How a group becomes a crowd

A human group transforms itself into a crowd when it suddenly responds to a suggestion rather than to reasoning, to an image rather than to an idea, to an affirmation rather than to proof, to the repetition of a phrase rather than to arguments, to prestige rather than to competence.

Jean-Francois Revel


Katie van Schaijik

Kleist’s take on modernity

Feb. 18, 2010, at 11:55am

A Barnes and Noble review of a new collection of Heinrich von Kleist’s prose ends with a paragraph that succinctly captures a salient feature of modernity.

Fifty years ago, Martin Greenberg tried to determine the particular quality that gives Kleist his startling modernity. He pointed, finally, to “the questionableness at the heart of his world, the almost diabolical ambiguity of its atmosphere, the way things tremble and shift and make one wonder if they are what they seem.” In essence, Kleist consistently subverts our expectations. Like the earthquake in Chile, his fiction causes the apparently solid ground beneath our feet to shudder, crack, and, finally, give way.

I know von Kleist’s name from the story I often heard told in philosophy classes on Kant’s epistemology: that this great 19th century German poet, playwright and story-teller was so appalled by Kan’t theory that the human mind cannot attain objective reality that he committed suicide.

Being an artist of exceptional sensitivity, Von Kleist no doubt felt sooner and suffered more from the spiritual malaise that afflicts the modern world. His despair is negative testimony to the human need for truth, certainty, the metaphysical stability and inherent meaningfulness of reality.

Here is a contrasting sense of reality from Edith Stein, who, as a woman who went from being a Jewish German atheist to Catholic Carmelite nun eventually gassed to death in Auschwitz, knew as much von Kleist about the ambiguities of the modern world.

In the knowledge that being holds me, I rest securely. This security, however, is not self-assurance of one who under her own power stands on firm ground, but rather the sweet and blissful security of the child that is lifted up and carried by a strong arm.

Katie van Schaijik

Lenten reading

Feb. 17, 2010, at 11:03am

This great idea came in from a friend yesterday:

The chapter in DvH’s Transformation in Christ called ‘True Simplicity’ makes great reading in preparation for Lent.  If you haven’t read the entire book yet, you might find that chapter helpful in getting “motivated” about Lenten penitential practices.  (Maybe you’re already sufficiently motivated?!)  So many discussions of Lenten penitence focus on the disciplinary aspect—developing the habit of giving up things voluntarily in order to be able to resist a temptation when it becomes necessary—without highlighting the positive value of creating a state of interior simplicity.

Katie van Schaijik

Christian and Islamic visions of love

Feb. 15, 2010, at 11:48pm

On the eve of Valentine’s day I was at Notre Dame University, giving a talk on Catholic (courtship for the annual Edith Stein conference organized by students)—on conjugal love in the Catholic vision, and what it reveals about the nature and vocation of persons.
It is perhaps my favorite of all topics—the one that has been closest to my heart and most on my mind during the more than 20 years since I discovered philosophy through a course on the nature of love in my junior year in Steubenville. I’ve been mulling a book on the subject ever since. And yet, whenever I agree to give a talk, I find myself overwhelmed. There’s too much to say. Too much truth and beauty, too much height and depth to contain in a short space of time! It becomes a kind of ordeal for me. Then I remember St. Augustine writing of the impossibility of praising God adequately, “And yet woe to me if I do not try!”

One day a year or two ago I found myself participating in a strange debate at a website dedicated to female sexuality in all its permutations. Another participant wrote in a sort of bored and cynical tone that Catholic and Islamic sexual morality boiled down to the same woman-oppressing thing: virginity until marriage.

I was taken aback—stunned wordless that anyone could see it that way. Of course it’s true that both religions demand virginity until marriage and fidelity until death. But the why and the how are so radically different that I found it hard to believe that anyone could see them as basically the same. In truth, the two sets of beliefs are almost opposites—in some respects more distant from each other than Christianity is from the secular hedonism that prevails in our culture.

