Rectifying Names

a blog on publishing by Bruce Fingerhut

     1. Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”
     2. The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.”
     3. “So, indeed!” said Tsze-lu. “You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?”
     4. The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.
     5. “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
     6. “When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music will not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
     7. “Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”

Analects of Confucius, XIII Tsze-lu, Chapter 3, James Legge, translator

Is the Great the Enemy of the Good? - August 4, 2014

Over a year ago, on July 1, 2013, I posted a blog entitled “Allah Is Great; God Is Good,” which spoke of the different relationship that Christians and Jews have toward God compared with what we may call the orthodox Muslims have with Allah. The difference lies in what we call “voluntarism,” a view of God not bound by any action, even his own pronouncements. Here is part of what I wrote:

He would not be bound, for example, to the law of non-contradiction, a law that presumably he gave us. He would not be constrained by the elementary laws of mathematics, so that if one day he decided that 2 + 2 = 5, it would remain that way . . . until such time as he decided on a different number.

This is a far cry from the God who has purposely limited himself, who acts within the rules he himself wrought upon the world, who withholds his hand, who promised Noah never again to bring about the destruction Noah witnessed, who allowed his own son to face an ignominious and horrible death, who has done these deeds out of a love that we don’t deserve.

Would he be great if all the laws that he gave were such that he could change them as he pleased without explanation? Yes, he would be great, but it would be a greatness like that of the lion, great because he is unpredictable and dangerous and devastating.

The God who holds back his power, who creates a world that applies to him also, who has shown his own power in refusing to use it, who has purposively lived within the rationality that guides our own minds and hearts and actions, who has suffered and died when he need not have so that we may know the full extent of his love for us, we who will suffer and die too . . . has bestowed upon us the answer that we need: There is, in the end, nothing greater than good.

My argument against voluntarism was that “man is not born to receive a different world with each awakening from slumber.” If our understanding of God’s greatness is this, then we are wholly incapable of predicting or even understanding God’s relation with us. A god of no self-limitations, a god who would have 2 + 2 = 5 is not great in the truest meaning; he is capricious.

Osama bin Laden predicted the victory of his side, saying they will succeed because we are in love with life, and they are in love with death. Perhaps, as strategy, he is right. All die, but not all live. Yet, are we not taught that we live, we die, and we live again? This is the triumph of life over death; this is the triumph of good.

In our life, we may know or have heard of people who are or were great, and to know them is an honor, but to know people who are good is joy itself. Tell me, were we not made for joy?

Today (Sunday, August 3, 2014), the reading at church was my favorite passage in the Bible, wherein St. Paul asked the most difficult, most challenging, most important, most central question of all time, and gave us his answer, our answer:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35–39

 

The next blob entry will be on Monday, August 18.

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The War to End All Wars - July 28, 2014

Today, July 28, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of the start of The Great War, known now as the First World War (or World War I). There is a tendency, of course, to think of the Second World War as the truly “great one,” since it resulted in far more deaths and spread beyond Europe.

But The Great War’s share of deaths and casualties (37,466,904) was far and away the largest in history up to that time. World War II had 3.5 times as many deaths (over 70 million . . . remember, this number does not include non-lethal casualties). It may have taken human history many millennia to have the unbelievably large number of deaths in The Great War, but it took us fewer than twenty-one years from the close of The Great War (November 11, 1918) until the start of World War II (September 1, 1939).

There are reasons for this fast timeline from the end of the War to End All Wars to the start of World War II, perhaps principally that the Armistice was brutal for Germany in particular, but even so, it was not monitored by those who imposed it with such alacrity, so it not only aroused hatred from Germany but encouraged military build-up.

Here is a startling statistic that shows that The Great War not only should be known for having inaugurating a new way of war, but also for having been the last large war (and most likely, this situation will continue in the future) that did not aim specifically at civilians:

                                    % of military deaths                 % of civilian deaths

World War I                            95                                              5

World War II                           33                                            67

The Great War was not an ideological war. The specific reason given for the war was that there were agreements, secret agreements, between countries to come to the aid of other countries that were invaded. The fact that they were secret (and were honored) meant that the war came about overnight and, for most, unexpected. One might even say that WWI was the last war fought because heads of states felt duty-bound to honor their commitments.

