The Personalist Project

Discussing the conduct of life

It is no ordinary matter we are discussing, Glaucon, but the right conduct of life.

Socrates, The Republic

All our life is sown with tiny thorns that produce in our hearts a thousand involuntary movements of hatred, envy, fear, impatience, a thousand little fleeting disappointments, a thousand slight worries, a thousand disturbances that momentarily alter our peace of soul. For example, a word escapes that should not have been spoken. Or someone utters another that offends us. A child inconveniences you. A bore stops you. You don’t like the weather. Your work is not going according to plan. A piece of furniture is broken. A dress is torn. I know that these are not occasions for practicing very heroic virtue. But they would definitely be enough to acquire it if we really wished to.
—Saint Claude la Colombiére

Lent is fast approaching, and with it comes discussion of the merits or lack thereof of undertaking Lenten sacrifices or extra devotions and other forms of discipline. I explained to my five year old daughter last night that we won't be having sweets or desserts during Lent because Lent is a time for being sorry for our sins and getting ready for Easter. Afterwards, I realised that my explanation still didn't make a very clear connection between giving up desserts and getting ready for Easter. Since many adults don't seem to quite understand the connection either, it seems worth further thought. 

There's really two things at play here: the question of the value of small actions--personal fasts and devotions--and the question of connecting these in a particular way to the season of Lent and preparation for Easter. In this post, I'd like to address the former. 

Why do small actions and choices matter? 

What is the use of giving up something like dessert? Dessert is not an immoral thing under most circumstances, and moderate enjoyment of physical pleasures can help us to be contented and pleasant to the people around us. Self-denial does not obviously or directly make us more loving or kind or generous to others, so what IS the point? 

But perhaps that is the point. Self-denial takes away some of the comfortable props we lean on to help us feel well-disposed towards the world. Not all of them--and I don't recommend looking for a Lenten discipline that will leave you thoroughly irritable and out of sorts with everyone around you!--but removing just one or two small buffers can test our charity and goodwill in a real, though small way. 

Perhaps that glass of wine at dinner gives the world just enough comfortable glow to make it easy to resist micro-managing how your children do their evening chores. Maybe you're in the habit of popping into the pantry for a square of chocolate whenever your spouse repeats some soundbite that makes you want to roll your eyes. Perhaps you shop online when your busy schedule leaves you feeling frayed, and looking forward to the resulting packages in the mail helps you face your workday cheerfully. 

None of these things are bad in themselves, and as you can see, they can all be used in ways that help us live full and good lives. 

However, there is more to virtue than arranging our lives so that they are full of comforting rewards and distractions from temptations to anger or sin. Our small challenges can, as St. Claude reminded us, be the means by which we acquire heroic virtue, even if there is nothing especially heroic in the moment about biting your tongue against a sarcastic reply to a coworker or quelling your impatience when returning a small child to bed for the umpteenth time. 

The choices we make when we encounter life's tiny thorns are important because they are the means by which we form our characters. To use psychological language, these choices help to mold our affective responses, to change our first, interior responses to temptation. 

It's an important lesson, a protection against scrupulosity, to know that we are not responsible in the moment for an involuntary affective response. The flash of anger at being interrupted that I experience when one of my children barges into my office while I'm writing isn't virtuous, but neither is it sinful. It simply is. What I choose to do with that feeling, whether I act on it or let it drain away, can be a moral choice, but the initial feeling wasn't chosen and I am not culpable for it. 

On the other hand, to say we are not culpable for our affective responses isn't to say that we have no part to play or responsibility for shaping and training our affective responses over the long term, and how we face the small temptations and aggravations of life has a lot to do with what kind of person we become. 

The practice of a Lenten discipline isn't about rejecting the good gifts of Creation. There's nothing innately bad about good food or entertainment or diversions. But choosing to set them aside for a time allows us to test our characters and see who we are becoming.

My middle child is taking a short water safety course that is designed to teach children how to survive if stranded in deep water by a boating accident or mistake in judgement. The program is called "Swim to Survive" and, although the intention is to get the children to where they would be able to swim to shore or stay alive for hours in the water under difficult conditions, obviously the instructors don't teach survival skills by dumping a bunch of 9-year-olds in the middle of a lake to sink or swim.

