Tom Wolfe and the Kingdom of Speech

The Kingdom of Speech:  Tom Wolfe / Little, Brown Pub. / 200 pages

A complicated and brilliant book.  Perhaps the impetus for writing it came from the awareness that science, while in the 150 years that separates us from Darwin, had invented relativity and microbiology, despite intense effort had failed to produce even a compelling theory regarding  the origin of speech.   The story begins with the failure of Darwin, who having been enormously successful in presenting a theory fostered by William Wallace, never got further than, in his 1871 Descent of Man, suggesting that speech evolved from the human ability to imitate the song of birds.  Wolfe is a Darwinian (I think), but he believes on good evidence that Darwin stole his theory from Wallace, who had written Darwin asking him to forward his paper sketching a theory of evolution to Charles Lyell.  Wallace’s paper stirred Darwin into hurriedly writing the Origin of Species.     

After that a great silence on the question ensued until Noam Chomsky came on the scene proposing the existence in the brain, or as a function of the brain,  of a language organ containing a basic universal grammar.  Wolfe has a good deal of fun with Chomsky, whom he presents as a somewhat vain and pompous theorist. Then enter Daniel Everett, born in dry and dusty Holtsville, California, destined by his upbringing to a life of insignificance, something in the way of William Wallace, who somehow got saved by his future wife Karen, wound up at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, became a brilliant linguist and then became a missionary in the back of the beyond, in the Amazon basin, with a tribe of 350-500 people called the Piranha, pronounced with one short and one long vowel.  

  No one had ever learned their language, but Everett mastered it, including that bird-song imitations useful for hunting.  So Everett had before him a living laboratory in which these tiny people spoke a language perhaps unchanged for thousands of years.   But it was a strange language, having only a present tense, no word for yesterday or tomorrow, just “other day,” and no word for up or down.  They made no artifacts other than the bow and arrow, the existence of which among them was part of the mystery.  They were merely irritated by Everett’s talk of Jesus, which they politely asked him to drop after a while.  They lived not even in huts but in shelters thrown together of tree branches, shelters the next high winds would destroy, which would make the Piranha laugh and laugh.    

But their chief interest for Everett lay in the fact  that they had no language organ containing a universal basic grammar.  This observation opened the way for the conviction that the Piranha language was a cultural artifact.  It had no recursion, a word coined by Chomsky to describe the ability of language to use complex sentences implying many ideas.  “Every sentence stands alone and refers to a single event.”  “The Piranha language comes from their culture, not from any pre-existing mental template.”   This claim was devastating to Chomsky’s theory, and a war of words between Chomsky and Everett ensued.  With the public Everett was the easy winner.  He wrote a best-seller with the title Don’t Sleep—There are Snakes,” which was Piranha for “Good Night.”  If Chomsky’s theory was not defeated it was highly qualified.  So after the silence of a century, during which grave scholars had admitted that they knew nothing of the origin of speech, the idea grew that speech was the ultimate cultural accomplishment, the tool that enabled man to master nature.  The thesis of Everett’s book Language The Cultural Tool was: “Speech is man-made.  It is an artifact and it explains man’s power over all other creatures in a way Evolution all by itself can’t begin to.”   Speech is the dividing line between man and other animals; only speech gives the human beast the ability to make plans . . . not just long-term but any plans, even for something to do five minutes from now.”   

The greatest achievement of words has been “the creation of an inner self, and ego.  Speech and only speech gives man the  ability to ask questions about his own life.”    “Only speech gives man the power to dream up religions and gods to animate them, and in extraordinary cases to change history, with words alone and without political backing.”  Jesus, Muhammad, John Calvin, Marx, and Darwin.  Marxism may now be discredited, but his idea of one social class dominating another will be with us forever.  Millions of sexual acts throughout the world would not be occurring were it not for the words of Sigmund Freud.   Mighty men might say the wrong words and tens of thousands of little men would die.  “Word are artifacts, and until man had speech, he couldn’t create any other artifacts, whether it was a slingshot or an Iphone or the tango.” You could lay aside your slingshot or your  Iphone and forget about it . . . But you could not make speech lie down once it had left your lips.   Wolfe suggests that we have entered a fourth Kingdom of Earth, After the ages of animals, vegetables, and  minerals we enter the Kingdom of Speech.  Wolfe concludes his account by telling of his casual page-turning of a book about evolution when, upon seeing the image of apes cuddling their young while the males stamp down under bush to make desks for the night, when he looked up and saw through his apartment windows the New York skyline, with the Marks and the Carlisle ($750 per night, Bose sound systematic, German brass fixtured) framed  against the peaks of the Chrysler Building, the empire State Building, and the Citicorp Building.” 

And there Wolfe’s story ends.

A story beautifully told, yet one in which it clarifies the nature and function of language still does not tell us much about the origin of language and speech.   Of course Wolfe could not  offer a theory that says simply that man, being created by the Word in the image of God, with the Word enlightening every man coming into the world, has never been without words and language.  Word does what Wolfe claims for them; he has a magnificent vision of their power, but of the origin of speech he tells us nothing.  

It is to be regretted that Wolfe did not or could not go on to remember that Christianity believes that creation exists through God’s speech, that he did not fashion the world but spoke existence where before there was nothing.  And Christianity would agree most specifically with Wolfe’s conviction that words divine and even human have nuclear potentiality.  It was man’s use of speech to defy God that caused the destruction of the tower of Babel and the subsequent linguistic divisions. And there is nothing in Scripture more frightening than the promise that every word we have spoken is known to God and will be heard again.   And above all is the glad fact that the name of the second person of the Blessed Trinity, the savior of mankind, called faithful and true, is “clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is the Word of God” (Revelation 19:13-14). 

Questions remain.  What is the relation between speech and writing, which is the attempt to make speech live and be shared through time.  And what is the relation between words and thought.  Wolfe suggests that one might try to count to ten, just mentally, without using words. And there is the mystery involved in the sudden ability of two-year-olds to speak their language, recursively, a phenomenon that supports Chomsky’s language organ thesis.  But Everitt was surely right that speech is a cultural inheritance, still an irrefutable witness to who you are and where you are from and how you will manage the world.    

  Finally, this book seems to be Wolfe’s own working through of the meaning and power of speech, a kind of revelation to himself about what he has been doing.                              

Was Tertullian Right?

Presented at The Lewis Tolkien Society’s weekly Text & Talk meeting on Zoom, 05 December 2020.

The second decade of the second Christian century saw the Church go through a crisis during which that which before was unresolved was clarified and established.   The topics thus canvassed were the status of the Johannine literature, especially the Gospel but also the Apocalypse in the emerging canonical literature of the cosmopolitan Church, the uses and abuses of the gift of prophecy, the management of souls with respect to the forgiveness of sins, and in a broader sense the relation of Christians to the post-Hellenistic world as the Church moved into the culture and the culture into the Church.   

The career of Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus cut across in a controversial way each of these issues but the first.    Born in 155, son of a centurion of the proconsular legion, Tertullian began as a lawyer, an advocate, necessarily well-versed in the literary inheritance of Rome, a skilled rhetorician.   We do not know why he became a Christian in 193 at about the age of thirty-eight, but we do know that he brought to his new profession all the zeal, every talent, and a lawyerly intellectual formation that caused him to write as though arguing a case, giving no quarter and always expecting a decisive judgement.   Between 193 and 207 Tertullian was part of the Catholic Church of Carthage,  For the last thirteen years of his life he was a member of and advocate for the New Prophecy, called by its opponents Montanism with reference to its putative founder.    

The New Prophecy may be understood in dramatically different ways.   Its advocates saw it is the perpetuation and development of an ancient and essential gift, a gift encouraged by Paul, instantiated in the office of prophet in the apostolic order by apostles, prophets, teachers, and defended by Irenaeus.  That two of the principals of the movement were women would not have necessarily counted against it; the prophetess Anna is quoted in Luke, the Apostle Philip’s prophetic daughters were famous in Hierapolis Salutaris in Phrygia.  From a somewhat different angle the New Prophecy, sometimes called the Phrygian heresy, was viewed by the regular hierarchy as bearing an ineradicable heretical taint.  The great prophetesses of the New Prophecy, Maximilla and Priscilla, admired by Tertullian were considered dangerous if not immoral.   One senses that  the existence of the New Prophecy threatened a hard-won ecclesiastical order for that was the history.  In the Didache prophets are viewed with great reverence and a certain distrust, for while their charismatic gifts made them impressive, especially when compared with the newly important order of bishops, there must have been a history of abuse, for the great liturgical latitude granted   prophets was matched by the caution that they should not stay longer than three days.  So the New Prophecy may have been defended as the perpetuation and development of ancient practice.  

