On Steampunk

The first article I ever published alone in a newspaper concerned gothic subculture. When I was a boy, goths were everywhere, pale people wrapped in billowing black trench-coats. They were easy to mock. A female friend once waspishly commented that girls dressed gothic style sent mixed messages: from the neck up, it was "I am a bride of death", from the neck down, “yes please, another cheeseburger and a diet coke". True enough, but not devastating, because having an unattainable ideal was the point. Goths were trying to inhabit an imaginary version of 18th century occultism, one where alchemy and secrecy and magic and mystery were all that they at one time seemed to be.

Steampunk marks the turn of an age. When I was a student, the 18th century was not only present in goth subculture, it was the backdrop against which one wrote and thought. One aspired to the cautious empiricism, gentle irony and satire of Locke, Voltaire, Diderot, Johnson, and Hume. These were the giants who had somehow given birth to our own 20th century progenitors. But the focus has shifted from the 18th century to the 19th. The past against which my students now define themselves is the colonial past of the 19th century. In their young imaginations, the colonies are, not the culmination of Enlightenment, but a sort of moral dark age, and it is from the evil giants of this time that they imagine themselves descended. In this manicheaen picture, Steampunk is the redemption of the age. Steampunk envisions another 19th century, one where steam-powered engines fulfill every promise, where industrialization does not grind down the human spirit but lifts it to new heights.

No wonder that so many of the traits of the 19th century have returned. Sexual hysteria, along with the belief that women are at all times to be protected from predatory male sexuality. Fastidiously groomed facial hair among males. Cloying social consensus. Whiggish certainty about science. It is worth recalling that the Victorians also thought of themselves as having redeemed their age from an evil past.

I’ll admit, I left my heart in the 18th century. I am reminded of a conversation that is supposed to have occurred between Talleyrand and a young admirer who was to be a diplomat of the 19th century. “I want to talk about politics, and all you talk about is women,” he complained to Talleyrand. “But that is politics,” Talleyrand is supposed to have replied.


People rarely make assertions anymore. I remember reading somewhere that Harvey Mansfield, author of Manliness, was particularly fond of the verb ‘to assert’. Well, today manliness is unfashionable and so are assertions, partially I think because they often go together. It is obvious that most of what people say is not particularly worth listening to. If there is a class of people who can regularly assert something that is of value, then this must be an extraordinary class of people. Insofar as they are men they will be manly; which is to say that they will be virtuous. 

Part of the problem is that democracies are often suspicious of the claim that such an extraordinary class of people exists. For if they do, might one not ask whether these extraordinary people should rule? This question makes democrats uncomfortable, even though antiquity shows that rule by the wise, from the revolt against Pythagoras to Plato’s failed philosopher king to the conveniently forgotten city of Thurii, is a pretty mixed bag. But that’s not the answer that is politically expedient in democracies. Better, easier, to encourage the fiction that everyone is equally good, and that in consequence everyone’s opinions are equally valuable, which is to say, valueless. 

The democratic reluctance to recognize human excellence is exacerbated by political polarization. An example: In the New York Times, once a paper of record, someone called Courtney Sender describes in horrible detail several of her sexual encounters. The man in question asked for consent for every little thing, but ignored her after two trysts. Sender was delighted by the consent-asking, which sounds to me like sex as envisioned by Kafka. But she complains of being wronged by the fact that the chap abruptly stopped calling - she did not consent to that! In a democracy, complaints like this have policy implications, and behold, young adults are already being prepared for corporate life by learning that sex is governed by contracts of consent. There may be sensible people who think all this is to the good, but their assumptions differ so greatly from mine that I could not give their assertions much weight. 

The effect of polarization on assertions is nothing new. Before the Protestant Reformation, a morally inexperienced person could have followed Aristotle’s advice and, when in moral doubt, sought out a good man. But suddenly good men could be found on either side of the Protestant/Catholic divide, each advising the importance of killing the other. What remained intact during the Reformation? Perhaps the law. It is not a coincidence, some have thought, that natural law ethics as defended by Hugo Grotius emerged in this period.

Now this world, in which the rain falls on the just and on the unjust alike, does not at first appear to have a natural law. But if there is one, then clearly, like the law of the state, it needs to be worked out by some analogue of lawyers and judges. These lawyers and judges, of course, play the same role as good men did in Aristotle’s original explanation of ethics - they look at the way the world is, and make assertions about it. What changed is that the good men shoehorn the status quo into a moral rule, instead of just judging things as they are. 

Our polarized democracies follow the same pattern, not with law but with mathematized science. Since physics feigns no hypothesis about social issues, what does the job is the soft statistical math of the social sciences. And that is why one so often sees sentences beginning with “studies have shown”. Quite often these sentences state something that any person of middling intelligence would find obvious, for example that children do better when they play outside, or that one should take a little wine for one’s stomach's sake. In a book or article of even seventy years ago, these things would have been asserted. The catastrophe of the last century is evident in the fact that they must now be couched in mathematical terms.

