Aug 26 2016

Settling for Mediocrity

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Over at The American Conservative, Gracy Olmstead writes:

The truth is, the longer you are part of a church, the more you will begin to notice its dust and dimness, its fake smiles and half hugs. Many have memorized rituals that have no heart or purpose behind them. You will begin to see the church’s flaws, and they may frustrate or even disgust you. But if you seek church (or religious experience) somewhere else—reveling in all its polished “authenticity” and golden sheen—it will not take long before there, too, you will see the fatal flaws, the pretensions.

Olmstead’s intent is sincere, the picture almost beautiful, but the argument behind it sounds like: in order to eat, one must learn to love the taste of hardtack. It sounds like we must learn to settle for mediocrity. Sounds an awful lot like Lori Gottlieb’s piece from The Atlantic a few years back “The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.”

 


Aug 26 2016

Arming the Undereducated

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If the thought processes of these college students are equivocal to “idiocy,” as the title to this piece implies, why is National Review’s Mr. French encouraging idiots to bear arms?

Students–by literal definition–haven’t learned anything yet.

Why encourage a well-armed militia if that militia is–by literal definition–under-educated?


Aug 26 2016

Three Things to Read on Friday

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On the scene in Baton Rouge, The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher explains “Why the Great [Louisiana] Flood is Not Katrina,” August 22, 2016.

 

At the Balkinization law blog, Richard Primus discusses how literally and unliterally one can read the Constitution in “The Greatest Constitutional Protestant of the Twenty-First Century,” August 23, 2016.

 

And at The New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson discusses the restoration and preservation (or lack thereof) of Michelangelo’s David in “David’s Ankles: How Imperfections Could Bring Down the World’s Most Perfect Statue,” August 17, 2016.

 


Aug 24 2016

On Cake (and Eating It Too)

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Rod Dreher is appalled that an institution (this time public school) has the audacity to institutionalize its participants the way it sees fit:

Parents started wearing bright purple buttons to school every day indicating their support of gender ideology. They were impossible to miss and prompted questions from many of the students.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t accept the money/milk of the government cow then complain about how it tastes. The only way to not pay for electricity is to get off the grid. The only way to educate your kids the way you want is to pull them out of public school. If California won’t let you do that, do as Kevin D. Williamson advises: move.


Aug 24 2016

Suspicious of ALL Institutions

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Michael Baggot writes at First Things:

Nones succeed in avoiding a full buffer against the divine at the vertical level, they often succumb to an atomized approach to religion, which buffers them from a believing community at the horizontal level. They tend to regard their neighbor as an obstacle to their private experience of the divine. They are suspicious of traditional ritual, skeptical that what has proven formative for generations can be assimilated authentically. Relations with a higher power or purpose, they think, should be more fluid.

As a None, I don’t quite understand (of course) where Baggot’s coming from with the line: “They are suspicious of traditional ritual, skeptical that what has proven formative for generations can be assimilated authentically.”

I would rephrase it as suspicion and skepticism toward traditional “bureaucracy” or traditional “institutions”–whether governmental, educational, religious, media-based, or corporate or non-profit.

Many (but not all) Nones are exhausted with the rituals of institutions and the draconian rules and practices and procedures and predicaments of bureaucracies because we have no experience of the word “ritual” meaning anything but going through the motions to keep up the appearances for the sake of sustaining said institution/bureaucracy, whether secular or transcendental.


Aug 19 2016

The Olympics: Seneca on Coaches, Athletes, & Slavery

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From Lucius Annaeus Seneca:

There are the exercise, in the first place, the toil involved in which drains the vitality and renders it unfit for concentration or the more demanding sort of studies. Next there is the heavy feeding, which dulls mental acuteness. Then there is the taking on as coaches of the worst brand of slave, persons who divide their time between putting on lotion and putting down liquor, whose idea of a well spent day consists of getting up a good sweat and then replacing the fluid lost with plenty of drink, all the better to be absorbed on a dry stomach. Drinking and perspiring—it’s the life of a dyspeptic! There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay and save what needs especially close accounting for, time.

—Letter XV, pp. 60–61 in Letters from a Stoic (Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium). Translated by Robin Campbell. 1969. Penguin Classics.

