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

The Academic Side of the University - November 17, 2014

My friend and former boss, Jim Langford, past Director of the University of Notre Dame Press, used to get irate (in a friendly sort of way) when then-Notre Dame President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh would use the expression “the academic side of the University,” as though there were other sides of the university that competed with the academic side. Let me put aside the likely reason for this expression, i.e., filthy lucre, and concentrate not on how much football brings in the cash but rather on how the “academic side” has changed over the years, perhaps in part because of funding in general and the transition from in loco parentis to just plan loco. The movement has been that as our students become less grown up at the same age as their parents were while in college, since the colleges have abandoned the notion of aiding them in their growth to adulthood. But I do not want to get into the moral decline that is everywhere evident. The academic decline is quite enough for a short blog.

The university used to the place where young men and women grew up, learned to think and ask and ponder. In some way, this meant becoming free from their past education, which had to include teachers and parents and other family members giving them ideas and answers and corrections. Now, of course, the modern university is the center of anti-free speech in America. It is the place of control of ideas, not where ideas are opened to them.

The American history that 19th-century youths on the prairie used to get from their McGuffey Readers is such that only post-graduate American history majors would know today. The first two years in college nowadays serves to make up the failure of secondary schools to teach what was expected of any student entering college forty or fifty years ago.

The university and especially the college used to think of itself as an academic finishing school, a place to teach boys and girls to become men and women, able to think on their own, to have a decent background in all the central areas of intellectual life (and especially in the humanities) so that they would be free to enter the way of work and family building and becoming stalwart citizens by learning where they came from and where they were likely to go. Now, the smartest of the bunch enter specialized education to flee to the way of work (if not the family building or the citizen creating) for that is the current understanding of what the academic side of the university has become.

Specialists, of course, are much needed in all sorts of fields and perhaps even in life itself, but learning how to learn something is better than simply learning something, and as we downgrade the importance of learning how to learn, we upgrade learning what is useful for one’s own sake rather than what is useful for all of our sakes. As I have said before, the question is more important than the answer, but we have thrown out the notion of questioning in order to get quickie answers that will bring money and prestige and, if you are lucky, a life of easy, though perhaps empty, self-satisfaction.

Loan programs, instead of opening up vistas, have become the way government controls the next generation, either through leading students to the sciences or other areas favored by the government, areas that will allow the student to earn enough to pay off loans, or through leading students to work for the government itself, and thereby get their loans forgiven. Where is the way of work and family building and becoming a stalwart citizen, if our future is closure rather than opening?

One thing seems sure: in the future people going into the humanities (note that most of today’s students will not automatically know what the humanities have to offer) will either come from wealth, have full grant rides, have attended one of the relatively few colleges with low costs so that they won’t have huge loans to repay, or are slightly daft. Paying off your $100,000 or $200,000 loans quickly is not the stuff of majors in history, literature, philosophy, or theology.

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“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21 - November 10, 2014

My September 1 blog entitled What Lasts? ended with a short note about meeting dear friends in Washington in August. It is time to expand on that ending. Our friends, Dennis and Christy Rourke, are a remarkable pair, positive in life, loving in manner, helpful in deed. Christy miraculously lived six years with pancreatic cancer, a disease that had killed her beloved father many years before, but in his case it was only a matter of days between knowing of the cancer and succumbing to it. Christy had the trials and exaltations of living through the cancer in the most inspiring way. When Denny asked her whether she would like to travel, to see the places she had always wanted to see, her response was that she wanted to stay home, to be with her children and grandchildren, to continue as the mother and grandmother she had relished so much.

The Rourkes’ children and grandchildren are wonderful sportsmen and sportswomen, and one of the keen centers of Christy’s life was in going to games, rooting for the “home team,” being a witness to and an encouragement for all the good that sports can be to youth (and to the rest of us too) if it asks the right questions.

Asking the right questions was a hallmark in their lives for their friends such as my wife, Laila, and me. Like the rest of us, they did not have answers to all of life’s questions, but they knew that good answers tend to come to those who knew the questions.

