Apr 27 2017

Jonathan Swift and the Benedict Option

Some scattered thoughts:

I don’t know whether Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) would’ve endorsed Rod Dreher’s proposals (which I have yet to read in book form), but one of Swift’s quips seems relevant:

Lastly, ’tis proposed as a singular advantage that the abolishing of Christianity will very much contribute to the uniting of Protestants. [1]

It’s a kind of backhanded, reverse-psychology, move–Swift seems to say the best way to build disciples is to discipline them.  For as Swift observes:

There is one darling inclination of mankind which usually affects to be a retainer to religion, though she be neither its parent, its godmother, nor its friend. I mean the spirit of opposition, that lived long before Christianity, and can easily subsist without it. [2]

Swift might’ve agreed with Dreher that Moral Therapeutic Deism is milquetoast Christianity:

The two principal qualifications  of a fanatic preacher are his inward light, and his head full of maggots; and the two different fates of his writings are to be burnt, or worm-eaten.[3]


Why should any clergyman of our church be angry to see the follies of fanaticism and superstition exposed, through in the most ridiculous manner; since that is perhaps the most probable way to cure them, or at least to hinder them from farther spreading? [4]

Dreher’s diagnosis on his blog (and most likely in his latest book) seems to agree with Swift’s character of Gulliver who confesses to readers amid his travels that: “I was chiefly disgusted with modern History.” [5]

I too am disgusted with modern History when I see things like this on my morning commute:


Death of art = life of Vandals #streetart #grafitti #ATX #UT

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on

Dreher’s book The Benedict Option is a remedy for this diagnosis of disgust; it seeks, to harmonize the community, something (I think) Swift yearned for:

And I think the reason is easy to be assigned, for there is a peculiar string in the harmony of human understanding, which in several individuals is exactly of the same tuning.  This, if you can dexterously screw up to its right key, and then strike gently upon it whenever you have the good fortune to light among those of the same pitch, they will by a secret necessary sympathy strike exactly at the same time. [6]

Recall that Nietzsche’s hammer was but a tuning fork.[7]


[1] Swift, “An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand, be Attended with some Inconveniences, and Perhaps Not Produce those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby.” 1708.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Swift, A Tale of a Tub. 1704. Sect. I.

[4] Swift, A Tale of a Tub. 1704. “An Apology For the Book.”

[5] Swift, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver. 1726. III, viii.

[6] Swift, A Tale of a Tub. 1704. Sect. IX.

[7] Kaufmann, Walter. Discovering the Mind Vol. IINietzsche, Heidegger, Buber. NY: McGraw Hill. 1981.  153–54.

Apr 14 2017

Writing Advice from the Anglo-Irish of the 18th Century

Like Swift does, I need to get outside my own point-of-view (and socioeconomic context) and ridicule it with a fictional character. To use writers whom I detest, and use them in a favorable light to make whatever-it-is point I’m making—that is what Walter Kaufmann does!

“It grieved me to the heart when I saw my labours, which had cost me so much thought and watching, bawled about by the common hawkers of Grub Street, which I only intended for the weighty consideration of the gravest persons. This prejudiced the world so much at first, that several of my friends had the assurance to ask me whether I were in jest; to which I only answered coldly, ‘that the event would show’. But it is the talent of our age and nation to turn things of the greatest importance into ridicule.”[1]

“‘Now, therefore, I began to associate with none but disappointed authors, like myself, who praised, deplored, and despised each other. The satisfaction we found in every celebrated writer’s attempts, was inversely as their merits. I found that no genius in another could please me. My unfortunate paradoxes had entirely dried up that source of comfort. I could neither read nor write with satisfaction; for excellence in another was my aversion, and writing was my trade.”[2]

“We have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”[3]

Don’t go beyond your doorway, your threshold:

“Every man, as a member of the commonwealth, ought to be content with the possession of his own opinion in private, without perplexing his neighbour or disturbing the public.” [R6] [4]

But if you must go beyond your doorway:

“There are but three ways for a man to revenge himself of a censorious world. To despise it; to return the like; or to endeavour to live so as to avoid it. The first of these is usually pretended; the last is almost impossible; the universal practice is the second.”[29] [5]

A little superstition goes a long way:

“There is a portion of enthusiasm assigned to every nation, which, if it hath not proper objects to work on, will burst out and set all into a flame. If the quiet of a state can be bought by only flinging men a few ceremonies to devour, it is a purchase no wise man would refuse. Let the mastiffs amuse themselves about a sheepskin stuffed with hay, provided it will keep them from worrying the flock.”[6]

A little superstition quells the motives:

“fear and hope are the two greatest natural motives of all men’s actions.”[7]


[1] Swift, “Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff” 1709. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 216.

[2] Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, “20. The history of a philosophic vagabond, pursuing novelty, but losing context.”

[3] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. [‘Various Thoughts Moral and Diverting’, in Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, 1711] [1] 181.

[4] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 185.

[5] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 181.

[6] Swift, “An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand, be Attended with some Inconveniences, and Perhaps Not Produce those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby.” 1708. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 224.

[7] Swift, “The Testimony of Conscience [a Sermon].” 1714. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 383.

Feb 22 2017

How Germany Gave Us Heino (via Nietzsche)

As Nietzsche puts it:

The Germans alternate between complete devotion to the foreign and revengeful craving for originality…. The Germans––to prove that their originality is not a matter of their nature but of their ambition—think it lies in the complete and over-obvious difference: but the Greeks did not think thus about the Orient … and they became original (for one is not original to begin with, but one is raw!)

[Birth of Tragedy XI, 110; cf. V, 246; VI 339] Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. 1950. Fourth Edition. 1974.  p. 154.

Does this not explain the kitsch phenomenon of Heino?


Oct 27 2016

Throwing Heidegger for a Loop (by Not Reading Him)


The Younger Seneca (4 BC–65 AD) writes that, “the fall of anything great generally takes time,” for this is the nature of Fortune.[1] Fortune juggles us from her felly—because she is a jester performing before the Court of Zeus—Seneca, therefore, advised his fellow ancients to accept Fortune; for they cannot resent her.[2] They must adopt a noble spirit (wherever she throws them).[3]

I have yet to read Being and Time (1927). But I’ve heard things about it. I’ve heard it discusses a concept called “thrown-ness” (Geworfenheit) that seems to be basically the same as the ancient idea of the goddess Fortune. And moderns, even before Heidegger (1889–1976), have tossed around this same idea––that the condition of being is analogous to the sense of being thrown by Fate/Fortune. Emerson (1803–1882), writing 80+ years before Heidegger, believed that while we are thrown into our immediate conditions without whim or warning, we must choose not to passively fall like Milton’s Satan, but instead soar like a Hellenic Icarus:

The man who bates no jot of courage when oppressed by fate[,] who miss ed ing of his design lays hold with ready hand on the unexpected event & turns it to his own account & in the cruelest suffering has that generosity of perception that he is sensible of a secret joy in the addition this event makes to his knowledge––that man is truly independent,––“he takes his revenge on fortune”* is independent of time & chance; fortune may rule his circumstances but he overrules fortune. The stars cannot thwart with evil influences the progress of such a soul to grandeur….[4]

So use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her, and gain all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations. A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.[5]

This thrown feeling was not limited to American transcendentalists. Take the Scottish bookman Andrew Lang (1844–1912):

So he brings us no news
From the stars we peruse,
Or in hope, or in terror survey;
He is only a stone
From the world that was thrown
When the Earth was an infant at play.[6]

Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the founder of anthroposophy, once defined free will as being “conscious” of our “desires, but ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.” For Steiner, the fact that we prioritize our desires gives the illusion of free will. Being human, we cannot free ourselves from our free will. We cannot help that we’ve been thrown. For Steiner:

[A thrown] stone, for example, receives from an external cause acting upon it a certain quantity of motion, by reason of which it necessarily continues to move, after the impact of the external cause has ceased. The continued motion of the stone is due to compulsion, not to the necessity of its own nature, because it requires to be defined by the impact of an external cause. What is true here for the stone is true also for every other particular thing, however complicated and many-sided it may be, namely, that everything is necessarily determined by external causes to exist and to act in a fixed and definite manner.