 


Aug 17 2016

That New Car Smell: Autonomy & Automation

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Whether or not civilization collapses following the election this November, are we not on the cusp of a new epoch in travel? For in the Valley of the Silicon Kings and Queens and TransRegents, Google, Apple and Tesla have all doubled down on automotive innovation, while in the Far East Uber courts China. Down in weird Austin, Lord British is busy thinking way outside the ballpark with his “pod” transport system, while New Jersey considers outlawing drivers from drinking coffee.

Let’s jump in the time machine:

When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.

––Thoreau, Walden (1854), Ch. IV

Surreys rumbled lightly by, with the plod-plod of honest old horses, and frequently there was the glitter of whizzing spokes from a runabout or a sporting buggy, and the sharp, decisive hoof-beats of a trotter. Then, like a cowboy shooting up a peaceful camp, a frantic devil would hurtle out of the distance, bellowing, exhaust racketing like a machine gun gone amuck—and at these horrid sounds the surreys and buggies would hug the curbstone, and the bicycles scatter to cover, cursing; while children rushed from the sidewalks to drag pet dogs from the street. The thing would roar by, leaving a long wake of turbulence; then the indignant street would quiet down for a few minutes—till another came.

––Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), Ch. XVIII

Folks, the interurban ain’t coming back, and ride-sharing essentially streamlines new efficiencies on an old system, but why must we continue to tolerate the flood of false hope—perhaps what Thoreau meant by “new Mythology”––of hyper speed locomotion, whether in the guise of California’s bullet train or the Texas Central Railway? (And can we retire the word “boondoggle” for at least the next decade, or better yet, put it out to pasture altogether?)

Once upon a time cultural conservatives, even fictitious ones like Congressman George Amberson, thought cars were a temporary novelty:

[Eugene Morgan] will soon begin to build his factory here for the manufacture of automobiles, which he says is a term he prefers to “horseless carriages.” Your Uncle George told me he would like to invest in this factory, as George thinks there is a future for automobiles; perhaps not for general use, but as an interesting novelty, which people with sufficient means would like to own for their amusement and the sake of variety. (The Magnificent Ambersons, Ch. X)

But will further automation of the automobile be mistaken by cultural progressives as improvement rather than impediment? For as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan points out in his contribution to Why Place Matters(2014), the American driver’s license is one of our primary valves for unleashing our self-reliance:

The closest thing Americans have to an identity card is their driver’s license—a card that gives them license to drive into the blue yonder and there discover who they are and can be.

Stability can be found amid the chaos of such mapless journeys. As Wendell Pierce, best known from HBO’s The Wire, put it in his memoir about the recovery and renewal of post-Katrina New Orleans The Wind in the Reeds (2015):

My father’s mantra kept going through my head, strengthening my resolve: “You can’t get lost in America.” (pp. 126, 239)

So even before GPS apps became widespread, there existed possibilities that not all who drove (or wandered) would get lost, and this, Pierce points out, is one reason why, particularly for his father:

You can take the man out of the segregated South, but you can’t take the segregated South out of the man. (p. 51)

Yes, we travel. As Thoreau says, we “make haste past those houses” and accumulate experiences of multiple places, so much so that now we have Shakespeare’s “rich eyes and poor hands.” Nonetheless, we refuse to stand still:

Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free…. eastward to realize history, and study the works of art and literature…. westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure…. The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. (Thoreau, “Walking,” The Atlantic, May 1862)

We are born to be wild. So let us get our “motors running and head out on the highway.”


Aug 2 2016

Questions and Comments for Folks Who Like to Read

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The eighth-century monk Bede charitably advises “good luck” to his readers,[1]  and twentieth-century bard Bruce sings that tramps are born to run: some sprinters, others marathon runners, but in all ages, the writer is a tramp who begs readers for charity. Yet what, exactly, is a charitable reader? How do readers convey caritas? And how do they express their gratitude toward writers who help them? Do readers feel in debt to such writers? Do they owe them something? Is this what Rod Dreher felt when he wrote How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015)? Is this what I do when I blog about Dreher’s work? Is that how Dante felt about Boethius’s Consolation (523 AD)?—and Boethius had felt about Plato?

How, for example, did someone like Martin Buber want to be read? And how did he read Torah and Talmud? It is an exaggeration, though only a slight one, to say that Buber begged for Jewish readers but received only Christian charity. Buber’s translator Walter Kaufmann once complained that Buber indulged in much unnecessary wordplay,[2] but do we not play and joke (most frivolously, most unnecessarily) with our intimates rather than strangers?