Instead, they teach them pieces of the skills they need, using repetition to grind survival skills into their heads. They practice heat-preserving flotation techniques in and out of life-jackets while in shallow water. They practice treading water near the dock. They have the children swim short distances at first, and then longer ones, zeroing in on reducing the kinds of bad habits that will prematurely tire a swimmer, like splashing feet and arms out of the water.

None of those children is doing anything extraordinary during any 30 minute session. But by setting aside their flotation devices and water toys for a time, they may acquire responses and skills to survive in an extraordinary circumstance sometime in the future. 

By setting aside some of the small material comforts that make life easier and more pleasant for a time and leaning instead on God's graces, may we also acquire heroic virtue against any extraordinary challenges the future might hold.

Image Credit Petr Kratochvil, via 

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Daddy has been really sick, and it has been hard for him to breathe, and I was praying that he would get better again. Yesterday Daddy went to the doctor. We were all praying a rosary, and he came home and was still sick. He took the meds that the doctor said to, and a little bit later he felt a lot better! The prayers worked! 

Wait, what?

I groaned he first time I read this entry in my daughter's journal. Time to brush up on elementary logic, quick, before anybody finds out we're raising a bunch of religious fundamentalists! The most hardcore kind, too, blissfully impervious to reason! 

On the other hand...

As a matter of formal logic, I'm the first to acknowledge we have a problem here. Even the proposition "Daddy took medicine, and then he felt better" could be a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc. (In fact, a lot of useless medicines get popular that way!) But what to say about "we prayed, and nothing happened, and then Daddy took medicine, and he felt better; therefore prayer works"?

Still, it's also unwarranted to set things up as a simple either-or proposition. Either the chemical interactions between material substances cured Daddy, or it was intercessory prayer that did the trick. God could have used the grace gained by our daughter's prayers to get Daddy to the point where he was willing to go to the doctor. He could have used the prayers to enlighten the doctor's mind concerning which kind of medicine was suitable. Being eternal, He could have arranged things such that my daughter's prayers, though chronologically after the fact, constituted some part of the reason the man decided to take up medicine in the first place, and to take a job at the Washington Hospital Center.

You can recognize all these possibilities without denying a chemical substance's physical efficacy. Likewise, you can recognize the efficacy of the matter without denying the role of the Creator.

More broadly, we're mistaken if we imagine we have to choose between a world of chemical substances or a world of personal interactions. Ancient cultures might err on the side of the personal, believing that storms were caused by the wrath of the wind god. Ignorant of meteorology, they put everything down to personal interactions. An atheist meteorologist could err on the side of the material, believing that matter is sufficient to account even for its own existence. Ignorant of spirit, he might put everything down to chemicals.

So thank you, Jopa, for the insight. If it rises to the level of one. But we're still going to work on logic next semester.

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I ran across the phrase "weaponized empathy" the other day (in an article about immigration called "How to Defeat Weaponized Empathy": you can google it if you must, but I prefer not to link to it). Do you remember the picture of the little drowned refugee boy in the red shirt? The photo, which I don't have the heart to repost here, went viral, and for a brief moment, all of us here in cyberspace felt that a line had been crossed--this could not stand--something had to be done. 

The author claims, though, that the little boy's body had been moved, repositioned for "maximum propaganda value." There's a before and an after picture. In the first, he's half hidden behind some rocks; in the second--the familiar one--he's lying on the shore, head to the waters, as if his little body had just washed up. You see? You're being manipulated. That image that awoke your empathy, and your desire to change immigration law? Contrived and artificial! Fake news! Don't fall for it!

It was strange, though. The author of the article didn't attempt to deny that the little boy drowned. He didn't deny that thousands upon thousands of just such toddlers are suffering and dying. He just showed the pictures of the body in one position, with someone, apparently some sort of aid worker, crouched beside it, then in another. It left a bad taste in my mouth--not because of the propaganda, but because of the leap from "They're trying to weaponize your empathy!" to "Don't fall for it! Don't empathize!"

Up to a point, he has a point--the same one personalists have been laboring to hammer into people's heads forever. You don't use people. You don't turn anybody into Exhibit A, just to prove your point. You don't feign interest in anyone's plight while secretly relishing what a neat and tidy illustration he is of your preferred ideology. And you don't determine public policy on the basis of sentiment instead of facts.