Now, pray, assume that this stone during its motion thinks and knows that it is striving to the best of its power to continue in motion. This stone which is conscious only of its striving and is by no means indifferent, will believe that it is absolutely free, and that it continues in motion for no other reason than its own will to continue. Now this is that human freedom which everybody claims to possess and which consists in nothing but this, that men are conscious of their desires, but ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. Thus the child believes that he desires milk of his own free will, the angry boy regards his desire for vengeance as free, and the coward his desire for flight. Again, the drunken man believes that he says of his own free will what, sober again, he would fain have left unsaid, and as this prejudice is innate in all men, it is difficult to free oneself from it. For, although experience teaches us often enough that man least of all can temper his desires, and that, moved by conflicting passions, he perceives the better and pursues the worse, yet he considers himself free because there are some things which he desires less strongly, and some desires which he can easily inhibit through the recollection of something else which it is often possible to recall.[7]

C. S. Lewis (1899–1963) warned that even if an individual is competent enough to realize their condition of being thrown into the world arbitrarily, that realization often further throws that individual into the habit of mistaking the map for the territory it marks:

The truth is that [the  medieval] language about inanimate bodies was the same kind of language that the modern man uses—I mean, the modern “plain” man, not the modern scientist or philosopher. When a modern says that the stone fell “in obedience to the law of gravitation,” he does not really think there is literally a law or literal obedience; that the stone, on being released, whips out a little book of statutes, finds the chapter and paragraph relevant to its predicament, and decides it had better be a law-abiding stone and “come quiet.” Nor did the medieval man believe that the stone really felt homesick, or felt at all. Both ways of putting it are analogical; neither speaker would usually know any way of expressing the facts except by an analogy.[8]

For Lewis, the analogy of the stone (or thrownness for that matter) is only a tool used to finish the product the job calls for, nothing more.

When during an election year a journalist asks, “Where are we headed in this country?”  what they mean, as John Searle (1932–) points out, is that, amid the flux of consciousness, the thrown-ness of being, Searle realizes we are thrown both collectively as well as individually. In other words, while the individual kamikaze pilot found himself thrown into the immediate situation of the cockpit, the many individuals on the ground who were attacked at Pearl Harbor suddenly found themselves collectively “thrown” into a world war:

To illustrate the relationships between higher-level or system features, on the one hand, and micro level phenomena, on the other, I want to borrow an example from Roger Sperry. Consider a wheel rolling down hill. The wheel is entirely made of molecules. The behavior of the molecules causes the higher-level, or system feature of solidity. Notice that the solidity affects the behavior of the individual molecules. The trajectory of each molecule is affected by the behavior of the entire solid wheel. But of course there is nothing there but molecules. The wheel consists entirely of molecules. So when we say the solidity functions causally in the behavior of the wheel and in the behavior of the individual molecules that compose the wheel, we are not saying that the solidity is something in addition to the molecules; rather, it is just the condition that the molecules are in. But the feature of solidity is nonetheless a real feature, and it has real causal effects.[9]

Finally, let us not forget Walter Kaufmann’s (1921–1980) critique in Discovering the Mind Vol. II: Nietzsche, Heidegger and Buber (1980) that all the ideas in Heidegger’s great Book of the Blackforest can already be found in Leo Tolstoy’s (1828–1910) novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) where passages like––

“It is as if I [Ivan] had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death….”

