A Roman Fresco from Pompeii

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Roman Fresco from Pompeii

The wall is a limen or boundary.  On the hither side of the wall is Nature, free and luxuriant.  On the thither side of the wall is the cultivated ornamental tree.  The fruit seems to produce itself on the hither side of the wall.  The ornament is beautiful, but Nature, the fecund lady who feeds men and women and their children, is bountiful. She responds to the farmer’s bargain: Let me understand your cycles and placate your demands and I will increase your fecundity.  Agriculture is the productive compromise between Nature and Culture, to the benefit of both.  The two-thousand-year-old wall-painting from a middle-class house in Pompeii speaks magnificently of the Western idea of Nature, with whom humanity partners, for the sake of her survival, and its — that is to say, our — survival.  Christ does not disrupt this discipline.

The hither side of the wall might be brought into the thither side, to form a garden or grove.  In Augustine’s Confessions, Original Sin finds its analogue in the autobiographer’s  penitential divulgence that when an adolescent he joined with a gang of miscreants to trespass a neighbor’s orchard-garden and steal his apples, or peaches, or plums, or whatever the edible fruit might have been.  Instead of consuming their booty, the trespassers petulantly discarded it, as though it was offal. Augustine begs forgiveness.

Augustine’s story is the germ of the Twenty-First Century’s ecological sensitivity, although the Twenty-First Century ‘s ecological sensitivity has no notion of Augustine or of confession or of the historical archive, witting knowledge of which tells us who we are.

To the west of Oswego, my adoptive civitas, the apple-orchards have benefited from three thousand years of Western horticultural science.  These orchards nowadays resemble olive- or grape-orchards.  The apple-trees are close to the ground, rounded, compact, and the fields of them look like vineyards or oleo plantations.  The work of the harvest is much eased. The cultivated changes in apple-tree morphology entail a dramatic decrease in the price of harvesting apples.  Respect for Nature is a boon.  It is a Western boon.


Western distinctiveness II: dogmatic, fundamentalist zealots

I begin with that exemplary Westerner, Bishop James Ussher, who through a painstaking analysis of Biblical and other ancient records famously concluded that the world was created on October 23, 4004BC.  What a dummy, right?  Everybody knows that you’re not supposed to take the Bible literally like that.  Surely other civilizations, which weren’t so literalist in their religion, would have provided more hospitable settings for the rise of science.

Oh, quite the contrary!  A people who aren’t interested in dating the world with their holy books won’t be interested in dating it with rocks either.  A people that is happy to accept its religion mythologically will also take its science mythologically.  In neither case will there be a concern for precision or logical consistency.  Fundamentalism and science go together; they spring from the same state of mind.  Perhaps this is our much-lamented alienation from nature manifesting itself again as a chasm that can only be crossed with claims of a knowledge of objective truth.

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Western distinctiveness I: rapists of nature

My position, stated many times, is that a person doesn’t need to have a reason to love his people.  In fact, he cannot have a reason, since love is always directed at particular instances rather than general qualities.  You may think your children pretty and clever, but you would still love them if they lost these qualities or another set of children was found to exemplify those qualities to a greater degree.  Similarly, we men and women of European descent do not need to prove that our culture is especially refined or creative, that our ancestors were especially virtuous, or that our customs are especially agreeable by some objective standard.

Still, although we are not obliged to think about it, the fact is that other peoples are constantly noting the distinctiveness of the West.  We may wish to ignore their observations, because they are not at all meant to be complimentary, but then we would miss the chance to learn about ourselves.  I plan to comment each day this week on one of this features.