One result of The Great War was that it spelled the end of royal heads running the government. Royalty remained (and remains) in many parts of Europe, but always as the heads of state and largely as pampered (is my American disdain showing through?) figureheads, not as the heads of governments.  In the future, Europe and the Far East (the principal theaters for World War II) would be headed by politicians or dictators . . . by no means an automatic improvement over royalty.

The Great War came after a long period of relative calm and peace in Europe. The Nineteen Century, we must remember, was by most accounts one of the most peaceful and advanced periods in history. We in the U.S. perhaps may be forgiven for thinking otherwise, since our horrific Civil War took place in the middle of that century, and it resulted in total military deaths of 620,000 (compare that death-rate with 405,399 in World War II and 116,516 in World War I).

When The Great War started, there was a rush to join the fray by young men who may well have thought of war as romantic and an opportunity for honor and patriotism. The resulting trench warfare, with its impersonal bombing and poison gas, soon changed the minds of most. It was a vicious and cruel war with little in the way of nobility and dignity. Some of the West’s greatest novels and poetry resulted . . . all showing the dreadful and ugly side of war.

Art and music, theater and dance changed after the war, becoming more abstract and rough. Perhaps Tom Wolfe’s saying (written many decades later about a different world) applies here: “this week’s art.” More and more writers and composers and artists were concerned with the present, not the future, a present that was here now and soon gone.

The aftermath of the war was devastating, with the map of much of Europe redrawn, not in accordance with history, race, religion, or blood, but for the convenience of the war’s winners. The notion of honor and courage was diminished, even destroyed. The very way of life in country after country was changed . . . in some way for the better in the long run, since there would be fewer impediments to advancement, but far less security as in the past. New words were invented, “displaced persons” for example. My mentor Gerhard Niemeyer spoke of the way in which people, forced from their homes (where their families had lived for generations on end) and not knowing where to go, were asked, “In what language do you count? In what language do you pray?” Probably, there was much need for prayer, but, no doubt, the counting ended up being more central to most.

The Great War destroyed a large portion of the male youth of its time. An entire generation of young men had to learn anew how to walk and talk, where to go and what to do with their lives. The security of the past would never be the same, as the age of solidity and rectitude was replaced by the need to grab whatever was available, for who knows what the future holds?

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Sayings Say Something - July 21, 2014

I come from a line of people with sayings, you know, those annoying sentences that summarize a truism or catch-phrase. My experience was that what caught me as a catch-phrase as a smart-aleck youngster would later resurface as a truism that was true.

My father, for example, would be forever saying, “What’s right is right.” Even as an eight-year-old, I knew this wasn’t trivial. It had to do with knowing the moral condition of things. As I grew older, I realized more and more that “what’s right is right” was a way of living that set you on the pathway to justice.

I have been burdening my own children for decades now with some favorite sayings, whether borrowed or made up. One in particular, “you get more of what you subsidize and less of what you tax,” has been said often enough that one of my sons to threatened to put it on my grave stone. I was most anxious that he do so, except that it would cost a fortune to carve it out.

Sometimes, a good saying is helpful in sizing up a situation in a way that a long lecture or a book of genius cannot obtain. For example, take our foreign policy. (I’ll refrain from borrowing the saying of Henny Youngman and adding “Please.”) I am assuming that we actually have a foreign policy, but whatever it is, it seems to flow all over with a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. After all, is it so difficult to have discovered that there are some people that cannot be reasoned with or appeased? What do we do with such people? Our policy seems to have tried many plans. Send them money? Invite them to the White House? Threaten them with words but never with actions? Announce that you know that they are reasonable after all? Indicate that you are upset with their enemies? Bow down and kiss their hand? Bow down and kiss their ass?

Let me quote Al Capone (yes, that one), who came up with a saying that could have straightened out our educated-beyond-their-intelligence laborers at the Department of State, if only they would follow it, “You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.” Think how much safer the world would be with this thug in the White House instead of Der Führer von hinten.

It was Osama bin Laden who said, “We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the difference between us two.” Maybe this should have been an eye-opener, if we had eyes to see. Knowing that may make us understand why radical Muslims are more dangerous to the outside world than the monsters who run North Korea. After all, they want to live.