Suddenly some force struck [Ivan] in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light. What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.[10]

––do seem to be echoed by Heidegger 40 years after Tolstoy penned them. But Tolstoy had been writing about being and time and death for a while. He had realized very early on that, “When we don’t think we don’t feel. When a man thinks, it is the worse for him.”[11] Moreover:

It happened with me as it happens with everyone who contracts a fatal internal disease. At first there were the insignificant symptoms of an ailment, which the patient ignores; then these symptoms recur more and more frequently, until they merge into one continuous duration of suffering. The suffering increases, and before he can turn around the patient discovers what he already knew: the thing he had taken for a mere indisposition is in fact the most important thing on earth to him, is in fact death…. We cannot cease to know what we know.[12]

So we know we’ve been thrown. And we know it without ever having read Heidegger. Let us end with Emerson:

Be a football to time & chance [,] the more kicks the better so that you inspect the whole game & know its uttermost law. As true is this ethics for trivial as for calamitous days.[13]



[1] Seneca, Epistle XCI.

[2] Seneca, Epistle XCI.

[3] Seneca, Epistle CVII.

[4] Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks [JMN], Vol. III, June 29, 1827, pp. 92–93. *“[Editor’s note:] See Taylor’s Holy Living p. 128 Phil. Ed…. The edition to which Emerson refers is uncertain. The earliest listed Philadelphia edition of Holy Living is 1835.”

[5] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” (1841) last paragraph. See also from Emerson’s journals:

What is the matter with the world that men do not rule themselves but let circumstances rule them. They lay no plan of life but are guided by the gale that haps to blow. Should we not think it strange that an architect should begin to build a house without having determined upon any measurement for the front or the height or the disposal for the room within but left himself to be governed by the shape or the quantity of the materials he might chance to collect? Would you not call the mariner mad who left the port with the first wind that blew & as the wind changed loosened his sheets & still stood before it the wind let it blow from what quarter it would. What does he do? He With an anxious face he pulls sits down to his charts, he consults his chronometer, he takes the altitude of the sun, he heaves the log into the deep & so painfully determines from hour to hour the steadfast course he would keep through the sea. (JMN, Vol. III, June 25, 1828, pp. 132–33.)

[6] Lang, “Disillusions from Astronomy.” Grass of Parnassus: First and Last Rhymes. London: Longman’s, Green, and Co. 1892. p. 146.

[7] Steiner, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. Revised edition of The Philosophy of Freedom. Translated by Mrs. R. F. Alfred Hoernle. 1922. Putnam: NY. p. 4.

[8] Lewis, “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages.” Chapter 3 from The Discarded Image: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge UP. 1966. Originally delivered in 1956 as a pair of lectures to an audience of scientists in Cambridge. Reprinted in Chaucer and His Contemporaries: Essays on Medieval Literature and Thought. Edited and Introduced by Helaine Newstead. NY: Fawcet. 1968. 46–66 at 54.

[9] Searle, “Free Will as a Problem in Neurobiology.” Freedom and Neurobiology. pp. 48–49.

[10] Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, IX, XII.

[11] Tolstoy, Sebastopol (1855), I.

[12] Tolstoy, A Confession (1880), III, VI.

[13] Emerson, JMN, Vol. V, October 8, 1837, Journal C, p. 391.

Aug 2 2016

Questions and Comments for Folks Who Like to Read

bookbread Canterbury

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]



[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.

Mar 9 2016

Fun and Philosophy with Martin Buber

bookbread pencil shavings


What’s not to like about Martin Buber? Walter Benjamin, Walter Kaufmann, Gershom Scholem, Franz Kafka, Leo Strauss et al answer that question in Benjamin Ivery’s interview with Dominique Bourel in The Forward:

Buber is often between two fields. He writes too well to be a philosopher, and that unsettled people.

Read it all here.

Mar 2 2016

Plato and Dante: Scattered Thoughts on Spinning Tops

bookbread pencil shavings

This is a scattered post I’ve been working on for the past three weeks…. Is it pastiche, goulash, a patchwork quilt perhaps? ….