Christy died last Wednesday, November 5, after a heroic, inspirational, and loving life. Denny called us up on Thursday, and first Laila and then I had the opportunity to be consoled by the man whom we should have been consoling. He talked to me about our last meeting, in late August, when the four of us had dinner together, and we talked about family, friends, and what I call the Big Questions of life. It was gratifying and uplifting, a talk between people who had been friends for half-a-century, who confided in one another, loved one another, admired one another. Denny told me that something I had said, about the Last Four Things, was important to him and to Christy, and he was very grateful for my speaking about it. I got the feeling that part of his reason was that so many people find talking about death and religion to be among the most personal and private areas of conversation, and I was able, because they were so understanding, to speak freely. I had noted that the Last Four Things (death, judgment, hell, heaven) begins with death, not ends with it. All understood the importance of having something coming after death.

The questions go on, they continue as long as life is given us, and the answers will eventually become known. How fortunate it was to meet and talk, to commiserate and laugh, to remember and look forward, and, oddly, to know there will be time, more time than we could possibly imagine.

The last words in the wonderful movie, How Green Was My Valley, speaks to me now, “Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then.”

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Not to Act Is to Act - October 27, 2014



The Five Books of Moses are amazingly different from one another, with three of them famously covering the creation of man and society (Genesis), the central formation of God’s covenant with the Jewish people (Exodus), and the new relationship that uniquely allowed the Jewish people to be the masters of their own lives (Deuteronomy). The less-famous books, Numbers and Leviticus, also had their own special meanings, which should not be ignored or considered of lesser import. One of the primary roles played by the middle books concerned duties of life, and we may well note that these duties were needed to bridge the gap between freedom from tyranny in Exodus to master of life in
Deuteronomy. Numbers and Leviticus are especially important as the books that explain the very nature of how one was to live the good life.

Though we all know the 10 Commandments, which were shown in Exodus, what we might call the finishing up took place in the 613 Commandments, largely in Numbers and Leviticus. These 613 commandments (or mitzvot) have been broken into 365 negative laws (thou shalt not), corresponding to the days of the solar year, and 248 positive (thou shalt), which is ascribed to the number of bones and main organs in the human body. I won’t go into the breakdown of these mitzvot into laws, testimonies, and decrees, and so much more. What I wanted to deal with here is the nature of action vs. quietness (for want of a better term). The 613 mitzvot were heavy on the negative laws, more or less as one would have in raising a child, helping him or her along the way toward the positive life by warning of the wrong way our actions can lead us.

Take the 10 Commandments, the most famous of the Laws of Moses. In brief, they are:

  I.        You shall have no other God.

  II.       You shall not make a graven image.

  III.     You shall not take the name of God in vain.

  IV.     You shall remember the Sabbath.

  V.      You shall honor your father and mother.

  VI.     You shall not kill.

  VII.    You shall not commit adultery.

  VIII.   You shall not steal.

  IX.     You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

  X.       You shall not covet.

Obviously, most of the Ten Commandments are negative. Even the positive ones (remember the Sabbath and honor your parents) both are positive commandments written in such a manner that we are exhorted not to do the opposite.

When a lawyer approached Jesus with a sly question (yes, lawyers were lawyers even back then), “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus answered him thus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” Note that Jesus reverted the negative into the positive, and the result would not be, as it tended to be in the 613 mitzvot, a warning of a mistake but rather a joy in the truth. Our fear of mistakes were transformed into our need for love, and our love of self was not castigated but meant as a measure of our love of others. What we were to do is to act positively, not principally to avoid mistakes but to seek the good. Thereafter, we are admonished to be known by our deeds, not by our caution.

We seem to live these days in the world of avoiding responsibility rather than taking the chance for positive help. But in the end, avoidance does not save us from guilt; it enlarges our guilt. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it very clearly and beautifully: “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.”

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Does “We have everything under control” mean more than “I’ve memorized my speech”? - October 20, 2014

—What do you read, my lord?

Words, words, words.

From Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2

Are not words the lifeblood of publishing? the process by which we communicate? the very instrument that enables us to think? Or are words not the cause of communication and thinking but the result of that? If the latter is closer to the truth, then words are more means than ends. And if that is the case, then the importance of words will vary with the speaker, with his/her thought, purpose, and integrity.