I decided that this theme too should be explored in a book. I hope to write it someday. But meanwhile, here is an article that begins to show what I mean. According to it, in the Islamic view, romantic love is “a disease”, in essential conflict with commitment to Allah. In Christianity, it is exalted; it is an icon of the Holy Trinity. In marriage it becomes a Sacrament, a path to holiness, helping achieve the redemption of the world.

Katie van Schaijik

Conflating toughness and bullying

Feb. 10, 2010, at 12:36am

Something about these lines from an LA Times op ed about the Chicago way of politicking bothered me.

That style is tough, focused, immune to any distractions but cosmetic niceties. And did we mention tough. A portly, veteran Chicago alderman once confided only about 40% jokingly, that he had taken up jogging to lose weight but quickly gave it up as boring because “you can’t knock anyone down.” That’s politics the Chicago way.

It reminds me a little of those who speak of suicide bombers as martyrs. I see them rather as fanatics willing to kill innocents mercilessly in the name of their faith. Martyrs are the opposite. They are innocents willing be killed rather than abandon their faith. And they frequently die imploring God’s mercy on their killers.

I see “toughness” as a kind of courage, an imperviousness the fears and pressures that beset the untough. A habit of using violence and coercion to get your political way—a penchant for knocking people down—is not toughness. It’s thuggery. Thugs and bullies are famously weak and cowardly. Not tough at all—just intimidating for anyone who isn’t really tough.

Katie van Schaijik

Ayn Rand’s false philosophy

Feb. 9, 2010, at 11:48am

Anthony Daniels (who also writes under the lovable penname Theodore Dalrymple) has a devastating critique of Ayn Rand’s godless individualism in the latest issue of New Criterion. Rand’s work is apparently enjoying a kind of renaissance in these days of exploding government and deepening debt. Though she has worthwhile insights into the errors and dangers of collectivism, her ideas are repulsively inhumane and as far as can be from the Christian personalism we are about here.

Humanity, according to Rand, is divided into heroes, creators, and geniuses on the one hand, and weaklings, parasites, and the feeble-minded on the other. Needless to say, the latter outnumber the former by a very wide margin, but only the former are truly human in the full sense of the word.

See also Whittaker Chamber’s 1957 take down of Atlas Shrugged.

Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!”

Katie van Schaijik

Gift and grateful striving: Personalist Insight of the Day (PID)

Jan. 29, 2010, at 3:46pm

Anyone who wades into Christian personalism (especially in the John-Pauline articulation) soon encounters what Damian Fedoryka calls “the hermeneutics of the gift.” Personal life can only be adequately understood and lived when it is recognized and received as a gift. We do not make ourselves; we cannot account for our existence; we can only accept it (or not) as a gift.
The due response to a gift is gratitude. And gratitude involves a sincere desire to “make a return”. Hence the essential vocation of personal life: the call to give ourselves in love, as we have received ourselves in love.
It is the same in the religious life of persons. We cannot save ourselves through works. We cannot earn our redemption. It comes through Grace. But it does not follow that works are unimportant. Works of love are the way we express our gratitude for the gift we have received.
Here is Ferreira again speaking of this key theme in Kierkegaard [emphasis in the original]:

Indeed, in Kierkegaard’s journals we find a lovely formulation of this dual commitment: he writes that Christianity is “grace, and then a striving born of gratitude.” The implication is that our effort is important, although it cannot be meritorious in the sense of entitling us or giving us a right to something from God. Kierkegaard is assuming here the importance of a distinction between what I can deserving something from someone in the sense of having a right or entitlement to it and what I call being gratefully receptive to it; that is, we may not have deserved or merited some good thing given to us, but we can do something to prepare ourselves for an appropriate reception of the gift, to embrace it gratefully, or to appropriately express our gratitude through the exercise of love.