Some old books, such as Plato’s Republic and Dante’s Commedia, act on the reader like spinning tops,[1] where each page can be read both centrifugally and centripetally. The centrifugal reading seeks the essence, the thesis, of Plato and Dante—it asks how those authors relate to themselves within their works. On the other hand, centripetal reading seeks to connect the Commedia and Republic to any and every other kind of knowledge—it asks how their works relate to everyone else’s works and knowledge.

I’m thinking about things centrifugal and centripetal because after Texas’ Super Tuesday 2016 my head keeps spinning. So weary of hearing a conservative political-follower say America has lost its faith in a god––so weary of hearing a liberal political-follower say America has lost its faith in a government.[2] Have we lost faith in political leadership and believe only in our own political followership?

I do not expect our poets to be politicians, nor do I expect our politicians to be poets. Yes, in the days of Plato and Dante a poet and politician could be one in the same, but why now does that dual-role sound like a contradiction? What is the clash ringing in our ears? ….

Both Plato and Dante were politician-poets. But Plato gave up politics, while politics gave up Dante. The Florence comune exiled Dante with threat of death while the Athenian jury sentenced Socrates to self-execution….

Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth. Plato was a corrupted youth who forswore politics. Dante was accused of being an incorruptible politician. Socrates is offered exile, but death, for him and unlike Dante, is a better choice….

In the Commedia, Dante is the representative of the living. In the eyes of the dead he is poet-politician-leader. Neither Plato nor Socrates speaks to the dead. But Plato does bring Socrates back to life, for by the grace of Plato’s pen, Socrates is resurrected into the everlasting life of dialogue….

When Plato has Socrates speak of contradictions, he writes things like:

[Someone] might say of a spinning top that the whole thing stands still and turns at the same time, when it fixes the peg in one spot and goes round and round upon it, and so also anything else does this that goes round in a circle in the same place, but we should not accept that. We should say that such things are not resting and revolving in the same parts of themselves, but they have a straight part (the axis) and a circling part (the periphery); in the straight part it moves round; and when it leans the perpendicular to right or left or front or back while it revolves, then it does not stand still anymore…. So such a saying will not dismay us, and it will never convince us that the same thing in the same place towards the same thing could sometimes be or do or suffer two opposites.[3]

So contradictions for Plato are like spinning tops where two things––a centripetal-axis from which the top spins and a centrifugal tangent of the outermost edge of the top’s surface––almost appear as one. (Yet here it might be apt to recall a dictum from Gregory Bateson: “it takes two to know one.”)[4] We know that the two things really aren’t one but aren’t quite sure where to mark the divide between them.

Wittgenstein says that when you encounter a contradiction, instead of worrying about whether it exists or not, you must repent from the way of thinking that originally led you to the contradiction––

to get a clear view of the state of affairs before the contradiction is resolved.  (And this does not mean that one is sidestepping a difficulty).[5]

For Wittgenstein, comprehending a contradiction is all about backpedaling, retrenching, repenting of present sins (mistakes in one’s thinking) and returning to prior piety. In other words, one must turn around and retread over the previous course, just as YHVH repents to Moses…. [6]

Now when Dante speaks of contradictions, he writes things like:

dal quale in qua stato li sono a’ crini;
ch’assolver non si può chi non si pente,
né pentere e volere insieme puossi

 [one can’t absolve a man who’s not repented,
and no one can repent and will at once;
the law of contradiction won’t allow it.][7]

The Italian humanist Poggio Braccidini, who lived a generation after Dante, provides a perplexing twist to Dante’s take on contradictions:

A certain man, either seriously or to play a trick on the priest, went to him saying that he wished to confess his sins. Invited to say what he remembered of his wickedness, he related that he had stolen something from another, but added that this other had stolen more from him.

Said the confessor: “One thing cancels out another, so you are quits now.”

Then the man added that he had beaten a certain fellow with a stick, but that he had received several blows in return from this person.

And the priest said that here, too, one thing cancelled out another, and that all was well.

At last the penitent said that there remained a sin for which he was much ashamed, and blushed before the priest to have to tell it.

The confessor exhorted him to forget his shame and reveal the sin. Yielding at last to the persistence of the friar, the man said: “I once had your sister.”

