I Guess Madness Runs In The Family:

My sister writes to report that she just had a wonderful run up in Wyoming..  She's training for a marathon again, and the run was 15 miles.  She says that the usual pain she's been experiencing didn't appear, just some blisters she puts down to having been wearing these at the time.
Apparently the roads were icy because of an ongoing snowstorm.  I'd say something cutting about the quality of her judgment, but honestly, I have no standing to do so.  I haven't committed this particular offense against right reason, but I have certainly committed others at least as bad.

The Fields of Athenry

A Vice that Leans Toward Virtue

The man who does not know who his great-grandfather was, naturally enough would not care what he was. The Caskodens have pride of ancestry because they know both who and what. 
Even admitting that it is vanity at all, it is an impersonal sort of failing, which, like the excessive love of country, leans virtueward; for the man who fears to disgrace his ancestors is certainly less likely to disgrace himself.
Charles Major (under the pen name Edwin Caskoden) wrote these lines in the introduction to his novel set in the early years of Henry VIII.  I have a copy of his book -- first American edition! -- because not long ago I stopped my motorcycle by a ramshackle old Georgia building in Carlton, Georgia (once locally important as a farming town located on the railroad line, but now, population 233).  You can see a few pictures of the town here; the only building that remains in very good repair is the Post Office.

The antique store had a copy forgotten on a back shelf, for which they asked three dollars.  It is no surprise to find a book like this in Georgia, although it was too late to share the blame that Mark Twain put on Ivanhoe.

It's proving to be a very good book, with some memorable scenes and lines.  This one right at the introduction especially caught my interest.  It's an interesting concept:  a vice that leans toward virtue.  This particular vice is perhaps unique in that regard, because it is pride:  and pride has a conflicted history in the West.

This good sort of pride is really honor.  To honor is to give of yourself for something or someone worthy; honor is the quality of a man who does.  Thus the pride in one's ancestry is a form of respect for the worthy things they have done; and if you demonstrate your respect for them by trying to live so as not to disgrace them, you have become a man of honor yourself.

The vice of pride is something like vanity, and in this guise its history is far less noble.  To some degree the difference in emphasis is between the non-Christian and Christian elements that make up Western civilization, but not entirely.  There is a qualitative difference between these two expressions:  the one is a form of sacrifice, and the other a form of self-service.

You may enjoy the book, in any case.  It takes the trouble to flatter the reader by making the hero -- a young soldier of energy and skill -- a great lover of books, which is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.  It was just such a love of letters among an active and warlike people that made Ivanhoe such an influence in the South, and that doubtless brought this particular copy of the book to Georgia in its first available edition.


Today Mickey Kaus points to a book from 1978 that demonstrates what he calls an 'eerie prescience.'  The book's thesis is...
...that control of politics has passed out of the hands of the majority in part as a consequence of the development of a body he identifies as "the new elite", whose self identity is based not on ties to a specific community, but on a common reference to "scientific" measurement of intelectual capacity by grade scores and class achievements. This, he contends, drives an anti-majoritarian urge, which removes control from the hands of the electorate. The "new elites" do not accept the principle that all others are entitled to a valid and meaningful vote on issues which concern all of society.
Indeed.  So today, we have a ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by a democratic majority.
The Court finds that neither Congress' claimed legislative justifications nor any of the proposed reasons proffered by BLAG constitute bases rationally related to any of the alleged governmental interests. Further, after concluding that neither the law nor the record can sustain any of the interests suggested, the Court, having tried on its own, cannot conceive of any additional interests that DOMA might further.... 
Prejudice, we are beginning to understand, rises not from malice or hostile animus alone. It may result as well from insensitivity caused by simple want of careful, rational reflection or from some instinctive mechanism to guard against people who appear to be different in some respects from ourselves.
This is not the first time we've talked about this claim that there is "no rational basis" for this definition of marriage.  I remain astonished by the claim, however, because this definition of marriage is backed by a huge amount of rational argument, with a history of hundreds of years.  Just last fall, we looked at Aquinas' arguments on whether matrimony arises from natural law.

Let's make two points about this.

1)  Note the list of citations in the series of sophisticated arguments offered.  The principle cited sources are Cicero and Aristotle, from works on ethics, rhetoric, and politics.  There is only one Catholic text cited, and it's offered as an example of an argument Aquinas rejects.  This underlines the point -- recently made to the German parliament -- that natural law theory is not a Christian but a secular philosophy, one that arises chiefly from the Stoics but also from Aristotle.

