public schools, requiring that its divine origin be taught along with it, forbidding blasphemy, or what?  These are very different kinds of things.

The same goes for terms such as “coercion.”  All law coerces, but not in the same way.  Are we thinking of making people do something, forbidding them from doing something, telling them that if they do it then they must do it in a certain way, commanding public officials not to forbid people from doing it, or something else?

We sometimes try to cut these knots by saying “I just believe in separation of Church and state,” but people mean different things by separation too.  Does it mean that citizens should not consider their faith when they vote?  (Bad.)  That the state should not subject candidates for public office to a religious test?  (Good.)  That firemen may not put out fires in churches?  (Bad.)  That the state may not tell the Church what to teach?  (Good.)  That the Church may not condemn evil and unjust laws?  (Bad.)  That priests are not magistrates?  (Good.)  That magistrates are not priests?  (Good.)

Sometimes the use of “ism” words is unavoidable – I use them myself -- but in a case like this one, I try to avoid them.  Instead of expressing an opinion about integralism – a term which means too many different things -- I prefer to say “Here is what I think about the proposition that ....”