Sometimes we are all faced with having to put up with getting less than we hoped for in a given relationship. I have a quote for that too: “A smaller percentage of something is worth more than a large percentage of nothing.” I remind my son, who works with me in a business that, by its nature, is one that rarely gives everything but often gives something.

In the end we are wise to remember that we are unwise often enough. This may well put us on the road to wisdom. After all, “it is obvious that intelligence is not the opposite of stupidity. Intelligence is finite.”

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“Not to Speak Is to Speak. Not to Act Is to Act.” - July 14, 2014

The quote is from the inimitable Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The full quote is:

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Last week, I wrote about what I call the gratefulness of gratefulness, the notion that it is not only that we benefit from giving to others but that the benefit itself must be enshrined in gratefulness.

Now this seemingly impossible combination of living in the face of evil and enshrining our gifts in gratefulness lies before us. Lies and distortions are thrown upon us with such alacrity that we may be forgiven for thinking we are being hypercritical to be indignant over mere criminality. We are told that such accusations are untrue or unimportant or both. What does it have to do with our lives, our meager lives, our unheralded and negligible lives? Greater things are happening all about us, and, like any omelet, require broken eggs.

After a while, we find ourselves sloughing off this or that detail in favor of a larger, less descriptive circumstance. It is no longer this week’s scandal that grates us, but the scandal of scandal itself. When this happens we lose our “right” to complain, since complaints must be about specific acts, and speaking in generalities about an immense series of scandals may aid you in your breathing, but not in your argument.

It is not easy to come up with one scenario to give clarity to the scandal of scandal. Just as it is easier to understand gratefulness than it is to understand the gratefulness of gratefulness, so too is it easier to deal with one scandal than the scandal of scandal.

For myself, I am beginning to think that the most important determinative factor for a government that has shocked us has less to do than we think with ideology, honesty, or integrity. A look into our history will show we have already had very awful ideologues (think Wilson), men of no honesty (more than a few here), and as for integrity, it is used so little in discussion that I fear we may well be in an era when people do not really know what integrity means when it comes to government.

None of these problems are new to us. What is new, and therefore what might be the most important characteristic failing of the present is that there seems to be no grown-ups in the White House. It is, I think, the principal reason people cannot talk to one another, much less come to compromises with one another. Have you ever tried to compromise with a ten-year old? While being a child is not the worst thing for the man, it may be the worst thing for the country.

For children not to speak or not to act leads to no consequences; in the real world of men and women, not to speak is to speak, not to act is to act.

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The Commonality of Giving and Receiving - July 7, 2014

 In the past two blogs, I wrote about what I called the “means and ends” of charity, seeking for myself, at least, the way toward understanding how to benefit others and myself in the same action. I realize, of course, that it is better to give begrudgingly than not to give at all; it is better to do good out of obligation than to fail to do good. On the other hand, giving ideally should be more than a question of amounts; it should be a question of accounts.

I remember well a moment with my father when I was perhaps 12, old enough to know everything and young enough to be forgiven for thinking so. We were leaving his store, walking the two or three blocks to his car, when a panhandler approached him for money. He immediately took out a bill (I do not know how much) and gave it to the man, while I stood there, mouth gaping, a mixture of amazement and indignation. As soon as the man went his way and we resumed our walk to the car, I reminded my father that this guy was probably just going to drink that money, was unworthy of my father largess, and that he, my father, was being taken advantage of. He turned to me and said, “Bruce, we’re supposed to be taken advantage of.”

It took me thirty years or so to understand this. The benefit of giving is not just for the recipient; it is for the giver too.  Moreover (and this was the reason it took thirty years instead of ten . . . I probably figured out that whole thing about the importance of the benefit of giving before I got out of high school), it is not enough just to give. What is essential is to be grateful.

I remember well a homily given by a priest I knew (he taught American Politics at Notre Dame) who said that a Christian should live in the world in a continual state of gratefulness. I had never thought of that before. As you no-doubt can see by now, I am a slow learner, but once I learn something, it’s there forever. I should rather be a hedgehog than a fox.

I should add that I was Jewish when this talk with my father occurred, too early in my life to have become the agnostic I became in my early adulthood (an agnostic only because I realized that I didn’t have enough faith to be an atheist). Gratefulness, I learned after becoming a Christian, applies to all of us, not just Christians, since all of us have the capacity for both the gratefulness of action and the gratefulness of gratefulness.