Without words, we lack the agency to a higher end of communication than we would derive living in a wordless world, but no matter how we have come to depend and even hallow these words, we should realize that all that is beautiful and good and true in words are not contained within the words themselves but within the speaker. One person reads Dostoevsky and finds a new appreciation of the beautiful or good or true; another finds words, words, words. It is not that one is right and the other wrong. It is that one will grow and the other will not. The words did not change him or her, but that is because the author did not change him or her.

The best of publishing helps bring along the possibility for the reader to discover more of beauty or goodness or truth, but make no mistake about it . . . publishing itself cannot give anything like this to the reader without the author on the one hand and the reader’s own willingness to grow on the other.

Lately, those of us who follow the trials and triumphs of our country have been “treated” to a lesson in the use of words. We all know that words and phrases change over time, depending upon continued use. “I take full responsibility,” for example, now seems to mean something like, “I will say, ‘I take full responsibility.’” In short, it means that words are used, but it says nothing about what the words mean.

For words to fulfill their potential, they must be used truthfully, in the sense that they are meant to have meaning, not necessarily that what is said ends up being true. But when we hear people in power say that everything is under control, we should expect that this means more than that the speaker can say “everything is under control.” Words are to be used as a conveyance of meaning, not simply a means to convey.

Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

From Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

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"Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.” - October 6, 2014



Associated with Mark Twain (and others), who himself attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli (though no work of Disraeli’s during his lifetime used this phrase), “lies, damned lies, and statistics” was meant as a condemnation of the use of numbers to bolster a weak argument.

When your enemies don’t believe you, you may shrug; when your friends don’t believe you, you should cringe; but when no one believes you, you bring out the statistics.

Hitler was the creator of the term “big lie” as a propaganda technique. He used the term when he dedicated his 1925 book, Mein Kampt, saying that the big lie was one so colossal that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” Of course, the big lie was employed by the Nazis constantly, effortlessly.  Hitler’s right-hand jackal, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, was famous for over-the-top lies that left the enemy speechless.

Later, George Orwell, in his book 1984, created a more sophisticated big lie, called “doublethink,”  which is “to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed.” Sometimes it’s needed for only a few hours, until, for example, the indispensable director of the morning becomes the totally dispensable ex-director in the afternoon.

What we are all witnessing in our politics for the past several years, gaining in strength year-by-year, may well be a new take on “doublethink,” using very obvious lies that force your friends to be complicit in the lie in order to back you up, forcing them to go from quietly accepting the lie to having to speak the lie themselves. By the use of the obvious lie and the overflowing lie (in short, the quality lie and the quantity lie), the indignation of the enemy becomes first an annoyance and eventually an awkwardness, as though he was picking on the liar instead of speaking the truth. The more one is complicit in the lie, the more one fights the truth for the sake of one’s protection.

So the lie (e.g., “If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor.”) grows to the damned lie (e.g., “That is what we saw play out the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video that sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world.”) until finally the numbers come in (e.g., “Not even mass corruption. Not even a smidgeon of corruption”). The result of this state of affairs is evident throughout the country: embarrassment is transferred from the liar to the poor sap (i.e., you), who is subject to derision for being so gauche that he doesn’t know when to stop his obnoxious harassment.

Back in August, I wrote a blog on gatekeeping, arguing that the nature of publishing is to act as a gatekeeper, to speak for the true, the beautiful, and the good, as best he or she can. Some types of publishing lend themselves to one or the other of these ideas, but in the end, no matter what is the central point of view, the one undeniable condition for gatekeeping is to speak the truth. Would that it could be the case in other spheres.

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Taking the Islamic State Seriously - September 29, 2014

Friends, I am breaking tradition today by publishing an article on our blog that I did not write. Fr. James Schall, s.j., wrote “It’s Time to Take the Islamic State Seriously,” and this work is so clear and so important that it demands the attention of each of us.

It’s Time to Take the Islamic State Seriously

James V. Schall, s.j.

Islam has no central or definitive body or figure authorized to define what exactly it is. Opinions about its essence and scope vary widely according to the political or philosophic background of its own interpreters. The current effort to establish an Islamic State, with a designated Caliph, again to take up the mission assigned to Islam, brings to our attention the question: “What is Islam?”