Of course, in historical fact, Protestants and Catholics soon produced their own versions of the moral law. In the same way, natural science is not above our assumptions. I’ll leave aside my scepticism about whether the world has the mathematical structure in which Platonists believe. The trouble is that the wisdom we are trying to compensate for by using these scientific studies is in fact required to formulate them. As psychology is roiled by the replicability crisis, psychologists struggle to replicate, among many other things, Fritz Strack and Leonard Martin’s experiment which suggested that smiling makes you happier. Strack and Martin showed subjects Far Side cartoons while asking them to hold a pen in their lips (which causes a frown) or in their teeth (which causes a smile). Pen-in-teeth subjects found the cartoons funnier. Ergo, if you smile more, you are happier. But recently, when psychologists tried to replicate it, they couldn’t. That’s bad news for the scientistic among us. But ignore for a moment the travails of the pseudo-science of psychology, and consider the number of dubious assumptions that entered even into the original experiment. Is grimacing with a pen inside one’s mouth really the same thing as smiling? Is a Gary Larson cartoon a universal marker for funniness? Do people ordinarily find cartoons funny at in a consistent way? Is it possible that different pen positionings were not proxies for smiling and not smiling, but for something else, perhaps for the control offered by holding a pen in one’s teeth vs. the passivity of having it resting between one’s lips? Etc, etc, etc - just as deferring to the natural law requires a lawyer to make a decision for you, so deferring to ‘studies’ passes the decision off to a social scientist. And that is why the the way issues are framed has become so contentious. Jonathan Kay and Debra Soh’s podcast, Wrongspeak, is a nice guide to this controversy in the realm of sexuality. 

Somebody has to do the job of looking at the world and deciding how it is. The basic lesson of Empiricism is that sensing and understanding is our common inheritance. We should not be in such a hurry to give it up. 

The Political Broom

Nowadays one hears more and more about alt- politics, on both the political left and the right. One thing that stands out is the divergence within these alternative groups. Should we focus on identity or strip it away? Is democracy a good thing that is under attack, or is it the source of our troubles? What about free speech? Equality? And how about fraternity? Pick any of the old standards, and it seems to break up the alt ends of the spectrum differently. The result is that the political spectrum looks like a two ended broom, with alternate pictures of the left and right bristling in multiple directions.

I suspect that this is because conservatism and liberalism are defined relative to the present. The handle of the broom is the present: the conservative wants to conserve aspects of the present, and the liberal or progressive wants the present to move in a certain direction. The further ends of the political spectrum share the assumption that you can't get there from here: no amount of conservation (on the right) or guided stepwise progression (on the left) will get us to a just or well-ordered future.

Alternative politics then necessarily rejects our shared history. The left considers that historical injustices are too deeply rooted in the timeline, and so a slow progression would trim the weeds without removing their root system. The right would agree about the roots. But for the right, it is the present that is rooted in the past, and which seems inevitably to grow out of it. The result is that both left and right must reject the timeline.

But this means that alt politics carries the burden of starting from scratch, something which neither conservatives nor progressives have ever tried to do. Le Corbusier called a house a machine for living in. The definition would be much more aptly applied to a political order. Le Corbusier showed how difficult it is to start from scratch and build good houses, and the century in which he lived made rather the same point about politics more generally.

The Error without a name

In 415 BC, Athens was at war. Its maritime empire had stumbled into a fight with the land power Sparta, and the asymmetry in the way both cities projected power ensured that the war dragged on for years. In the middle of this, Alcibiades, a brilliant, handsome, doomed aristocrat, brought a motion before the Athenian voters: Athens should invade and conquer the island of Sicily. No one knew very much about Sicily, or what sort of defence the Sicilians would mount. But they were confident that the Athenian reputation would precede them, and off the fleet sailed.

The Sicilian expedition was a disaster. The biggest city on the island, Syracuse, turned out to be well fortified and not particularly cowed. The Athenians who were sent were, quite predictably, defeated, and those who were not killed were enslaved. As one reads the story of Athens gratuitously opening a second front in what was a very hot war, one wonders how they could have been so stupid. It's tempting to dismiss this as some primitive story from the ancient world. But if Alcibiades were alive today he'd be in advertising, where his ability to manufacture demand would fit in. Slick advertisers recognize that if you can get people to listen, you can make them desperately want something they'd never heard of ten minutes ago. Athens was particularly vulnerable to this sort of thing because democracy was direct: people could vote on anything immediately after hearing a motion proposed.

Nowadays, we can experience for ourselves the joys of direct democracy on the internet. Moral fashion driven by social media often has this effect: a new moral imperative arises that no one had heard of last year. Consider the dictate that everything must be more diverse. Even if we look past the short term results, the really troubling thing is that the strategic questions remain unanswered. Growing 'diversity' in France has seen a spike in antisemitism leading to a spike in Jewish flight. And like the Sicilian expedition, this result is entirely predictable. Antisemitism is widespread in the Middle East, of course large scale immigration will also import this attitude. The trouble is that no one specified whether diversity entails a diversity of opinions on whether Jews ought to feel at home in France. The problem is that, as with the Sicilian expedition, we are in too much of a hurry to get to terra incognita, to stop and pick up a map.