“A continual state of gratefulness.” That’s fine when everything goes your way, but that may be only a couple of days a year, I first thought. Only later did it occur to me that it is not the day that makes the gratefulness, it is the gratefulness that makes the day.

So giving and receiving are part and parcel of the same thing. All of us really know this. Once you reach a certain period in your life, it is more fun to give than to receive. There is a commonality in the two actions that brings joy, and joy is the product of gratefulness.

I got to thinking of all this over the past weekend, when the great combination of being amid children and grandchildren on the one hand and thinking about the pure, unadulterated luck we all share by living in a country founded by so many incredible and outstanding men and women. And I was grateful for being grateful.

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The Means and Ends of Charity, Part Duh - June 30, 2014

I would like to return to the question concerning how best to help the poor, which I termed at the last blog “raising up or taking down.”

Whether it is human nature or merely taking notice of human history, nevertheless it is true that poverty, if it is not in the eye of the beholder, at least varies with place, with time, with expectation. What may be considered poor in the inner cities of America or Western Europe today, in terms of such important integers as cleanliness; adequate, healthy, and desirable food and drink; access to medical care; and life expectancy are all far better than the very wealthy had a century ago. Just to realize that this is true is enough to confirm the saying of Jesus that the poor will always be with us.

Helping the poor should start with the understanding that what constitutes poverty today may not be a feast, but it is decidedly moveable. It may be in the nature of man to want to aid the poor, but the first question, once one decides who is poor or at least who is in need of help, is to consider how best to help.

We all have heard that it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish. I am in full agreement with this ideal, but, on the other hand, I sometimes worry that this idea makes for a too-enticing excuse for doing nothing, since it is much more trouble and work to teach fishing than to buy fish, and, as I have always said to my children, a smaller percentage of something is worth more than a large percentage of nothing.

But while we may hail something over nothing, it is wise to realize that teaching fishing and giving fish are not the same thing at all, and I do not mean only that one will last one day and the other a lifetime. There are at least two other points that need vetting: 1. giving things is different from giving yourself (one of these is far better in in help you to grow), and 2. raising up is different from taking down (one has the aim of growth, the other of stasis).

Let me give two historic examples from the writings of two very-different geniuses.

Friedrich Nietzsche was most certainly not from the “Raising Up” school, having spent his short lifetime in “Taking Down” one group after another, including “friends” like Richard Wagner. A wonderful example is in his Thus Spake Zarathustra, a rewriting of the New Testament, with Zarathustra, the Laughing Prophet, taking the place of Jesus. In the line I most remember of anything Nietzsche wrote, Zarathustra says, “I give you a new commandment: love the farthest.”

Loving the farthest is the very epitome of taking down. It means avoiding your neighbor, “caring” for those you will never see, in short, being wholly disconnected from active human life.

Moses Maimonides, perhaps the greatest philosopher/theologian in the history of Judaism, wrote on many topics, one of the most well known being his Eight Levels of Giving (Tzedakah), wherein he shows that the gift must take into consideration how the giver brought it about. His First Level of Tzedakah, the highest level, is to give an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need; so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others [emphasis mine]. In short, Maimonides tied the giver to a program aimed at self-reliance for the recipient of that gift. This is the very essence of raising up.

Raising up frees the recipient; taking down ties him to the giver. It is no wonder that the Federal Government is a giver of taking down. 

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The Means and Ends of Charity - June 16, 2014

“For you always have the poor with you . . . but you will not always have me.” (Matt. 26:1; Mark 14:1) None have worked harder to disprove this famous saying of Jesus than has the Church. We were born, it seems, to annihilate the poor. But perhaps prior to the annihilation, we should look at the history of helping the poor.

First of all, who are the poor? If the poor are defined by lacking stuff, some countries have virtually no poor and others are inundated with the poor. Stuff, of course, is different in different places. In some areas, having adequate food and safe water would be enough to ensure that a person would not be considered poor; at other places not have televisions, cars (or at least ample transportation), a variety of phones would definitely be considered the mark of the poor.