Katie van Schaijik

The curse and the gift of being Irish

Jan. 29, 2010, at 3:05pm

Lately I have found myself apologizing rather frequently to my children for the morbidities of the Irish-American heritage I have bequeathed to them from my line: the Jansenist-inspired heavy-handed moralizing tendency, the guilt and inferiority complexes, the insecurities, the second-guessing of self, the irrational fear of failure, the affective autism, and so on. The heritage on their father’s side seems so blessedly sound and uncomplicated in comparison. The Dutch generally are marvelously at ease with themselves and the world. They are even-tempered, steady, cheerful, imperturbable, outward-oriented, and unreflective. They are comfortable in their skins—patiently and good-humoredly accepting of their own short-comings and those of others.
In my sickliest moments, I am severely tempted to hate and resent being Irish, and to wish I were something else.
This morning I have found in Kierkegaard a thought that helps me recover perspective. It’s taken from his copious Journals and Papers. (I got it from the Ferreira book mentioned above and below.) He writes of what he thinks Martin Luther got right. (Kierkegaard was a Lutheran with many criticisms of the Protestant Christendom of his day.)

What Luther says is excellent, the one thing needful and the sole explanation—that this whole doctrine )of the Atonement and in the main all Christianity) must be traced back to the struggle of the anguished conscience. Remove the anguished conscience, and you may as well close the churches and convert them into dance halls… An atonement is necessary only in the understanding of anguished conscience. If a man had the power to live without needing to eat, how could he understand the necessity of eating—something the hungry man easily understands. It is the same in the life the spirit.

When I consider that as a matter of fact many Dutch churches have been converted into dance halls or pottery studios or worse, I am grateful for the Irish talent for imparting anguish of conscience to her children. It is a gift. It leads us to God.

Katie van Schaijik

Defeating corruption

Jan. 26, 2010, at 3:58pm

Behold the power of the zero note— a fascinating story of human inventiveness and hope for the power of the powerless to find justice.

Katie van Schaijik

Equality of persons

Jan. 26, 2010, at 1:08pm

I’ve just picked up a book called Love’s Grateful Striving: A Commentary on Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, by M. Jamie Ferreira, a professor at the University of Virginia, several of whose essays Jules has read and admired. The concluding paragraph of the introduction highlights a key characteristic of personalism as we hold it. From the Personalist Project’s “manifesto”: “We reject the ancient distinction between Greek and barbarian; we know that the birthright of a person belongs not to a select few but to every human being.”

Here is Professor Ferreira elucidating Kierkegaard’s (often overlooked) sense of solidarity with each and every person, including those lowest on the earthly scale.

When Kierkegaard insists that to love the neighbor is “essentially to will to exist equally for unconditionally every human being” (WL, p.84), he is not mouthing platitudes; he intends the claim for equality to be understood concretely. It is “due to Christianity,” he claims, that “the times are past when only the powerful and the prominent were human beings—and the others were bond servants and slaves” (p.74), and that “the times are past when those called the more lowly had no conception of themselves or only the conception of being slaves, or not merely being lowly human beings, but of not being human beings at all” (p.80). The love commandment is precisely a challenge because many have “inhumanly forgotten” that “whether a person is a man or woman, poorly or richly endowed, master or slave, beggar or plutocrat, the relationships among human beings ought and may never be such that the one worships and the other is the one worshipped” (p.125).

This point’s application to the political sphere comes naturally to Americans. It’s easy not to appreciate enough how new it is in history.

Katie van Schaijik

A must see documentary on person-destroying ideologies

Jan. 24, 2010, at 3:46pm

Glenn Beck’s manner can be repellent, but I think he does an important truth-telling service with his new documentary called Revolutionary Holocaust. It’s available in five segments on You Tube, starting here.
The whole thing is a searing depiction of the evil the then Cardinal Wojtyla expressed in a letter to Henri De Lubac. (Emphasis mine.)

The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this disintegration planned at times by atheistic ideologies we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of “recapitulation” of the inviolable mystery of the person.

I would love to hear what others think.

Katie van Schaijik

From Pope Benedict

Jan. 23, 2010, at 4:26pm

A gathering with friends tonight will be focused on some of Benedict XVI’s writings about priesthood. These lines from his August 5, 2009 general audience stood out as helping illumine and “situate” the mission of the Personalist Project. He is speaking about the witness of St. John Vianney.