And above all the New Prophecy stood for moral renovation based on  willing distancing of Christian life and manners from a culture seen as “the world.”    Central to Tertullian’s theology was a polemic against what he perceived as failure of discipline under the influence of what he saw as a newly emergent practice of forgiving serious or mortal sins such as adultery freely upon evidence of contrition and the acceptance of some form of penance, a penance that might, or over time might not, involve exclusion from participation in the Eucharist for long periods.  The forgiveness of mortal post-baptismal sin, never, or only one, or freely was an issue unresolved that had much occupied the Church in the second century.  Perhaps part of the problem was the realization of the implications of the subjectivity of the Sermon on the Mount, the command that Christians were to be pure in heart.  Perhaps an early appearance of a popular literature that vexed the question of the meaning of purity of heart was a novella-like book called the Shepherd of Hermas. In it the danger of luke-warmness that Tertullian opposes in the early third century is evident in outline.  Hermas is chilled because his involvement in business is driving him away from God and because he has not governed his family with strictness, so that his children may be lost to the faith.   But more than these concerns there is the anxiety caused by the fact that he has looked with impure desire upon the lady Rhoda.  Can this be forgiven, or forgiven more than once?   The Shepherd may not give a decisive answer. It seems to hold the line on the proposition that serious sins may be forgiven only once but in its parables and images it seems to hold out hope of mercy.

Tertullian’s Christian is made of sterner stuff.  A crisis was provoked, or this is one common interpretation, by the election of Callixtus to the see of Peter in 217.  Callixtus believed that even serious sins could be forgiven, and that perhaps more than once.  Hippolytus called this the practice of the school of Callixtians.    The bishop whom Tertullian upbraids for following this practice may or may not have been Callixtus, for the practice spread.   It is not possible here to review the subtleties of penitential practice in the Ante-Nicaean Church, but one can see that the generous forgiveness of even serious sins would  militate against the very existence of the pure Church Tertullian the Montanist envisioned and believed he had inherited.  

Tertullian saw this weakness as the result of a demonic surrender to the culture, and to stave it off he wrote.  In his catholic days he wrote against heresy, against the pseudo-Paulinist Marcion and against the Valentinians and the Monarchian Praxeas.    In his Montanist days he considered the catholic Church his opponent, and wrote in favor of what we might consider an unwarranted rigorism, against any attendance at the arena or the racecourse, where passions would be aroused, in favor of modesty in dress, condemning the use of pigments and jewelry, in favor of the veiling of virgins, by which he apparently meant the covering of faces as well  as heads.  He wrote that it was the higher way not to flee from persecution and wrote in praise of the soldier who would not wear the emperor’s garland on dress parade because Christ was his crown, and who as a consequence was martyred.   Tertullian forbids to Christians many professions,  that of magician or enchanter of course, but also  excluded are teachers and professors of literature. 

So the project, especially of Tertullian’s Montanist days, can be described as an attempt, made just on the cusp of the cultural victory of Christianity, to prevent the weakening of moral discipline, and to maintain distance from the culture of decaying Hellenism.  Not an ignoble project by any means.    Involved is the relation between Christian discipline, the discipline of the sacraments, and the Christian virtues.   If Tertullian can in principle be criticized it is on the suspicion that he thought human culture should always be resisted rather than penetrated and in a sense converted.   Dicey.  Which works best is probably a work of inspired imagination, and providence.  The world today has plenty of recent graduates who have set out to write for Christian television but it seems never to come to much, at least not that I have noticed.   When the culture is penetrated by Christian faith you get Dante’s Divine Comedy and Piers Plowman and Shakespeare and in a small, local, and ironic way Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh.  

But when Christianity loses entirely the Tertullianesque  stance, it becomes flaccid and impotent.   The Church of the decades after Tertullian did not follow the path he might have predicted.   What followed as the Church moved into the imperial culture was the unlikely flourishing of the monastic life, in the desert, at Lérins, Marseilles, and especially Nursia, the monastic life being the medicine against dissolution and absorption into the culture, the communities of those who have shut out the world in order to find God.

The Political Economy of J. R. R. Tolkien

     The PPE curriculum, philosophy and political economy, was I suppose an Oxford invention, calculated to combine the reflective, intellectual aspects of thought with the arts of politics and economics.  It suggested that what we do in the marketplace and in the forum is grounded in a set of philosophic principles.   With Tolkien this was certainly true; his pen carried with it the entire freight of the Christianity into which he was baptized when his mother became a Roman Catholic in Birmingham about 1903.  The most visible, obviously operant principle was Tolkien’s conviction that Eden had existed, and that the rebellion was real, marking human actions with the brokenness that belongs to a fallen will.  

     We can know something of what Tolkien might have considered the ideal society from his descriptions of the Shire in the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.   Although there are occasionally houses, most hobbits live in excavated space under the hill which is accessed by round doors, the round doors being a clue to the anti-industrial character of the Shire.  A hobbit’s concerns are genealogy and food, and communal feasting seems to be the nearest that Shire life comes to having  a sacrament. Unless, of course, you want to count the exchange of re-gifted objects.  Charles Williams, who was in Oxford in December 1944, commenting on the unpublished text, saw that the great thing about the book was not Frodo and his heroic vocation but the fact that the center was not in strife and war but “In freedom, peace, and good liking.”  

     Hobbits, as Gollum shows, can be corrupted, and Tolkien sees the world as the work of corrupted Hobbits who want to exercise power through organization and regimentation.    In the Lord of the Rings this is Sauron, who would organize the world right into slavery; in England in the 1940s it is your local county council.  When Christopher wrote complaining of the waste and stupidity of camp life, Tolkien replied remembering his own experience in 1917 and 1918:  “What makes it so exasperating is that . . . its worst features are unnecessary, and due to human stupidity, which (as the planners refuse to see) is always magnified indefinitely by ‘organization.’  . . . However it is, humans’ beings what they are, quite inevitable, and the only cure (short of universal Conversion) is not to have wars—nor planning, nor organization, nor regimentation.”  

     In July 1944, the invasion of Europe well under way, Christopher, who was flying over the channel, wrote of  flock skimming martins he had seen.  Tolkien replied, “That touches the heart of things, doesn’t it? There is the tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare.  Unlike art, which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind, it attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this World, and that cannot really be done with any satisfaction.  Labor-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labor.  And in addition to this fundamental disability of a creature, is added the Fall, which makes our devices not only fail of their desire but turn to a new and horrible evil.  So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the giant bomber.  It is not an advance in wisdom!  This terrible truth, . . .  sticks out so plainly and so horrifyingly exhibited in our time, with its even worse meaning for the future, that it seems almost a worldwide mental disease that only a tiny minority perceive it.” On 30 January 1945 Tolkien wrote, “Well, the First War of the Machines seems to be drawing toward its final chapter—leaving alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or dead and only one thing triumphant: the Machines.  As  the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful.   What’s their next move?”

     It was part of Tolkien’s character that he saw the imminent Allied Victory as deeply flawed.  This was in part because he disliked the Americanization of England and Europe,   He never visited the United States, but he saw that “American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass-production would spread throughout the world. There will be no place to go, so people will (I opine) go all the faster.”  This was the passage in which Tolkien became at least one of the fathers of the flattening metaphor as a description of the modern world.  But seriously, he wrote,  “I do find this American cosmopolitanism very terrifying.  Qua mind and spirit. . . . I am not really sure that the victory is going to be so much better for the world as a whole. . . .”    It was in this mood that he criticized the English press for declaring the Germans who held out to be drunken fanatics, warning that you can’t defeat Mordor with Mordor and reminding that Germans, too, had their just loyalties.   His fear was that victory would bring a culture that meant defeat: “When it is all over will ordinary people have any freedom left (or right) or will they have to fight for it,  or will they be too tired to resist. The last rather seems the idea of some of the Big Folk, who have for the most part viewed this war from the vantage point of large motor-cars.  Too many are childless.  But I suppose that one certain result of it all is the growth in the great amalgamations with their mass-produced notions and emotions.  Music will give place to jiving.  His delicately cultured amusement is said to be a fever in the U. S. A.   O God! O Montreal! O Minnesota!   

