It’s heartening to see that Roger Scruton has been reinstated to his architectural advisory position after Douglas Murray, among others, made such a tireless effort to expose the dishonesty of the “journalist” and the newspaper that got him fired last year. For an amusing cherry on top, the cowardly conservative MP who fired Scruton without even pausing to consider whether the outrage mob was justified or not has lost his own position in the recent cabinet shake-ups. Sometimes, in a world of idiotic mob rule, good people achieve tiny victories. Not all is lost.
In celebration, let’s revisit some of Sir Roger’s most artful and delightful prose aimed at leftist scoundrels and frauds. Savor the metaphors, relish the similes, luxuriate in the bubbly rhetoric. I can only hope to one day be able to turn a similar phrase with my own limited abilities.
This era of woke capitalist tyranny demands a response. Conservatives need to be more circumspect about where they dine, because our eating habits, like many of our other spending habits, have a broad impact on the fate of conservatism in our country. The more we support restaurant chains like Chick-fil-A and Mission BBQ, the more we will buoy broader causes that protect our freedom to live, think, and worship as we please. So raise a cup of sweet tea to the success of Chick-fil-A.
I’m so old, I remember when being pandered to by corporate marketing was considered insulting to one’s dignity. In fact, I’m so old that I remember when volunteering to serve as a corporate mascot would have been considered beneath contempt. Most of all, I’m so old that I remember when the invasion of every inconsequential nook and cranny of private life by political calculations was considered a pretty good definition of totalitarianism.
I don’t know if he doesn’t own a cellphone, but I do know that, if he does, it is sitting forgotten somewhere on a nightstand or on the kitchen counter next to the morning mail. And so, he passes, the free man; the only one who smells the salt air un-tinged with plastic and undiluted by the elsewhere-thinking of our brave new world.
Cellphones? Come on, man; that’s so clichéd. Dishwashers are what’s wrong with the world. Still, we agree on the essence of the matter. I tell you, it’s almost an unbearable burden, this gift of truesight, of being able to judge strangers at a glance and read their minds in an eyeblink, to be forced to bear witness to all the inauthentic people doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons. It’s like Virginia Woolf famously said, human nature changed on or about the turn of the millennium, when Trivia, Distraction and Consumerism escaped from Pandora’s flip phone, and people lost touch with all the deep and profound things they were most assuredly doing with their lives up to that point. Not me, of course. My use of a smartphone is always judicious and necessary, and my conversations are always a scintillating mixture of poetry and philosophy. This is why, like Sisyphus as imagined by Camus, I return to my task gladly — to watch the world pass by and be disappointed in how it has failed me. ♫ Iiiiiiii look at all the phone-y people..♫
Earlier today, I went by my rheumatologist’s to do my quarterly blood tests. I was in the waiting room reading Micah Mattix’s newsletter when the nurse called me back. I sat in the chair and handed my paperwork to her. “Did they already enter you into the system? I bet they didn’t…nope, they didn’t! Sigh…” She pecked away at her keyboard for a couple minutes. Finally, I decided to get my phone out of my bag and finish reading the email. For a moment, though, I felt self-conscious — the other three patients in the room, hooked up to their IV drips, were all senior citizens. Would they shake their heads and frown at seeing this younger fellow so predictably reach for his gadget when faced with a moment’s downtime? I glanced up and saw that they were all too busy contentedly scrolling through their own phones to notice or care. Who am I to argue with the wisdom of my elders?
For me, insomnia’s greatest gift is the uninterrupted time and mental space it allows for reading and thinking. There’s a freedom to the night, an unconstrained permissiveness. Under cover of darkness, anything goes. Being awake in the night feels like stealing a march on time. Senses sharpen, so does the memory. The air stills and it is as though you have passed into some other, more magical dimension in which earthly rules no longer apply. There’s an exploratory feeling to the night, a special magic, as anyone who regularly stays awake through it knows. The night’s sounds, smells and sights are exclusive. The quiet lends itself to brooding, even to epiphany, at the very least to an intense focus, what Seamus Heaney calls ‘the trance’ which can be both alluring and, for creativity, highly fruitful.
And so I think and I read.
That’s a beautiful little passage, and she’s right. I always loved that about working at night. For me, I think it was an extension of my extreme introversion more than anything else; being awake and active at night was a chance to be free from the prying eyes and intrusive approaches of other people. But yes, assuming you’re not awake due to being delirious with illness or caught in the grip of the night terrors, it does engender a certain psychological shift, a slight difference in perspective that I’ve always found beneficial for imagination. Much of the writing I’ve done here, up until a couple years ago, was actually done in my head while working at night.
