When anti-modernism was cool

An essay at American Affairs tells the story of when New Left celebrity anti-capitalist Catholic priest Ivan Illich came to give a lecture to a crowd of feminists at Berkeley in 1982. Illich spoke on his research on the social construction of gender roles, which might have been expected to go over well. However, it turned out that Illich’s take was that the damned greedy capitalists had spoiled everything by eliminating distinct men’s and women’s economic and social roles. This was not what the feminists wanted to hear, and Illich’s standing on the Left cratered.

(By the way, the dying man in Tolstoy’s short story is Ivan Ilyich, in case you are as tempted to mix up the two as I was.)

Had Illich turned reactionary, as his opponents said? In fact, much of his late 20th century radical anti-capitalist critique was the same as the early 20th century anti-liberal critique common among anti-modernist Catholics. Illich’s attacks on public schools and the authority of the medical establishment sound particularly right-wing today. There was a window of time when anti-modern Catholics could repackage themselves as counterculture gurus–Marshall McLuhan being probably the best-known case. Alasdair MacIntyre arguably played a similar role in philosophy in those years. A recent article in Church Life Journal on MacIntyre notes this paradoxical anti-modernist ecumenism.

Revolutionaries often reversed the politics of their reactionary progenitors, while preserving their hatred of the bourgeois, of liberalism, or of the West, and their refusal to accept and adapt to the present. Sometimes chronological turning points sketch intellectual boundaries. Very often, the reactionaries of 1910 were the forefathers of the revolutionaries of 1945. The condemnation of liberalism by the Syllabus of 1864 paradoxically favored Marxism. Before Marx, Maurras was considered the champion of the “Christian recovery.” The “red” Dominicans of the 1950s and 1960s had as their masters the Royalist and reactionary Dominicans from the early twentieth century. The worker priests were raised in the school of Action française. The postwar Christian Marxists were grateful to the communists for their hostility to representative democracy. Had they not, as good monarchists, learned to hate it?

Intellectual life in the 1970s was childish, vulgar, and stupid compared to pre-WWII intellectual life, but compared to what we have now, it seems wonderful.

the letter I almost sent to my parish priest

A month ago, my parish was conducting “listening sessions”, as required for the forthcoming abominable synod. I considered attending one, wishing to draw attention to what I consider the life-and-death issues for the Church today: beefing up our catechesis and apologetics work and trying to find a way to reduce the rate at which young people are leaving the Church. Then I saw that there was a pre-set list of questions, all having to do with how we can be more inclusive and bullshit like that. Obviously, there was no way any of my concerns could even be discussed. So I wrote an email to the parish priest, trying very hard to appear more moderate than I do here. I never sent it. I don’t know my priest’s sympathies, and I’m the head catechist with nearly full control of the curriculum of the last (and therefore most important) grade of religious education, a position where I might actually do some small good on a local scale on these very issues. I can’t risk that opportunity by making silly, futile gestures.

Here’s the letter.

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Matthew Arnold, Antonin Dvorak, and the mystery of America’s underperforming culture

Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy is an interesting book. The author identifies as a liberal, mostly because of being middle class, but largely argues for conservative ideas and against liberal ones. Back in the 19th century, the United States of America was held up by the progressive faction as a model of an intelligently ordered society. Arnold retorts that it is surprising then that America has produced so little impressive in the way of culture, the intellect’s distinctive output. This is part of his larger argument that a healthy culture needs a balance between what Arnold calls “Hebraism” (single-minded pursuit of moral purity) and “Hellenism” (pursuit of well-rounded excellence). Religious establishments serve the important role of bringing to the religious life of a nation an appreciation for the nation’s cultural and intellectual life. Religious dissenters and Americans, by contrast, display a one-sided Hebraism.

I’ve also found American cultural output anomalously unimpressive. The natural comparison to the USA would be Great Britain, the mother country, and it’s remarkable how, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, England enormously, overwhelmingly outperformed America in literature, science, and the intellectual life generally. It’s true that in the second half of the 20th century America wrested leadership from England and Germany in the physical sciences, music, philosophy, and other such cultural pursuits. Notice though that very soon after America gains leadership in a field, it becomes less interesting and less innovative; in sum, it undergoes a sort of sclerosis and rapidly declines.

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A story with a happy ending

When he was a boy, Franz Liszt wanted to be a priest, but his parents forbade it. Instead he set out on a path of fame and fornication. However, if the point of life is learning to love God, then maybe it still turned out well.