2)  Aquinas follows Aristotle and Boethius in defining humanity in terms of its rational nature.  "A person is an individual substance of rational nature."

My point here is not that Aquinas' definition is right, or impossible to argue against, or that you should personally adopt it.  It is that the claim that this definition is without a rational basis is indefensible.  It is simply impossible to sustain that argument.

How much easier, though, to assert it!  How much easier to declare that the problem is "a simple want of careful, rational reflection" -- and that of a tradition founded on Aristotle, Aquinas, Cicero, Boethius, and the Stoics!

"Poker Lessons from Richelieu"

Such is the title of this book review, which makes the case that the famous Cardinal was marked more by a gambler's sentiment than a manipulator's.  Since we were just talking about the Thirty Years War, here is a relevant section:

 In 1618, what would become known as the Thirty Years’ War broke out -- Europe’s last great spasm of religious warfare, in which a furious conflict between a series of Protestant states, on one side, and the House of Hapsburg and its Catholic allies, on the other, tore the center of the continent apart. France, a Catholic state itself, nevertheless intervened on the Protestant side, hoping to supplant the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburgs as the strongest power in Europe. 
Richelieu initially felt that France could do no more than subsidize Protestant efforts and engage in strictly limited military campaigns. Ironically, he feared treachery from the Huguenots, France’s own small Protestant minority, who had lingering grievances against the French state and control of several strategic towns, including the Atlantic port of La Rochelle. Realizing that he had to address the Huguenot threat before intervening seriously abroad, in 1627 Richelieu laid siege to La Rochelle and starved the city into submission. (By the end of the operation, even the rats had disappeared, and the starving locals were reduced to eating boiled shoe leather.)

La Rochelle has one of the more interesting civic histories.

Apparently We're Doing This Crusade Thing Now...

So I gather, anyway.  I had thought this was supposed to be a distraction from the economic issues, but it looks like we're all in.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Tuesday that President Barack Obama's administration has "fought against religion" and sought to substitute a "secular" agenda for one grounded in faith. 
Obama's campaign seized on the characterization, calling Romney's comments "disgraceful." 
Romney rarely ventures into social issues in his campaign speeches, but people participating in a town hall-style meeting one week before the Michigan primary asked how he would protect religious liberty.
I'm guessing this means this message tests well in focus groups -- not to speak ill of Mr. Romney, which I am done with, but rather as a compliment to his extraordinary message discipline and the professionalism of his campaign.  This is a better-formulated version of Mr. Santorum's remarks re: 'phony theology,' although in fairness, Mr. Romney wasn't speaking off the cuff.

Not that Mr. Santorum is backing off.
“Rick Santorum offered no apologies Tuesday for a controversial speech he gave in 2008 when he talked about the threat of Satan in America. 
“‘I’m a person of faith. I believe in good and evil,’ Santorum said in response to questions from CNN…
Well, if you're going to fight a Crusade, maybe the Crusader is the guy you want.

Either way, it's turning out to be a big deal.

Have a good Lent.  I'm giving up alcohol for the fast, which means that the beer I have in front of me could easily be the last beer I ever have -- after all, I ride a motorcycle everywhere.  It's a good one, though, a worthy end (if end it should prove to be).



We've just finished our annual fire department fundraiser, with its Mardi Gras theme. We had a parade and everything, but I see from scouting out Mardi Gras and Carnival photos on the web that we're really going to have to up our game. As much time and trouble as we put into our festival, it was a pale, pale effort. It makes me want to start work right now on costumes and floats for next year. This is what I call exuberance.

Science and the Burning of Witches

I recently met a Franciscan nun who, after our conversation, gave me a book she thought that I ought to read.  It is called The Holy Longing, by a priest named Ronald Rolheiser.  Some of you may know it; I've only begun it, but already I suspect it is probably infamous among Catholic conservatives.

Aside from that judgment, I am not ready to weigh further on the book's quality; but he does make one claim that is quite wrong.  He is asking for a reconciliation of sorts between the old "paternalistic, Christian heritage" and the new world.  Along the way he defends the old faith with a historical reference:  "[A]s Rene Girard says it is not because we invented science that we stopped burning witches, but rather when, because of the Judeo-Christianity, we stopped burning witches that we invented science." (p. 39-40)

This is wrong as a point of history.  We invented science when we started burning witches.