When I was a kid, I used to be allowed to go to work with my dad on weekends or over summer vacation if I could be awake and ready to go on time (and I quickly learned that reading in order to avoid getting sleepy was a terrible strategy). I was always fascinated to see evidence of other people being awake at all hours, especially those who weren’t working like we were — why were they still up? What was different about their lives? As in most things, I’m sure the reality was far less interesting than the fantasy, but still, I sensed something attractive and intriguing about what it would mean to consciously choose to set yourself against the traditions and habits of everyone else. Overnight travelers, drunks looking for a place to sleep, or people working the graveyard shift for lack of any better options were transformed in my childish imagination into what I would later conceptualize as philosopher-poet-hermits, gently resisting the gravitational pull of normalcy and respectability.
Even as I got older, I’d still feel a fleeting sense of kinship at the sight of a lit bedroom window out in the suburbs, or a silhouette moving through the kitchen, or even the occasional person walking through a parking lot or alongside the road; not hitchhiking, not furtively sneaking around, just purposefully heading somewhere for their own reasons on their own schedule. We shadow people flitting about on the fringe. Eyes of awareness keeping solitary vigil.
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
There is such a thing as a religious temperament. It involves the will to believe in order to assuage an ache. It rejects, it recoils from, the sense that contingency is everywhere and everything, that there is nothing beyond it. As Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things.” There is, however, a conservative sensibility that finds flux exhilarating, that is delighted rather than depressed by the idea that there is no beyond and that everything is contingent. A secular conservative sensibility, even a secular conservative aesthetic, finds beauty in the Darwinian view of the world, a beauty that is a close analogue to the conservative vision of a just society respectful of, and dependent on, spontaneous order.
I was pleasantly surprised to come across Will’s description of himself as an “amiable atheist” in this section of the book; I hadn’t known that about him. The world of online atheism was, ironically enough, one of the first places where the Great Awokening took hold. They, and almost all other progressive blogs and websites, quickly became unreadable as the fanaticism grew, and as a result, most of the pop culture/current events sites I visit these days are conservative. I had just resigned myself to the background hum of axiomatic assumptions that without a belief in monotheism, life is meaningless and Western civilization is doomed. Most of all, I like the emphasis of that last sentence: if the fragile miracles of society and commerce can emerge spontaneously and organically, and be all the more beautiful and worthy of grateful devotion for that reason, I don’t see why the miracle of life itself should be any different.
Msgr. Ronald Knox begins his essay “Birmingham Revisited,” collected in Literary Distractions (1958), like this:
“It is alleged by a friend of my family that I used to suffer from insomnia at the age of four; and that when she asked me how I managed to occupy my time at night I answered ‘I lie awake and think of the past.’”
Knox, a Roman Catholic priest and son of an Anglican bishop, is one of the last century’s unacknowledged masters of English prose. Like Max Beerbohm, Knox calibrates his words until they attain the precise edge of irony he seeks. The passage above arouses in this reader pensive amusement with a hint of sadness. The notion of a four-year-old even having a past to contemplate is funny – and poignant. We’ve all known boys and girls who carry the gravitas of old men and women. They seem to inhabit two ages and have access to precocious wisdom.
In Chinese myth, Old Lady Mêng sits at the exit from the underworld serving the Broth of Oblivion so that all reincarnated souls come to life having forgotten the spirit world, their former incarnations, and even their speech (although legend has it that occasionally a miracle child is born talking, having avoided Lady Mêng’s broth).
Similar stories abound throughout Indo-European myth, as well as in modern pop culture. I’m not a believer in immortal souls, afterlives, or reincarnation, but I do find the myth interesting. My mom, who does believe in those things, likes to tell a story of me, at age three or four, bursting into tears as she played the soundtrack to Zorba the Greek. When she asked me what was wrong, my answer was, “It hurts to remember!” Funny enough, even though I have a better-than-average memory, I don’t recall this at all. When I finally listened to the soundtrack again as an adult, it didn’t unveil any memories, traumatic or otherwise, from past lives or from toddler-hood. Have I forgotten something that I once knew? Forgetting seems like a curse, especially in the extreme form of dementia, but too much memory would also feel suffocating. The slow drip-drip-drip of individual memories into the dissolving flow of time over a lifespan seems to be the best any of us can hope for.
Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you’ll be happier. But the Stoics think you’ll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don’t.