     The center of Tolkien’s social life was the Thursday evening meetings of the Inklings in the Bird and the Baby, a tiny pub perhaps fourteen feet wide. Back in 1925, when he had first come to Oxford from red brick Reading University, Tolkien had been one of the sponsors of the Kolbitars, assembled to read Icelandic poetry.  This had gradually given way to the Inklings:  Lewis, Tolkien, Havard, Charles Williams (1939-1945), and others.  This was about beer, good company, and reading manuscripts in progress.  In this company Tolkien was superbly at home.  The company began to fray when after 1957 Lewis would bring Joy Davidman, whom he soon would marry, who was considered by Lewis to be  master intellect and sparkling wit but considered by others to be merely intrusive.  Whatever else it was, the Inklings fostered the literary genius of Lewis and Tolkien.    Both seem to have had very little literary conversation at home, where Lewis found  the woman he had cohabited with and cared for since about 1925, and Tolkien found Edith.  Having fallen in love about 1915, Tolkien was forbidden by his guardian to communicate with her until his twenty-first birthday, upon which, perhaps unwisely, they were married.   Edith did not want to be the wife of a professor.  She did not want to be a Catholic, into which profession she was shuttled.   They managed, she being sometimes in the Church, sometimes out.  Toward the end of her life she received some reward, doing what she enjoyed, which was living in a Bournemouth hotel and playing bridge.  So the Inklings was a lifesaver and a kind of model of the good life.  One supposes this is what provoked the “good Christian friends engaged in conversation before the fire.”  

     Tolkien wrote little directly about politics.  His Catholicism was traditional; he regretted the destruction of the Roman Rite, along with Waugh and T. S. Eliot.

Paley, Darwin, and the Future

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God. 

— St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: Article 3, Question 2) 

Animals have instinct, which is a name for we know not what, and planets, stars, and trees behave as though they have an intelligent purpose.  

William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity was published in 1794.  The illustration Paley bought forward was the finding of a watch on a forest trail.   His conclusion that someone must have made the watch, obviously some intelligent purposeful creature, construed as an analogy to creation by God, is considered jejune.     

Generations of students have believed Saint Thomas’s fifth way (and Paley’s watch analogy) to have been refuted by a parable told in John Wisdom’s book God.   It tells of those who came across a perfectly maintained garden in wilderness, the sight of which caused one of the party to claim that there must be a gardener. So they watched carefully and set up a guard.  No gardener appeared.  So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”

This argument contains or presupposes a famous enthymeme; it assumes that if there were a gardener who tends the universe he would be a finite, material being,  Since God governs and perfects creation by his providence, one need not expect him to set off alarms.  Still, countless students of philosophy have been impressed by John Wisdom’s parable.   

My argument in this short paper is neither to refute nor justify either Darwin or Saint Thomas.  I might begin with the vernacular observation that, like all of Saint Thomas’s five ways, the argument from design seems rooted in human imagination.  At some point we wake up and look around and see that the world is wonderful.   We may be the Hebrew psalmist:  “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), or Saint Francis, who sang of brother sun and sister moon, or Shakespeare: “Juliet is the sun!”  or Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world I charged with the grandeur of God,” or perhaps we remember the lyrics of the 1950s song: “Every time I hear a new born baby cry/ Or touch a leaf or see the sky/Then I know why, I believe.”   This, in words elevated or popular, is intrinsic to the human heart and to human experience; it is the argument from design writ small, and like Christianity itself I doubt that, while these just sentiments may be suppressed, they will ever disappear.         

Darwinism appeared in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), launched into a world that wanted a holiday from Christianity.  It was in its origin not very complicated.   It was enabled by Charles Lyell’s idea that, creation, as demonstrated by new-born geology, was a million years, not six thousand years old.  The same geology had unearthed hundreds of fossilized species.  The theory states that  all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.   There is no agreement as to just who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”   [This opens upon an ongoing argument as to the definition of the fittest.   To be truly human it is essential to believe that there is something more important than survival.]  

Darwin had a motive, even if seldom expressed.  He thought the argument from design false and Christianity cruel:  ‘I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.’ Of course that depends upon whether, having ample opportunity they consciously and advisedly had ignored God.  But the real complaint is not against God’s putative injustice but against his government in the first place.  Darwin was one of those Friends of Humanity who wished to set us free.   Interestingly enough, his friend and sometimes collaborator William Wallace, came to the conclusion that there must be an intelligent designer.   

The theory made some sense of an older, more complex, natural world.  On its face it contradicted the Genesis story.  If anyone knows anything about the history of public education in the United States it is easy to see why evolution, which John Paul II considered “more than a theory,” is as a practical matter relentlessly inflicted upon the sixth and subsequent grades.   A  person who believes he has been known to God from the foundations of the world and given a unique soul by God at the moment of conception is different from a person who believes he is one who believes he is a product of nature.          

As most of you know, I believe it is possible to do a better reading of Scripture that would not eliminate but reduce the apparently obstinate differences between the Bible and Darwin.   Broadly, twenty-first century students of the natural history of the world, evolutionists and students of Genesis, share two ideas or beliefs.  The natural world at some point or perhaps from many points has proceeded from disorganization and chaos to a state of organization suitable to human  habitation while at the same time humans suitable to inhabit this world appeared.   And the second:  there have been catastrophes, perhaps not enough to turn a hard evolutionist into a catastrophist, but elements of catastrophism have gained credence among evolutionists.   The opening verses of Genesis are a key and a difficulty.  I am the opponent of the modern translation of the Hebrew which reads “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth the earth was formless.”   Better is “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was or came to be formless.”   I do not believe that God came upon a scene of pre-existing formlessness and chaos and then created the world we know by overcoming chaos.  That might be an evolutionary tale.  But if God can create anything out of nothing, he can create it in or with perfection.  Chaos, darkness, and emptiness are the hallmarks of Satan; God’s perfect creation had been invaded by the fallen angels.

But however the text is read, there is at some point a bringing of order out of chaos or next to nothing.  There is no chronology of the early verses of Genesis; if evolutionists wish to insert millions of years in Genesis 1, let there be no objection.   I am also intrigued by the fact that the age before the age of man was the age of serpents, small and large, birds and the brontosaurus rex.  All of whom were suddenly destroyed.  By a single meteor.  Maybe.  I wonder also why one of the gifts of the original covenant, with Noah, was the stability of the seasons (Genesis 8:22); not much gift unless there had been no seasons earlier.   What knocked the earth off its axis to create four seasons?  And by the way, what ripped the continents apart?  And how did all those broken bones of animals get deposited in caves and crevasses around the world?

   I am also interested in what mathematics might have to do with evolutionary theory.  Evolution as presents a process, not easily subject to rules.  Interestingly enough, these laws are held to be permanent; one does not hear  of the laws of thermodynamics changing when they become unfashionable.   Very often these laws are mathematical.  Surely you know somebody who has spent frustrating hours trying to explain to a high school sophomore why the inclined plane experiment is never exact, why in the end we get a percentage of error based on a rule that is never exemplified.  

So many puzzles.   Why was Paris at one time under water, populated by shellfish, then later dry land, then submerged again but with the bones of mammals, but then dry land again?  Why are there no trees older than BC 800?   And why are there shellfish on top of Mount LeConte?   Geology is not nearly as neat as evolutionary theory.

Finally, let us consider the last four of St. Thomas’s proofs as a cluster of reasonable reflection.   If real perfection doesn’t exist somewhere, then best and better are meaningless.   The existence of a world of finite beings, no one of which may be here tomorrow, argues by their very persistence the existence of a necessary first cause.  Everything that exists must have a cause; this world is no different. And always the argument from design; this beauty and order came from somewhere; I didn’t make it. 

As for the future, perhaps, the Pope to the contrary notwithstanding, school children should be taught to appreciate Darwin, as well as St. Thomas, and to remember that every large scale historical theory such as Darwin’s will be refined and amended, we know not how, in the future.


You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
Nor the pestilence that strikes in darkness

Psalm 91:5

To understand the evil of which plague and pestilence are species one must begin with Genesis One, making a decision whether the picture given in the opening verses of Scripture is the image of God struggling to create a world from disorder and chaos or whether the image we are given is of God overcoming chaos, darkness, and emptiness after a primordial catastrophe, the rebellion of the angels, on behalf of order, fullness of being, and light, making a world for Adam and Eve.   I believe the latter is the right picture, while the former makes chaos, emptiness and darkness part of God’s original creation, which is impossible. God does not create chaos and disorder, or disease, or sickness, or viruses and germs. A cancerous cell is instructive; it is a cell that has given up on its proper form and gone wild.  

Disease and sickness, whether forestalled temporarily or not, are the heralds of death, which is both a divine punishment, given so that rebel mankind will not live forever, making up good and evil for himself, eternal beings given to evil, and at the same time death is Satan’s masterpiece. 

Both nature and supernature are expressions of God’s will, of His creative will and His salvific will respectively.  In a sense nature is not ‘natural,’ for its existences, patterns, and reliabilities are willed by Him in every moment of time.   At the same time there are no accidents. Whatever happens is willed or permitted by God. Because He has not denied Satan the freedom he accords every rational being, the interface between God’s will and Satan’s malignancy is to us a mystery.   