The usual dates for the witch-burning craze are 1480-1750, around the time of the Reformation and the Thirty Years War.  It was about the time that there was this deep questioning of tradition -- that would lead to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and modern science -- that there also coincidentally spread a new cultural distrust of the feminine.

I was just reading a collection of essays called Friendship in Medieval Europe that shows how much things changed.  Several of these essays note that -- contrary to what many people might expect if they were raised with the modern critique of Western history as "paternalistic" -- the early and High Middle Ages were a golden age for relations between the sexes. Of the Anglo-Saxon period, we learn:
"What we can conclude on a formal level, however, is that 'friendship' is not significantly limited, either in a hierarchical manner -- Boniface and Alcuin are friends with bishops as well as priests, abbots as well as monks -- or with regard to gender -- they are friends both with men and women. Every person (ominis homo -- and not: 'every male') needs a friend, as the Anglo-Saxon abbess Eangyth writes to St. Boniface; and she chooses him to be hers. Alcuin counts several women among his friends." (125)
It turns out that there are vast examples of robust friendships between men and women throughout the early and High middle ages, and into the late middle ages, including whole collections of letters now being studied by scholars across Europe. There is particular importance placed on the exchange of poetry between men and women as tokens of friendship; in the last few years, we've gained awareness of a huge amount of female-written Medieval poetry that is normally captured in letters between friends, including between monastic communities and nunneries. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote on the virtue of friendship, drawing on Aristotle's dictum that we can say to our friend, "You are the other half of my soul," (in Aristotle this is more usually translated 'the friend is our other self'); and the priest Richard Rolle, who died in 1349, wrote that in spite of the dangers of physical attraction between men and women, "that sort of friendship is not improper, but rewarding, if it is practiced with a good intention."

However, in 1401 the chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, wrote a sermon in which he charged that friendship with women put you at risk of "diabolical deception" and 'great evil unless God in his goodness averts it.' Gerson nevertheless knew some women, including Christine de Pisan, whom he engaged with intellectually (and agreed with) in the famous debate of the morality of Roman de la Rose. Christine de Pisan, in the early 1400s, was challenging this new, rising misogyny and objected to the vulgar language that the book put into the mouths of noble women.  But when Gerson wrote his own book about it, he ignored her contributions and did not mention her at all. Gerson lived at the same time as Bernardino of Siena, whose traveling sermons popularized the idea of witches.

As for witch-burning in the early and High Middle Ages, it was actually banned by the Church under penalty of death. The same decree, in 785, banned belief in witches in order to suppress violence against women. That held until the 1400s, when popular pressure in Switzerland and Germany began to force the Church to rethink its stance. As late as the 1390s, though, women confessed to practicing 'white magic' to Inquisitors, but the Inquisitors had nothing in their guidelines about women using magic and had to write for advice.

It looks like the early 15th century is the turning point in which the Church (following popular movements from German-speaking central Europe) began to take the dark view of female sexuality that we have come to associate with witch-burnings.

The easy friendships between men and women that we observe in Chaucer, who lets the Wife of Bath have a merry wit and deliver a good long sermon on the virtues of women, did not quite die with him in 1400. Sir Thomas Malory, born in 1405, stands at the end of this golden age. He was in the English speaking world, which did not receive the witch-burning craze until after his death (England did not pass a law on witchcraft until 1542). Though it is commonplace to blame Malory for making Guinevere's sexuality the cause of the fall of Camelot, it is clear that Malory does not view Guinevere as a bad or wicked woman. In fact, one of the few times that Malory directly addresses his audience is to make the point that "she was a true lover and therefore she had a good end." Her love with Lancelot, though it had tragic practical consequences, is what redeems her for Malory, not what damns her.

Even the wicked sorceress Morgan le Fay is not a witch, but a student of necromancy -- see the article on the meaning of this in the Early and High Middle Ages, which is different from the word's meaning today. Of course, Morgan was a necromancer for Malory, but earlier she had been something else, not a witch but a fairy. In this guise she is the heroine of Marie de France's Lanval, saving the knight from an unfair judgment.

There is a doctrine that the Middle Ages were a dark and miserable time, and that the story of the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment is a story of ever-marching progress toward a more rational society. In truth, the story is more complicated. The same breaking of the old order that allowed for a new scientific world view also let loose a great deal darker. It was not when we became scientific that we stopped burning witches. Rather, that was just when we began.