But maybe the nature of being poor is not wholly (or even mainly) about stuff. It has long been said that being poor is a state of mind, that thinking you are among the poor makes you one of the poor. In many countries that we call poor, many, even most, people may look upon themselves as belonging to the poor simply because everybody else is. (In America, for example, virtually everyone considers himself as being part of the middle class.) These people in these poor countries may not act the way we think the poor act. They may well be hard-working, positive people whose life is centered around their family and their society. They may be deprived of stuff, but that doesn’t make them unable to cope with their status and circumstance.

What is help? Who helps? How do you help?

If we’re going to follow the Church’s plans to disprove Jesus, how best to do that? How we answer that question is very likely more important that how we identify the poor. From my point of view, there are (at least) two large issues that can or should concern us: 1. Questions about means and ends; and 2. Raising up or taking down.

Let me give you a true story that happened many years ago. I was born and raised Jewish, and in high school, I was the president of my local AZA (Hebrew letter fraternity). Once a year prizes were given for the Most Improved Chapter and for the Best All-Around Chapter. Our chapter had won the Most Improved award the previous year, and I was working on putting together the information about our programming to try to win the Best All-Around Chapter, which had been the sole purview of two other chapters for as long as anyone could remember.

We had fine adult supervisors, and the one everyone loved was a lady named Ruth Cantor. I approached her with a complaint about how they counted the programs to determine winners. AZA had what they called The Five-Fold Program (social, religion, community service, education, and sports), and we had to have programs in all of them, good programs with lots of participation. My complaint concerned community service, or what we called, simply, tzedakah, the Hebrew word for righteousness or justice, but usually referred to simply as charity. I told Ruthie that I could send members out to ask people for money for the Hebrew Home for the Aged or some other worthy cause, and they would be successful. I could arrange a party with entrance fees that would go to the charity. I could do all sorts of other things and bring in the money. “Well,” she said, wondering what the problem is. “Well,” I said, “tzedakah is something in the heart, something that should change people’s perspectives, give them reasons for helping others. It should change us as much as it does the people who get the money.” Ruthie, bless her, looked at me as though I had just grown a second head. She couldn’t understand my need to have charity not reserved entirely for the receiver, but to make it just as important for the giver. I complained because none of our members thought of asking for money as particularly good for them. Ruthie told me to stop asking for trouble and fill in the papers.

It was not for another thirty years or so until I realized that what I was wanting was the Christian view of charity. Jewish groups that I knew were far more successful in raising money than were Christians. They want results, and they get results. We want saints, and we get a hodgepodge.

I am by no means arguing against what I recall as the Jewish way. The results are everywhere to see, and they are wonderful. The results are less spectacular among Christians, but that may be, in part, because they are asking for more than end results; they are asking for means.

The Church, when it is true to itself, does more than feed the poor, more than teach the poor to feed themselves; it seeks to transform the giver as much as the receiver, to create more of the poor-in-spirit that Christ spoke of at the Sermon on the Mount. The means are at least as important as the ends for Christians. In some way, there is never an end to charity because there is never a finish to means, and sometimes the end will be meager. But this cannot be put on the side and ignored because it is not producing enough. We may have to be satisfied with less-than-overflowing gifts, realizing that the real gift may be like the poor widow who gave a small coin, but from her need, not from abundance. Hers was the greatest gift.

As for raising up or taking down, let us resume this with the next blog.

By the way, our chapter won the Best-All-Around Trophy that year.

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The Coming Decline of the Humanities - June 2, 2014

I have a feeling that talking people into the notion that there is a decline of the Humanities will be a lot easier than talking them into thinking that the big decline has not yet appeared. So let us start by acknowledging that, despite the large number of people learning something or other about the Humanities in schools and colleges, the quality of that education and the product that is being published are often inferior to those of the past. Sure, much of this is how the comparison is made. A William Shakespeare, a Johann Sabastian Bach, a Rembrandt van Rijn, a Feodor Dostoevsky, a Thomas Aquinas, a C.S. Lewis, etc., are not expected to be replaced; some of these people will never be replaced as the preeminent genius of his field. But not being replaced is not the same as being used. No one in my generation, for example, would have thought he had a full high-school education if he had not read at least some Shakespeare. That is not the case now.

Of course, the professionals (note please, I did not indicate what these people are professional in) will argue that contemporary education may bypass Shakespeare, but they will be treated to more up-to-date writing. They may not know who J.S. Bach is, but they are exposed to many forms of music. Their background in all manner of history, including, most definitely American history, is sparse at best, but they are treated to what we may well call (although I have never heard it said this way) the history of the future. They think they know what is coming without having the knowledge of what has passed.