“And I”, replied the priest, “on several occasions had your mother, and here, as in the other cases, one thing cancels out another.”

And for this equality in sin, he absolved him.[8]

Does Poggio’s facetiae, his bawdy, brief tale, lead to contradictions, or does it absolve contradictions?

I leave as I came: with my head spinning.




[1] See Northrop Frye’s remarks in The Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton UP (1957):

Whenever we read anything, we find our attention moving in two directions at once. One direction is outward or centrifugal, in which we keep going outside our reading, from the individual words to the things they mean, or, in practice, to our memory of the conventional association between them. The other direction is inward or centripetal, in which we try to develop from the words a sense of the larger verbal pattern they make. (p. 73)

Compare, George Steiner in The Death of Tragedy, NY: Knopf (1961), for whom Dante is more centrifugal than Shakespeare, while the latter is vice versa:

Whereas Dante’s vision bends all light rays toward a controlling centre, Shakespeare’s sense of the world appears to move outward. (p. 21)

[2] For examples, see: Johnson, Byron. “The good news about evangelicalism.” February 2011. First Things. (http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/02/the-good-news-about-evangelicalism); “Trust in Government” Gallup. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/5392/trust-government.aspx); “Confidence in U.S. Branches of Government Remains Low” Gallup. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/183605/confidence-branches-government-remains-low.aspx).

[3] Plato, Republic, IV 436A–436D. In Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6. Translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1969.

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

[5] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. 1953. I, § 125.

[6] Exodus 32:9–14; Kaufmann, Walter. “Prologue to I and Thou,” In Martin Buber’s Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) 1923. Translated by Kaufmann. NY: Scribner. 1970. pp. 34–37.

[7] Alighieri, Dante. Inferno XXVII, 117–19. In Divine Comedy. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Notes by Peter Armour. NY: Everyman’s Library. 1995.

[8] Braccidini, Poggio. In The Facetiae of Poggio: and other Medieval StoryTellers. London, UK: Dutton. 1927. LXXX 106–07.


Oct 21 2015

Elmer Gantry’s Theology & the Benedict Option

bookbread pencil shavings

Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option seeks to establish clusters of Christian communities instead of cloisters. The Ben Opters have two enemies: Secular Liberal Purists and Moral Therapeutic Deists.

I agree with C. S. Lewis that atheism is too easy, but I severely disagree that simplicity in theology is somehow the work of the devil (Mere Christianity. NY: Macmillan. 1944. Reprint 1952. 46-48). Rather simplicity is the way to wisdom—just as brevity is the soul of wit (Hamlet II, ii)—but Lewis doesn’t address this point.

Yet once all the orthodox-in-name-only have been purged (or politely asked to leave) the cluster sought by Dreher and others, how will the remaining Ben Opters handle the Elmer Gantrys who will inevitably emerge from among them?

Take a funny scene from Sinclair Lewis’s novel from 1927:

“And of course, Brother Fislinger, you believe in infant damnation.”

Eddie explained, “No; that’s not a Baptist doctrine.”

“You–you–” The good doctor choked, tugged at his collar, panted and wailed: “It’s not a Baptist doctrine? You don’t believe in infant damnation?”

“W-why, no–”

“Then God help the Baptist church and the Baptist doctrine! God help us all, in these unregenerate days, that we should be contaminated by such infidelity!” Eddie sweat, while the doctor patted his plump hands and agonized: “Look you here, my brother! It’s very simple. Are we not saved by being washed in the blood of the Lamb, and by that alone, by his blessed sacrifice alone?”