It must be Epicurus Day or something. Not fifteen minutes after reading this, I discovered a new book due in September that I’ll have to read:
Epicureanism has a reputation problem, bringing to mind gluttons with gout or an admonition to eat, drink, and be merry. In How to Be an Epicurean, philosopher Catherine Wilson shows that Epicureanism isn’t an excuse for having a good time: it’s a means to live a good life. Although modern conveniences and scientific progress have significantly improved our quality of life, many of the problems faced by ancient Greeks — love, money, family, politics — remain with us in new forms.
I often wish that new books about philosophical topics written for a popular audience didn’t have to present themselves as how-to manuals with “lessons” for us to apply to our daily lives, but I realize that’s just the nature of bringing products to market. Authors want to create artistic meditations; publishers want to move units. So it goes. I enjoy reading books like these not because I want to learn “how to be” an Epicurean — I was already well aware of my philosophical temperament while reading about How to Be a Stoic, ironically enough — but because, as Patrick Kurp says, a lot of people in everyday life inhabit small worlds filled with cinematic blockbusters and other forgettable touchstones. Sometimes, the only kind of conversation about Epicurean philosophy that one can have is through the silent medium of the printed page. Many of my favorite conversations have been with people who don’t know I exist, whose voices I’ll never hear. But we’ve “thought together” for a while about perennial questions and themes, and that’s good enough.
But can’t we be both tyrannical and interconnected? Buddhist practice could help us overcome the evil aspects of our nature and promote the compassionate side within us. The socioeconomic system of Compassionate Marxism could be the breeding ground for compassion, and compassion the motor of a socioeconomic system with low duḥkha. Working on the inner Tyrannosaurus would benefit those suffering from Capitalism, which, according to Marx and Buddha, is everyone. The problem with Left-activists is that they see the evil as being exclusively caused by the socioeconomic system (this was Marx’s problem too), without understanding how these factors operate within us. ‘Social change requires inner change – becoming less selfish,’ says the Dalai Lama. The question is not who we are – we are malevolent creatures, as far as I can tell. The question is who we want to be.
I know, I know, that’s a strange excerpt to present without further context. Don’t worry, I’ll elaborate a bit. According to his author bio, Mr. Kreutz is a graduate student in philosophy. (This seems like a relevant time to mention that philosophers are renowned for demonstrating the lack of any necessary connection between theoretical smarts and common sense; see also the guy behind the Existential Comics website.) And so, as philosophers are wont to do, Kreutz wonders: what if we could combine Buddhist ethics with Marxist socioeconomics to create a better world? Hence, Compassionate Marxism, an oxymoron to rule them all.
There are, as you’d expect, several thousand words of theoretical plumage obscuring the scrawny meat of the matter, but that’s what hyperlinks are for, in case you’re into that sort of thing. As for me, like Samuel Johnson, I prefer to refute idealist fancies by kicking the rock of historical experience: you can’t reform the nature of Marxism through good intentions. The totalitarian conclusion follows neatly from the theoretical premises, a fact that should be of interest to philosophers. Most interestingly, though, Kreutz professes a belief in the truth of original sin, if not by that particular name. “Humanity is not evil because the economic system is; the economic system is evil because humanity is.” “All signs indicate that we don’t have the capacities for universal benevolent compassion, uncontaminated by a proclivity to evil, hatred and competition.” And yet he wants to believe in the possibility of species-wide harmony of desire and action, conducted by the guiding hand of philosophy. It’s fascinating to watch someone straining every muscle to square this circle. If he should manage to retain his intellectual integrity, I suspect he’ll discover what so many others have — we have a lifetime’s work to do in trying to be consistently virtuous individuals without the added delusion that any of us are fit to arrange society’s affairs for the greater good.
As it happens, I’m currently reading George Will’s new book, The Conservative Sensibility, where he writes something coincidentally relevant to our discussion:
In its attempt to equalize “well-being,” progressivism came to exalt one virtue: compassion. Which is a passion. And compassion is a capacious concept. It can mean the prevention or amelioration of pain, of discomfort, of insecurity, or even of sadness. However, the frustration of desires is uncomfortable and can make people sad. So compassionate government must toil for the satisfaction of all desires. If a desire unfulfilled is painful, or even discomforting, fulfilling that desire is a duty of compassionate government. Such government believes that the pain of unfulfilled desires makes fulfilling the desires necessary. So the desires are upgraded to necessities. People suffering disappointed desires are therefore necessitous people, and, according to Franklin Roosevelt, they are not free. What moderation, what temperance, what restraint can there be in government animated by the idea that freedom, understood as emancipation from necessity, is the gift of comprehensively compassionate government?
