Monasticism and Minimalism

I didn’t address my theological concerns about minimalism in the previous post. I might discuss those at some other point.

In the meantime, here’s a quick note on one of the annoying consequences of the minimalism movement: the comparison between a minimalist lifestyle and monasticism. @w0ke_space_jesuit.exe posted this picture on Twitter recently, and I can’t think of a more succinct way of summing up the differences.

Also, there’s this quotation from Heidi Deddens’ recent article in Comment Magazine:

Whereas the desert fathers practiced asceticism in order to achieve closer spiritual union with God, minimalists have varied goals: greater personal creativity, respite from the rush of the rat race, increased focus on relationships, or inner calm and enlightenment. Never prescribing a specific spiritual object, the minimalist movement suggests that reducing your possessions can help you achieve broad spiritual fulfillment or joy, whatever that might look like for you individually. The goal is no longer spiritual fulfillment outside of the self, but self-fulfillment.

The Loomers

Who are the Loomers? Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Clive James, and Craig Raine. Ben Sixsmith outlines the slow decline in popularity each of these writers has experienced over the past decade, despite their prominence in the 90s and early 2000s.

When I saw Craig Raine’s name on the list I had a sudden flashback: during my junior year of college, I studied abroad at Oxford University where I attended Raine’s lectures on T. S. Eliot for a few weeks during the Hilary term. I knew Raine was a well-known poet, but I had no idea he was connected with people like Christopher Hitchens.

In any case, Sixsmith points to each writer’s insistence that “Style is substance!” No exceptions. Unfortunately, such a battle cry ultimately leaves substance behind. Here’s Sixsmith:

One of the two main problems with the Loomers has been their often pompous attitude towards style, where linguistic cleverness has often been elevated above linguistic power. In his essay “A Criticism of Life” Craig Raine singled out as an exemplar of good prose Marianne Moore’s comparison of the top of a fir tree with “an emerald turkey foot.” This, he said, allows us to “see the fir tree more stereoscopically than before.” It does not. In fact, it diminishes the readers’ appreciation of the tree. With all due respect to Moore, the phrase has the novelty and cleverness that Loomers admire but is symbolically inapt. An “emerald turkey foot” is a comical image that degrades the dignity of a grand old fir. In another essay, Raine chided Bruce Chatwin for inaccuracy in saying that in winter “the frozen leaves of foxgloves dropped like dead donkey’s ears” but even if this is less accurate as a comparison of likenesses, which it is not by much, it has far more symbolic power.

Read the whole article here.

Review: After Virtue

I met one half of my goal at the end of 2018 and finished Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue. There were points where I had to push my way through some of the dense philosophical analysis of other philosophers and allusions to some of the current academic debates that were relevant at the time he wrote the book. Much of that went over my head. Nevertheless, the thesis of the book and some of MacIntyre’s most important arguments came through loud and clear. This is due, in part, to MacIntyre’s repeated summary of his own argument and my prior familiarity with recent work by writers like Karen Swallow Prior, James K. A. Smith, Rod Dreher, and Patrick Deneen (et al.) who frequently reference some of his most important claims.

The premise of MacIntyre’s argument is that the modern world of moral knowledge is in tatters and has produced a “simulacra of morality” in western culture (2). Although modern moral knowledge relies on the intellectual/philosophical capital of ancient Image result for after virtuecivilizations, it purports to have disabused itself of ancient myopic prejudices. Despite the similar moral vocabulary, morality itself has been reduced to “use” and “preference.” MacIntyre describes the current accepted mode of moral philosophy as emotivism, an idea he locates primarily in the work of G. E. Moore whose book Principia Ethica was influential for the early 20th century writers known as the Bloomsbury Group. MacIntrye defines emotivism as “the doctrine that all judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude and feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character” (11-12).

Sound familiar? Go check out Comment Magazine’s recent issue on minimalism where they address many of our current cultural obsessions with #lifestyle choices and self-actualization, and you’ll see what I mean.

To demonstrate the precedence for Moore’s philosophy, MacIntyre walks backward through history. He shows how modern moral conceptions have been built on previous failures of philosophy to justify various moral behaviors. After Moore, he discusses Kierkegaard, then Kant, Diderot, Hume, Mills, and Bentham, among others. I can’t give a full evaluative account of his philosophical history on this point, but what little I have read of the philosophers he engages, his observations about the development of moral philosophical ideas ring true.

The walk backwards through the history of moral philosophy changes directions at chapter nine. At this point, MacIntyre addresses the significance of Nietzsche who, he argues, was one of the few philosophers in the history of the modern west to fully grasp the hollowed-out moral vocabulary in the west. MacIntyre, however, is an Aristotelian and he uses Aristotle as Nietzsche’s character foil.