My collective answer to these questions is that the mind of the active reader renders an alternative present time to encounter an imitative presence of the writer.[3]

When I read Buber, a self-described philosophic anthropologist, I understand him (I think) because he was a writer who tried engaging in an I–You mode of discourse with his potential readers. It is all quite mundane and requiring nothing supernatural to understand a text as, to a certain extent, imitating the writer who wrote it—that it contains the spirit of the writer. For even an adamant atheist like Gregory Bateson (a scientific anthropologist) could admit that his thoughts would exist after death:

When you’re dead you’re dead, living on only in the sense that your molecules recycle to the maintenance of the biosphere and your ideas recycle to the maintenance of evolution. The supernatural and miracles, [Bateson] liked to say, “are a materialist’s attempt to escape from his materialism.”[4]

Now Kafka was a writer who never begged a reader for anything. One can say that in his works he essentially communicated in an I–I mode of discourse. Nonetheless, he remains insightful, as when his character of Raban discusses the frame of mind of the reader:

Books are useful in every sense and quite especially in respects in which one would not expect it. For when one is about to embark on some enterprise, it is precisely the books whose contents have nothing at all in common with the enterprise that are the most useful. For the reader who does after all intend to embark on that enterprise, that is to say, who has somehow become enthusiastic (and even if, as it were, the effect of the book can penetrate only so far as that enthusiasm), will be stimulated by the book to all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise. Now, however, since the contents of the book are precisely something of utter indifference, the reader is not at all impeded in those thoughts, and he passes through the midst of the book with them, as once the Jews passed through the Red Sea, that’s how I should like to put it.[5]

Compare Emerson:

A page which is tedious to me today, tomorrow becomes precious because I read in a book that it is precious to another man… You do not doubt that the same book, the same history yields different light to a boy & to a man. Last year you were a boy[;] now you are a man. Again; today you are a boy, & next year you shall be a man.[6]

Chosen by fortune, thrown by fate, the elect reader of Kafka and Emerson passes through with ease while the others left behind—the unchosen, illiterate Egyptians in pursuit of escaped slaves––are to be engulfed in the oceania of biblioteca, falling off the cliffs of Parnassus, to be, in Bateson’s terminology, “recycled.”

I have written more than I planned, though not more than I wished.

­­––Alcuin of York (735–804 AD)[7]

NOTES

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[1] Bede, Venerabilis. “Table of Contents for Books II and V” Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.) Translated by Roger Collins. Edited by Collins and Judith McClure. NY: Oxford UP. 1994. p. 64.

[2] Kaufmann, Walter. “Prologue to I and Thou,” Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) By Martin Buber. 1923. Translated by Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. p. 19.

[3] For Buber:

What is essential is lived in the present, [dead] objects in the past…. Presence is not what is evanescent [vaporous] and passes but what confronts us, waiting and enduring. And the object is not duration but standing still, ceasing, breaking off, becoming rigid, standing out, the lack of relation, the lack of presence….(Ich und Du, I § 17)

Creation is the origin, redemption is the goal; but revelation is not a datable, determinate point poised between them. The center is not the revelation at Sinai but the continual possibility of receiving it. That is why a psalm or a prophecy is not less “Torah,” teaching, than is the story of the exodus from Egypt. (“People Today and the Jewish Bible: from a Lecture Series.” Die Schrift und das Wort. (Scripture and Translation.) By Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Translated by Lawrence Rosewald with Everett Fox. Indiana UP: Indianapolis, IN. 1994. p. 8)

[4] Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 117.

[5] Kafka, Franz. “Hochzeitsvorbereitungen Auf Dem Lande.” (“Wedding Preparations in the Country.”) Translated by Tania and James Stern. Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. NY: Schocken. 1971. 74–75.

[6] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. V. 1835–1838. Edited by Merton M. Sealts, Jr. 1965. Belknap Press, Harvard UP. November 24, 1837, Journal C, p. 435 and December 3, 1837, p. 440.

[7] Alcuin of York, “Letter 126,” Alcuin of York: His Life and Letters. Edited and Translated by Stephen Allott. York, England: William Sessions Limited. 1974. p. 133.


Aug 1 2016

Christians in Name Only

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Noah Millman goes for the knock out punch in today’s American Conservative:

Donald Trump’s primary victory is the final proof that even the religiously conservative base of the GOP doesn’t really care about things like abortion and gay rights, because Trump manifestly didn’t care about these questions or was actively on the other side from religious conservatives, and yet he won plenty of evangelical Christian votes in the primaries. So voting for Trump out of religious conservative conviction sends a clear-as-day message that Republicans need do absolutely nothing on those issues in order to win religious conservative votes. It is a statement of abject surrender.