History Ireland has a counterexample, the earliest witch-burning case I've heard of from 1324. It's worth reading their account in full. The only one who was burned was a minor figure, a servant of the family chiefly charged with heresy; and the secular law worked hard to defy the Church in the face of a very enthusiastic (and foreign) bishop. Of the principal defendants, the woman escaped by flight (she was extraordinarily wealthy), and her husband got off with a penance. The Church forced him to go on pilgrimage and to re-do a part of the local cathedral with lead. It turned out the lead was too heavy for the cathedral roof, which collapsed as a consequence of his fulfilling the penance the bishop had imposed. Divine judgment, possibly.

It's interesting to see how this early case played out, compared with the enthusiasm that would appear in later centuries.

Don't Be So Modest!

The AP says "Obama peddles modest American dream."

Don't be so modest, Mr. President!  I have learned just this morning about how you have improved the lives of millions of people.
As of January, the federal government was mailing out disability checks to more than 10.5 million individuals, including 2 million to spouses and children of disabled workers, at a cost of record $200 billion a year, recent research from JPMorgan Chase shows....
Mental-illness claims, in particular, are surging.
Well of course!  It's the easiest thing in the world to "prove" a mental illness exists; the DSM-IV is widely available and explains exactly how you should act when you go to the doctor.  For that matter, the Social Security office helpfully explains how you can satisfy their requirements.  For example, here is the criteria for establishing that you have a personality disorder.

Once you establish your disability, you are eligible for disability payments and may also be eligible for supplemental income payments.  After two years, you automatically gain membership in Medicare.  You can even work part time, or as a self-employed person, as long as you're careful not to overdo it.

As someone who has often been self-employed, I can easily imagine the benefits of getting cheap health care and a guaranteed income floor.  No wonder so many smart people are signing on.
...a growing number of men, particularly older, former white-collar workers, instead of the typical blue-collar ones, are applying.The big concern about the swelling ranks is that once people get on disability, they’re unlikely to give it up and go back to work. 
“It’s not like other support programs, such as unemployment insurance, which you lose after a year or two,” says Michael Feroli, chief US economist with JPMorgan.
Of course not!  Not that there were jobs for them anyway.

There's only one small problem:
Social Security’s disability fund, which has been operating short of cash since 2005, is forecast to run out of reserves by 2018.  
But hey, that's years away.  We'll figure out how to tax the rich before then, right?

Well, no, we won't, because there isn't enough money on earth to pay for our existing obligations -- and that's without this rise in disability claims.  But the disability issue is small potatoes; its unfunded liabilities are only a little more than twenty trillion dollars.  The people who are really going to get it are the military retirees, who have been promised more than nine hundred trillion dollars in health care benefits that the government hasn't actually funded.

It's already the case that many people are working until they die, paying taxes that fund a system that seems to be subject to some abuse.  Those are the really smart people, in my opinion.  The people who are putting themselves on government largess are going to be left high and dry when the money runs out.

Seen on Memeorandum

H'Wood snubs Muslim Stone:
Sean Stone, son of controversial director Oliver Stone, converted to Islam in Iran last week and says he’s already experiencing a Hollywood backlash.
Muslims stone Christians on Temple Mount:
A mob of some 50 Palestinian Muslims stoned a group of Christian tourists atop Jerusalem's Temple Mount on Sunday morning. Three of the Israeli police officers who acted to protect the Christian group were wounded by the stone-throwers.
There's a kind of subtle difference in the action going on here... I'm not quite sure how to describe it.

I Guess This Constitutes Praise...

At the beginning of January, in the bookshop of Terminal 2 at San Francisco airport, I looked for a translation of the Iliad – not that I really expected to find one. But there were ten: one succinct W.H.D. Rouse prose translation and one Robert Graves, in prose and song, both in paperback; two blank verse Robert Fagles in solid covers; one rhythmic Richmond Lattimore with a lengthy new introduction; and three hardback copies of the new Stephen Mitchell translation, with refulgent golden shields on the cover and several endorsements on the back, of which the most arresting is by Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget: ‘The poetry rocks and has a macho cast to it, like rap music.’
The Fitzgerald translation is my favorite. If you want to do yourself a favor, though, don't buy it as a book. The Iliad is oral poetry, and you will do far better to hear it aloud.

The Perils of Doing What You Love

The Hillbilly Hellcats warn you:

Rathkeltair has the same opinion.