Month: July 2014

An Unusual History

I’ve been slowly making my way through Peter Marshall‘s Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism . At the rate I’m going, and given the length of the book (841 pages), I figure I’ll finish it in 2025.

But don’t let my turtle approach mislead you: it’s very good. If you’re interested in knowing the anarchic impulses and thoughts of a host of thinkers, look no further. Even writers who should in no way be regarded as anarchic get ink. Edmund Burke, for instance. Russell Kirk would roll over in his grave to see Burke lumped in with anarchists, but Marshall doesn’t do that. He merely discusses some anarchic tendencies in his thought.

At points, the book has veered toward a staid, encyclopedia-like, description of authors’ ideas, which is probably partly the reason it’s taking me so long to plow through it (a guy can take only so much aridity before the reading fuel runs dry). But I like erudition, and Marshall shows himself to be extremely such (“Did he really read all those books,” I find myself asking, then remember reading someplace that he was born wealthy and probably has enjoyed a lot of disposable time).

Marshall has done us a service: He has shown that a political philosophy devoted to peace and lack of coercion is desirable and perhaps not entirely quixotic. Anarchism, at the very least, is worth thinking about, if only because it shows us how things could be.

Expect passages from the book as I progress through it.

In the meantime, here are two axioms that every person interested in political philosophy should memorize, one humorous observation, and one statement that every serious Catholic with an interest in political philosophy should understand:

“[O]nly a tiny minority of anarchists have practised terror as a revolutionary … Read the rest

Barzun

I bought this book when it came out: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present by Jacques Barzun. I’ve never read it, primarily because it hasn’t fit in with any of the projects I’ve worked on over the past couple of years, but the next couple of weeks promise to be filled with long hours at the office and a parade of social commitments. I doubt I’ll have much of a chance to work on anything worthwhile, so I’m going to dive into Barzun’s magnum opus during the month of August. We’ll see how it goes.

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GKC Wednesday

Background: When I was the editor of Gilbert Magazine, I was responsible for the “Tremendous Trifles” column. It was occasionally hard to find a sufficient amount of interesting GKC material to fill the page, so John Peterson sent me a file full of Chesterton ancedotes. They were idiosyncratic, historical, and Chestertonian. He gave me permission to use them here. I hope y’all find them as interesting as I have over the years. Most of them have never been published.

Chesterton Short(s)

In his much discussed memoirs, Paul Johnson mentioned among notable messengers of the modern age, the reckless like Rimbaud and the thoughtful like Emerson, the sinners like Byron and the saints like Chesterton. The reader must judge whether Johnson is siding with Catholic proponents of Chesterton’s canonization or merely restating the obvious finding that Chesterton was a good man. [The Quest for God, 1996, p. 80]

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Montaigne and Our Silliness

William James’ stream of consciousness, that fundamental fact of our existence that cannot be stopped (we “think” like we breathe, not like we walk or fish or watch TV . . . thinking cannot be stopped) “explains without moralizing what that wonderful self-observer Montaigne found as the chief mark of man: he is [diverse and wandering], a creature of moods and changing views, not a passive recorder of the surrounding world but congenital ‘perspectivist,’ and thus easily thrown off in judgment, memory, and purpose–a specialist (as it were) in misunderstanding.” Jacques Barzun, A Stroll with William James.

I need to read more Montaigne. And more James and Barzun, for that matter, but especially Montaigne. His skepticism is so piercing, it gives a dose of humility to every person who has the self-honesty to apply Montaigne’s observations to himself.

I wonder: What did Montaigne do with that skepticism? I’ve never heard of him using it as a slide into nihilism. As far as I know, he simply used it to mock and observe, without building anything out of it. Now don’t get me wrong: In a fallen world, especially a fallen world filled with people who don’t appreciate their fallen place, the mocking observations play an important role. Such humor is its own good.

But still, surely there some positive lessons you can draw from Montaigne’s observation that man is existentially silly. Here are a few possibilities that occur to me:

*Humility–deep but always available at the surface of our consciousness–ought to be the hallmark of our existence.

*St. Therese’s Little Way might be the only safe way, especially in the modern world. In the “old days,” you stayed within the confines of your family and village. You kept on the ways of the straight and narrow because those were … Read the rest