A friend commented on an earlier post about the ways in which mass movements are like schooling fishes, asking what defence there is against these things. He's right that schooling is itself a defensive behaviour, and for that reason alone there are psychological pressures to join in. Animals who could selectively avoid herding would be evolutionary cheats – and arguably evolution selects for an ethical baseline, perhaps squeezing such cheats out. Maybe that is the explanation for what I find most remarkable, which is that the phenomenon I am describing, which we could call it political correctness, or manufactured demand, or "the Sicilian expedition trap", does not already have a name.

Fortunately, you don't have to resist the herd, you can just avoid it. Jaron Lanier's recent "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now" (the listicle title demonstrates another malign internet influence) is only the most recent plea for less tweeting and more reflection.

An older answer is the liberal arts themselves. Want to know what to do about the problems you find in Thucydides? Start by reading Thucydides.

Birds and Fish

I am fascinated by birds and fish in their flocks and schools. I'm confident that if I watched them very closely and for long enough, I'd see individual animals misreading the group movement and plowing into their neighbours, damaging the overall pattern. But I don't have a sufficiently discerning eye. To me, it looks planned, as the waves of birds or fish ripple, or turn, or fold in on each other in complex, fluid shapes. What do these animals think as they are acting in this remarkable, unchoreographed dance? I suspect that they are following an instinct so basic that it goes unnoticed. I think we human beings do the same thing.

Consider an uncontroversial example: fashion. Fashion twists and turns, and in each of its permutations, it is difficult to resist. Even people who claim to resist it are really drawn along by it. Almost nobody wears kilts or cloaks or beekeeper hats or goggles or any of the things that have obvious value in terms of comfort or utility but are just weird. Why is this? Because, through a force no one can quite understand, we move together.

The more interesting case, the one that is controversial in every generation, is moral fashion. As John Gray writes in Straw Dogs, "Today everyone knows that inequality is wrong. A century ago, everyone knew that gay sex was wrong. The intuitions people have on moral questions are intensely felt. They are also shallow and transient to the last degree… Ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions in hats." In the Victorian period, everyone was a colonialist. The decent view, the view of a good man, was colonialism. That is why when Rudyard Kipling, the great poet of the empire, wrote Recessional, which made the patently obvious point that the British Empire would not last forever, he was condemned for a moral rather than a factual lapse. And so it goes today for those who question the new orthodoxies which, it seems, have an ever shorter gestation period. I'm not sure we have to take Gray's bleak view; I think the Church and some disciplines at the university have timeless foundations. But if they do, for that very reason they are permanently out of step with the times.

Everyone knows the trope where the popular scientist reveals that this or that familiar thing - love, friendship, patriotism or whatever - is merely a manifestation of some evolved, animal urge. The point is usually to take love, friendship or patriotism down a peg or two, to roll it around in the mud of our animal origins. This is often followed by a proclamation of whatever is morally in fashion. For example, patriotism is unmasked as 'mere' tribalism, and then it is noted that tribalism stands in the way of increasing diversity. You have to read a pessimist like Gray to see anyone comment on the fact that ideas like diversity have popped up as moral imperatives a handful of years ago and for reasons that would be difficult to state in non circular terms, I mean, without invoking diversity in the explanation. Here, it seems to me, we see the human as animal most clearly, as a herd animal. As I suspect is the case with birds and fish, the patterns we make mystify no one so much as their creators.

Hedgehog Country

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Isaiah Berlin made much of this fragment Archilochus, which contains a beautiful and intuitive distinction. If you want to apply philosophy to understanding our world, there are worse places to start than the difference between hedgehogs and foxes. Platonic realists, who are in search of the structures of things, are like hedgehogs, while nominalists, who doubt that things have distinct structures, are like foxes. Today, foxes are in short supply.

Platonic realism and nominalism are at two ends of a spectrum of views about the structures of ordinary things. When we organize things, saying that this particular object is a chicken and this is a coop, are we pointing to structures that are basically independent of these physical objects, some sort of Chickenness and Coopness? Or are the chicken and the coop primary, and the structures just ways of organizing these objects? What came first, the chicken or the Chickenness?

On the platonic realist end of the spectrum, Plato taught that Chickenness exists separately from actual chickens. Chickenness is an abstract object, a Form, so independent of actual chickens that even if they all died, the Form would remain as the essence of any potential chickens. At the other end of the spectrum, nominalists think that only individual objects are real, for there is nothing that all chickens share. Between any two individuals (or between their DNA, or between their atomic structure) we discover differences as well as similarities. Chickens resemble each other in the difficult-to-articulate way that family members resemble each other, even though there is no single, family face.