Various things can be said about God’s government of nature and of souls, some at least partly true.  Underlying all is His good will toward man and nature, which is expressed on one hand in the consistency of nature granted in Genesis, a covenant of which the rainbow is the sign and on the other by his patient pursuit of fallen mankind throughout long years described in the Old Testament until there is the Incarnation and life with the Blessed Trinity forever.  At the same time, just as sin is not driven from the world, natural evil, moderated in Genesis One, is not driven out of creation. These, perduring natural evils and sin, are used by God in his government of man and nature. They may be employed by God to compel obedience, as in the seven plagues visited upon Egypt to secure Pharaoh’s willingness to let Israel go.   They may be used in punishment, as when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. They may be used first to punish then to allure the woman depicted in Hosea Chapter One. The Babylonians may be used to punish Israel with captivity in a foreign land because of Israel’s idolatry and faithlessness. One may doubt that Jonah appeared in the Jerusalem Directory while believing that God is quite able to have the prophet swallowed by a large fish and redirected toward the Lord’s purpose.  At the same time we are warned against attributing the suffering of evil to those specifically afflicted by Our Lord Himself, who pointed out the truth that the Galileans whom Herod destroyed and the eighteen men on whom the tower fell were not worse offenders than the other Galileans and other inhabitants of Jerusalem. It is not our’s to know who deserved what.

But the mitigation of blame we might think due others on our part does not exhaust the matter of God’s particular government, regarding which Shakespeare left a brilliant essay in Henry V.   Contemplating the fact that many will die in battle at Agincourt.  

There is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to arbitrament of arms, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers.  Some peradventure have upon them the guilt of contrived and premeditated murder; some of beguiling virgins . . . some, making the wars their bulwark, that have before gored the gentle peace with pillage and robbery. . . .  Now if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God. War is his beadle; war is his vengeance. . . . Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed—wash every mote out of his conscience.  And dying so, death is to him an advantage, or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained. And in him that escapes, it were not sin to think, that making God so free an offer, he let him live to see his greatness and to teach others how they should prepare.

War, sickness, the permission of evil, evil that we let into the world,  of any kind, are God’s beadles or correction officers. We do not expect to die from any modern plague; planning and good medicine will mitigate.  This was not always true. The Plague of Athens in BC 430 blunted the Athenians’ chances to defeat Sparta and caused political instability. The Plague of Justinian, from about 540 to 585, was caused by Yersinia pestis bacterium, the same that fueled the Black Death.  DNA suggests that the origin of Justinian’s plague was in Central Asia. The most basal or root level existing strains of the Yersinia pestis as a whole species are found in Qinghai, China. After samples of DNA from Yersinia pestis were isolated from skeletons of Justinian plague victims in Germany, It was found that modern strains currently found in the Tian Shan mountain range system are most basal known in comparison with the Justinian plague strain. If order and health are good things, bacteria and contemporary viruses are evil things.  They are not ‘natural’ any more than Covid-19 is ‘natural.’ They must be a perversion of something but I do not know what.  

The rat-borne Yersina pestis literally plagued Europe until 1750.  Plague occurred in Venice 22 times between 1361 and 1528. The plague of 1576–1577 killed 50,000 in Venice, almost a third of the population. Late outbreaks in central Europe included the Italian Plague of 1629–1631, which is associated with troop movements during the Thirty Years’ War, may have killed one-third of the population. The Great Plague of Vienna in 1679 killed 100,000.

During the last century medicine has made a brave, and much appreciated, show of being able to manage epidemics and pandemics.   Perhaps ten common potentially killer diseases have been mastered though hygiene, clean water, sewage disposal systems, and vaccinations, one great triumph being that near eradication of poliomyelitis.  How the present plague is different from those in the past is still unknown. Its moral dimensions are no different from any other.

And by the way, one of the puzzles of God’s providence is the fact that he sometimes seems to change his mind about the planned reminders, if we ask and repent.

– Dr. James Patrick –

Santa Claus: Gentling Gomorrah

Wherever there is a living religion it will influence the popular culture.  The notion of gentling the culture, in that specific language, belongs, I think, to Leo XIII, and was used by him to describe the situation in which Christianity, while it elevates souls directly through conversion touches and elevates the general culture indirectly by the tendency of that culture to engage the customs and themes of religion at a popular level.  Where there are Italian Catholics there still will be processions of the statue of the Blessed Virgin or the local saint, held shoulder high, amidst showers of sparklers and fireworks. Where there are English-speaking Christians there will be Santa Claus and more recently Lessons and Carols. In Czechoslovakia there has recently been objection to Santa Claus, on the grounds that their tradition insists that presents are delivered by Baby Jesus.      

  One of the first and most persistent incursions of Christianity into popular culture involved and still involves the rhythm of time. The Christian calendar is rooted in Jewish practice and in the Roman calendar, while reflecting as well the natural cycle of the seasons.  Over time the Roman week of eight days was replaced by the seven-day Christian week borrowed from Judaism and Genesis. Easter, the first and still-greatest Christian festival, set the Passover, as it were, in a new key, and after a period when it was celebrated (at least in Asia) on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month Nissan, its date was determined by astronomical calculation. In Rome the new year traditionally began in March, the season of nature’s regeneration. The tradition that Christmas was to be celebrated on December 25th dates to the third century.  [I am reminded of the (to us) odd custom of reciting the date of Epiphany and (I think) Easter at the Christmas midnight Mass.]  In the Middle Ages March 25, was New Year’s Day as well as the Feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Angel Gabriel, or Lady Day. Nine months after March 25 is Christmas, the celebration of the birth of the Lord, which falls upon or near the December feast of Saturnalia, a time of feasting and gift-giving.

Hippolytus wrote about 204 in his Commentary on Daniel that Christians esteemed December 25 the birthdate of Jesus and March 25 the date of the great sacrifice, or the Easter celebration.  None of this was rationalized until the scholarship of Dionysius (470–554), a Scythian monk called Exiguus, “the humble”, in his work Anni Domini nostril Jesu Christi 532–627 gave the Christian world a calendar that for the first time counted years from the birth of Christ, a task Dionysius undertook because he “preferred to count and denote the years from the Incarnation  of our Lord, in order to make the foundation of our hope better known and the cause of the redemption of man more conspicuous.” This has proved a challenge to secular scholarship, which prefers BCE (before the common era) and CE (Common Era) to “Before Christ” (BC) and AD (Anno Domini, the year of our Lord).   However one does it, unless willing to redate every event, the dividing point is still the life and death of Jesus Christ.  

The relation between the Roman feast of Lupercalia, celebrated in early February, involved the (unusual) sacrifice of a goat and a dog, whose blood would be smeared on the Luperci, who then would run a race. The Lupercalia was still celebrated in 494 when Pope Gelasius I banned it and substituted the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin.  Because the Lupercalia was the merriest feast of the year, a time of gift-giving, there is always the thought that some relation existed between that Roman festival and Christmas, but the date of Christmas seems to have been determined by factors distinctly Christian. 

The influence of Christianity on the calendar was small stuff in comparison to its moral influence in the general culture, especially on the customs and rules regarding marriage.   The Church tried persistently to suppress abortion and infanticide and in general succeeded. The church also attempted with some success to make divorce illegal, resting its case on Matthew 19 and Saint Paul’s analogy relating the indissolubility of marriage to the relation between Christ and the Church.  

            Not the least influence of Christianity was the coopting of the chivalry into what one might call a quasi-religious vocation, especially evident in the crusades. 

The preparation for a knighting (or dubbing as it is sometimes called), which might include any number of knights-to-be, began the day before, with the squire brushing himself up with a bath and a shave or beard trim. Overnight he might spend the hours in a vigil within a chapel with his sword resting upon the altar. . . . On the day of the ceremony the squire was dressed by two knights with a white tunic and white belt to symbolize purity, black or brown stockings to represent the earth to which he will one day return, and a scarlet cloak for the blood he is now ready to spill for his baron, sovereign, and church.  The newly made knight was given back his sword, which had been blessed by a priest with the proviso he always protect the poor and weak. The blade had two cutting edges – one to represent justice, the other loyalty, or more generally, chivalry. The squire was actually knighted by a simple tap on the shoulders or neck with the hand or sword, or even a heavy blow, meant to be the last blow he should ever take without retaliating and to remind him of his obligations and moral duty not to disgrace the man who dealt the blow. A few words might be said but nothing too fancy, perhaps a simple ‘Be thou a knight.’ 

