The Habit-Breaker

It is easy to get out of the habit of writing for a blog. Let it go for a while and you start to wonder what all the old urgency was about, much as you may wonder how you used to get so het up over an old girlfriend. Time is amnestic, and the first thing you forget is why you did all those things you used to do. You remember that you used to do them, but because you have forgotten why, those memories will be colored by remorse, puzzlement or chagrin. Continue reading

Understanding Concupiscence

I do what I know I should not, and I fail to do what I know that I should. I am tempted to sin, even though I know it to be sin, and thus both wrong in itself and so also bad for me. Why?

Such is concupiscence: the inclination to sin, indeed literally the strong desire to sin.

If we – even we who have been washed by the waters of Baptism and the Blood of the Lamb from all taint of our Original Sin – know that sin is sinful, why would we desire to sin? Why should there be such a thing as temptation, at all?

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Aristotle and Ethics

Ethics and metaphysics

Aristotle’s conception of ethics is consistent with Plato, his teacher’s notion that moral virtue is essential to human happiness and offers some useful and practical contributions on the matter.  However, there are some noticeable differences, some of which relate to their differing conceptions of God and the divine.

Metaphysics concerns notions of ultimate reality and human happiness has to take reality into account. How best to live is relative to the kind of world and universe we live in. Socrates, Plato’s teacher, wanted to dispense with metaphysics and focus on ethics. Plato saw that metaphysics and ethics are bound up together and Plato’s ethics seem to be influenced by his experience of The Form of the Good – the supreme level of reality symbolized by the sun in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and his awareness of the heaven beyond the heavens.

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Preference Cascade Incoming

As an investment advisor, I’ve been pretty tied up the last couple of weeks, for obvious reasons – although I will say that the reaction of our clientele so far to the corona virus crisis – or, is it a ‘crisis’? – seems to be, “Well, these things happen from time to time, best to just hunker down and wait; after all, that worked well the last 23 times this sort of thing happened.” Which is true. Now more even than usual, any investment decisions we might make in view of the present crisis are in the nature of things obsolete by the time they occur to us. And when the market plunges, pretty much the best thing looking forward is to own the market – because reversion to the mean. But their reaction is heartening, too, as a testament to their sanguine equanimity – which is to say, to their wisdom.

What is more, we are tied into a network of roughly 100 advisory firms such as my own, and that reaction seems to be pretty normal among all their clients, in their thousands upon thousands. Which is doubly heartening.

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Pandemic: Open Thread

Bruce Charlton has rightly argued in an email that the lack of commentary at The Orthosphere on the corona-virus pandemic, the implications of which are epochal, is intellectually and morally impugnable. For what it is worth — I cannot get rid of the suspicion that it is a deliberate attack. Its occurrence and effects are far too convenient for the forces of the Left for it to be a coincidence. I can offer no evidence except the event itself. I invite comments.

Are We All Selfish?

Many students imagine that every human being and every action is selfish. Immanuel Kant was rightly suspicious of the tendency to defer everything to the “dear self,” and make ourselves an exception to a rule. However, the idea that everyone is selfish is largely the result of confusions involving language.

Hedonism is the notion that everything we do, we do for pleasure. Aristotle nixed this idea two millennia ago by stating that eating vetch might be the grandest happiness for a cow, but it is hardly sufficient for a human being. If pleasure were the secret of life, it would be possible to install an electrode in the pleasure center of human beings, have a button attached to a battery, and simply press the button for “happiness.” However, most sane individuals reject this scenario as the acme of human flourishing. Such thought experiments involving mechanical devices are simply a variation on the use of heroin. It feels good for a while, but it means nothing, and it prevents most of the things most people consider worthwhile, such as romantic relationships, projects meaningful to the individual, holding down a job, and being self-sufficient, and is likely to cause a premature death. Since heroin is addicting, it also subverts freedom and makes people slaves of a drug.