Jul 27 2016

Rereading Ruthie Leming – Part II: Beyond Democracy Lies Caritas’cracy

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(Piazza Navona, Rome)

Theory of Caritas

The will of a community reflects the collective intentionality of its members.[1]

The will of a community is often, but not always, expressed in the language of the community.[2]

Through language, a community treats its members sometimes as individuals, sometimes as objects.[3]

An institution is realized when a community uses language in an organized pattern with precedence (such as an established tradition) to achieve, express, and reflect the will of the community.[4]

When a community, through its language, treats its members as individuals (as with memorializing veterans, first-responders,[5] and athletes, or raising money for a kid with cancer), the community practices an I–You mode of discourse and establishes an institution that treats its members as individuals.

When a community, through its language, treats its members as objects (as with voting lists and tax rolls and redlining), the community practices the I­–It mode of discourse and establishes an institution that treats its members as objects.

A community needs institutions that both treat its members as individuals and treats them as objects.

Practice of Caritas

In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2014), Rod Dreher writes about a conversation with his brother-in-law where they discussed the community institution of caritas, the caritas demonstrated by Dreher’s parents:

“Your mom and dad never meet a stranger,” [Mike Leming] said. “Once they get to know you, you become family right off, especially if you help them with something. Whatever’s theirs is yours.”[6]

For the Drehers, the charity received from a stranger grants that stranger automatic entry into the Drehers’ community—so that the stranger becomes no longer a stranger but a familiar. The cost of entry into this community is neither an indulgence to pay for prior debts, nor a bribe to pay for present greed, nor a desert to satisfy modern members of the meritocracy. Perhaps the institution of the Drehers caritas could be called a caritascracy.

This institutional mechanism of caritas’cracy functions in the I–You mode of language. It is achieved when one individual charitably encounters another. It occurs when we speak and listen to each other rather than over or at each other.

No matter the neologism, the institution of the Drehers charity (and their response to the charity of others), confronts one of principle anxieties of C. S. Lewis’s life: the resentment that comes with any in-group/out-group dynamic. As Lewis lectured his students:

When you had climbed up to somewhere near it by the end of your second year, perhaps you discovered that within the Ring there was a Ring yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great school Ring to which the house Rings were only satellites. It is even possible that the School Ring was almost in touch with a Masters’ Ring. You were beginning, in fact, to pierce through the skins of the onion….

One of the most dominant elements [of Life] is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside…. This desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action…. [But] As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left….

You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can be really enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in”. And that is a pleasure than [sic., that] cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been stalled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old Ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavour to enter the new one.[7]

When the Dreher’s daughter Ruthie dies, the wonderful life she lived as an individual made her death from terminal illness all the more meaningful to the community:

It was an evening of beer drinking, country dancing, and merrymaking, the likes of which there had been far too little of since that awful day in February. For Ruthie this was an It’s a Wonderful Life moment as the people of the parish took the opportunity to show her and tell her what a difference she had made in their lives. At the end of the evening, over a thousand people had come through the gates, and the people of our little country parish had raised forty-three thousand dollars for Ruthie Leming. “This is how it’s supposed to be,” an old friend said to me that night, looking out over the crowd. “This is what folk are supposed to do for each other.”[8]

This is what Buber was getting at when he realized the common joy of the soul is the foundation of genuine community.[9]

How must a community thrive if it must use institutions to achieve its intentions—when to use institutions means encountering and engaging with the inherent resentment of all in-group/out-group dynamics? As Dreher reminds us, we cannot recreate Eden,[10] but the caritas’cracy of the elder Drehers may point us the way forward.

NOTES

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[1] For philosopher John Searle, meaning is derived intentionality (Freedom and Neurobiology NY: Columbia UP. 2007. p. 8). And: “Intentionality essentially involves the representation of conditions of satisfaction,” (“Language and Social Ontology,” Theory and Society. Vol. 37. No. 5. (October 2008.) 443–59 at 445).

[2] See Peirce:

Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community. (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Vol. 2. 1868. 140–157. (http://www.peirce.org/writings/p27.html.))