They live in what some call the Age of Science, yet how many have even a slight inkling about the purpose and use and what we could call the philosophy of science? They know the use of things, not the true calling of science. They know the purpose of toys, not the reason to have toys. They know Today’s Science (I say this with the same disdain that Tom Wolfe talked about “This Week’s Art”). While there are masters of science, the young people of today are, by and large, not these masters; they are the hoi polloi of science, knowing how to manipulate this toy and the next, finding out facts faster and faster rather than better and better.

Because the universities have largely become an outlet for political manipulation (or, at least, political manipulation is everywhere to be seen and never conquered), the purpose of science has changed for them. For most, it is not for learning in the broad and grand way to understand the universe, and it is not practical and useful in the sense of our understanding the need to aid our fellow man (though most young people in science will end up with practical and useful knowledge; the question that may offer a different answer from the past is “for what final purpose?”).

When it became important, even necessary, for so many to attend universities, not only did university curricula and aims change, but the entire way of funding in general changed. Now, thanks to our beneficent government, one need not deprive himself of college simply because he lacks the filthy lucre to pay for it. The loans, of course, go directly to the university, which, in good times and bad, raise tuition 5% or 6% yearly. The student has a tab, and more and more such students find that that tab will take ten or twenty years to repay, putting off for many marriage or calling, unless they are able to find a high-paying job straight out of school. These jobs are broadly in the sciences or quasi-sciences, unless the student chooses medicine or the law, which means he will owe not $100,000 or $150,000, but twice that much, or he was born into great wealth, or he will end up working in government, where much, if not all, of his debt can be expunged over time.

The university was not created to be a job bank. It was intended to train the next generation to carry on and even improve the great ideas and work of our past; to discover for himself the sources and purpose of the true, the beautiful, and the good, which is his heritage as a citizen, yes, but more importantly, as a human; to appreciate the great thinkers and saints (egad, I used the S word) of the past, perhaps to become a thinker or a saint or a helper to others.

This is the base that the university was founded to accomplish. For this reason, the university, whatever it later might have done to advance scientific and practical knowledge for the betterment of society, still emphasized the Humanities . . . philosophy, theology, literature, the visual and performing arts. These constituted the grounding for individual growth, which they translated into societal growth.

Let us put aside for another day the argument over the weakening of the Humanities themselves. For the present, let us simply acknowledge that the Humanities have slowly been pushed out of their central place at universities and, I fear, are now headed for a tremendous fall, not only because of their lack of practical wisdom, [I am not using that term as Aristotle did, which would shock today’s university presidents, but in a way known to all of us as finding a job, making money, getting things done.], but because the Humanities remain the place at the university that does not lead to a finding that job, making that money, or getting anything “done.” A student with $100,000 debt and a background in engineering is miles ahead in this sort of practical wisdom from a student with that debt and a degree in philosophy.

The question for us today (and, frankly, for publishers like St. Augustine’s Press, specializing in the Humanities) is whether what Cardinal Ratzinger, in his pre-conclave homily in 2005 termed the “dictatorship of moral relativism” is the natural occurrence from the decline of the Humanities.

 

The next blog article will appear on June 16, 2014.

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Why Do These Guys Always Want to Help Me? May 26, 2014

Have you ever noticed the enormous number of helpful liberals on the teevee, always willing to assist conservatives to achieve their obvious ends, giving these poor slobs the best of their sage advice? It’s almost as though they are seeking to help out the pitiable opponent, as though they wanted to build them up so that the arguments of the future might be on a more even keel.

Conservatives by nature seem more attracted to husbanding their thoughts, giving advice only when it’s asked for. In short, conservatives seem to be the hedgehog to the liberal fox.

I always wondered why my left colleagues in grad school seemed to sign a petition every other day, while I never signed one in my life. Why did they associate words or scribble on a page with action? I never met anyone whose view was changed or whose action was brought about by reading a petition.

Times then were both more disordered, on the one hand, and less hateful, on the other. Fewer people then threw away associates over disagreements; differences of opinion then were more commonly open.

I wanted to change their minds so that they wouldn’t destroy the country. Admittedly, that was and is asking for a lot. So I wasn’t surprised when there were few converts.