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Of Which We May Speak: Meditations on Irony

Things I Hate

The intelligentsia professes to admire irony.  In the 1990s the members of that class watched Seinfeld in first-run and they subsequently bought the program on DVD because they took it for ironic.  In the 2010s they watched Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm for the identical reason.  Intellectuals usually identify themselves as ironists, of a rarer variety even than the redoubtable television comedian, whether it is Seinfeld or David, on the supposition that they stand askew to the prevailing social consensus, such that their perspective yields them an insight into matters opaque to hoi polloi.  “I have baffled them,” the late Joseph N. Riddell, an English professor, once said within earshot of his graduate students while emerging from the Haines Hall lecture auditorium at UCLA.  He had been deconstructing Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe in a lecture that quoted Jacques Derrida and other then-obligatory Frenchmen rather more than it quoted Emerson or Poe.  The remark partook more in the self-congratulatory than in the ironic, but it was symptomatic of a certain enduring intellectual conceit in which the sense of a privilege of irony, or a satisfaction in superiority, also takes root.  The modern or postmodern intellectual pretends to hover above the settled and the established, to gaze down upon the “culturescape,” as though from a height.  Even while he declares himself “against Platonism” and works “to subvert metaphysics,” he cannot help but to take, likely without grasping the contradiction, a transcendentally guaranteed view of life, the world, and everything.  Naturally he will deny participating in a transcendent domain, the idea of which he will mock, borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche’s redoubtable treasure-trove of anti-Christian sophisms, but probably without knowing it.

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Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 - 1905) Homer & His Guide (1874)

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905): Homer & His Guide (1874)

[A Short Preface: I first delivered the following essay as a keynote address on the occasion of the fourth annual conference of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, in New York City, in the fall of 1999.  It subsequently appeared in a number of Modern Age, the ISI quarterly.  Some of the references are, in 2020, a bit dated, but nothing has changed essentially since the end of the last century – except that what was bad then has only gotten worse.  I have rewritten the essay a bit, but have made no attempt to update the references in sections III and IV.]

This essay attempts to set out the basic or better yet the deep justification of the traditional curriculum.  That phrase, “the traditional curriculum” means, of course, the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and select items from modern and national literatures.  The list in Harold Bloom’s study of The Western Canon (1997) is perfectly acceptable.  “The traditional curriculum,” it must be added, also implies the basic training in literacy that comes before any acquaintance with the classics, or with a literature of any kind.  It is worth remembering that alphabetic literacy, the precondition of literacy in the larger sense, constitutes a recent development in the half a million years or so of incontestable human presence.  The literary tradition is the cumulus of a particular type of intellectual activity that first became possible less than three thousand years ago in Syria and the Levant and, a bit later and rather more pronouncedly, in the Greek cities from Ionia to Magna Graecia.  Just how much this activity differed from anything else that human beings had ever done these paragraphs shall attempt to indicate.  That the alphabet itself might be, in its way, the first great work of literature in the Western Tradition is not a thought that most people are used to thinking.  Yet there could well be a pay-off in contemplating the ABCs in just that light.  Like poems and dramas and novels, the alphabet imposes a wholly artificial order on an element, speech, of human experience and therefore puts that element in a new and unprecedented perspective.  The confrontation with poems and dramas and novels is a continuation of the confrontation with what the letters and their combinations reveal about the distinguishing human trait, language.  One begins, then, at the beginning.

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Triumph of the Heat Wave Philosophy

“Call it not love, for Love to heaven is fled,
Since sweating Lust on earth usurp’d his name”

Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis (1593)

I was recently stranded in a public space and accosted by an amplified recording of (Love is Like a) Heat Wave, the 1963 hit that is said to have crystalized the “Motown Sound.”  It was the original recording by Martha and the Vandellas, which I certainly recognized, but it mostly served to take me back to the fall of 1975, when I was about to turn eighteen and Linda Ronstadt released her very popular cover of the song.  Since I was in those days eager to master the art of triggering “heat waves” in young women, I would turn up the volume and listen closely whenever Ronstadt’s hit erupted from a radio. Continue reading

Where To Find More American Workers

As employment has boomed in the US of late, more and more workers who had long ago given up looking for work have again entered the labor market, and found work. This growth in the supply of American workers has prevented wages and inflation from rising much, despite the greatly increased demand of the private sector for labor of all kinds. It’s been great. But with downward pressure of all sorts on immigration of all sorts, there is now serious worry that the former “reserve army of the unemployed” is approaching depletion, and that the supply of new labor is drying up; that the labor market is going to heat up enough to ignite significant demand led inflation, laying the groundwork for a recession.

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