November 20, 2022

Posted by orrinj at 5:52 AM


History Is Never Certain: a review of The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville By Olivier Zunz (Reviewed by Sarah Gustafson, University Bookman)

Moving from Tocqueville's childhood in Normandy, where he was born in 1804 to aristocratic parents personally scarred by the French Revolution, through his boyhood and legal training in Paris, his adventurous voyage to the United States, and his subsequent decades of writing interspersed with political activity, Zunz allows Tocqueville's convictions and their "force" to "drive this biography." Emphasizing Tocqueville's "deepest belief" in democracy as a "powerful, yet demanding, political form," the work meditates both on the substance of his political thought and the context in which he developed and elaborated it. Tocqueville embraced several key principles from which all else flowed: the providential march of democracy, the importance of political liberty, the necessity and good of religion (specifically Christianity), the need to educate the democratic social state, and the open-endedness of human affairs (in contrast to historical determinism). He considered all sides of a question, sometimes hedging his own conclusions to concede adequately the opposite view. The ambiguities of his thought can, Zunz reminds us, make him frustrating to read if we expect a thinker of his stature to have systematically eliminated every tension or doubt. However, Tocqueville's charm lies in the both...and. His is a style that wins readers by wooing and describing, rather than by perfectly articulating its logic and defining terms.  

Tocqueville's contexts sometimes were the contemplative quiet of his libraries and studies in Normandy or Paris, where young Americans assisted his research. At other times, these contexts were political and polemical speeches or epistolary correspondence with formal acquaintances and lifelong friends. Sometimes he wrote from the wilderness of America (he nearly died when a boat sank on the Mississippi!), the Algerian desert, or the poverty of urban Ireland. It is a shame that only recently have these speeches, letters, reports, memoirs, and other documents come to prominence. (Tocqueville comes alive in his letters to his friends, whatever his shy and melancholy reputation). We get much closer to the whole Tocqueville thanks to these non-canonical texts. Zunz makes extensive use of them and thus takes care to highlight the ebb and flow of thought and action in Tocqueville's life. It is worth stressing that his biography is worth telling because it is exciting. It blends the active life with the contemplative. The "new political science" Tocqueville crafted for a "world altogether new," which John Stuart Mill noted was "the first analytical inquiry into the influence of democracy," was the result of a voyage, not arm-chair philosophy. Simultaneously, the ups and downs of his political career demonstrate the gap between philosophy and politics. Making the sausage, as Bismarck put it, is different from theorizing it.  

Zunz also took care to mix the more famous incidents of Tocqueville's life with more mundane and underappreciated--but revelatory--moments. In the last weeks of his life, Tocqueville, sick with tuberculosis, received a copy of Mill's On Liberty. Tocqueville wrote to thank Mill the next day, praising in a conciliatory tone their joint efforts on the "field of liberty," and inquired whether he correctly heard that Harriet Taylor Mill had been doing poorly. "Had Tocqueville the energy to open On Liberty, he would have seen Mill's moving dedication to his deceased wife." Clearly, Tocqueville never read the book. A not insignificant part of Tocqueville's legacy is the articulation of the "tyranny of the majority," which Mill borrowed in On Liberty. Would Tocqueville have approved of Mill's use of the concept? Though friendly in the 1830s and early 1840s, they later had notable disagreements that significantly cooled their relationship. Would they have stayed on the same "field of liberty" had Tocqueville lived? Zunz offers students of history and politics much food for thought in this small, very human detail. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:46 AM


"The Hobbit" and Virtue (Joseph Pearce, November 13th, 2022, Imaginative Conservative)

A Christian believes in dragons, even if he can't see them, and knows that they are perilous and potentially deadly. They are certainly not to be courted, nor is it wise to toy with them.

"The more truly we can see life as a fairy tale," said G.K. Chesterton, "the more clearly the tale resolves itself into war with the dragon who is wasting fairyland."

Grace is always available to those who seek it and ask for it, biasing "fortune" in the direction of goodness; yet, on the other hand, the fallen nature of humanity means that man's natural tendency is towards concupiscence and its destructive consequences. If we don't ask for help, we are bound to fall.

It is in this choice, rooted in the gift and responsibility of free will, that the struggle with evil is won or lost. The will must willingly cooperate with grace or, in its failure to do so, must inevitably fall into evil. The struggle which all of us face is a dangerous adventure in a perilous realm.

If the interplay of Providence and free will is the means by which the dynamism of virtue and its consequences drive the narrative forward, the overarching moral of The Hobbit would appear to be a cautionary meditation on Matthew 6:21 ("Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also").

The story begins with Bilbo's desire for comfort and his unwillingness to sacrifice himself for others. His heart is essentially self-centered, surrounding itself with the treasures of his own home. His position at the outset of the story is an ironic and symbolic prefiguring of the dragon's surrounding himself with treasure in his "home" in the Lonely Mountain.