Dear brothers and sisters, 150 years after the death of the Holy Curé of Ars, contemporary society is facing challenges that are just as demanding and may have become even more complex. If in his time the ‘dictatorship of rationalism’ existed, in the current epoch a sort of ‘dictatorship of relativism’ is evident in many contexts. Both seem inadequate responses to the human being’s justifiable request to use his reason as a distinctive and constituative element of his own identity. Rationalism was inadequate becasue it failed to take into account human limitations and claims to make reason alone the criterion of all things, transforming it into a goddess; contemporary relativism humiliates reason becasue it arrives de facto at affirming that the human being can know nothing with certainty outside the positive scientific field. Today however, as in that time, man ‘a beggar for meaning and fulfillment’, is constantly in quest of exhaustive answers to the basic questions that he never ceases to ask himself.

Katie van Schaijik

Mugged by the ultrasound

Jan. 22, 2010, at 8:52pm

The Weekly Standard has an article today about the way ultrasound technology is changing minds about abortion. For decades the public has been effectively shielded from the reality of abortion by a campaign of disinformation and clever euphemisms. Abortion was not the killing of an innocent and defenseless baby, but a matter of “choice,” “women’s rights” and “reproductive health.” That’s getting harder for even the most ideologically committed and personally invested pro-abortionists to maintain.

[A]dvances in ultrasound imaging and abortion procedures have forced providers ever closer to the nub of their work. Especially in abortions performed far enough along in gestation that the fetus is recognizably a tiny baby, this intimacy exacts an emotional toll, stirring sentiments for which doctors, nurses, and aides are sometimes unprepared.

The best antidote to a mind-gripping lie seems to be not argument, but an encounter with the reality of a good.

Another study, published in the October 1989 issue of Social Science and Medicine noted that abortion providers were pained by encounters with the fetus regardless of how committed they were to abortion rights. It seems that no amount of ideological conviction can inoculate providers against negative emotional reactions to abortion.

Let’s pray that those “negative emotional reactions” lead to positive moral changes! Let’s pray and work for the full and complete conversion of our society to a culture of life.

Katie van Schaijik

The Gospel of Life

Jan. 22, 2010, at 8:09pm

Three of our children joined scores of thousands of other Americans at the annual March for Life in Washington DC today. I am marking the occasion by re-reading John Paul II’s great encyclical Evangelium Vitae,—a text that can be taken as a kind of manifesto for the Personalist Project.

The Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel.

These lines, taken from Vatican II, capture well what we oppose and why.

Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator

And here the Pope expresses our fundamental aim and our deepest conviction:

a precise and vigorous reaffirmation of the value of human life and its inviolability, and at the same time a pressing appeal addressed to each and every person… respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life! Only in this direction will [we] find justice, development, true freedom, peace and happiness!

Katie van Schaijik

Martin Luther King, Jr., personalist

Jan. 18, 2010, at 12:46pm

Not everyone knows that the great civil rights leader whose legacy we honor today held a doctorate in philosophy from Boston University, intellectual home of the Boston Personalists. His activism was animated by a profound personal faith and grounded in serious study of the intellectual trends of the day.

He recounts his journey from “thorough-going liberalism” through existentialism to a Christian personalism that recognized both the reality of evil and the hope of overcoming it in an essay called Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, written in 1960.

Here are two of its concluding paragraphs.

In recent months I have also become more and more convinced of the reality of a personal God. True, I have always believed in the personality of God. But in past years the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category which I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. Perhaps the suffering, frustration and agonizing moments which I have had to undergo occasionally as a result of my involvement in a difficult struggle have drawn me closer to God. Whatever the cause, God has been profoundly real to me in recent months. In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.

I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power. To say God is personal is not to make him an object among other objects or attribute to him the finiteness and limitations of human personality; it is to take what is finest and noblest in our consciousness and affirm its perfect existence in him. It is certainly true that human personality is limited, but personality as such involves no necessary limitations. It simply means self-consciousness and self-direction. So in the truest sense of the word, God is a living God. In him there is feeling and will, responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart: this God both evokes and answers prayers.