Let me lay my cards on the table. I am a nominalist. I think the best reason for being a nominalist is reflecting on your own ideas. When you consider Chickenness, what colour is it? It can't be white, or red, or black, or any colour of actual chickens, because it must somehow contain all these colours at once. Is it a big chicken or a small one? Well, both at once. Is it shaped like a bantam or a silkie or a Polish chicken - it must be like all of them, without the particularities of any of them. Now I ask you, do you have an idea of Chickenness in mind that meets all these criteria? I don't. Take away the colour, the shape and the size, and I find I'm not thinking of anything at all. I conclude that there is no such thing as Chickenness. And that is why I am a nominalist.

You may not be convinced by my quick resolution of this ancient debate. I may have better luck convincing you that the debate matters. Suppose you are trying to solve a problem. It does not matter whether you are trying to run a company or a state, learning to get along with girls or figuring out how to fix cars. Hedgehogs and foxes have different prescriptions for doing so. The platonic realist tells you that you need to figure out what all states or companies or girls or cars have in common, and work downward towards your problem from those general principles. You need to know one big thing, and then you can apply it to individual cases. The nominalist thinks that you need to avoid abstractions and build up your experience, whether that be experience of running things, getting along with girls or fixing cars. Unfortunately, experience requires time and exposure to the world. The hedgehog thinks that when you get to the abstraction, the messy reality falls away. The fox thinks that reality is messy, and ignoring the mess means ignoring the world. 

What emerges are two very different pictures of human success. On the one hand, you have the platonic theoretician. He is searching for the universal behind the particular. His skill is, as we would say today, managerial, and consequently transferrable between positions. And because his skill is detached form the world, a gift from the gods, even a child can be a theoretician wunderkind. On the other hand, the nominalist picture of success is mastery. The master gains his knowledge slowly, through repeated exposure to reality, through what Aristotle would call experience of particulars. Much of the master's knowledge cannot be articulated, or if it can, only in the form of "you'll understand when you've been at this as long as I have." There are no shortcuts to mastery, which is why children are never masters.

We are living through the triumph of the theoretician, and the consequent eclipse of the master. Just think of how many times in a day you witness one big thing trump many things. The theoretician management consultant who 'streamlines' a task over the objections of the experienced foreman. The education theoretician lectures the weathered teacher about the latest ways of teaching. The freshly minted theoretical doctor (once upon a time, there were also empirical doctors) scoffs at the ministrations of the nurse. Theory replaces mastery, though it is not obvious that work, school or medicine is much improved.

Because the triumph of the theoreticians is so complete, and because it bubbles up from such a deep philosophical wellspring, it blinds us to alternative possibilities. We see this at work. Finance, business and bureaucracy are almost entirely concerned with abstractions, to the wordless pain of many who toil in these areas, but even they cannot imagine a return to a world before metrics and quarterly reports. We see this in natural science, where we discount the mastery of the laboratory and imagine that the scientist's real contribution is flashes of insight into some one big thing. That is also why we tolerate economics, as it lurches from one big disastrous prediction to the next. Even in politics, theory is desired above all things. One of the criticisms routinely leveled at populist leaders is that their guiding doctrines are not, and perhaps cannot be articulated. And since we imagine that the world tends toward theory, we are puzzled and a perhaps little embarrassed by the persistence of mastery in folk remedies, nursing, the wisdom of the old (we prefer ‘wise’ children), craft, combat, tradition and religion.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Platonic realists are ever on the search for the one big theory that will unlock the world. The fox knows that the world is not like that. But we all live in hedgehog country now.

On Mentors

One of the things that I noticed when I left university is how many people profess interest in finding a mentor. No surprise, then that a Google search for "looking for a mentor" gets more than a hundred million results.

What is a mentor? The term comes from a proper name. In the Odyssey, Mentor is a friend to Odysseus' son, Telemachus. Mentor is a respected pillar of the community, one who has found his place in the world, and he gives the young man good advice about how to behave in difficult situations. Importantly, I think, Mentor needs to play this role because Odysseus is absent at Troy. In this sense, Mentor is a surrogate father. Why, one might ask, the sudden need for surrogate fathers?

I can think of a few possibilities. One of these is cynicism. Most people, and most men in particular, have a capacity to view a younger man as a surrogate son. Instead of watching the growth of a young rival with fear and envy, the mentor takes joy in accomplishments that are in some way paternally shared. It helps that mentors are often older, and so not likely to ever compete directly with those whom they mentor. Even so, aspiring mentors might recall that history's most famous mentor was Julius Caesar, and the object of his paternal affections was one Marcus Junius Brutus.

Or perhaps there is a rush for mentors because their assistance really is needed to get the work done. Of course it is always very useful to learn tips from one's colleagues, but a mentor is surely not required for this. The problems that Mentor helps Telemachus to address are genuinely difficult - they require diplomacy and tact. Is the modern workplace more complex than ever before? Personally, I doubt it. But maybe the explanation goes in the other direction: maybe falling IQs leave people ever less able to cope with the demands of work.