“W-why, yes, but–”

“Then either we are washed white, and saved, or else we are not washed, and we are not saved! That’s the simple truth, and all weakenings and explanations and hemming and hawing about this clear and beautiful truth are simply of the devil, brother! And at what moment does a human being, in all his inevitable sinfulness, become subject to baptism and salvation? At two months? At nine years? At sixteen? At forty-seven? At ninety-nine? No! The moment he is born! And so if he be not baptized, then he must burn in hell forever. What does it say in the Good Book? ‘For there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.’ It may seem a little hard of God to fry beautiful little babies, but then think of the beautiful women whom he loves to roast there for the edification of the saints! Oh, brother, brother, now I understand why Jimmy here, and poor Elmer, are lost to the faith! It’s because professed Christians like you give them this emasculated religion! Why, it’s fellows like you who break down the dike of true belief, and open a channel for higher criticism and sabellianism and nymphomania and agnosticism and heresy and Catholicism and Seventh-day Adventism and all those horrible German inventions! Once you begin to doubt, the wicked work is done! Oh, Jim, Elmer, I told you to listen to our friend here, but now that I find him practically a free-thinker–”

Theology will not save Americans from being themselves, just as it could not save a genius Jew from Poland like Solomon Maimon:

Originally the Cabbalah [that is, “tradition”] was nothing but psychology, physics, morals, politics, and such sciences, represented by means of symbols and hieroglyphs in fables and allegories, the occult meaning of which was disclosed only to those who were competent to understand it. By and by, however, perhaps as the result of many revolutions, this occult meaning was lost, and the signs were taken for the things signified. But as it was easy to perceive that these signs necessarily had meant something, it was left to the imagination to invent an occult meaning which had long been lost. The remotest analogies between signs and things were seized, till at last the Cabbalah degenerated into an art of madness according to method, or a systematic science resting on conceits. The big promise of its design, to work effects on nature at pleasure, the lofty strain and the pomp with which it announces itself, have naturally an extraordinary influence on minds of the visionary type, that are unenlightened by the sciences and especially by a thorough philosophy. (Autobiography, Translated from the German, with Additions and Notes, by J. Clark Murray. Boston: Cupples & Hurd. 1888, p. 94)

Or as Walter Kaufmann once put it:

Theology is a misguided attempt to make poetry scientific, and the result is neither science nor poetry. (Critique of Religion and Philosophy. NY: Doubleday. 1958. §58, p. 238.)

Jul 16 2015

5 Benedict Options for Single Folk: an Open Reply to Rod Dreher

bookbread athens



Rod Dreher of The American Conservative has tirelessly been exploring for himself and imploring other orthodox (or authentic?) American Christians to consider the Benedict Option–yet for all his efforts he continues to be hounded by friendly and hostile readers to explain, explain, explain what such an Option might mean.


Dreher keeping writing and writing; yet among him and his scattered supporters, scant attention has been directed toward what a Benedict Option might mean for single folks in America. In the optimistic-secularist spirit of David Hume, I offer five suggestions that I have been trying to implement in my own life for the past several years:


  1. Opting out of the idolatry of all pet husbandry, adoption, and ownership and opting in for compassion and caretaking for stray and needy human beings in my community.


  1. Opting out of the idolatry of professional, collegiate, and local sports; opting in to binge-reading and other library labors.


  1. Opting out of the idolatry of religion (in its old, etymological sense of “binding” as well as its modern meanings of “just another bureaucracy” and “authority-for-authority’s-sake”) and opting in to authentic encounters in the I-You mode of discourse used by individuals while resisting the I-It mode of “discord” practiced by all modern institutions.


  1. Opting out of the idolatry of the telescopic view of national politics and celebrity (and media thereof) and opting in toward a radical, microscopic focus on politics, law, and arts-&-entertainment strictly at state and local levels.


  1. Opting out of being a proactive consumer of Big Pharma and Big Farming and Big Business Dieting; opting in for cooking my own food when I can; fasting when I should; and giving radically generous gratuities when eating out.


While man cannot live in a continual Sabbath, he should not resign himself to a flat two-dimensional life from which he escapes on rare occasions. The place of the sacred is not a house of God, nor church, synagogue, or seminary, nor one day in seven, and the span of the sacred is much shorter than twenty-four hours. The Sabbath is every day, several times a day.

–Walter Kaufmann, “Prologue to I and Thou p. 30.