Katie van Schaijik

What makes you suffer?

Jan. 14, 2010, at 4:48pm

They say you can tell a lot about a man (a woman too, of course) from the company he keeps, or from the books he reads. I’d like to propose a new criterion. What gives him pain—I mean spiritual pain?
I thought of it reading these lines from George Orwell’s diaries describing the “upper class voices” that oppressed him in a Cotswold sanitarium in 1949. (He died of tuberculosis not many months later.)

“A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a sort of bah-bahing of laughter about nothing . . . people who, one instinctively feels, without even being able to see them, are the enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful.”

I found them in a review here.

Katie van Schaijik

Nancy Pelosi’s Archbishop explains the meaning of freedom

Jan. 14, 2010, at 12:29pm

His excellency, George H. Niederauer, Archbishop of San Francisco, has published a letter to Nancy Pelosi laying out the Church’s teaching on freedom and conscience. I find it very well done.

Freedom of will is the capacity to act with moral responsibility; it is not the ability to determine arbitrarily what constitutes moral right.

In reminding his readers of the objectivity of moral values, the Archbishop stresses not so much the binding character of the law as given by the Church, but rather the reality of conscience as the “core of the person” and the locus of his interior encounter with God. In other words, the Church teaches us not so much to “obey authority” as to listen to God within.

What, then, is to guide the children of God in the use of their freedom? Again, the bishops at the Council provide the answer—conscience: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment . . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God . . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (GS, No. 16) Conscience, then, is the judgment of reason whereby the human person, guided by God’s grace, recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act. In all we say and do, we are obliged to follow faithfully what we know to be just and right.

Even his instruction about our responsibility to form our consciences rightly emphasizes not obedience, but “mastering the law” and listening to testimony.

How do we form and guide our consciences? While the Church teaches that each of us is called to judge and direct his or her own actions, it also teaches that, like any good judge, each conscience masters the law and listens to expert testimony about the law. This process is called the education and formation of conscience.

These emphases (which come from the gospel and from the Church herself) are important and all too easily overlooked, leading to much misunderstanding and malformation.

Common caricatures of Christian morality portray believers as living in fear of punishment or concerned only with an eternal reward. Long ago, however, St. Basil the Great, a fourth-century bishop and theologian, taught that the Christian, in living a moral life according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “does not stand before God as a slave in servile fear, nor a mercenary looking for wages, but obeys for the sake of the good itself and out of love for God as his child.” (CCC, No. 1828)

Three cheers for the Archbishop! And prayers for Nancy Pelosi and all Catholic public servants, that they may have ears to hear.
Hat tip Kathryn Lopez at the Corner.

Katie van Schaijik

The beginning of love

Jan. 10, 2010, at 9:34pm

So I am reading an article—an op-ed piece at Politico defending Brit Hume’s recent public suggestion that Tiger Woods consider Christianity with its theology of repentance and forgiveness as the solution to his troubles. The author opens with a moving vignette:

Thirty years ago, as she accepted her Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa told the story of a group of American professors who’d come to see her doing the Lord’s work in Calcutta. Before taking their leave, they asked for a bit of wisdom to take home with them. “Smile,” she replied, “for the smile is the beginning of love.”

I think to myself: “That’s true! How beautiful and true! I must smile more.” Then I am jarred by the next line.

Mother Teresa’s contention was that the first duty of a person who believes in Christ is to show others that you are happy—that Christianity is working for you.

Was that her contention? The personalist in me doesn’t think so. Not at all.

Mother Teresa did not say, “Smile; it’s your first duty as a Christian; the best way to promote Christianity is to show that it’s working for you.” She said to smile because “the smile is the beginning of love.” Her interest is not in winning converts, but in growing love between persons.