But that doesn't mean you ignore the actual person. That doesn't mean the person--this little boy, or anybody else--is less real, less important, than anybody's preferred policy.

I've seen this kind of weaponizing defended, by good guys and bad guys alike. There's an organization I used to support wholeheartedly--until I went to a conference and heard its president give a talk. As he was wrapping up, knowing what a friendly audience it was, he explained his fundraising strategy. "You need to get people angry," he confided. "Angry people write bigger checks."

He had learned how to weaponize their anger.

The thing is, it is sometimes good and necessary to awaken empathy, or anger, or even fear, where it's called for but doesn't spring up spontaneously, because of our sloth or hardness of heart. Affective response, as we at The Personalist Project have always insisted and Dietrich von Hildebrand spells out in The Heart, is not just some one-dimensional animal passion, serving only to stir up trouble and in need of domination by the more respectable faculties of will and intellect. The plight of a particular person, and the affective response objectively called for by that plight--these are no less real than all the facts and figures in the world. 

So no--don't let the ideologues and politicians weaponize your empathy. Don't let the fundraisers weaponize your anger and fear. But don't throw the baby (your fitting affective response) out with the bathwater (somebody's cynical manipulation of that response). You'll end up losing a lot more than political victories.

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“The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do.” – George Orwell, review of Mein Kampf 

 By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Since the horrific mosque shooting in Quebec City a few weeks ago, I’ve been wondering how it is that ordinary young men (and women) get swept up into violent ideologies. Sociologists call the process “radicalization,” and as I was reading about a study of thirteen different militant extremist groups—from across different regions, religions, and cultures—I encountered this list of beliefs that typify the violent extremist.

The researchers…extracted 16 key themes that occurred over and over in the texts. Taken together, the themes cohere into what Saucier and colleagues describe as a “seductive narrative”: The modern world has fallen into a catastrophic state. The ordinary mechanisms of change are no longer valid. Only extreme, violent measures can save things. This is a war of us against them, a war of good versus evil, a war of necessity. Any and all means are not only justified, they are glorified. God is on our side. In the end utopia will be restored.

Sounds pretty extreme at first glance, doesn’t it? How could anyone swallow this vision of the world? But if you soften the language a little, you get a set of propositions many people might find themselves agreeing with: 

·         The modern world is heading toward disaster. 

·         All our ordinary methods of bringing about change have been fruitless.

·         There is an "us," and there is a "them" antithetical to us.

·         We have to do whatever it takes to reach our goals. Means are unimportant; only ends are important.

·         God/history/progress is on our side.

·         We can fix what is wrong with the world. 

These are not propositions we find only in ISIS propaganda or identitarian nationalism. These are propositions we see accepted widely among activists on the right and the left, "Culture warriors" and "SJWs," among people whose goals we share and people whose goals we abhor. 

In an interview with the Washington Post on violent extremism, anthropologist Scott Atran referenced George Orwell on the attractions of Nazism and fascism:

“George Orwell once wrote a review of “Mein Kampf” in 1940, and I think it has some of the most profound insights of any commentator of the modern political world. He asks, how come [modern societies] offer their citizens ease, avoidance of risk and pain, hygiene, birth control — in short the good life — and no one is willing to fight for their ideals? And how is it that Hitler offers his people revolution, danger, death and glory, and a whole nation of 80 million people fall down at his feet? It’s because Hitler understood something profound about human nature: that human beings need at least intermittently a sense of self-sacrifice and transcendence. Under threat of death and extinction, they’ll find it. But if that can’t be given to people, their way of life just can’t compete.”

Looking at the “soft” version of the propositions I gave above, and reflecting on the discussions and debates I’ve participated in online over the last decade, I think there are two pieces to this puzzle. Our people are vulnerable to extremism not only because we have failed to offer them ideals and propositions worth sacrificing and transcending everyday comfort and security. We could offer alternative causes, but what would prevent those causes from themselves being overtaken from within by advocates for violence? We know that people are capable of being oppressive in the cause of tolerance, violent in the cause of peace, hateful in the name of Love.