One of the projects of knighthood was the maintenance of the Peace of God. Robert the Pious (996–1031) espoused an oath that instantiated the peace of God, which while never effectively maintained offered some respite from the incessant wars of the Middle Ages.  

I will not infringe on the Church in any way. I will not hurt a cleric or a monk if unarmed. I will not steal an ox, cow, pig, sheep, goat, ass, or a mare with colt. I will not attack a villain or villainess or servants or merchants for ransom. I will not take a mule or a horse male or female or a colt in pasture from any man from the calends of March to the feast of the All Saints unless to recover a debt. I will not burn houses or destroy them unless there is a knight inside. I will not root up vines. I will not attack noble ladies traveling without husband nor their maids, nor widows or nuns unless it is their fault. From the beginning of Lent to the end of Easter I will not attack an unarmed knight.

While these large aims were being pursued as derivative manifestations of Christianity in popular culture, the popular culture itself was recruited into the Christian cause through the mystery plays and through the magnificence of the liturgy.  And one might remember the guilds, an organization of artisans conceived as having the religious purposes of mutual support and dedicated to maintaining the standards of the craft, its activities typically aranged around a patronal festivals. Often the guild would have a church such as Raphael’s Sant’ Eligio degli Orefic, built in 1509 for the goldsmiths of Rome.    

Christmas was of course a liturgical celebration required as the Feast of the Nativity by the Roman missal and the English book of Common Prayer.  Puritans did not like it, attributing its origin to paganism or Catholicism, and in the Cromwellian years of mid-seventeenth century, its celebration was illegal.  This was the Puritan tradition inherited by Massachusetts. When the Reverend Charles Coffin travelled south about 1800, he encountered as an oddity the celebration of Christmas in Virginia.  

To skip to the nineteenth  century, the secularization of the two greatest Christian festivals brought an increasingly secular culture face to face with the fact that it had no cause for celebration that was not ultimately rooted in the Christian story.  One might suppress “Christmas” in favor of “holiday,” but a holiday is nothing but a holy day, and the giving of gifts is derived from Saint Nicholas, whose feast was December 6th. Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas.  

In  1821, the book A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve was published in New York. “It contained Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, an anonymous poem describing Santeclaus on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children. Our modern idea of Santa Claus was encouraged by the anonymous publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known today as The Night Before Christmas) in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on 23 December 1823; Clement Clarke Moore, a professor at the General Seminary in New York,  is reputed to have written it while on a shopping trip by sleigh.”  St. Nick is described as being chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf with a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.   The reindeer were named: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem, the last two of which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen. 

Santa Claus lost his character as a Christian bishop and became childhood’s delight and a commercial property, first of New York merchants and then of the country, but he remains the symbol of love and generosity.  And if the world is a bit gentler; if almost everyone gets a day off for the purpose of eating themselves silly and talking with family, this is attributable to the ability of Christ to gentle civilization. The pope chose his words well because the Church does not propose to create a Christian civilization.  It asks the right to be itself and to tell its story, which makes the world a better place, not in the sense of some cumulative progress toward a historical utopia but by way of gentling a culture that without its elevating touch will become coarser by the day. And of course at Christmas stores make money, recouping the dry mid-summer months; and that’s a good gift too.

Hispanics and Anglos

The Ancestors of English-speaking Americans were living in wattle huts and trying unsuccessfully to fend off the armed Scandinavian migration.  Iberia, later called Hispania, was a much coveted colonial post among aspirant consuls-in-the-making, its climate warm and welcoming, its fields fertile, and the commerce of its ports, Barcelona and Valencia, humming.   This peace was interrupted by the Vandals and then by the Muslim invaders, who occupied various parts of Spain for about seven hundred years.  

Then two things happened.  In 1492 the last Muslim stronghold, Grenada, was taken.   Spain was the result of the slow union of Leon, Castile, and Aragon, accomplished as the war against Islam became increasingly successful.   Spain’s Atlantic trade challenged the Hansa and her Mediterranean commerce rivaled Genoa and Venice. In that fateful year Isabella, Queen of Castile from 1474 until her death in 1504, supported and financed the journey of the mystical, able Genoese  Christopher Columbus that led to the opening of the New World and to the establishment of Spain as the first global power which dominated Europe and much of the world for more than a century.  Her reforms and those she made with her husband had an influence that extended well beyond the borders of their united kingdoms. Isabella and Ferdinand are known for completing the Reconquista and for ordering conversion or exile of their Muslim and Jewish subjects.  Their national existence won by a long, bloody struggle, perhaps Ferdinand and Isabella were inspired by a Poland-like nationalism; being occupied by the Russians and the Third Reich has a clarifying power. Isabella, granted together with her husband the title “the Catholic” by Pope Alexander VI, was recognized as a Servant of God by the Catholic Church in 1974. Perhaps some day she will be considered a saint. Meanwhile the president of the Catholic University covers the murals depicting  Columbus’ voyage, preferring perhaps an America in which the Aztecs are unimpeded in their penchant for sacrificing maidens and ravaging their neighbors.  

Before Roanoke, before Jamestown, before Plymouth, the Spanish had organized an empire that included the Caribbean islands, the west coast of North America—yes, Virginia, Mexico is in North America—from what would be Oregon to the Terra Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina, including ultimately the distant Pacific Islands named for Phillip II.  It is satisfyingly hyperbolic but also true that there was grand opera in Lima before Jamestown was envisioned. 

It is hardly surprising that Henry VII was anxious to marry his heir Arthur to Catherine, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, or that after the death of Arthur, only six months married, Henry hastened to negotiate Catherine’s marriage to his second son Henry, despite the difficulty involved in dispensing the bond of consanguinity that existed between Henry and Catherine due to her previous marriage to Arthur.  From the attempt of Henry to have his marriage to Catherine annulled would grow the Black Legend, Spanish Leyenda Negra, a term indicating an unfavorable image of Spain and Spaniards, accusing them of cruelty and intolerance, prevalent in the pre-modern works of many non-Spanish, and especially Protestant, historians. “Bloody” Mary and her failed marriage to Phillip II is part of that story, the lynchpin of which is the attempt of Phillip in May 1588 to invade England and unseat the heretic Elizabeth.  It was this event which snuffed out the last Catholic resistance, ushered in violent persecution of Catholics, and, I think, made nationalism an essential part of the English national religion. A proud people do not take kindly to the attempt, however unsuccessful, to invade their country and change their government. Overlooked is the Treaty of Nonesuch, under which Elizabeth had offered support to the rebels in the Spanish Netherlands.

The voyage of Columbus ultimately unleashed a three-way race among the great European powers to claim territory in the New World.  Spain had a head start, and a state of war existed between Spain and England. Elizabeth never financed an expedition to the New World, but she licensed privateers who preyed upon the Spanish ships bearing gold back to Spain.   Sir Francis Drake, famous for his circumnavigation of the globe, the most famous of the privateers, claimed California for England and attacked St. Augustine in 1586. Relations between England, and Americans, the English surrogates  and Spain would remain anxious, erupting into armed hostility as English-speaking settlers brought the lightly settled Spanish frontier in North America under pressure. Spain’s last-minute entry into the French and Indian War on the side of France cost it Florida, which the British acquired through the first Treaty of Paris in 1763. After twenty years of British rule, however, Florida was returned to Spain as part of the second Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution in 1783.  In 1819 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams achieved a diplomatic coup with the signing of the Florida Purchase Treaty, which officially put Florida into U.S. hands at no cost beyond the U.S. assumption of some $5 million of claims by U.S. citizens against Spain. Formal U.S. occupation began in 1821, and General Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812, was appointed military governor.   Louisiana was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain from 1763 to 1801 that consisted of territory west of the Mississippi River basin, plus New Orleans. Spain acquired the territory from France.  It was sometimes known as Spanish Louisiana. The district was retroceded to France, under the terms of the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso and the Treaty of Aranjuez in 1802 only to be acquired by Jefferson from the cash-strapped Napoleon in 1803. 

In 1821 Mexico won independence from Spain.  Meanwhile, Anglo settlers kept pushing west, and in 1836 the Republic of Texas was founded in the face of Mexican territorial claims.  This dispute was settled, supposedly, by the Mexican War of 1846–1848, which took American troops to California, Santa Fe, and finally to Mexico City.  In Mexico it is called the American Intervention of 1846. Meanwhile there was the French-Austrian attempt of 1864–67 to make Mexico a monarchy and an empire, narrowly defeated. The war of 1846 was the curtain-raiser  to the Spanish-American War, when, with doubtful justification Cuba, Porto Rico, and the Philippines were annexed from a weak Spanish monarchy, a project promoted by a subtle anti-Catholic propaganda. In 1903 the United States built the Panama Canal on land acquired by purchase.  