The issue of “terror” is a further aspect of this same understanding. Many outside Islam seek to separate “terror” and “Islam” as if they were, in their usage, independent or even opposed ideas. This latter view is almost impossible seriously to maintain in the light of Islamic history and the text of the Qur’an itself.

John Kerry, however, insists that what we see is “terrorism” with nothing to do with Islam. The Obama administration seems to have a rule never to identify Islam with “terrorism,” no matter what the evidence or what representatives of the Islamic State themselves say. The vice-president speaks of “Hell” in connection with actions of the Islamic State. Diane Feinstein speaks of “evil” behind the current slaughters in Iraq and Syria. The pope mentions “stopping aggression.” The English hate-laws prevent frank and honest discussion of what actually goes on in Islamic countries or communities in the West. Not even Winston Churchill’s critical view of Islam is permitted to be read in public.

Ecumenism and liberalism both, in their differing ways, because of their commitment to tolerance and free speech, make it difficult to deal with what is happening in Islamic states. Islam is not friendly to relativism or to subtle distinctions. Is terror intrinsic to Islam? What I want to propose here is an opinion. An opinion is a position that sees the plausibility but not certainty of a given proposition. But I think this opinion is well-grounded and makes more sense both of historic and of present Islam than most of the other views that are prevalent.

I do not conceive this reflection as definitive. Nor do I document it in any formal sense, though it can be. It is a view that, paradoxically, has, I think, more respect for Islam than most of its current critics or advocates. This comment is an apologia, as it were, for the Islamic State at least in the sense that it accepts its sincerity and religious purpose. It understands how, in its own terms, the philosophic background that enhances its view does, in its own terms, justify its actions, including the violent ones.

The Islamic State and the broader jihadist movements throughout the world that agree with it are, I think, correct in their basic understanding of Islam. Plenty of evidence is found, both in the long history of early Muslim military expansion and in its theoretical interpretation of the Qur’an itself, to conclude that the Islamic State and its sympathizers have it basically right. The purpose of Islam, with the often violent means it can and does use to accomplish it, is to extend its rule, in the name of Allah, to all the world.

The world cannot be at “peace” until it is all Muslim. The “terror” we

see does not primarily arise from modern totalitarian theories, nationalism, or from anywhere else but what is considered, on objective evidence, to be a faithful reading of a mission assigned by Allah to the Islamic world, which has been itself largely procrastinating about fulfilling its assigned mission.

To look elsewhere for an explanation is simply not to see what the Islamic State and its friends are telling us about why they act as they do. The tendency among pragmatic Western thinkers, locked into their own narrow views, is to exclude any such motivation as an excuse of raw power. This view shows the intellectual shortcomings of Western leaders and the narrowness of much Western thought.

Jihadism, as it were, is a religious movement before it is anything else. Allah does grant violence a significant place. It is over the truth of this position, or better the inability to disprove it, that the real controversy lies. A recent essay in the American Thinker calculated that over the years of its expansion, from its beginning in the seventh and eighth centuries, some 250 million people have been killed in wars and persecutions caused by Islam. Nothing else in the history of the world, including the totalitarianisms of the last century, has been so lethal.

If Islam is a religion of peace, what sort of peace does it bring? Other understandings of Islam’s record, though not its mission, within Islam may be also plausible, but no more so than this jihadist interpretation. It may be possible for some to read Islam as a religion of “peace.” But its “peace,” in its own terms, means the peace of Allah within its boundaries. With the rest of the outside world, it is at war in order to accomplish a religious purpose, namely, to have all submitted to Allah in the passive way that the Qur’an specifies.

Islam can at times be defeated or stopped, as at Tours or Vienna, but it will always rise again as it is now bent on so doing. To picture the jihadists and leaders of the Islamic State as mere “terrorists” or thugs is to use Western political terms to blind ourselves to the religious dynamism of this movement. No wonder our leaders cannot or will not understand it. This purpose, when successful, is a terrible thing. But we are not seeing a group of gangsters, as many are wont to maintain. The roots of Islam are theological, rather bad theology, but still coherent within its own orbit and presuppositions.