Compare de Saussure:

The signal, in relation to the idea it represents, may seem to be freely chosen. However, from the point of view of the linguistic community, the signal is imposed rather than freely chosen. Speakers are not consulted about its choice. Once the language has selected a signal, it cannot be freely replaced by any other. There appears to be something rather contradictory about this. It is a kind of linguistic Hobson’s choice. What can be chosen is already determined in advance. No individual is able, even if he wished, to modify in any way a choice already established in the language. Nor can the linguistic community exercise its authority to change even a single word. The community, as much as the individual, is bound in its language. (Course in General Linguistics. edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with the collaboration of Albert Riedlinger; translated and annotated by Roy Harris. London: G. Duckworth. 1983. p. 71.)

And compare Searle:

A way to come to see this point is to ask oneself, what is the difference between regarding an object as an instance of linguistic communication and not so regarding it? One crucial difference is this. When I take a noise or a mark on a piece of paper to be an instance of linguistic communication, as a message, one of the things I must assume is that the noise or mark as a natural phenomenon like the wind in the trees or a stain on the paper, I exclude it from the class of linguistic communication, even though the noise or mark may be indistinguishable from spoken or written words. Furthermore, not only must I assume the noise or mark to have been produced as a result of intentional behavior, but I must also assume that the intentions are of a very special kind peculiar to speech acts. (Speech Acts: an Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge UP. 1969§ 1.4, pp. 16–17.)

[3] Based on the work of Martin Buber. Buber’s I–You and I–It modes of linguistic discourse are two examples of collective intentionality. According to Buber, the world itself is not twofold but the human world is twofold for humans. Con artists hook their victims by speaking to the mark as if in I–You mode, when all along they were playing the language game of the I–It mode on the victim (Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) 1923. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. I § 1).

The I–You mode of discourse marks a relation between two humans being; this mode expresses the ratio between two individuals. One human does not divide the other, but the two humans stand in dynamic reciprocity to one another (I and Thou I § 5).

Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness (Buber, The Knowledge of Man: a Philosophy of the Interhuman. Translated by Maurice Friedman and Ronald Gregor Smith. Harper & Row: NY. 1966. p. 69). Buber points out how we speak over each other rather than to each other—we must practice directness rather than “speechifying” and placating to “a fictitious court of appeal,” (Knowledge of Man 78–79). Moreover:

Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity. (Knowledge of Man 84)

A person becomes an I through the You mode of discourse (I and Thou I § 28). Or as Gregory Bateson once put it, “It takes two to know one,” (Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 113).

[4] Compare Searle:

Institutions always consist in constitutive rules (practices, procedures) that have the form X counts as Y in context C… The Y term imposes a new status on the phenomenon named by the X term, and the new status carries with it a function that cannot be performed just by virtue of the intrinsic physical features named by the X term. The function requires the status in order that it be performed, and the status requires collective intentionality, including a continued acceptance of the status with its corresponding function. (The Construction of Social Reality. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1995. p. 114).

Compare Searle critic Philia Mfundo Msimang:

Whereas singular intentionality is generally construed as a unidirectional force from the agent to the world (viz., imposing one’s will on a state of affairs), collective intentionality is a bidirectional force from the point of view of any participating agent because it both guides and restricts each agent’s action while, at the same time, being bolstered and influenced by each respective agent’s own actions. In this context, individual intentionality is derivative of the group or collective intentionality….

All social institutions are founded on a symmetrical agreement (by which I mean mutual recognition), and this entails not only that people have to hold the same intentionality but that they must hold this intentionality fundamentally in relation to one another’s intentionality. What I mean by this is that there is no sense to collective intentionality outside its relation to, and satisfaction by, another individual’s intentionality. Collective intentionality cannot be satisfied by respective individual intentionalities but has its conditions of satisfaction defined by a symmetrical relationship between intentionalities. (“Living in One World: Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics.” Signs and Society. Vol. 2. No. 2. (Fall 2014.) 173–202 at 181–82.)

[5] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013.p. 45.

[6] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 47.

[7] Lewis, C.S. “The Inner Ring – Memorial oration at King’s College, London, 1944.” They Asked for a Paper. London: G. Bles. 1962.” pp. 141–142, 145, 147, and 148.

[8] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 135. See also later (200–03) when Ruthie’s piety prevented her funeral from becoming a dreary affair and instead rendered it into a celebration.

[9] Buber, Meetings: Martin Buber. Edited by Maurice Friedman. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co. 1973. p. 39.

[10] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 265.