The brilliance of Nietzsche’s “will to power” theory stems from his willingness to take seriously the logical outcomes of moral utilitarianism and emotivism, which MacIntyre identifies as the view that individuals are autonomous agents. During and after the 18th century, philosophers began to think of individuals atomistically–as discreet entities that can be understood apart from their social context. This shift marks a radical departure from historical forms of anthropology. Beginning with Homer, MacIntyre observes that most (if not all) ancient conceptions of man stem from a conception of the social order to which an individual belongs. Every human person has a social role, and this role tells us at least two important aspects about that person: 1) we learn her identity—i.e., who she is is predicated on her social membership and inherited cultural traditions; and 2) we learn her moral value—i.e., what she is owed and what she owes to others.

According to MacIntyre, any recognizable and practical form of virtue is inextricably linked to the larger social order. Individuals cannot be virtuous on their own, much less have an identity apart from the social context in which they were born. To pretend that a person can wholly cast off the cultural traditions inherited by the time and place of her birth, and the context in which she grows up, is delusional at best, and at worst will usher a person off the cliff of existential despair (e.g., MacIntyre does not mince words about his disagreement with Jean Paul Sartre). Toward the end of the book, MacIntyre argues that the fragmentation of morality has corresponded with changing conceptions of the self—specifically the tendency to think atomistically of human identity and actions (204). In contrast, “moral arguments within the classical, Aristotelian tradition…involve…the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function” both of which are rooted in the larger social structure (58). More from MacIntyre: “It is only when man is thought of as an individual prior to and apart from his roles that man ceases to be a functional concept” (59).

The atomistic thinking of the modern era has resulted in two fundamental problems. First, individuals have been stripped of any coherent identity. The “self,” abstracted from its social embeddedness, loses any narrative sense of its place and purpose. In some ways, the idea of an overarching narrative is at the root of MacIntyre’s solution to his diagnosis of modern western culture. Without a narrative—the inherited history, stories, modes of behavior, geographical location, traditions, etc.—people lose their conception of a telos. There is no end by which they can evaluate themselves, nor is there a clear functional purpose to their existence. It’s important to note as well that MacIntyre does not believe a person is the sole author of her own narrative. At best she is a co-author. Narratives are passed down from one generation to another. While it’s possible to reject certain aspects of a particular narrative, a person cannot completely reinvent or escape the givenness of their history and traditions.

The second and correlative problem is the inability to speak constructively about moral knowledge, much less moral behavior. The problem can be seen in the etymology of the word “moral” itself. In the writings of Cicero, morality referred to a person’s overall character which derived its coherency from a unifying and communal conception of the “Good.” It was not typically used in reference to the moral value of discrete actions. Actions, as Aristotle demonstrates in the Nicomachean Ethics, were discussed in the context of disciplines and habits which formed and revealed character. And this is (one of) MacIntyre’s main points: without any unifying concept of “Good” there can be no rational basis for argument (71). There can only be discrete actions made by autonomous nodal points we call “persons.”

It’s at this point in MacIntyre’s argument that most critics begin to bristle. He starts to sound nostalgic for the good ol’ days of ancient Athens, when people knew their place, agreed upon a unifying “Good,” and behaved accordingly. Scott Alexander, for example, agrees with MacIntyre’s analysis of modern philosophy but finds a) his use of virtue ethics to be a non-solution solution because it requires a consensus about how to solve moral dilemmas, but such a consensus is impossible; and b) he thinks MacIntyre’s version of history is overly simplistic.

Responding to Scott Alexander’s distaste for virtue ethics would require a whole new post—and I’d need to do more homework on the subject. But his critique of MacIntyre’s history is much less substantial if you pay attention to MacIntyre’s own critique of Aristotle’s view of history. Aristotle did not understand the transience of the polis because he did not have an understanding of historicity. Both Plato and Aristotle took the long-term staying power of the polis for granted, and failed to recognize that no city will last forever. Cities—and specifically social orders—rise and fall and reappear in new iterations. Sometimes the fall of a particular polis is good and sometimes a new iteration successfully corrects the errors of the previous one. But sometimes they don’t. MacIntyre is not nostalgic for an ancient Athenian polis. However, he recognizes that Aristotle’s insistence that virtue is connected to a social order, and that successful social orders require a shared understanding of the “Good,” is not wrong. Unfortunately, the modern era’s hyper awareness of historicity has caused many of its most influential moral philosophers to advance an extreme and untenable view of moral knowledge. Hence, “unmasking/demystifying” history has become one of the highest and only true modern virtues (72).  The result, however, is a culture that uses an inherited moral language with an unspoken emotivist understanding, hallowed out of meaning and deprived of any grounds for rational justification.