With the death of his own children before him, Liszt’s own death took on a new immediacy. He composed his last will and testament, expressing a desire to return to the light of wholeness he had seen in his childhood, and he committed to excising the self-obsessed part of his soul. “In spite of the numerous transgressions and errors that I have committed, and for which I feel sincere repentance and contrition, the divine light of the Holy Cross has never entirely been withdrawn from me. At times, indeed, it has overflowed my entire soul with its glory,” he wrote, “the glowing and mysterious feeling that has pierced my entire life, as with a sacred wound. Yes, Jesus Christ Crucified, this was ever my true vocation.”

In 1865, Liszt would fulfill his boyhood dream, don the priestly cassock, and become a member of the clergy with minor orders…But Father Liszt was, of course, still Liszt: he loved to eat and drink wine and smoke cigars and he loved, most of all, to make music and help others make music. He was still just as impressive on the keyboard…

He did not have to abandon what was good in the young Liszt to become holy; indeed, he could not, if to become holy is really to become whole. His talents as a musician were now lifted up into service. He used them to teach young people at no cost, to raise money for the poor, and to calm the distress of patients at the mental hospital. People who knew him at this time of his life began to speak of an essential generosity and goodness that guided his action.


The books that most influenced C. S. Lewis

In the early 1960s the editors of the magazine, The Christian Century, sent a question to one hundred of the most famous literary and intellectual personalities of the day: “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?” The editors were trying to map the books that had shaped the minds of their generation. C.S. Lewis was among those polled.

When Lewis replied to the editors, he mentioned ten books that shaped his sense of vocation and his philosophy of life, some of which we would expect: 1) George MacDonald’s Phantastes; 2) G.K. Chesterton’s Everlasting Man; 3) Virgil’s Aeneid; 4) The Temple, by George Herbert; 5) William Wordsworth’s Prelude; 6) Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy; 7) Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy; 8) The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell; 9) Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams; and 10) Arthur James Balfour, Theism and Humanism


The whole article on Lewis’ “medieval mind” is very interesting, and I have nothing in particular to add. It’s a very interesting list, and I would say a good list, one that reflects well on the scholar who made it.

Hateful World War II propaganda still killing people, now in Ukraine

It’s been killing people since WWII itself, which was prolonged by the Allies’ unjustifiable demand for unconditional surrender, which was motivated by believing their own hateful propaganda.

President Putin says he invaded Ukraine to rid it of Nazis. Outsiders argue about whether Ukraine actually is full of Nazis and whether Putin is being honest about this motivation. No one seems to question that if a country is full of Nazis or run by Nazis that this is a good reason to attack it.

This I deny. It is not acceptable to attack a group just because it embraces the ideology of National Socialism. Furthermore, Ukraine was perfectly justified in fighting with the Nazis in WWII against Soviet tyranny, and it is right to be proud of having done so.

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The usual article

Isegoria.net, a very useful site that like us is on the neorxn.com feed, linked to an article by a psychologist studying “misinformation”. Before clicking on the link, I knew exactly what it would say. The linked author will be outraged that some people express doubt about American Regime propaganda. (The only thing one can’t guess before reading the article is whether the trigger will be COVID, climate change, or white perfidy.) These people must be crazy! Next will come the experts. Psychology, it will be said, can explain how people–not psychologists or those who interview them; other people–form their beliefs irrationally, either by emotionally-motivated thinking, pre-rational conditioning/associations, or logical fallacies. Finally, the conclusion. If fascism is to be avoided, these people need to learn to think rationally, which means to be more docile to expert consensus.

epistemology – why I believe what I believe

psychology – why other people I don’t like believe what they believe

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Metaphysical horror

Perhaps you have experienced this too. You encounter an idea about the way the universe is and recoil from it in pre-rational disgust. “How awful if the world were that way!” I think the first time I felt it was in high school, walking around the gym during lunch break, when I overheard another student claiming to his friend that the past does not really exist, but only in memory. This was my first encounter with presentism, a crude version of it perhaps, but its more elaborate versions still inspire the same instinctive reaction–“What an appalling thought!” My reaction to event ontology–which takes atomism to the extreme and makes events the sole reality, so that nothing ever really persists through time–was similar, as was my reaction to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

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Should you get your kids the COVID vaccine?

I have no ideological commitments either way. To me, this is simply a matter of comparing risks. The probability that a given child will suffer life-threatening side-effects from the vaccine are small; the probability of a given child catching COVID and becoming life-threateningly ill is also small. Neither is zero. We must estimate these probabilities so we can compare them. The following are copied from the notes I composed a couple of weeks ago when the Pfizer vaccine became available to children 5-11. (My children are 7 and 11.) I have not updated my numbers since then; I will do that when I revisit the issue in a couple of weeks. I have no relevant expertise, but have just gone with what I could learn from the CDC website and miscellaneous Google searches. You may consider, critique, or discard it as you like.

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