Since Henry’s rejection of Catherine of Aragon, since the Spanish Armada,  relations between Spain and England have intermittently been stiff. Things were not helped by the English acquisition in perpetuity of Gibraltar under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which now seems to the Spanish an unjust humiliation.  More recently there was the mystery of Franco, who either quashed a duly elected liberal government with savage violence, or prevented Spain’s becoming a socialist tyranny and Russian client state. What is forgotten, because we are more ignorant of Spanish cultural history than of the history of France and Italy, is Vasquez, El Greco, and Cervantes.  Also often neglected are great moderns: Antoni Gaudi and his Sagrada Familia, Ortega y Gasset, and Miguel Unamuno. 

For five centuries relations between Anglos and Hispanics have been complicated by religion, of which relation the black legend is the pathology.  Spanish Catholicism is the Inquisition, the enslaving of conscience to superstition, given which representation, the freeing of territory into American influence and possession is right and just.  But at the heart of the distanced relationship is the fact that so many Hispanics don’t do like folks do. Well, some do: the business elites, and maybe Costa Rica and Chili. But there is too much disparity between rich and poor, too much violence and disorder.  This is partly due to the fact that Latin America was not really settled by Europeans; there were two few Spaniards; partly due to the fact that the Spanish regime while not barbaric or anti-Christian lacked any meaningful element of consent or participation. There was no Magna Carta.  Some of the reasons for this would include the apparent inability of post-feudal colonial culture to support the idea of any degree of transcendent lawfulness. Remembering that for corruption to be damaging it does not have to be universal, it would seem that what one often finds is the survival of a degenerate, lawless bastard feudalism in which the strong man and his clientelia are the government.  As one politician put it, “For my friends anything; for my enemies the law.” In this environment it’s to some degree every man for himself. At the top the rich will build a gated and guarded compound. At the very bottom one might join a gang. In the middle one muddles through, remembering that the police may or may not be your friend; they are taking care of themselves too. This creates an environment in which investment is hard to find because it is never quite secure.   When there is no job there is trafficking in drugs, or smuggling. And there is always Socialism and Revolution. What makes a public political culture. Religion surely, but more importantly legal tradition, and still more importantly an incorruptible judicial system. As in Chicago, the police may charge but the case will never come to trial.  

Ukraine has some of the most exceptional farmland on the planet. But the country is totally broke.  150 years ago, Hong Kong was a tiny village of illiterate fisherman. 50 years ago in Singapore they used to defecate in the streets.  Twenty-five years ago Estonia was still part of the crumbling Soviet Union. None of those places has any resources to speak of. But they’ve become among the wealthiest in the world. What’s the difference between Hong Kong and Ukraine? Singapore and Venezuela? Estonia and Nicaragua? Wealthy nations do have some common characteristics.  Wealthy nations have a culture that values hard work. Knowledge. Productivity. Innovation. Risk-taking. Saving. Self-reliance. It’s not that people in poor countries don’t work hard. Far from it.” But there is no culture that supports these values. Poverty is in large measure the failure of public political culture.  

Perhaps Protestant critics are right.  Perhaps it’s their religion. It is true that Catholicism in health considers neatness and industry a bit downstream from some higher values. But persistent, even failed, Catholicism, hasn’t quite made mainland Spain or France or Italy an economic-political wasteland, although parts of Italy are marginal.  The trash cannot be dealt with in Sicily and the Milanese consider Neapolitans a lesser breed.    

One way to look at the problem of poverty in Latin American is to think of their pattern as predictive of where we may be headed as the political culture becomes Godless.  It is important to remember that while Argentina may still have Roman Catholicism in its constitution, Mexico is officially, and in the 1920s viciously, anti-clerical. Not everybody in El Salvador or Guatemala or Mexico is poor.  If you are well placed, you go to a (probably) religious high school and you may get out of Mexico for university. There is probably a pious picture of Msgr. Escriva somewhere in the house. On the other hand there are the cardboard villages, the untreated disease, and always the shrine to Archbishop Oscar Romero.  And if these are persistent you come to the United States. Deep in your consciousness there lies the conviction that Texas and Arizona and California belong to you.

Remembering Russia

It is difficult to forget Russia, given the proclivity of the state, real and imagined, to meddle in America elections and to violate egregiously the Monroe Doctrine by sponsoring illiberal client states such as Cuba and Venezuela that are organized on a socialist model.  From 1946 to 1991 Russia was an existential threat to western Europe. Its nuclear arsenal is now larger than that of the United States and it has the only other strategic air force in the world. Its manner in politics is bullying, and its leaders still consider the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in the words of Vladimir Putin, the greatest tragedy of the twenty-first century.  Russia, at least the government, although looking in many respects like a western liberal democracy, is in fact a band of accomplices united in criminal activities. Disagree and you may disappear.  

Russia, even under the Tsars, was, in the nineteenth century, like the United States, always  expansive, occupying at different times Finland, Prussia, Lithuania, Alaska, California, and Poland, which was a grand duchy under Russian rule until 1919.  In the nineteenth century the Tsars had exerted authority beyond Russia’s southern border with the creation of Kazakhstan, Turkistan, and other ‘stans.’ The attempt to recover the Ukraine is only the latest.  Be it remembered that Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1872, and that signs of Russian colonization, including signs of the missionary activity of the Russian Orthodox Church, appear a far south as California.  The behavior during the post-World War II years was only exacerbated when the new-found messianic impetus was added to the traditional Russian character as a very dangerous neighbor. The Germans knew the difference between being occupied by Americans and Russians; one of the mini-migrations of the twentieth century was the flight into the arms of the advancing American army to avoid life under the Russians, a possibility more than a few Germans greeted with suicide.  Bullying often seems to be a Russian characteristic. In 1943 Stalin proposed that the top 50,000 Germans be shot. One of the most endearing western characteristics is the tendency to run shy, when necessity does not require it, of pushing the adversary to the wall and rejoicing in his destruction. There is such a thing as national character; Americans did their share of rape and pillage but it was small stuff in comparison with the brutality of the Russians. There was always a note of cynicism about the Soviet Union.   If Stalin did not say that one death is a tragedy while a million deaths is just history moving on, it nonetheless represents his thinking. He did capture the essence of the appeal of socialism in these words: 

 “It is difficult for me to imagine what “personal liberty” is enjoyed by an unemployed hungry person. True freedom can only be where there is no exploitation and oppression of one person by another; where there is no unemployment, and where a person is not living in fear of losing his job, his home and his bread. Only in such a society personal and any other freedom can exist for real and not on paper.”   

Well, of course the liberty of such a person is, characteristically, the liberty to get himself employed. Perfect security is not a natural feature of life on earth and an inordinate desire for it may be a pathology.  Better to be oppressed occasionally by one’s neighbor than systematically by a utopian government. And of course we need to help those who cannot find work, but not by making them into a permanent underclass on behalf of which society is organized.  The preferential option for the poor does not mean that they are the only part of society with rights and just expectations.  

Historically, the ambiguous nature of Russian history represented by the tension between Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, which has always been just slightly western-looking—Poland is its neighbor – and the vast Russian landmass in which Moscow and St. Petersburg, on its western perimeter, are the important cities.  Christianity came to Russia in the tenth century through the Roman mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius, and it is to them that the Cyrillic script in which the orthodox liturgy is written is attributed. Kiev adopted the liturgy of Constantinople just in time to go into schism in 1054. It is a constitutive part of Russian self-image that Muscovy, the Russian land,  is the third Rome, inherited in the aftermath of the fall of Old Rome to heresy and of Constantinople to Islam in 1453. This appears first in 1492 and was crystalized in 1510 in the writing of the monk Pilotheus of Pskov, who assured the Grand Duke Vasili III: 

Two Romes have fallen.  The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom.”  

The Tsars took as the arms of Russia the double-headed eagle of Byzantium and the Holy Roman Empire.  This is at best useful bosh. It is true that Russia inherited from Constantinople the tendency to see the Church as an instrument of state policy, and the Orthodox Church of Russia has fulfilled this expectation.   Patriarch Kyrill has contributed to the tendency to absolve Stalin, and hence the Russian past, from the catalogue of atrocities that accompanied the utopian vision. We shall probably never have more than a round number of deaths; estimates vary from thirty to seventy million.  But, after all, Stalin was the ‘father of victory’ in the great patriotic war and one must break a few eggs to make an omlette. In February 1943 Russia had withstood the German invasion and broken the advance toward Stalingrad, but the Russian victory was a near thing and in September of that year, needing every resource of national energy that could be found, Stalin reversed his anti-religious policy, made a concordat with the Patriarch, released the clergy from prison and opened churches.   That alliance continued, to be intensified in the days of Vladimir Putin, who, somewhat irrationally, allowed the canonization of the Romanovs, whose murder had sealed the success of the revolution in 1917.          