During and after reading After Virtue, I was struck by the thoroughness of MacIntyre’s argument which he roots in a series of interconnected close readings of philosophical, literary, and historical texts. All of which call for greater scrutiny, since each of those chapters could have been a book unto itself. In preparing this post, I toyed with the idea of only writing about his section on medieval narratives and his assertion of a fundamental historical shift from ancient heroic to medieval quest narratives and the role they played in reshaping anthropology. Any writer is in dangerous waters when he condenses and summarizes large, complex, and epochal social changes into a single book chapter.

In fact, it would be worth taking each chapter on its own terms. But for a blog post that, I realized, would risk getting lost in the weeds and missing the big picture. From the beginning, I forced myself to read through large chunks of the text so that I could get a better sense of MacIntyre’s argument. I wanted the big picture, even if it came at the expense of all the details which are equally important and fascinating in their own right. I’m sure I’ll return to specific chapters in After Virtue. In the meantime, I’m glad to have had the discipline to read it all in one fell swoop.

For further reading, especially if you’re interested in some more contemporary engagement with MacIntyre’s work, I recommend the following:

1. Brad East has a fantastic article at Mere Orthodoxy that outlines the ways in which academic debates trickle down into mainstream discussions. Brad specifically addresses the Benedict Option phenomenon and its academic predecessors. He doesn’t solely focus on MacIntyre, but he figures heavily in his article.

2. Stanley Hauerwas is a philosopher and theologian who has not only been influenced by MacIntyre’s work, but has also become one of the great expositors of MacIntyre’s philosophy as it has developed across his various publications. Hauerwas wrote a great article for First Things several years ago that gave me a better sense of MacIntyre’s philosophical project, context, and development.

3. Dallas Willard also engaged MacIntyre’s work regularly. As far as I can tell, he believes MacIntyre’s project ultimately failed, but that it brought to light important, under-discussed dimensions of modern moral philosophy. I watched Willard’s UCI lectures, and hope eventually to read the corresponding book to get a better idea of where Willard disagrees with MacIntyre.



Frankenstein in High and Low Culture

I just read Frankenstein with my ninth grade students, and it was a big hit. Little did I realize, that 2018 is the 200th birthday of Mary Shelley’s novel. It was originally published in 1818, though most versions today are based on Shelley’s later revisions in 1831.

The Morgan Library Museum has an exhibition right now, It’s Alive!, that displays Frankenstein through the centuries–i.e., everything from its first publication, early illustrations, and (surprising to me) immediate stage adaptations.

If you want a good overview of the exhibition, check out Paul A. Cantor’s review. Here’s a snippet from the article–a section that speaks directly to one of my pet peeves about the artificial distinction between low and high art:

It’s Alive manages to be at once enjoyable and educational, as any good exhibition should be. Going through it is like rummaging through the attic of a weird uncle who is part art collector, part mad scientist, and part movie buff. In its total effect, It’s Alive can teach us an important lesson about the unexpectedly complex ways that culture operates. Most people tend to divide culture neatly into the high and the low. There are serious works of art that alone should be studied and can be appreciated only by an elite, well-educated audience. Then there are the works of popular culture, created for the ignorant masses and unworthy of being taken seriously. This understanding reflects an elitist contempt for commercial culture. High culture should exist in splendid isolation, cut off from the corrupting effects of low culture and market forces. In this view, there is only one direction to cultural development: DOWN. If high and low culture interact, it can only be a case of a serious work of art being vulgarized as it is popularized.

Tradition vs. History

I am attempting a difficult task. Before the end of the year, I hope to have finished reading Aladair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, and the first volume of Jaroslav Pelikan’s book The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600).

I’m almost half way through MacIntyre’s book, and only in the second chapter of Image result for The Emergence of the Catholic TraditionPelikan’s. So, at the very least, I’m hopeful I’ll finish After Virtue and have made substantial progress in The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition.

Meanwhile, I plan to comment on both books as I work my way through them. First up, Pelikan:

Tradition without history has homogenized all the stages of development into one statically defined truth; history without tradition has produced a historicism that relativized the development of Christian doctrine in such a way as to make the distinction between authentic growth and cancerous aberration seem completely arbitrary. . . The history of Christian doctrine is the most effective means available of exposing the artificial theories of continuity that have often assumed normative status in the churches, and at the same time it is an avenue into the authentic continuity of Christian believing, teaching, and confessing. Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

Pelikan’s series on the history of Christianity has been recommended to me countless times, and any time I run across reading lists of my favorite theologians, professors, and/or Christian writers in general, his name is inevitably near the top five. So far, he’s living up to the hype.