But there is a third option. Once upon a time, apprenticeships led to mastery: one worked as an apprentice for a number of years, only to emerge as a master when one had learned all there was to learn. Apprenticeship was modeled on (and generally simultaneous with) adolescence; mastery came with growing up. But white collar work resembles perpetual apprenticeship. We all answer to managers, we are all forever developing our skills and being critiqued in how we do so. We are all lifelong learners, whether we pick up new skills or management techniques. Perhaps this is because mastery requires some concrete object, and so much white collar work is concerned with abstraction. At any rate, if we are perpetual adolescents, it is no wonder that we search out new fathers and seek their approval.

The danger in ideas

Some years ago I was asked to address a homeschooling organization about what homeschooled students, and particularly Christian ones, should expect at university. They asked me because I was homeschooled and then spent many years in university, first as student and then as adjunct professor. I've never made a secret of being Christian or conservative, but I found that even professors who didn't agree with me were willing to engage with what I had to say - provided, as I pointed out to the room, that I showed deference appropriate to the fact that I was a student in the areas in which they had gained expertise. Argue with them, respect them, pray for them, was my advice to students who found themselves in disagreement with their professors. This was when half my audience stormed out of the room. The issue, as I had totally failed to recognize, was evolution. Students who had a strong antecedent commitment to the falsity of evolution couldn't avoid it, and didn't know what to do about it. Neither did I.

At the time, I confess I didn't have a lot of sympathy for my audience. I didn't - and still don't - share their concerns about evolution or their meta-opinion about the importance of the issue. But today the question seems to me much thornier than it did at the time. To see why, observe history professor David Hollinger last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the great value of education.

But over all, the human sciences promote the critical thinking necessary to a democratic society. John Stuart Mill and John Dewey and the Harvard Red Book of 1945 were right about that. Those Texas Republicans who for a while had a platform that called for the end of a critical-thinking component in public education because it might lead students to doubt the authority of the family and of their inherited religion were also right, and for the same reasons. The Texans understood what education in the human sciences means. They knew full well who their enemy was.

The great value of education, according to Hollinger, is that it promotes a sort of democracy incompatible with Texan decency. People like Hollinger illustrate the overall fact that students get radicalized and turned away from their traditions at school. Hollinger-style politics is also why the Heterodox Academy project exists: the university has taken a hard turn to the left, and conservatives are (in all but name) minorities on campus. The project runs a list of colleges which they claim are not indoctrination machines here. There's also the delightful Professor Watchlist, a crowdsourced place to identify campus ideologues - basically Rate My Professor for politics. These things can help, but in the end, going to university entails taking a certain risk, namely that the leftward current of the institution will carry you along with it.

I'm not suggesting that no one should go to university. There are a number of good reasons for doing so. Maybe it will help you get a job (though do independent research on that first). Maybe you're aiming not at any particular job, but at the white collar world generally (though you might do a bit of reading, starting with David Graeber's On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, on that too). Or maybe (this was my situation) you are fascinated by philosophy and love to argue, all the better if you're in the minority. In that case, ye plays the game and ye takes yer chances.

I am suggesting that we should all recognize that, contrary to what Professor Hollinger believes, Mill was not right. To believe the unrestricted marketplace of ideas leads to truth is as naïve as believing that the unrestricted financial marketplace leads to stability. I think the medieval view of both sorts of markets is much more sensible: they function best when they are controlled by an institution that aims at human flourishing. That is why the much mocked Index of Prohibited Books was not a list of unreadable books, but a list of book that good Catholics could not read unless they first gained a university education. Critical thinking used to be a tool that would protect you against sophistry and ideology. That's not what you'll get at university today.

A smaller church

The HBO series, The Young Pope, casts Jude Law as a youthful pontiff who turns the church inward, roots out those who are compromised in one way or another, and presides over a smaller, tighter institution. There's much to quibble with, but the core idea was a hit with young Catholics and young Christians more generally. In part that's because we have the salutary example of organizations like the United Church, which has chased openness to the point where some of their 'clergy' no longer profess a belief in God, and has consequently descended into irrelevance. Many Protestants fear their denominations may not be far behind. Pope Francis' Catholic church also tends in this direction, but fans of The Young Pope hope for a change in his successor.

Turning the church inward would be satisfying, but you might wonder whether it would be good. Wouldn't it mean leaving a lot of fence-sitting Christians behind? Well maybe there's a case to be made for doing that. And failing to turn inward leaves churches locked in a conflict they are bound to lose. They are trying to present Christianity as liberating and open minded. But compared to popular culture in the West today, Christianity is nether of those things. Consider, for example, this Mitchell and Webb skit. In it, Jesus tries to tell the parable of the good Samaritan to a group of followers with contemporary sensibilities. They take offence at the suggestion that there is anything surprising about a Samaritan being the good guy. To presume so would be bigoted, they say, and by today's standards they are right. The parable of the good Samaritan has fallen short.