Later, I changed my goal from their not destroying the country to their not going to hell. I soon learned that that was asking even more than not destroying the country, and was at least equally unsuccessful in changing peoples’ minds. After all, I was asking so much.

In the end, I was guided by the motto of Christopher Columbus: “Live and let live.”

Whereas I wanted them to cease destroying the country or frolicking toward Beelzebub, they wanted to change my mind so that I would vote the right way. Since that goal was so small compared to what I was asking, they had higher expectations for me than I had for them, and many of them were perplexed (though none seemed angry) when I remained recalcitrant. After all, they were asking so little.

In the end, they were guided by the thought of Saul Alinsky: “[A]ll values and factors are relative, fluid, and changing.”  What is not relative, fluid, and changing was power, which, oddly enough, was not simply the ends sought by Alinsky, but also the means to achieve those ends. He was very clear about the importance of the use of power: “To attempt to operate on a good-will rather than on a power basis would be to attempt something that the world has not yet experienced.”

So how did being concerned and helpful square with wanting others to change their voting habits? Two possibilities seem obvious to me:

  1. They are really not being helpful to us, but to them, and since they think we are a little on the stupid side, they assume that their faked concern will not be noticed as fake; or
  2. They have genuine concern for our roles, if not our souls, wanting us for friends, which can be achieved only through agreement.

William F. Buckley once famously said that conservatives do not remove their wounded from the field of battle. Our normal ways of action do not include looking for hurts, for mistakes, for injuries, for wrangles, for needed corrections. And since conflict is not the center of our lives, finding ways for others to gracefully become like us is not either.

So, why do these guys always want to help us? Control!

 

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Concentration and Celebration - May 19, 2014

I am writing this on the eighth anniversary of the death of a beloved dog, Sandy, and it is the occasion of some thoughts that I would like to share. (I know, I know, dogs are not human, but when I hear someone say that I revert to my twelve-year-old self and want to say, “prove it.”)

This date gives rise to many other important events for our family. My father, Albert Fingerhut, was born on May 17, 2008, and died almost 54 years later on May 15, 1962. My son David was married to Rachel on May 17, 2003. My wife Laila is a Norwegian national, and we celebrate Norway’s Constitution Day (the equivalent of our Declaration of Independence) that occurred on May 17, 1814.

All these dates, indeed, all these celebratory periods in mid-May make this the greatest central period of my year. Some are happy memories; some are sad. This morning I was thinking of the matchless Samuel Johnson, who, when James Boswell, his biographer and all-around hanger-on, once got just plain sick and tired of Johnson’s bright view of life. Johnson, after all, had an amazing compilation of illnesses: scrofula (an infection of the lymph nodes caused by tuberculosis, leaving horrific scaring), eyesight problems, asthmas and emphysema, insomnia, fear of madness, stroke, gout, sarcocele (testicular tumor), and signs of Tourettes Syndrome and depression. Yet Johnson exhibited an optimistic view of life, something that apparently irked Boswell, who expressed his feelings to Johnson, saying that he, Boswell, could most certainly come up with a scenario in which Johnson would be aggrieved with his state in life. Johnson agreed to hear him out, and Boswell asked him to come up with something positive if he were going to be hanged in one hour. Dr. Johnson’s instant reply was that such a situation would “greatly concentrate the mind.”

Celebration may not always be about a happy event, happy at the moment, but it is, always is, about gratitude, and gratitude is always needed, always uplifting, always bringing us closer to the most important aspects of life and death. Every bit of happiness in life has its own little tragedy connected, even if it is nothing more than that the happy moment has passed and will not recur. When our recollection is concentrated on one or more specific moments of the past, moments of sadness, moments of happiness, but always moments of meaning, we grow. We may grow despite ourselves, grow against our will, grow with regret, but in the end growing brings us closer to others, closer to our present, closer to our end, and therefore closer to God.

Samuel Johnson was right (was he ever wrong, this giant among men?) that a hanging concentrates the mind, and moreover that concentrating the mind is immensely important and, if you don’t mind my putting it this way, life-affirming.

Dr. Johnson proved in his positive attitude in life that celebration is the acme of both the good and the bad that comes our way, that the bad will pass and that the good, despite its often temporary character, is a snippet of preparation for the enduring good that will never end.

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