His brief discussion about the difference between history and tradition is worth the price of admission. As someone who has gone through an English graduate program at a local state school, I can tell that very few academics who write about Christian beliefs and practices in history make the distinction he makes (…though in my experience it’s nearly zero). All of history is either an arbitrary series of events or worse a socially constructed narrative that reinforces contemporary power structures.

In one sense, history is both of those things. But as far as the Christian church is concerned, history is more than a series of events and more than a cultural construction. It is a living tradition that preserves divine revelation, which breathes life into the contemporary church, and connects it with the past. Individuals do not have the power to tamper with tradition in the same way they can alter historical narratives for personal prestige or empowerment. Christians participate in the tradition; they don’t write it. The distinction, even as I’m writing about it, is difficult to parse. But Pelikan reminds us that there is a difference, and that we should apply our understanding of tradition and history to the study of the development of church doctrine–past, present, and future.

George Saunders on Writing

I might be overly concerned with my writing style, but every time I finish a piece, I’m disheartened at how “mechanical” it sounds. It’s as if I’m stacking LEGO blocks from different LEGO sets on top of one another, creating a recognizable but oddly proportioned figure. Part of the problem, I think, stems from the fact that I teach writing to junior high and high school students–i.e., I spend most of my time teaching writing formulas and structures so that students can work on plugging in the right information in the right places.

The result: I sometimes impose an artificial structure onto my ideas, instead of allowing the ideas to take shape naturally on the page. Structure can’t be abandoned entirely, but I can’t be authoritarian about it either.

The folks at the Literary Hub recently interviewed George Saunders about some of the best writing advice he’s received. The following excerpt got right to the heart of my own writer-ly insecurities. It also reminded me of Alan Jacobs’ dictum, “Read at Whim!”

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Once, when I was a student, I cornered my mentor and hero Tobias Wolff at a party and assured him that I had sworn off comedic sci-fi and was now writing “real literature.” I think he sensed, correctly, that 1) this was not an attitude that was going to produce my best work but 2) there was going to be no arguing me off of that position (only time could do that). So he just said, “Well, good. Just don’t lose the magic.”

Which I then proceeded to go off and do, for about four years. The “advice” part of that came home on the day I made the breakthrough that would lead to my first book—that is, when the magic (finally) came back. The new writing was fun and (see above) ostensibly entertaining—it came out of a place of joy and orneriness, instead of a place of stiffness or control or pedanticism. And to suddenly recall his advice at just that moment was a sort of force-accelerator, and I’ve never forgotten that, for me, “magic” has to be the operative word—getting the prose to go somewhere and do something you couldn’t have foreseen at the outset.
I saw that this distinction I’d been making between “entertainment” and “literature” was not meaningful, not at the highest levels.

So, this principle of proceeding not by head (ideas, concepts, plans) buy by heart (moving ahead line-by-line, trusting my ear, trying to communicate with and entertain an imaginary reader, being ok with being lost and even seeing this as an indicator that the story wants to be more than I have in mind for it) has stayed with me and has led me to think that, when self recedes, there is something else that rushes in to replace it, and that thing is smarter and kinder and just more trustworthy than self, i.e., the self we create through control and rumination.

In praise of originals

At The New Republic, Josephine Livingston writes about her experience visiting the only four surviving manuscripts of Old English poetry. And it knocked my socks off. I’m bias, of course–my graduate studies have focused primarily on Old and Middle English literature. But Livingston is right: not only is it a miracle that we still have these codices, but they remind us that the presence of a work of art is powerful–something we continue to lose as technology makes reproductions faster and more ubiquitous.

I struggled not to quote the whole thing. But here’s the heart of the article:

In his 1936 essay on the subject, Benjamin wrote, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

Our concept of authenticity is derived from the “presence of the original,” he writes, such as “proof that a given manuscript of the Middle Ages stems from an archive of the fifteenth century.” Without such proof, an original becomes a forgery. But when we reproduce a work (via a photocopy or an ebook, say), we create not a forgery but something new. We can “put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself”—the manuscript can leave the cathedral and enter our own homes.

Benjamin argued that this process of reproduction inevitably diminishes the artwork’s presence. He calls that quality an aura: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” That withering kills our connection to tradition, to the ineffable magic of the original, and—in short—to the entire history of how humans once related to art.

n 2018, we are in a much more elaborate and abstracted phase of Benjamin’s reproduction theory. We are accustomed to reading without reference to any physical object specific to the act of reading. We might have a romantic association with libraries, or prefer to turn real pages rather than electronic ones, but those are tastes borne of nostalgia. They have no real meaning for our experience of literature’s power.