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Manners

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Manners have the power to preserve [a] salutary distance between the public and the private by enabling us to recognize the distinctive and legitimate claims that others make on us. The codes of charitable behavior require lessons in wearing the right kinds of masks. Against the contemporary urge to dispense with masks and to “let it all hang out,” as the crude metaphor has it, W. H. Auden insists:

Only animals who are below civilization and the angels who are beyond it can be sincere. Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it; and they can be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the insane who do not.

The ancient Greeks understood this necessity of wearing a face, the requirement to project a certain image of oneself in order to exist as any self at all. We become the things we perform, as the outward life largely shapes the inward, despite modern notions to the contrary. In fact, the Greek word persona means “mask.” The question is never whether we shall wear masks, therefore, but what kind of masks we shall wear.

Auden further elaborates the nature of manners: “To be well–bred means to have respect for the solitude of others, whether they be mere acquaintances or, and this is much more difficult, persons we love; to be ill–bred is to importune attention and intimacy, to come too close, to ask indiscreet questions and make indiscreet revelations, to lecture, to bore.” Good breeding and gracious manners cannot serve, of course, as a surrogate for grace itself. Yet in a culture at least nominally Christian—as O’Connor’s Christ–haunted South most surely was—the two orders of grace should not be wholly alien. There is something profoundly courteous in the call of the gospel to count others better than oneself: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). O’Connor believed that the social manners of the South, despite their many deceptions and hypocrisies, could sometimes serve as a far–off reflection of God’s own incarnate love.

. . .

In a speech given at the outbreak of World War I, John Fletcher Moulton dealt with what O’Connor calls the social discipline that must be rooted in manners by distinguishing between the obligatory and the voluntary spheres of human life. He argued that the domain of “Positive Law” prescribes the things we are required to do and to refrain from doing in order for society to exist at all. Here our masks are effaced, as it were, in the act of becoming public citizens. At its opposite extreme lies the domain of “Absolute Choice”: there we are at liberty to follow the bent of our own wills, without prohibitions or commands of any kind—thus wearing whatever masks we choose. In that realm of utter freedom are born all “spontaneity, originality, and energy.” But between these two rather restricted realms lies the vast uncharted region that Lord Moulton calls “manners.” Here we impose limits on ourselves; here we do what we ought to do even though we are not obliged to do it; here we refuse to turn our liberty into license, honoring instead “the sway of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste.” The task of manners, therefore, is to find the right mask, the projected image that enables uncoerced charity. Hence Moulton’s description of manners as “Obedience to the Unenforceable”:

To my mind the real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of Obedience to the Unenforceable. It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and its existence and area testify to the way they behave in response to that trust. Mere obedience to Law does not measure the greatness of a Nation. It can easily be obtained by a strong executive, and most easily of all from a timorous people. Nor is the license of behavior which so often accompanies the absence of Law, and which is miscalled Liberty, a proof of greatness. The true test is the extent to which individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self–imposed law.

(Ralph Wood, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ–Haunted South, 128–129, 132)

See also: Nowhere

Written by Scott Moonen

October 27, 2018 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Books, Quotations

Rules

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We assume that rules will irremediably inhibit what would otherwise be the boundless and intrinsic creativity of our children, even though the scientific literature clearly indicates, first, that creativity beyond the trivial is shockingly rare and, second, that strict limitations facilitate rather than inhibit creative achievement. Belief in the purely destructive element of rules and structure is frequently conjoined with the idea that children will make good choices about when to sleep and what to eat, if their perfect natures are merely allowed to manifest themselves. These are equally ungrounded assumptions. (Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, Rule 5)

See also: Self-control

Written by Scott Moonen

September 1, 2018 at 11:02 am

Posted in Books, Parenting, Quotations

Risk

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Douglas Wilson summarizing Nassim Taleb’s Skin in the Game:

Taleb is arguing that risk is not only a good thing, it is a necessary good thing. It is really a good thing; and we should covet it; we should pursue it; we should embrace it; we should not resent it; we should not try to structure our lives in such a way that we are buffered from the consequences of our choices.

You want to live in such a way that when you make a wise choice, you reap the benefit; when you make a foolish choice, you want the consequences to rain down upon your head.

That is the way of wisdom.

See also: Irrevocable.

Written by Scott Moonen

July 13, 2018 at 8:47 am

Posted in Books, Quotations

No, not one (2)

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Resorting to a psychological explanation [of Peter’s denial of Jesus] is less innocent than it appears. In refusing the mimetic interpretation, in looking for the failure of Peter in purely individual causes, we attempt to demonstrate, unconsciously of course, that in Peter’s place we would have responded differently; we would not have denied Jesus. Jesus reproaches the Pharisees for an older version of the same ploy when he sees them build tombs for the prophets that their fathers killed. The spectacular demonstrations of piety toward the victims of our predecessors frequently conceal a wish to justify ourselves at their expense: “If we had lived in the time of our fathers,” the Pharisees say, “we would not have joined them in spilling the blood of the prophets.”