Bilbo is, therefore, afflicted with the dragon sickness. His pilgrimage to the Lonely Mountain is the means by which he will be cured of this materialist malady. It is a via dolorosa, a path of suffering, the following of which will heal him of his self-centeredness and teach him to give himself self-sacrificially to others.

The paradoxical consequence of the dragon sickness is that the things possessed possess the possessor. Thus Bilbo is a slave to his possessions at the beginning of The Hobbit and is liberated from them, or from his addiction to them, by its end.

Posted by orrinj at 12:17 AM


Tyrus (Ring Lardner, June 1915, American Magazine)

Sit down here a while, kid, and I'll give you the dope on this guy. You say you didn't see him do nothin' wonderful? But you only seen him in one serious. Wait till you been in the league more'n a week or two before you go judgin' ball players. He may of been sick when you played agin him. Even when he's sick, though, he's got everybody I ever seen skun, and I've saw all the best of 'em.

Say, he ain't worth nothin' to that club; no, nothin'! I don't know what pay he's gettin', but whatever it is, it ain't enough. If they'd split the receipts fifty-fifty with that bird, they wouldn't be gettin' none the worst of it. That bunch could get along just as well without him as a train could without no engine.

He's twicet the ball player now that he was when he come up. He didn't seem to have no sense when he broke in; he run bases like a fool and was a mark for a good pitcher or catcher. They used to just lay for him when he got on. Sully used to tell the pitchers to do nothin' but waste balls when he was on first or second base. It was pretty near always good dope, too, because they'd generally nail him off one base or the other, or catch him tryin' to go to the next one. But Sully had to make perfect pegs to get him even when he knowed beforehand that he was goin'. Sully was the boy that could make them perfect pegs, too. Don't forget that.

Cobb seemed to think they was only one rule in the book, and that was a rule providin' that nobody could stay on one base more'n one second. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:11 AM


Poll: US Jews overwhelmingly backed Democrats in midterms (Yonat Shimron, 11/10/22, RNS)

Mastriano seemed most frightening of all: A pro-Trump Christian nationalist (though he dismissed the label) and 2020 election denier, the state senator from Gettysburg had shown himself to be intolerant of religious minorities and his campaign had paid an antisemitic right wing activist as a consultant.

As in the past, Jews across the country voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates -- 74% to 25%, according to a new exit poll of 800 registered Jewish voters sponsored by the pro-Israel group J Street. But this year their votes were as much against something or someone -- as in the case of Mastriano. The J Street poll showed that a whopping 97% of American Jews said they were concerned about antisemitism.

They also laid the blame for rising antisemitism at the feet of Trump and the Republican Party. The poll, conducted Nov. 1-8, found that 76% of Jews believe Trump and his Republican allies are directly responsible for the rise in antisemitism and white supremacy in the United States. On another question, 74% of U.S. Jews said Trump and the "Make America Great Again" movement are a "threat to Jews in America."

"There is a new element of the Jewish vote that takes place in the aftermath of Charlottesville and Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the high-profile antisemitism taking place in the country right now," said Jim Gerstein, founding partner of GBAO Strategies, which conducted the poll for J Street. "It frightens people and introduces a new dynamic."

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


CHRISTIANITY AND POETRY (Dana Gioia, August 2022, First Things)

Poetry is not merely important to Christianity. It is an essential, inextricable, and necessary aspect of religious faith and practice. The fact that most Christians would consider that assertion absurd does not invalidate it. Their disagreement only demonstrates how remote the contemporary Church has become from its own origins. It also suggests that sacred poetry is so interwoven into the fabric of Scripture and worship as to become invisible. At the risk of offending most believers, it is necessary to state a simple but ­unacknowledged truth: It is impossible to understand the full glory of Christianity without understanding its poetry. [...]

No believer can ignore the curious fact that one-third of the Bible is written in verse. Sacred poetry is not confined to the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and Lamentations. The prophetic books are written mostly in verse. The wisdom books--­Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes--are all poems, each in a different genre. There are also poetic passages in the five books of Moses and the later histories. Prose passages suddenly break into lyric celebrations or lamentations to mark important events.

When David, triumphant in battle, learns that Saul and Jonathan have perished, he mourns his beloved opponents and cries out, "The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: How are the mighty fallen!" His lament unfolds into one of the great elegies in the Western canon. The Old Testament is full of such lyric moments, often spoken by women who use poetry to voice their deepest feelings. When the widowed Ruth begs to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi, she expresses herself in words that transform the emotional nature of the narrative. Until now the two women have just been figures in an old story; suddenly they come alive as loving and suffering human beings:

For whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge;
Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:
Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be ­buried:
The Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.

These ancient Hebrew and Aramaic poems remain vividly present in English--and not only for Christians--because the King James Bible had the good fortune to be translated in the age of Shakespeare. Commissioned by James I for the Church of England, the so-called "Authorized Version" was published in 1611. The translators took special care to convey the poetic power of the verse passages. The English Renaissance was not an age of prose. No book has had a more profound effect on English-language poetry, and it still shapes the Christian liturgy, even for Catholics, though they tried to deny it.