Briefly put, Islam, in its founding, is intended to be, literally, the world religion. Nothing else has any standing in comparison. It is to bring the whole world to worship Allah according to the canons of the Qur’an. It is a belief, based on a supposed revelation to Mohammed, of which there is little evidence. Sufficient justification to expand this religion, once founded, to all the world by use of arms is found in the Qur’an and in its interpreters to explain the violent means used, often successfully, to establish, pacify, and rule tribes, states, territories, and empires.

In Muslim doctrine, everyone born into the world is a Muslim. No one has any right or reason not to be. Hence, everyone who is not a Muslim is to be converted or eliminated. This is also true of the literary, monumental, and other signs of civilizations or states that are not Muslim. They are destroyed as not authorized by the Qur’an.

It is the religious responsibility of Islam to carry out its assigned mission of subduing the world to Allah. When we try to explain this religion in economic, political, psychological, or other terms, we simply fail to see what is going on. From the outside, it is almost impossible to see how this system coheres within itself. But, granted its premises and the philosophy of voluntarism used to explain and defend it, it becomes much clearer that we are in fact dealing with a religion that claims to be true in insisting that it is carrying out the will of Allah, not its own.

If we are going to deal with it, we have to do so on those terms, on the validity of such a claim. The trouble with this approach, of course, is that truth, logos, is not recognized in a voluntarist setting. If Allah transcends the distinction of good and evil, if he can will today its opposite tomorrow, as the omnipotence of Allah is understood to mean in Islam, then there can be no real discussion that is not simply a temporary pragmatic stand-off, a balance of interest and power.

Whenever incidents of violence are witnessed in the Islamic world, or in other parts of the world caused by Islamic agents, we hear complaints that almost no Muslim voices rise to condemn this violence. When the original 9/11 happened, there was not condemnation coming from within Islam, but widespread celebration. Islam was seen as winning. But all Muslim scholars know that they cannot, on the basis of the Qur’an, condemn the use of violence to expand their religion. There is simply too much evidence that this usage is permitted. To deny it would be to undermine the integrity of the Qur’an.

Obviously, the enemies of the Islamic State and its jihadist allies are not only the “Crusaders” or the West. Some of Islam’s bloodiest wars were its invasion of Hindu India, where the tension remains marked. There are also Muslim efforts into China. The Philippines has a major problem as does Russia. But Islam wars with itself. The Sunni/Shiite struggles are legendary. It is important to note that one of the first things on the Islamic State’s agenda, if they are ever successful in surviving, is to unite all of Islam in its creedal unity.

All existing Islamic states are some sort of compromise between the true Islamic mission and forces, usually military forces that limit this world-wide unification. Almost all standing Muslim governments recognize the danger to themselves of a successful Caliphate. They all have some form of jihadist presence within their boundaries that seek to control it in the name of their very survival. There are or were Christian and other minorities within these states that are, to a greater or lesser extent, tolerated. But they are all, as non-Muslim, treated as second-class citizens. The Islamic movement renews that purist side of Islam that insists in eradicating or expelling non-Muslim presences in Muslim lands.

The Archbishop of Mosul, on seeing his people exiled and killed, forced to choose between conversion and death, empathized that his buildings were destroyed, the archives and all record of the long Christian presence in that area destroyed. He warned that this form of treatment is what the nations of the West could expect sooner or later. There are now significant Muslim enclaves in every part of America and Europe to be of great concern as centers of future uprisings within each city. There are now thousands of mosques in Europe and America, financed largely by oil money, that are parts of a closed enclave that excludes local law and enforces Muslim law.

Yet, we can ask: Is this Islamic State anything more than a pipe-dream? No Islamic state has any serious possibility of defeating modern armies. But, ironically, they no longer think that modern armies will be necessary. They are convinced that widespread use of terrorism and other means of civil disorder can be successful. No one really has the will or the means to control the destructive forces that the Islamic State already in place.