Let's put this in context. The first Christians said that they were bringing a gospel, i.e. good news. Why good news? Because in pagan religions, although man might through good luck and great personal effort touch the divine, the divine was not particularly interested in man. From Homer to the Neoplatonists, one's odds of reaching the disinterested gods are not good to start with, and are greatly reduced if one is not healthy and free and financially comfortable. Christianity taught that the divine reaches out to help us, that the good shepherd comes in search of the sheep that wander. Jesus didn't walk by the sinners, he went after them - and showed them how to live better lives.

It's this last bit that is out of step with our time. Helping people is OK, but demanding that they change how they live entails judging that their lives are bad. It’s good for Mother Theresa to help the poor, but an outrage that she attempted to evangelize them. It's good for priests to counsel those in need of relationship advice, but the priest had better not suggest that the relationship was disordered to begin with. It's fine to believe that religion is instituted by the all-powerful creator of the universe, but appalling to suggest it might therefore be good for everybody. In other words, the pendulum has swung away from the dour view of the pagans and kept going right through Christianity to the view that we live in an impersonal, benevolent universe and that after death one goes to a vague place of unconditional love. It's not that a few good men scramble into virtue, or even that the divine assists and sanctifies many more, no, everyone (or pretty much everyone) is deserving of respect right from the start. Chesterton called the view that was emerging even in his time 'Christian virtues gone mad', and when you look it isn't hard to recognize in contemporary morality the distorted face of the Christian original.

And that is why the Church would be wise to turn inward. Trying to compete with Christian virtues gone mad is like getting into a price war with Walmart. Don't race to the bottom, United Church style. A better strategy is to compare the relative quality of the products. There is some fact of the matter about how the world works. The world either is or is not a place filled with evil and suffering, where good men sometimes fall tragically. Does the view that every life choice is equally worthy of respect comport with our experience of the world? A look around at the fading Western polities, medicated and increasingly suicidal, might well make us wonder. The Christian answer is an alternative, more restrictive, yes, but with some chance at getting things right.

Do we need more people?

Michael Anton is in the news because he asked the obvious, if nowadays taboo, question: why do we need more people? Anton asked this in the context of the US immigration debate. The conventional answer has for a long time been an economic one: immigration grows the economy. That is what gets conservatives on side, and liberals get on board too because, among other things, immigration grows their voter base beyond organized domestic labour. That has given immigration bipartisan support. But of course the populist wave which began in the US and has even lapped into the Canadian backwater is a rebuke to these positions. True, immigration helps the economy in the sense that it grows overall, but working people end up worse off, with the result that the lives of my generation will be poorer than those of our parents. Another way to put this is that measuring economic growth does not tell you much about peoples' quality of life, which rather raises the question of why we should care about that measuring economic growth. The lower middle classes including the left-wing labour base have been hard hit. Consequently, not only the right but also the left is bleeding into the growing populist torrent. 

But there is another reason to wonder whether we need more people, which is not taboo perhaps because it is so obscure. I remember reading of one of my favourite essayists, the Australian philosopher David Stove, that he wasn't an environmentalist, but given the choice between having another human being and another kangaroo, he'd choose another kangaroo every time. Since Stove's death this disposition has been powerfully articulated by Sir Roger Scruton. His book, Green Philosophy, shows how the linguistic closeness of conservatism and conservationism is not just an artefact of language, since both are projects of preservation aimed at something that is familiar, and fragile, and loved. Scruton hopes to bring back a conservative conservationism – and I hope he succeeds. Now for a conservative conservationist, why do we need more people? Is it not relevant to point out that from 1950 to now, the US grew from about 157 million to 320 million, and Canada from just under 14 million to something over 35 million? Rome, at its height, had about 1 million people in it. My city is unremarkable at about that size. In what sense are our lives improved by these huge numbers of people? Wouldn't it be better to have more nature and less urban sprawl? When I consider the value of another human being as against another kangaroo (I suppose I should pick something Canadian, so let's say another caribou), I find that like Stove, I'd rather have the animal.

To make the observation that it might be good to have fewer people tends to invite the charge of eugenics. But observing the problem does not mean committing to some drastic solution. In fact no solution is necessary; left alone the problem will solve itself. In both Canada and (to a lesser degree) the United States, birth rates tend stubbornly down. Those in thrall to an economic account see this as a problem, and use immigration to keep refreshing our numbers, which then again tend downward… Lovers of nature (whether on the left or the right) should see falling birth rates as the blessing that they are, a wordless repudiation of the massive populations of today. When Benedick falls in love with Beatrice, he reaches for platitudes to shake off his opposition to marriage: "The world must be peopled." A good point, at the time. It's not so obvious today.

On writing for one's friends

Montaigne went out of his way to state that he wrote for his friends. Why? Perhaps he was answering the question that students ask when they inquire about the appropriate notional audience for some piece of work. Writing for a friend means writing for a likeminded peer. One who won't defend a point merely for the sake of winning the argument. One who wants to be delighted, not beaten down with footnotes and qualifications and literature reviews. And one who won't let you pull a fast one.