The children repeat the crimes of their fathers precisely because they believe they are morally superior to them. This false difference is already the mimetic illusion of modern individualism, which represents the greatest resistance to the mimetic truth that is reenacted again and again in human relations. The paradox is that the resistance itself brings about the reenactment. (René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 20)

Written by Scott Moonen

June 4, 2017 at 8:42 pm

Posted in Books, Quotations

No, not one

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When Jesus declares that he does not abolish the Law but fulfills it, he articulates a logical consequence of his teaching. The goal of the Law is peace among humankind. Jesus never scorns the Law, even when it takes the form of prohibitions. Unlike modern thinkers, he knows quite well that to avoid conflicts, it is necessary to begin with prohibitions.

The disadvantage of prohibitions, however, is that they don’t finally play their role in a satisfying manner. Their primarily negative character, as St. Paul well understood, inevitably provokes in us the mimetic urge to transgress them. The best way of preventing violence does not consist in forbidding objects, or even rivalistic desire, as the tenth commandment does, but in offering to people the model that will protect them from mimetic rivalries rather than involving them in these rivalries.

Often we believe we are imitating the true God, but we are really imitating only false models of the independent self that cannot be wounded or defeated. Far from making ourselves independent and autonomous, we give ourselves over to never ending rivalries.

The commandment to imitate Jesus does not appear suddenly in a world exempt from imitation; rather it is addressed to everyone that mimetic rivalry has affected. Non-Christians imagine that to be converted they must renounce an autonomy that all people possess naturally, a freedom and independence that Jesus would like to take away from them. In reality, once we imitate Jesus, we discover that our aspiration to autonomy has always made us bow down before individuals who may not be worse than we are but who are nonetheless bad models because we cannot imitate them without falling with them into the trap of rivalries in which we are ensnarled more and more.

We feel that we are at the point of attaining autonomy as we imitate our models of power and prestige. This autonomy, however, is really nothing but a reflection of the illusions projected by our admiration for them. The more this admiration mimetically intensifies, the less aware it is of its own mimetic nature. The more “proud” and “egoistic” we are, the more enslaved we become to our mimetic models. (René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 14-15)

Written by Scott Moonen

June 4, 2017 at 8:33 pm

Posted in Books, Quotations

Light

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Speaking of how the effects of the gospel can dissipate, René Girard writes:

All our resistance is turned against the light that threatens us. It has revealed so many things for so long a time without revealing itself that we are convinced it comes from within us. We are wrong to appropriate it. We think we are the light because we witness it. (Girard, The Scapegoat, 205)

Written by Scott Moonen

May 27, 2017 at 2:56 pm

Religion and culture

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Peter Leithart opens his recent book, Delivered From the Elements of the World, with the following observation:

No purely secular society exists or has ever existed. Define religion how you will: As a matter of ultimate concern, as belief in something transcendent, as the organizing master narrative for history and human lives, as a set of practices. However religion is defined, all institutions, structures and patterns of behavior have religious features. All cultures are infused with values and actions that have religious dimensions and overtones. Whether they name the name of a known God or not, societies and cultures are always patterned by some ultimate inspiration and aspiration.

By the same token, all religions have social aspects; they are all embedded in and rely on patterns of interaction among persons. Even the retreat of a solitary ascetic into the desert is a social act, since it is a retreat from social relation. And all religions deal with artifacts, symbols and rituals that might as well be called “cultural.”

Religion is not the “soul” of culture, nor culture the “body” of religion. Religions have bodies, and cultures have souls. It is rather the case that in dealing with any group of human beings, we are always dealing with socio-religious or religio-cultural entities. The common contemporary rhetoric of conflicts between religion and politics obscures the reality. Conflicts are never between politics and religion. Conflicts are always between rivals that are both religious and both political.

Islamic terrorists kill themselves and innocent bystanders for overtly religious reasons. In response, the United States sends troops to the Middle East to make the world safe from terrorism, but also to sacrifice themselves to preserve and advance America’s values, freedom and democracy. To say that the terrorist and the Marine are both motivated by religious values is not to make a moral equivalence. But we misread the times unless we recognize that the war on terror is a religious war on both sides.

We think ourselves all secular, all grown-up, but we have our taboos, our pollution avoidances, our instincts of recoil and disgust. Not so long ago, many found homosexual sodomy disgusting. In a matter of decades, the disgust has turned inside out, and now those who consider homosexual conduct sinful and unnatural are outcasts, treated with contempt. The freedom to engage in any form of consensual sex is now considered a right, and a sacred one, as inviolable as the sacred precincts of an ancient temple. (Delivered From the Elements of the World, 11-12)

Written by Scott Moonen

August 1, 2016 at 6:49 am

Posted in Books, Quotations