I’ll go further. To smile in order to show that “Christianity is working for you” runs the risk of violating of the very essence of smiling. A true smile involves both a revelation of the self and a response to value—especially to the value of the person before you. It is an opening of myself to the good of the other—an opening that allows the other to see the good of me, viz. the beginning of love. (Listen to Maria Fedoryka’s talks for more on this mysterious dialectic.)

A genuine smile entails, then, a certain self-exposure, truthfulness and vulnerability.  A sales-pitch smile, on the other hand, involves making a presentation in order to get another person to act in the way you want them to act.  This is a bad beginning for love.

Katie van Schaijik

The moral vacuum in western world makes Islam appealing to women

Jan. 8, 2010, at 6:04pm

An article in the London Evening Standard (hat tip Mark Steyn at the Corner) tells of “vast numbers” of British women converting to Islam and marrying Muslim men.

“The women were reacting to the moral uncertainties of the Western world. Many convert out of conviction and not because they are in love.”

...Three such converts told me last year their nun-like apparel makes them feel less objectified and they feel “cleansed”.

I fear these poor women are jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, but I nevertheless understand their feelings. Who can deny that the galloping relativism that afflicts the west must cause a sense of radical existential insecurity that makes the sternness of Islam appealing. It also stands to reason that women who have felt objectified and used by the habits of hedonism would feel liberated by being covered in robes.

The secular liberalism prevailing today will never be able to win the Muslim world. Only a re-Christianization of the west has any hope of that.

Jules van Schaijik

Between the knockers and boosters of modern culture

Jan. 7, 2010, at 2:24pm

Some time soon I will have to make my way through Charles Taylor’s Sources of The Self, an important but long and difficult book on “The Making of the Modern Identity.” For now, however, I decided to take up his shorter and much more managable work, The Ethics of Authenticity. And I must say, based on the first thirty pages, IT IS GREAT! I keep on wanting to get up and talk to Katie about it. (Good thing she had to go to the dentist. Otherwise I would still be on page 5.)

What I especially like is the way in which Taylor elucidates and appreciates the moral ideal that underlies much of modern culture. He calls it the “ideal of authenticity.”

Herder put forward the idea that each of us has an original way of being human. Each person has his or her own “measure” is his way of putting it. This idea has entered very deep into modern consciousness. It is also new. Before the late eighteenth century no one thought that the differences between human beings had this kind of moral significance. There is a certain way of being that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me.

This is the powerful moral ideal that has come down to us. It accords crucial importance to a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature, which it sees as in danger of being lost, partly through the pressures toward outward conformity, but also because in taking an instrumental stance to myself, I may have lost the capacity to listen to this inner voice. And then it greatly increases the importance of this self-contact by introducing the principle of originality: each of our voices has something of its own to say. Not only should I not fit my life to the demands of external conformity; I can’t even find the model to live by outside myself. I can only find it within.

Taylor’s sympathetic understanding of this new moral ideal, and his basic approval of it (though not of the many trivial or degraded forms it takes!), allows him to steer clear of both the “knockers” of modern culture (e.g. Harold Bloom and Christopher Lasch) and its “boosters”. He recognizes (with the knockers) all the negative things that have followed in the wake of modern man’s pursuit of authenticity: relativism, narcisism, a replacing of genuine freedom with mere free choice, a rejection of the past, a withdrawal from the demands of citizenship, and so on. But (unlike the knockers) he sees these negatives as a deviation from and betrayal of the true ideal. It is impossible to be true to oneself without a commitment to objective truth and obedience to moral norms. It is impossible to find self-fulfillment without a sincere and practical concern for others. It is impossible to achieve genuine freedom without obedience, discipline and virtue, or to maintain political freedom without civic engagement. Hence, Taylor argues, we should not try to persuade the men and women of our time to reject the ideal of authenticity, but rather help them to understand it more clearly and live up to it more faithfully. The ability to articulate the ideal of authenticity and show its connection to those other, older ideals embedded in the western tradition as a whole, is useful “not just in correcting what may be wrong views but also in making the force of an ideal that people are already living by more palpable, more vivid for them; and by making it more vivid, empowering them to live up to it in a fuller and more integral fashion.”