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What the Well-Dressed Wedding Guest is Wearing Nowadays

I know that hope is a theological virtue, so I tried to be hopeful as our deacon mounted to the lectern this morning. This is the deacon to whose homilies I have previously had occasion to demur (here, here, and here), so my hopefulness was somewhat artificial, although not for that reason insincere. Experience told me that he would discover a noisome nugget of social justice in any scripture passage you might hand him, but hope answered that there is always a first time. Continue reading

Indecent Proposals

I have not followed the catastrophe of Harvey Weinstein with any special care or concern, but some of the wreckage has naturally washed up on my lonely island, as some has, no doubt, on yours.  It appears that Mr. Weinstein is a man addicted to lechery, which with pride and covetousness made what medieval theologians regarded as the trifecta of mortal sin.  And from the little I know of Weinstein, he seems to have  been no slouch when it comes to pride and covetousness.  He has indeed lived what Plutarch described as a life of “furious lechery and wriggling after glory,” very much like you and I. Continue reading

Lust has a “Headlong Fury”

Last month, I posed the question, “What to Do When There is Perfection in Collapse?”  My answer was that we should do nothing at all, since it is not good to conserve a thing that is not good to begin with.  I illustrated this principle with the story of my visit to an art exhibit where the wretched and ridiculous “work” on display collapsed into a heap of sticks and wires.  As this collapse improved (in my opinion) the artistic tone of the exhibit, standing to one side with my hands in my pockets was, I maintained, the correct response.  I then went on to draw an analogy between the sexual mores of college students and that pre-collapse assemblage of sticks and wires, as both are rickety, unattractive, and yet officially valorized as a thing that we should defend. Continue reading

Identity Politics for White Males

Identity politics is a left-wing phenomenon. It encourages group identification versus the rest. It is centered around resentment, grievance and a sense of injustice. Instead of being American, a person becomes a hyphenated American. Instead of being interested in the good of the inclusive group, moral concern is narrowed to some subsection of Americans.

Identity politics means claiming victim status and victimization requires victimizers. Differences in intergroup outcomes are to be attributed to discrimination against the group that performs less well. Evidence for discrimination, or evidence that should discrimination exist that it is in fact responsible for differing performances between groups, is thought to be entirely unnecessary. Thomas Sowell has an extensive analysis of this irrational phenomenon in books like Intellectuals and Race which I write about here.

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Creatio ex Nihilo

Materialism suggests that when a new whole – such as a person – appears in the cosmos, it is as a result of the combination of preexistent parts that come together to form that whole. Persons, then, are on the materialist account somehow artifacts or characteristics of their constituent components, or are emergent from their componence. They are nothing but the combination of their components.

But notice that to say that a whole is only the combination of its parts is just to say that a combination combines in virtue of its combination. It is a dormitive virtue “explanation.” It is, to put it bluntly, a proposition that proposes nothing, an “explanation” that explains nothing.

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Blackwashing Cleopatra

I have never set foot inside the Folger Shakespeare Library, a dereliction I hope will be excused by the fact that it lies about twelve hundred miles down the road.  Although I am not a patron, and am very unlikely to become one, the Folger Shakespeare Library nevertheless sends me notices of its upcoming events–indeed it did so just this morning.  The event is a performance of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, in which they tell me the actress Shirine Babb will play the famous Siren of the Nile. Continue reading

Letter to My Son: What is Postmodernism?

My Son,

I’m not using your name because the Web is public and I want to minimize the chance that your privacy will be invaded. But this letter is written mainly for you. Other people may benefit from it, but that’s just a fortunate byproduct.

As a young man, your most important task is to come to understand the world.  A man cannot live well if he does not know what’s happening.

The contemporary world has been disrupted. But the disruptors (the liberals) are a wicked bunch, and their disruption, which is really destruction, threatens you and everything you love (or should love.) You are just one person and you cannot stop the destruction by yourself. But as a first step you can understand the disruption by understanding how the world really works, and how humans should behave.

That’s what I want most to get across: What reality really is, and how humans should behave. There’s a lot to say, but I can only write one letter at a time. This letter concerns postmodernism.


Postmodernism is one of the defining features of the modern world, so we must understand it. We don’t need to understand everything about it; we’ll leave that to the scholars. But we have to understand its essence, the thing that makes it what it is. Continue reading