Russia was always an authoritarian state but its rulers were not always barbarians.  The Romanovs were absolute in the eighteenth -century sense. Peter the Great, a convinced westernizer, required the nobility summarily to adopt western dress and to cut off their beards.  Through the creation of the Holy Synod, he effectively made the Orthodox Church an instrument of state policy. In 1800 there were about forty million Russians of whom ten million were serfs.    

No one other than the nobility could own land until 1804, at about which time 48% of factory workers were serfs.   Serfdom was not abolished until 1861, and then the land available to the newly freed was what their former masters did not want, and that at an extortionate price.   


Socialism was not invented in Russia, although the vast difference between rich and poor, the presence of so many freed serfs, and the shock given an essentially faux medieval culture by the industrial revolution made Russia a promising matrix in which the virus of socialism, at the heart of which is always state ownership of economic and cultural assets, presented as fairer and more productive, was able to grow.   If one seeks a founder, Charles Fourier, whose Socialism was tested in the Paris Commune of 1871 is a good candidate. But the socialist inspiration was everywhere after the European revolutions, or attempted revolutions, of 1848. What made Russia especially vulnerable was the pig-headed insistence of the Romanovs that the autocracy must be maintained, coupled with historical circumstances such as the October 5, 1905 shooting of peaceful protesters and the defeat of Russia by the Japanese in the same year, to which was added the humiliation of the ineptitude and failure of Russia’s part in the war against the Central Powers in 1914–1916.  

There were many varieties of Socialism, ranged from the English Fabians, through the International Workingmen’s Association to Lenin, who believed that the Socialist Utopia would be, must be,  brought in by violence. It is arguable that Lenin was the inventor of terror as an effective political weapon. We know the rest of that story, which is mentioned here as background for the unusual cultural development of Russia during the last half century of the Tsars.   Begin with Alexander Pushkin, the Russian Shakespeare, who paved the way for Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is improbable that you can take a degree in literature without reading Chekhov and certainly Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov And we might ask with good purpose just how American and Western European symphonies generally would be able to fill the hall without Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Prokovief, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich.  And in philosophy there is Nicolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Soloviev, and Solzhenitsyn. These have tended to reprobate Soviet Communism while at the same time pointing out the spiritual weaknesses in western capitalism.                        .    

Several of these were born in the twentieth century, but as a group they are the product of or were influenced by this period of cultural failure and revolution.   One is reminded of the commonplace about Switzerland: five hundred years of peace and only the cockoo clock. It also brings to mind a favorite theory, that great artistic and literary achievement are more likely to occur when the tectonic plates of culture are moving.   But this may be specific to the nineteenth/twentieth century period and may simply mean that revolutionary destruction brings out the best in those who possess poetic vision.              


To begin autobiographically, I can never think of the word “power” without thinking of Malcolm Muggeridge’s phrase “the vulgarity of power.”     What Muggeridge had in mind was the uses of power in contemporary culture and politics which typically involves the assertion of will without justice and certainly without love.  In the raw, power satisfies the human desire to dominate rather than to be dominated. As Augustine wrote, the search for power in the form of domination has been the failure of regimes, At the end of Nineteen-Eighty-Four the only answer the controllers can give as to why they have turned earth into hell is power.  This is the perversion of something that as belonging to human nature is good. It is a gift of God, who is omnipotent, all powerful, who wills that man share in this goodness, that we have the ability to exercise dominion in the world, and to pursue what is good, that is to be pleasing to God by rejoicing in his will.   “In his will is our peace,” as Dante wrote.  

As it happened, we humans have tended to use our powers not to please God but to pursue pleasure, for pleasure is the form  of those secondary goods that have the apparent ability to satisfy. Both carnality in its many aspects and dope, from marijuana to Heroin and meth, represent the exercise of power on behalf of pleasure.   Of course one may appeal to the Stuart moral philosophy, the principle of which was, “God never damned any man for having a little pleasure.” But against this is the experience of Eve, who, while her underlying sin was rebellion, was moved to disobedience by the facts that the fruit was good for food, pleasant to the eyes, and capable of producing wisdom (Genesis 3:6).   The formless pursuit of pleasure, without restraint, without underlying moral purpose, is central to Satan’s project, which is the destruction of souls. Satan thought to seduce Christ, not with the tawdry pleasure of the flesh, but with the promise of political power: the rule of kingdoms, bodily invincibility, the power to feed without labor. He failed, and the Messiah went on to offer salvation through the abandonment of every exercise of power other than the power of love.  He was not able, or would not, come down from the cross. Yet he did promise to come again in great power, full of justice, full of might, in great glory, to punish sinners and establish the incarnate kingdom of the new heart.   

In the meantime Jesus promised power of a certain kind to the Church, that is to his elect.  Christ said, “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18). And this was reiterated as Jesus ascended to his father: “You shall receive power after the Holy Ghost is come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses” Acts 1:8.    And in John 1:12: “As many as received him, to them he gave the power to become sons of God, even to them who believe on his name: which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” And in 3:3 to Nicodemus, “Unless a man be born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  

Here one might step back to consider the history of human attempts to be pleasing to God or the gods, and what one finds is a history of failure despite a fullness of information and plentitude of aspiration, vacillating and uncertain though these attempts be.   Israel was certainly not ignorant that their first task was to love God with all their hearts. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Cato, Marcus Aurelius and Plotinus had a clear understanding of the righteousness of the gods and offered various proposals for pleasing them.  All these projects, Hebrew and Greek and Roman, on a certain day had a certain nobility, but the results they achieved were episodic, fragile, and ultimately frustrated. It was not yet time for the lifting of the veil that stood between the sons of Adam and the Creator.  But then in the fullness of time Christ came, Pentecost came, and we were given the power to know the Father in his Son Jesus Christ.  

This did not end the question about power, for the Gospel maintained that we were made sons of God not by our own power, but by the power of God. Even among the elect there was controversy.  The difficulty was evident in Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which it was maintained that God’s power was made perfect in our powerlessness. Maintained consistently for five centuries, adumbrated by Saint Augustine, this came under attack in the early fifth century by a Roman advocate who thought this admission of incapacity in their one thing of ultimate importance admitted a shameful fault in God’s design of man, who, after all had been given freedom and choice.   This controversy, although settled and re-settled, and decreed and taught with anathemas, has never lain quiet. In the twenty-first century the occasional German bishop may be found opining that Pelagius might be right after all. Christianity put a check to the theory that power is self-justifying. There is no greater power than the power to forgive, to join the believer to Christ, to re-make the past.     

Whatever else it did, the Pauline-Augustinian position introduced into the political bloodstream of the West a healthy fear of power unchecked.   This was evident in the tendency of political power in the Middle Ages to prefer subsidiarity, to reject royal absolutism as in Magna Carta, and to consider human justice at its best a reflection, albeit imperfect, of divine justice.  The inherently transcendent rule of law itself mirrors distrust or arbitrary power. Between 1500 and the Age of Revolutions (1640–1790) arbitrary power triumphed as the Church was nationalized and the other parts of the body politic subordinated to royal authority.   When the revolutions came, the new polities, especially the Constitution of the United States sought to limit arbitrary authority through the disbursal of power among the branches of government, a noble and partially successful goal, successful accidentally while resting on the Hobbesian principle that life is he unending quest for power among contending interests.  

This still left our country with what at times seemed to be a monopoly of power.   Political power in a secular age is not seriously checked by extra-governmental interests of any kind.   Each exercise of state power can only be argued on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps the double defeat of Germany was just; perhaps Viet Nam was not.  Perhaps. Christianity teaches that power should always be exercised with humility; this I think may be the meaning of the third Beatitude, which means blessed are the gentle; those who do not insist or push. As history shows, and I mean by history not ‘history’ as Hegel envisioned it but the past, the attempt to exercise power without reference to God and his justice, pursuing the conviction that we can be good without him, will always court disaster.   It is better to exercise one’s power on behalf of another than on behalf of one’s. Thus Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet. Thus the Benedictines and monasticism generally. Thus, by the way, is being a father or mother.

In the twenty-first century power has found new means of achieving its will.  Language itself is power, and at present the public rhetoric is characterized by a new violence in which not only is shouting good, but it is noble to attribute motives and to lie bout one’s political opponents for the good of the country.  That there are reasons for this does not really mitigate. But in the end all power is from God, and before his just judgement earth and sky will flee away. Saint Augustine wrote a long book about this, showing that the pursuit of domination offers transitory success and long-term failure.