We here at the Personalist Project very much share Taylor’s approach (which is not to say we agree with him in all particulars). In our view, the personalism of thinkers like Dietrich von Hildebrand, John Paul II, and John Henry Newman, is the “hermeneutical key” to understanding (almost) all that is great in the modern period, and to reconciling it with the wisdom of previous ages.

Katie van Schaijik

Christmas reading and listening recommendations

Dec. 26, 2009, at 12:41pm

The great Roger Scruton sounds the alarm about The High Cost of Ignoring Beauty.

Aesthetic judgements may look subjective when you are wandering in the aesthetic desert of Waco or Las Vegas. In the old cities of Europe, however, you discover what happens when people are guided by a shared tradition which not only makes aesthetic judgement central, but also lays down standards that govern what everybody does. And in Venice or Prague, in Bath, Oxford, or Lisbon, you come to see that there is all the difference in the world between aesthetic judgement treated as an expression of individual taste, and aesthetic judgement treated in the opposite way, as the expression of a community. Maybe we see beauty as subjective only because we have given the wrong place to aesthetic judgement in our lives—seeing it as a way of affirming ourselves, instead of a way of denying ourselves.

Beauty is a major interest of this philosopher and musician. (He has composed two operas.) Here is another great article, published in The City Journal in the Spring.

Judy Lightfoot offers a moving reflection on the sense of sin and human solidarity.

Playing a similar theme, though with a nobler instrument and on a grander scale, Cardinal Newman has a Christmas sermon called “Religious Joy”—joy sprung from lowliness.

Why should the heavenly hosts appear to these shepherds? What was it in them which attracted the attention of the Angels and the Lord of Angels? Were these shepherds learned, distinguished, or powerful? Were they especially known for piety and gifts? Nothing is said to make us think so. Faith, we may safely say, they had, or some of them, for to him that hath more shall be given; but there is nothing to show that they were holier and more enlightened than other good men of the time, who waited for the consolation of Israel. Nay, there is no reason to suppose that they were better than the common run of men in their circumstances, simple, and fearing God, but without any great advances in piety, or any very formed habits of religion. Why then were they chosen? for their poverty’s sake and obscurity. Almighty God looks with a sort of especial love, or (as we may term it) affection, upon the lowly.

I have recently discovered, thanks to the Mark Steyn Christmas Show, Elizabeth von Trapp, granddaughter of Maria and the Baron. I downloaded her Christmas Song album at itunes. Its gentle, prayerful music has been helping me enter the mystery of these holy days. You can listen to clips of it here.

Friend Mike Wallacavage sent the link to this beautiful Bach piece: Thomanerchor: “Jauchzet frohlocket”
“Triumph, rejoicing, rise, praising these days now,
Tell ye what this day the Highest hath done!
Fear now abandon and banish complaining,
Join, filled with triumph and gladness, our song!
  Serve ye the Highest in glorious chorus,
  Let us the name of our ruler now honor!”

Every Christmas I marvel anew at the depth and majesty and beauty and poetry of the lyrics of the traditional hymns. They are the best of prayers.   “Radiant beams from Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace…”
“Veiled in flest the Godhead see, hail the Incarnate Deity. Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmauel…”

Having heard—I forget now where—that this version is the best film rendition of Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, our family watched it together the other night. It is charming, especially in its entirely convincing evocation of the life and sensibilities of Victorian England.

I wish everyone in the world had a subscription to Magnificat.

Stay informed

Latest comments

  • Re: Attending to the interior
  • By: Katie van Schaijik
  • Re: Attending to the interior
  • By: Jules van Schaijik
  • Re: The Weary World Rejoices
  • By: Gary Gibson
  • Re: Assessment Run Amok
  • By: Devra Torres
  • Re: Assessment Run Amok
  • By: deb
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Katie van Schaijik
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Gary Gibson
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Katie van Schaijik
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Rhett Segall
  • Re: Cutting ties
  • By: Leonie

Latest active posts

Reading circles