The Islamic State strategists think it is quite possible to take another step in the expansion of Islam, to take up again the assault on Europe left off at Tours and Vienna. Muslim armies have always been known for cruelty and craftiness. Men often shrank in fear before its threat, as they are intended to do. A Muslim theoretician once remarked that their aim was to make the streets of Western cities look like those battlefields we see in the cities of the Mid-east. Again with the suicide bomber and believers in their use, for which they are said to be “martyrs,” this may be possible.

Finally, the case of the Islamic State and of the jihadists is not just a threat arising out of Islam’s mission to conquer the world for Allah. It is also a moral case, that the life of the West is atheist and decadent. It does not deserve its prosperity and position. The mission of mankind is the submission to Allah in all things. Once this submission is in place, the sphere of war will be over. No more beheading or car-bombings will be necessary or tolerated. No dissent within Islam will be possible or permitted. All will be at peace under the law of Islam. This is the religious purpose of the Islamic State. It is folly to think of it in any other terms.

But with great opposition both from the West and from within Islamic states to this vision, is there any possibility of its success? Pat Buchanan thought that a group of Seals one of these days would eliminate the new Caliph. Existing Muslin government officials know that their days are numbered if the Islamic State succeeds. But, at the same time, this vision does seem to be the real impetus of the Islamic peoples. It is easy to write this movement off as “fanatic” and ruthless, which it is in a way. To the outside world, it sounds horrific, but I suspect not to those who believe its truth and see the current revival of Islam with relief. The second- or third-class ranking of Islam in the modern world is over. But to the degree that we misjudge what is motivating the renewal of Islam, we will never understand why it exists as it does.

Please note that this work was originally published on the Australian site

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From Virtue to Value - September 15, 2014

The next blog entry will be on September 29th, 2014

Though I am a slow reader, I am on my sixth reading of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I was told by my mentor, Gerhart Niemeyer, that Karamazov was a work that needed to be read more than once, in fact, more than twice, in different stages of one’s life. I hope to get the chance to read it ten times. It was at the first reading that I experienced the shock and grandeur that one associates with a conversion, when I read the section leading up to and including the Grand Inquisitor. I still remember how it seemed to me that the blood was leaving my face as I trembled from the sheer intensity I was feeling. This was followed by a long (indeed, I thought overly extended) section on the writings and thoughts of Fr. Zosima. It was only when reading Karamazov the second time that I realized that this was actually where I would find the central meaning of the work. Below is a very short snippet from that section.

Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it. So I think.

Feodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Part II, Book Six: The Russian Monk;
Chapter 3: From Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima;
(g) Of Prayer, Love, and the Touching of Other Worlds

On reading this section recently, I thought of the transition that the West has taken from virtue to value, and how it has succeeded in transforming our very lives, without saying so, without hinting of the change, without seeming even to know. The ancients from Athens to Jerusalem to Rome spoke of virtue and the grounding of our sense of personhood, our relationship with God (or the gods), our guide to living the right life, indeed, the happy life. Virtue is at the center of our notion of goodness, our pathway to truth and beauty and the good. And we knew why: because what virtue was had nothing to do with our feelings or thoughts or plans; we inherited the notion of our virtue in our birth, given us as a gift more precious than rubies, unable to be brought about by our own works. We can follow it or we can ignore or deny it. The ancient Greeks and the early Hebrews were consumed with what we call virtue, and I think it was precisely because virtue was not man-made at all, but given to man to do with as he will.

There have always been assaults on virtue and on the very nature of acceding to the virtuous life, but these assaults increased tremendously in the past several centuries, becoming fully triumphant in the 20th century, when virtue was supplanted by value, which had great advantages in not being given us freely but requiring more than our ascent but rather our creation, our independent choice. We did not have to ponder about God or gods. We became the master of our domain. To have values was ipso-facto a positive result irrespective of what values we were talking about. The strength of virtue as something easily identified and known by all people, became a harsh destruction of our rights and our individuality. With values, we can become the people we wanted to become and not adhere to some outside source of goodness. We became us!

We see this “us” everywhere now, people who do not know the difference between freedom and license, between good and agreeable, indeed between friendship and usefulness. They make their own values and would not dare trample on the values of others, irrespective of what those values are. Values easily become the passing show, today’s goody, the gift we give ourselves. It lasts as long as we want it to last and no longer. It is the seeds that cannot sprout, the garden that cannot grow, the world that is ours to conceive and give away and, eventually, deny.