It seems to me to be essential to the nature of Buddhism to recognize the futility of trying to satisfy all desires (as well as the futility of desiring to stop desiring), which separates it profoundly from a materialist philosophy which sees the satisfaction of all desire as both possible and necessary. But then again, I only took a few semesters of philosophy.
That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime.
— Holden Caulfield
I spent a pleasant morning hiking up a small mountain to a steep overlook from a rocky outcropping. The fog was too thick to take any good pictures, but I didn’t mind. It was overcast and breezy, hinting at rain, just chilly enough to let you know that fall would be here soon. I only passed four other people along the way, so for most of the walk, there was nothing to listen to but the susurrus of the wind through the trees and the first leaves beginning their gravitational pilgrimage. After an hour, I got to the top and sat for a while to eat a banana and sip a thermos of coffee flavored with vanilla cha’i. The fog was thick enough to be vertiginous; if not for the rock underneath me, I could have just as easily imagined myself lost at sea.
So after sitting and meditating for a bit, I headed back down, only to see something etched on the rocks that I had missed on the way up:
Alas, ol’ Holden was right. But it made me wonder: what kind of person makes the arduous trip up the mountain, surrounded by all that natural beauty, with enough hate in their heart to make that the crowning achievement of the journey? There were worse defacements, many with spraypaint, but this was the only one I saw that was so angry. Not an affirmation of their existence, but a rejection of yours. Not a vain plea for attention and validation from indifferent strangers and an uncaring universe, but a denial of everyone else’s. This was the distilled essence of our unknown author’s eloquence, the depths of his or her poetic soul revealed to us, perhaps even to be found millennia from now by future archaeologists studying the collapse of Western civilization. A textual middle finger of salutation offered to the world.
As I pondered Caulfield’s words, I was inspired to a similar vision of being a protector of innocence. I wanted to do my part to shield unsuspecting children from having an enjoyable day in the mountains sullied by profanity etched into the splendor of the forest. I wanted to help preserve this little enclave of peacefulness for those who came out here to get away from the madness of day-to-day life.
So when I saw a small group of twenty-somethings coming up the trail, talking loudly, texting away on their phones, I became suspicious. Maybe I’m guilty of profiling, but it seemed to me that here we had a perfect example of the kind of people most likely to declare their eternal love for each other with a Sharpie on a rock, or a carving in a tree. These were likely the kind of people who left the empty beer can, ziplock bag and mismatched pair of socks I had passed on the trail below. Could I take a chance that the forest would be defiled further, right under my nose?
Of course not. So I waited for them to get directly underneath me before pushing one of the larger rocks loose, down onto their heads. One of the guys was only dealt a glancing blow on the shoulder, though, so to my severe annoyance, I had to give chase for a while through the undergrowth before I caught up to him. Luckily, his shrieks of terror and labored breathing made it easy to find him in the fog. Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t about to lug his heavy carcass back to his companions, so he had to be buried separately. And to top if off, I got a really painful scratch on my calf! But at least I could rest easy, having done my duty as a vigilante park ranger.
It occurred to me as I was heading back to my car that I had apparently mixed my memories of Catcher in the Rye with Lord of the Flies, but please, let’s not quibble over the minutiae of classic literature.
In Sophocles’s play that bears her name, Electra speaks of her father’s murder as a sorrow (or evil) that cannot be forgotten and describes her own passion (or anger) in similar terms, though in this case the Greek for “not forgetting” (our láthei) might better be translated from its root meaning—“it does not escape notice,” “it is not hidden.” The image is of anger as a thing that the mind cannot bury, cannot help being aware of. Electra’s passion won’t let her alone. It’s intrusive. It bugs her. We do not control the unforgettable; it controls us.
The spirits of such unforgetting are called the Furies, the Erinyes. They cling to the memory of hurt and harm, injury and insult. Their names are Grievance, Ceaseless, and Bloodlust. Their names are Grudge, Relentless, and Payback. They bloat the present with the undigested past. “Most dreaded of the forces of insomnia,” they harry the mind, demanding for its release a ransom paid in blood.
New caution.— Let us stop thinking so much about punishing, reproaching, and improving others! We rarely change an individual, and if we should succeed for once, something may also have been accomplished, unnoticed: we may have been changed by him. Let us rather see to it that our own influence on all that is yet to come balances and outweighs his influence. Let us not contend in a direct fight — and that is what all reproaching, punishing, and attempts to improve others amount to. Let us rather raise ourselves that much higher. Let us color our own example ever more brilliantly. Let our brilliance make them look dark. No, let us not become darker ourselves on their account, like all those who punish others and feel dissatisfied. Let us sooner step aside. Let us look away.