A great deal of what gets written today, held to Montaigne's standard, would seem to be written for enemies. Let's ignore the sordid stack of business writing, which no one who wasn't on the clock would defend anyway. Academic writing used to delight and inform. What happened to it? Academics are publishing that they may not perish, which is why over a million articles are published each year. Everyone knows that you turn a short idea into an article is by padding it with a literature review at the front and a mess of qualifications at the end. The result is a sort of writing that no one would voluntarily read, and it's been argued that apart from the peer reviewers, no one does. The result is that academics develop a new language to describe their own unreadable works, one where like medieval theologians talking about God, words like 'playful' and 'fun' are at best analogous to the real thing.

If academic writing is written for nobody, much popular writing suffers from being written for everybody. People who are trying to live from their publications cant afford to turn readers away for being uninformed, forgetful or not very clever. And so, articles in magazines are heavy with subordinate clauses that contain bits of remedial information to carry the reader along. Book chapters become ever more like TV episodes, each recapitulating or repeating what happened in the last chapter for the distracted reader. Maybe this is what it takes to live off one's writing. But this, too, is not how we treat our friends.

The trouble with Montaigne's dictum is that it does not seem to connect to the real experience of writing. If we are going to write for our friends, how will we become known for our writing? How will we be compensated for our writing?

Perhaps neither question requires an answer, at least not today. There has never been a clear road to fame or success in human affairs, and writing for one's friends may be as good a path as any. Locke wrote for his friends. It made him the most famous philosopher of his day. Maybe this is because Locke, like Montaigne, understood that writing is a way of seeking new friends, of calling out to likeminded people. Do you know a better way to do that?

And do you know how to write for money? My father's generation did. But the editorial excuse that writing would be compensated by the exposure of being published was born and grew up with my generation. Even those who do get paid can barely make a living, so we might say that being paid is in a practical sense off the table for most of us. What remains is the possibility of writing as an aristocrat. Writing in the form that one chooses, on topics of one's choice, on one's own schedule... and for one's friends.

Whose liberal arts?

This is a blog about the liberal arts. But what do I mean when I talk about the liberal arts? Nowadays to talk about the Western cultural patrimony as the liberal arts is controversial. A few generation ago, it wasn't, but alas, we live in these troubled times. So, whose liberal arts ought we to pursue?

I intend to stand on principle - and duck the question. I don't mean for myself; my views are the old fashioned views of someone in the 1930s or 40s. But as a more general question, I think it may best be ducked. If you have an argument to show that Western liberal arts have what everybody needs, I'm listening. But I am also listening if you want to persuade me that the Western liberal arts belong in the West, and some other thing, or maybe nothing at all, stands in the relation of cultural analog elsewhere.

Philosophically minded religious people will recognize my move here. As in religion (I am a Protestant Christian) so in the liberal arts: I am a local pluralist and, at a greater distance, an inclusivist. Let's start with religion. Christianity has broken into many sects, all within the boundary of Christianity (although that boundary gets a little blurry on the edges). The view that God will count anyone within that boundary as a Christian, that disputes about doctrine are about being right rather than being saved, is called 'pluralism'. The gist is that sects can argue with each other, but all are equally Christians. That is my view.

Just as I am a religious local pluralist, I am a Western liberal arts pluralist. If your home base is literature, Classics, history or - though I may need to hold my nose as I write it - in psychology, political science or social science, I'm not going to dismiss what you do. I think we could argue about methods, and I'd bet on my methods if we did, but you and I are both similarly searchers after truth.

What about things outside the Western tradition? During several desperate moments on the academic market, I tried to reinvent myself as semi-expert on Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism and Ethiopian philosophy. Ultimately, all of these traditions left me cold, so cold that I realized I'd rather be unemployed as a Western philosopher. But my inclination isn't to dismiss them, but rather to take the inclusivist stance, as I would in religion. You're a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Hindu, Zoroastrian or atheist? Well, I don't pretend to know what arrangement God may make with you. It is as though I have the flu and you tell me about alternative medicine. I'm going to go see a doctor, but I don’t pretend to know that your treatment wouldn't work. I maintain an open mind. However, if you asked me, I'd suggest my cure. Similarly in religion, where if you're asking, I'd advise you to try it my way.  Similarly again in the liberal arts. Do it your way if you like, ye plays the game and ye takes yer chances.

That's inclusivism.

It's my inclusivism that allows me to duck the question about whose liberal arts. I don't know - and I don't need to know - what sort of tradition is best for you, though if you're asking, this blog offers one kind of answer.

What this blog is for

For all the reflection that gets done in liberal arts programs, a surprisingly small amount of time is spent thinking about what a liberal arts program actually teaches one to do. I think that's because the liberal arts have become professionalized, and so the tacit assumption is that if you really like history, or English, or philosophy, you'll become a professor in that discipline and derive your living from it materially as well as spiritually. Studying the liberal arts teaches you to do the liberal arts for a living.