We have failed, not only and perhaps not primarily in offering evocative and attractive alternatives to the fascist’s tin soldiers. We have failed, I believe, in countering the utilitarian ethics that makes the end the only measure of the moral and the good. The poison of extremist violence is not one we can bar with borders or security measures, because it reflects the battle within the human heart. The seeds of violence can be found in every community, every cause, every activism, every movement, anywhere that disordered love for an ideal is used to justify turning other persons into objects—enemies, others, weapons, and “necessary sacrifices.”  

Whether or not you or I are in a position to root out and counter the societal and structural causes of violence, we can begin by rooting out the violence within our own hearts. We can affirm the need for self-sacrifice and transcendence—transcendence of our own hatred, our own anger, our own desire to plow down moral laws in search of simple means to much-desired ends. We can sacrifice ourselves in service to the other.

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? – Matthew 16:26

What is our answer to tin soldiers? Not tin pacifists, but the living colour and narrative power of the Passion play.

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My last post included a little dig at some students I overheard in a coffeeshop, self-consciously chattering about "intersectionality." I assumed then that it was an up-to-the-minute buzzword, but no, it turns out it was coined way back in 1989--it just seems to have gathered steam lately. Kate Cousino wrote about it last week, and you can read her insights here.

When the students I was eavesdropping on said the Women's March was so, like, intersectional, I think they just meant that there were lots of different kinds of people there. Google's definition is this: 

Intersectionality: the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage

(If you want to get a good migraine going, read the entire Wikipedia entry, especially the part about the way the various identities "reciprocally construct" each other.) 

On the one hand, worrying about intersectionality might seem a step in the right direction. It's an improvement on selecting a single, currently favored characteristic--just skin color, or just gender--and viewing each person through that lens and that alone. On the other hand, it's a pseudo-solution to add a characteristic or three, puzzle earnestly over all the "reciprocal construction" going on, and leave it at that. 

The term was inspired by a genuine dilemma: a General Motors plant was accused of segregating workers by both race and gender: blacks were welcome to apply for some jobs, whites for others; women for some, men for others. But there was no "intersection": the women's jobs didn't overlap with the blacks', so a whole segment of the population--black women--was excluded from every job. And the plaintiffs lost, because the judge objected to the black women combining "their race and gender claims into one." Heads I win, tails you lose.


So you can understand the frustration. Whether the injustice was as clear-cut as described by the plaintiffs, I don't know. There's plenty of other simplistic labeling, though, that cries out for redress. For instance, many of those who have presumed to speak for all us women, all these decades, have been white, upper-middle-class women --"happy people with happy problems." Or if not exactly happy, they have certain privileges (like nannies, cleaning ladies, and high-prestige journalism jobs from which they always seem to be taking a sabbatical). These privileges cushion them--but not their more humble admirers--from some of the consequences of living out their ideologies. They forget that not everybody is living in SoHo, on leave from The New Yorker.

So maybe they initiate a divorce on frivolous grounds, or intentionally pursue single motherhood. Bad ideas for anybody, but without the amenities of the celebrity life, they can wreak extra havoc. Celebrities set the pace, and the middle-income or inner-city women read about them in the supermarket checkout line and follow suit--and they and their children pay the price. (I'm not claiming to read the heart of any celebrity in particular, or to imply that everybody blindly imitates celebrities, just to note a harmful tendency.)

That's just one case of real-life calamity ensuing because of a failure to account for the variety of human experience. People get labeled, with a few arrogating the right to speak for everybody, ignoring difference in the name of diversity. It's a lack of imagination and a lack of logic. But taking the intersectionality route doesn't just overlook something about the person--it ignores what a person is. As the "About" tab of our website describes it, there's an "'infinite abyss of existence' (Newman) in the interiority of each person, in virtue of which each always exceeds the finite qualities and properties that he or she displays."

No matter how we pile identity upon identity--and no matter how closely we examine the interplay among them all--as long as we ignore that interiority, our goal of doing justice to the person will keep on receding, Each person is a whole constellation of qualities and conditions, with a unique history, yes--but each of us is also more than the sum of all these. Slapping a single label on a person is a sin of injustice and reductionism, but so is multiplying the labels and scrutinizing the interactions.

And if you're studying the whole subject, and the world in general, through the lens of power differentials--as so many intellectuals with blind spots do--so much the worse.

Grains of truth are not altogether absent. But impressionable kids in coffee shops deserve better.

Common domain Images:


"Rosie the Riveter: Wikipedia

Seesaw: Flickr

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