“God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds.”

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What Lasts? - September 1, 2014

I am just back from the American Political Science Association meeting, held this year in my hometown, Washington D.C. (yes, there are people who were born in Washington). Over the years, these meetings have changed for exhibitors. No longer do we expect to sell enough books to pay our way (plane, booth costs, shipping, hotel, etc., etc.). The reason to go nowadays is wholly about meeting people, principally, for me, authors and future authors. Since I am a hermit for nearly all the year, this is a good, short substitution for life behind a computer. In this regard, this particular meeting was very satisfying . . . good friends, good books, and a chance to think in a different way from my many duties at work.

Several events coalesced to give me the opportunity to reflect on plans, books, ideas, and, most importantly, people. At first, these seemed very different: a chance to meet dear friends, most of whom are also authors for St. Augustine’s Press; a whole series of new and interesting works coming our way, beginning with a great new book on the later work of Eric Voegelin by a profound expert in the field; a series of books covering what the rest of my reflections were leading up to, though without my knowledge, namely, the very center of life in friendship; a great trip home that featured a very important discussion with my wife about planning for the future of the company that changed my whole perspective; and the most important time, to see two dear friends whose friendship goes way, way back.

The lady from this pair of friends is in her sixth year of pancreatic cancer, and her (and her husband’s) attitude and gusto for life melded all the thoughts I had during the week of intelligence, understanding, future planning, and deep, abiding friendship. We talked about family and friends, about living and loving in the most positive way we can muster, about being grateful for each gift, large or small. It made me think how significant it is that the Four Last Things begin with death, not end with it.

She was, she is, an inspiration. And I realized after our dinner, how strangely these ideas seemed to build on one another, to react strongly to what we may well say, but almost never act upon: that after God, what matters are friends and family, for they bring the delights, the ideas, the hope that does not disappoint. These are what last in life, last beyond our full capacity to understand, and, may it please Him, beyond the first of the Four Last Things.

The next blog will appear on September 15, 2014.

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Gatekeeping - August 25, 2014

In all my years in publishing, I’ve known but one publisher who got into the business to become rich . . . and he did become rich, though if he had gone into plumbing or dry goods, he would have been far richer. What I have to say here starts with the idea that there are better reasons than filthy lucre to get into publishing.

But what is it exactly that defines publishing? I once gave a talk about the nature of publishing, and I used America’s most famous historic publisher, Benjamin Frankin, a man who wrote books, edited, typeset, printed, promoted, and sold books. I said that each of these tasks is presently available to publishers as contract labor, so, obviously, none of them is the definition of the publisher. My answer, which I want to amend today, was that rights, owning and caring for rights, was that central definition of what constitutes a publisher.

But now I think that what I term here “gatekeeping” is this definition.

Instead of giving reason after reason for the role of the gatekeeper being so important, let me start with an experience I had when I first moved from editor to publisher in the book business, I was told by the all-wise head of university’s Rare Book Room that not only were clothbound books completely passé, but paperbounds would follow soon thereafter. The future, he said, lay in microfilm. Even then I was backward when it came to the advancement of technology. In any case, I’m glad I didn’t bet the farm on microfilm.

It is true that when librarians get together at, say, the American Library Association, they talk about the upcoming machinery needed to run a library. Publishers at one or another conventions tend to talk to one another about formats. But, I ask you, how many formats are there for playing music or showing movies or “ringing up” people? More importantly for my publishing friends, which one is Today’s Format? Be careful what you say. You may find yourself living in the past too.

But whatever the formats, are our “books” better, our music more uplifting, our communication of a higher prominence? The question answers itself. As technology makes life easier, ease overrides purpose. So, there are no more letter-writers any longer, but that’s OK, since there are so few who can really and truly read a letter anyway. Formats will not save the world, much less save publishing. The important work of publishing has been, is, and will be the what, not the how.

Now it is common for people to brag about the number of books on their e-book readers, but fewer who brag about knowing what was read. I used to say that people should own three to five books for every one they read, front to back. Now the figure for e-books is probably ten or twenty times that much. Is this an improvement in knowledge or is it a fallback?