If you don't end up working in the liberal arts, there's a backup answer. The liberal arts provide you with soft skills that you can bring to bear on problems in the corporate world. And that's true, as far as it goes, though it's pretty bleak to suppose we read Plato on the ultimate insignificance of worldly success in order to learn to create efficiencies in global capital. Speaking of Plato, he'd be the first to point out that the suggestion that we learn the liberal arts in order to be able to do something else explains liberal arts as a means, we really we are looking for an explanation that makes liberal arts an end.

The clue is in the name: liberal arts are the arts of freedom. They are the arts that a man of leisure might choose to engage in. If you were a prince with lots of money and servants, and if you had nothing to do but exist, no one could fault you for exploring history, philosophy and culture. Now few of us are in danger of having this problem, but there's another sense in which liberal arts are freeing. Freedom is not a very natural state for human beings; even in politically free countries, citizens rush to bind themselves to ideas, ideologies, or failing that to slogans and material goods. The liberal arts are paths to freedom. They show us how to live a free life. That's what I think, anyway.

So how does one live a life in the liberal arts, a life illuminated by what Hume called the calm sunshine of the mind? This blog is an attempt to piece together an answer.

The Socratic Method (of getting by)

There are a lot of reasons that it's hard to imagine a life informed by the liberal arts that doesn't derive income from the liberal arts. I wonder if we don't somewhat have Socrates, or at least the story of Socrates, to thank for this. Philosophers lionize Socrates, a tendency for which I don't intend to apologize. But Socrates quit his job and studied philosophy. Why can't we?

Socrates, remember, was a stonemason of some sort until, unsure of where to find wisdom, he sent a message to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, asking who the wisest man in Athens might be. Socrates was looking for a teacher, but the oracle turned his question on its head by replying that he, Socrates, was the wisest. How could this be, as he didn't know anything and was in the very act of looking for a teacher? Socrates set out to find someone wise, asking questions to be sure he had found genuine wisdom. The plan was to drag whomever he found to the oracle, but when he put the plan in motion he found that people's facades of wisdom crumbled before his questions. Maybe, he concluded, the god had been doing two things. Apollo had shown Socrates that his lack of pretense, his knowledge of his ignorance, put him ahead of his fellow Athenians. And the god had given him a mission, a quest, to reveal this deep ignorance to his fellow citizens.

Socrates' quest irritated a lot of people, but it made him friends too. The children of the very rich liked seeing the celebrities of their time shown up. And so Socrates ended up, oddly, as a bit of a mascot for Athens' 1%. This gave Socrates the chance to take directionless young men like Plato and Alcibiades and to try to turn them toward something better. But it also set him up as a proxy for the 1%, which likely played a role in his trial and execution on the charges of atheism and corrupting the youth.

The Socrates we meet in literature doesn’t work, he philosophizes full time. How did he eat? Well, I think there may be several answers to that question. One possibility is that Socrates still worked, but that Plato (and Xenophon, and Aristophanes) don't bother to note that occasionally Socrates did gigs as a stonemason, because, why would they? But another answer suggested by some sources is that Socrates was patronized by the 1%, and although he sent a lot of gifts back, he kept enough to get by on. Even Socrates didn't much like this arrangement, and in Plato's Apology he cheekily suggests at his trial that his 'punishment' should be that reserved for victors in the Olympic games: free meals at public expense. Socrates comes pretty close to suggesting taxpayer-funded tenure.

After Socrates died, the question of how to live as a philosopher arose almost instantly. Not for Socrates' wealthy students, e.g. Plato or Crito, who didn't need to make money. Not for Socrates' friend Antisthenes, or the philosophically like-minded Diogenes, who both lived lives stripped of material possessions and comforts, lives in accordance with nature, as they'd have put it, and consequently didn't need much to get by. No, it was a problem for Socrates' students who weren't rich and still wanted to live normally pleasant lives. Xenophon went into politics. Aristippus worked as a court philosopher. And both seem to have taken a fair degree of flak for it, being widely regarded as sellouts by their fellows. The fragments of Aristippus, especially, are largely geared toward self-justification. Maybe I'll write more about Aristippus in later postings.

What I find remarkable is the extent to which the current situation is similar. Academic philosophers today have tenure, essentially freeing them from material concerns. (There's a bizarre but persistent belief that tenured professors take a lower salary than they could have earned if they had chosen to 'take a private sector job'. This is almost entirely false; tenure is absurdly lucrative and most senior professors are paid in the six figures.) Then there are people (I guess some determined adjuncts are like this) who scrape by with next to nothing, but do philosophy full time. So we have established our cultural Platos and our Diogeneses. The rest of us, the vast majority, are 'sellouts', like Xenophon and Aristippus.

But the point I want to make is that we look like sellouts when viewed from the weird and contingent position occupied by Socrates, apparently to his own distress. But Socrates knew how to earn a living by his hard work, and even after his philosophical turn he kept the kind of entrepreneurial mind to help his friend Aristarchus set up a home business. People who accuse those who have a job and also philosophize of selling out aren't speaking for Socrates.