The Latin monere means to remember, and the suffix ment recognizes the result of an action, as in armament and accomplishment. The word monument is especially associated with the remembrance of the deceased; it is a distinctively human thing, buried in the ancient memory of the race, that our departed are not abandoned to the animals but buried with some external sign, a standing stone, a pile of rocks, or covered with stone slabs.  We know so little about the past. In 2012 a cemetery 4000 years old in which two important personages were discovered buried with their chariots in Georgia. And by then we are coming upon the pharaonic obsession with being buried in unforgettable splendor with all the equipment necessary for the good life included. To be a great person was to have a great tomb, as in the case of the tomb of Hadrian, better known as Castel San Angelo and the tomb of Augustus, almost as large but in ruins, and the doughty little tomb of Theodoric the Great on a traffic island in Ravenna.  The Middle Ages displayed a special interest in erecting be-jeweled monuments over the relics of the saints, as at Becket’s tomb—hastily destroyed by Henry (wrong message)―and at Compostela. For splendor it is hard to beat the tombs of the Medici in Florence, and then there was apparently the scheme of Julius II, happily frustrated, to make the new St. Peter’s a family tomb. St. Peter’s was already a vast memorial to the Apostle Peter, whose remains lay beneath the high altar.  

In a general way the Renaissance was the last great age of tomb building.  One thinks of the canopied tomb of the Viscounts Carey that occupied one chapel in St. Mary’s, Burford, Oxfordshire.  But from that point there was a steady diminution in great tomb-building, culminating in the twenty-first century, when you ancestors can be reduced to ashes in a number eight juice can.  But in the intervening centuries burial in the church-yard or the family cemetery on the farm or plantation was the Christian way. And of course among Catholics the practice of praying for the departed, who might be in the last stages of the great journey, persisted.   

Great events were also memorialized.   One can see the entire liturgical history of Israel  as a corporate act of anamnesis, from Passover, which recollects the deliverance from Egypt under the protection of the Lamb to the Feast of Booths.  Christianity is founded on the act of recollection commanded by Christ on the night in which he was betrayed, which remembrance, with its varied meanings, is now probably the most commonly shared activity of the human race.  The Greeks, too, had their memories; thus the monument to those who fell at Thermopylae, and the various monuments to the poetic and athletic achievements they so admired, as in the famous Choragic Monument of Lysiscrates in Athens.  

The wars and revolutions of the great consolidated states of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries provided ample opportunity for monument building.  Paris is significantly a monument to Napoleon Buonaparte, the gifted soldier and revolutionary bureaucrat who made France great again to the detriment of the rest of Europe.  The Pantheon is his tomb, and the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, the Arch of Triumph of the Star, commissioned in the wake of Napoleon’s victory over Russia and Austria at Austerlitz in 1805, recounts his conquests.  The Trafalgar column in London was commissioned at about the same time, commemorating the victory of Nelson over the Spanish and French in 1805. Washington is full of monuments, most notably the monuments to Jefferson, Lincoln, and Washington,  Only the Washington Monument is (belatedly, 1831) a burial place.   

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had their internecine, civil wars.  The conflict between Jacobins (defenders of the hereditary rights of the Stuarts) and the Hanoverians, the succession of William and Mary, lasted for about fifty years (1790-1845), the English won, and as far as I know―which is not very far—there are no English monuments to the valor of the supporters of the Stuarts in the uprisings of 1715 and 1745.  The Scots were annexed, their clans outlawed. Similarly, the French revolutionaries killed perhaps 200,000 French citizens of the Vendée between 1793 and 1795. One might say that the American Revolution was a kind of civil war. It was not very easily compromised, but after the collapse of Napoleon British and Americans found much in common.

The War Between the States or the Civil War was not easily settled and is perhaps not settled yet.   Battles between brothers often have a special bitterness. The South, especially the lower south, had been successfully invaded and punished, and was to remain occupied until 1875.   Then the South enjoyed its first modest post-war boom. If you will study the pictures of your ancestors, even of the farming yeomanry, you will see that by 1895 prosperity had set in.  There was a movement toward unity all around. But memory ran deep, and in southern imagination the war had been fought over a political theory—was the united States a unitary sovereignty such as France or was it a compact of states.  There was a respectable body of opinion that it was a compact, solemn, but a compact still. In 1814-15 the New England Federalists seemed willing to threaten secession over the three-fifths rule. South Carolina had always been a troublesome member of the Federal Union, requiring Andrew Jackson in 1836 to threaten, Trump-like, to go to South Carolina to hang the governor himself if the state persisted in nullification.   Why was Lincoln a convinced exponent of the unified state theory? Perhaps because civic piety required it. Perhaps because this was the platform of the National Republicans. Perhaps because he was from that part of the country that saw itself as the creation of the Federal government. In any event, Lincoln would have the union with or without slavery, but he would have the union. South Carolina thought otherwise and considered Lincoln a danger to its existence as a place utterly dependent upon African labor,  which was no more than the Federal constitution had guaranteed just seventy years before. South Carolina seceded on December 6, 1860. Fort Sumpter surrendered on April 12th.  This was Lincoln’s last causus belli, the other forts having surrendered.  On the 15th, he called from each state to provide 75,000 troops to suppress South Carolina.  The reply of the Governor of Tennessee, on his way out of the union, was “Not one soldier for coercion.”   But the war was on. The southern population flocked to the defense of their country and with that the back-handed defense of the institution that so exacerbated Abolitionist opinion, an institution in whose defense it had in general displayed no fervent interest. The issue was that Lincoln was raising an army against them. Half a million lives later the union was preserved.   

A nation may be defeated but not vanquished.  Bitterness seems to have died quickly, but there survived, among a people who believed in the hand of providence, both acceptance and a  sense of justice defeated, or at least a sense that we survived and were glad we did, our soldiers fought valorously and had a good constitutional cause.  As Walker Percy put it, “I’m glad we lost, but I’m glad we fought.” Thus the period 1890-1910 saw the beginning of the creation of a southern national memory, at the zenith of which was Margaret Mitchell’s 1939 Gone with the Wind, and which persisted into the states rights movement of the fifties.   Along the way there had been Thomas Nelson Page, and the glamorizing of southern history.  Consider the Dallas Confederate memorial, erected in 1896, the year that the United Daughters of the Confederacy was founded in Nashville. The inscription on the south-facing side below the medallion reads, “The brazen lips of Southern cannon thundered an unanswered anthem to the God of Battle.” The northern face is decorated with an anchor, and reads, “It was given the genius and valor of Confederate seamen to revolutionize naval warfare over the earth.” Below the writing, another inscription says, “This stone shall crumble into dust ere the deathless devotion of Southern women be forgotten.” The west side inscription is below an engraving of crossed swords and reads, “The Confederate saber kissed his blade homeward riding on into the mouth of hell.” The east side of the Dallas monument is decorated with crossed rifles, and reads, “Confederate infantry drove bayonets through columns that never before reeled to the shock of battle.”  Thank you, southern ladies.  

Retrospectively, what Lincoln had signed up for, what he would not forego, was the North American version of the nineteenth-century consolidation movement, thank you Hegel.  This same movement inspired the creation of the compact French empire, provinces all new-named, of the same size, and the revolutionary invasion of the rest of Europe, the expansion of the Russian empire to the northwest frontier of India, the consolidation of the non-Austrian German-speaking states into the Prussian Empire, with the consequent sacking of Silesia, Schleswig-Holstein, and the invasion of France in 1870, leading of course to the Third Reich.  Along the way a consolidated Italy featured Mussolini and the invasion of North Africa and Greece.  

It also created the American Empire.    Consolidation was at the least an ambiguous good.  David Bentley Hart was speaking of secularization of the churches, when he wrote “It is hard not to conclude that the chief inner dynamism of secularization has always been the modern state’s great struggle to free itself from those institutional, moral and sacramental allegiances that still held it, even partially, in check, so that it could get on with those mighty tasks—nationalist wars, colonial empires, universal conscription, mass extermination of civilians, and so on. . . .” (Atheist Delusions, 223). Consolidation was an essential step along the way.   

But to return to monuments.  The secular Puritans are right to attack them, although they do not know why.  The monuments of the 1890s were not in celebration of the suppression of anybody, although there is always in southern society, and perhaps elsewhere as well,  a shameful anti-black hostility shared by a narrow range of the lowest rungs of society, which will be here forever—African-Americans rightly call them Crackers.  The monuments were a celebration of the fact that while we had not won we were not defeated and we were and are proud of the men who fought and those who led them.  Obliquely they stand as a reproach to the Lincoln government who, perhaps understandably, would not wait.