Back in late September last year, I wrote a blog here propounding the notion that there are four purposes that books provide, four aims for legitimate publishers, whether they publish bibles or bodice rippers. I called these four aims The Four E’s, standing for Education, Enlightenment, Edification, and Entertainment. Which of these is more important is a topic that will not be settled here, but I know for certain that the guarantor of the Four E’s must be a publisher, one who acts as a gatekeeper for quality in the sense of Aristotle’s notion of the true, the beautiful, and the good. No question but that publishers fail every day in reaching the highest plane, but on most good days they are aware of that they must try to be that gatekeeper and publish quality.

There is at present a series of arguments in publishing, not only about formats but about pricing, about contracts, about the decline of outstanding bookstores, etc., and much of it is directly or, more likely, subtly an argument for a lesser role for publishers (indeed, for publishing), and my own thought is that this has less to do with dollar percentages than it is with the importance and even need for gatekeepers as such.

Please tell me what kind of gatekeeper is amazon? I say this as one who each year spends a lot of money with amazon and runs a company that relies on amazon for perhaps a hundred thousand dollars yearly. They are efficient, care about their shoppers, and offer an amazing array of works. But amazon is not a gatekeeper. The quality they guarantee is in shipping, pricing, and customer service; they do a wonderful job in this, and we should not expect more. But we need not complain when that quality has nothing to do with the Four E’s. If you can’t say “no,” you know you’re not a gatekeeper.

When the Four E’s become as passé as the last or the next format, we as a people will lose far more than a little inconvenience. 

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“Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” August 18, 2014

So said Mary McCarthy about Lillian Hellman in a television interview with Dick Cavett in January 1980. The next month, Hellman filed suit against McCarthy, PBS, and Cavett for $2.5 million. Hellman died in 1984, and the case was dropped, so we will never know for sure whether every word she wrote was a lie. Life is full of mysteries.

But what is not so mysterious is the changing constitution of lying in public contexts, most especially in politics. George H.W. Bush, at the 1988 Republican Convention, gave his most remembered line, saying, “Read my lips, no new taxes.” After he won the election, Democrats descended on him to raise taxes and made life such a misery that in June 1990 (and without consulting Congressional Republicans), he agreed to some tax increases. The headline in the New York Post the next day was, “Read my lips: I lied.” Thereafter, the central political discussion was not on raising taxes but on Bush’s great “lie.”

But is changing your mind the equivalent of lying? I am not so sure. Almost all politicians have a change of heart or change of program occasionally. In fact, if a politician failed to do that, no doubt some newspaper or pundit would complain about his stubbornness or inability to work with others or blindness to other ideas . . . unless that politician was a Democrat, of course.

In the past 25 years, it is Bush’s “lie” that is the most famous because it was most heralded by the media. But compare that with what we have been facing during the present administration, where talk, which greatly outstrips action, contains immense quantities and qualities of lies, real lies, by which I mean deliberately speaking falsehoods. Media indignation about this was very late in coming and remains sotto voce even now.

Is this because we have, in one generation, taken the lie to be expected or harmless or understandable or accepted? As Stalin put it in a different context, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” Maybe quantity has transformed into quality, and we won’t have to worry ourselves with tawdry concerns about truth so long as we are fed. As the Grand Inquisitor put it to Jesus in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s immortal The Brothers Karamazov: “You objected that man does not live by bread alone, but do you know that in the name of this very earthly bread, the spirit of the earth will rise against you and fight with you and defeat you, and everyone will follow him exclaiming, ‘what can compare to this beast, for he has given us fire from heaven!’ Do you know that centuries will pass and mankind will proclaim with the mouth of its wisdom and science that there is no crime, and therefore no sin, but only hungry men? ‘Feed them first, then ask virtue of them!’—that is what they will write on the banner they raise against you. . .”

But before we too become narcissists without portfolios and talk ourselves into thinking that reading from a teleprompter constitutes action, let us note the words of Dostoevsky’s literary descendant, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”

Perhaps, in the future, Solzhenitsyn’s statement will end up being our guide: “To stand up for truth is nothing. For truth, you must sit in jail.”

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