Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
Where My Books go
William Butler Yeats
All the words that I utter,
And all the words that I write,
Must spread out their wings untiring,
And never rest in their flight,
Till they come where your sad, sad heart is,
And sing to you in the night,
Beyond where the waters are moving,
Storm-darken’d or starry bright.
Giovannino Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories are delightful little tales set in the “little world” of an Italian town in the Po valley in the years immediately after World War II. What makes them wonderful is their pure humanity, the sheer warmth of the oft-contentious between Don Camillo, his eternal rival, the communist mayor Peppone, and the surprisingly loquacious crucifix which hangs in Don Camillo’s church. I very much recommend the stories.
The following quotes don’t truly give a picture of this sense I’m describing, but they were my favorites, spoken by Jesus to Don Camillo (taken from the Kindle edition, so I have no page numbers to offer you). First on the perils of progress:
They search desperately for justice on earth because they no longer have faith in divine justice, and just as desperately go after worldly goods because they have no faith in the recompense to come. They only believe in what they can touch and see….It is a body of ideas – a culture – that leads to ignorance, because when a culture is not supported by faith, there comes a point where man sees only the mathematics of things. And the harmony of this mathematics becomes his God, and he forgets that it is God who created this mathematics and this harmony.
Rustic Philosophy, The Little World of Don Camillo
Reading them again, I realize the ideas they express are rather Chestertonian. Indeed, the whole little world of Don Camillo is the sort of place you’d feel Chesterton would enjoy, maybe that’s why I liked it so much.
Christ’s ultimately optimistic take on the effects of this progress:
Progress makes man’s world ever smaller: one day, when cars run at 100 miles a minute, the world will seem microscopic to men, and then mankind will find itself like a sparrow on the pommel of a flagpole and will present itself to the infinite, and in the infinite it will rediscover God and faith in the true life. And mankind will hate the machines which have reduced the world to a handful of numbers and it will destroy them with its own hands. But all this will take time, Don Camillo. So do not worry, your bicycle and your scooter are in no danger for now.’
Rustic Philosophy, The Little World of Don Camillo
Further thoughts, looking down on Michigan Avenue from the 12th floor:
By the Margin of the Great Deep
George William (“A. E.”) Russell
WHEN the breath of twilight blows to flame the misty skies,
All its vaporous sapphire, violet glow and silver gleam
With their magic flood me through the gateway of the eyes;
I am one with the twilight’s dream.
When the trees and skies and fields are one in dusky mood,
Every heart of man is rapt within the mother’s breast:
Full of peace and sleep and dreams in the vasty quietude,
I am one with their hearts at rest.
From our immemorial joys of hearth and home and love
Strayed away along the margin of the unknown tide,
All its reach of soundless calm can thrill me far above
Word or touch from the lips beside.
Aye, and deep and deep and deeper let me drink and draw
From the olden fountain more than light or peace or dream,
Such primeval being as o’erfills the heart with awe,
Growing one with its silent stream.
The modern world often feels very hollow, flat and dull. But why? We live in an age of riotous color and spectacle, of the greatest material abundance in human history. In our pockets we carry devices capable of bringing us the most beautiful music, the greatest works of literature, and conversations with our loved ones in an instant. And we’re constantly told that we’re at the bleeding edge of history, the most enlightened, most moral, marching on the vanguard of the sweep toward utopia. Why does it all feel so tawdry and false?
Dietrich von Hildebrand suggests that the problem is a lack of reverence, which is, on his account, the foundation of all authentic virtue:
Wherever we look, we see reverence to be the basis and at the same time an essential element of moral life and moral values. Without a fundamental attitude of reverence, no true love, no justice, no kindliness, no self-development, no purity, no truthfulness, are possible; above all, without reverence, the dimension of depth is completely excluded. The irreverent person is himself flat and shallow, for he fails to understand the depth of being, since for him there is no world beyond and above that which is visible palpable. Only to the man possessing reverence does the world of religion open itself; only to him will the world as a whole reveal its meaning and value. So reverence is a basic moral attitude stands at the beginning of all religion. It is the basis for the right attitude of men toward themselves, their neighbors, to every level of being, and above all to God.
Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Art of Living, 8
Without reverence, there is no wonder, no virtue, no depth. We’re flat and empty.
How many people there are who are never lastingly influenced by great works of art, or by delight in beautiful landscapes, or by contact with great personalities. The momentary impression may be strong, but it strikes no deep root in them; it is not firmly held in their superactual life but disappears as soon as another impression makes its appearance. These men are like a sieve through which everything runs. Though they can be good, kindly, and honest, they cleave to a childish, unconscious position; they have no depth. They elude one’s grasp, they are incapable of having deep relationships with other people because they are capable of no permanent relationship with anything. These men do not know responsibility because they know no lasting bond, because with them one day does not reach into the next one. Even though their impressions are strong, they do not penetrate down to the deepest level in which we find those attitudes that are over and above the changes of the moment. These people honestly promise something one moment, and then in the next is has completely disappeared from their memory. They make resolutions under a strong impression, but the next impression blows them away.
The Art of Living, 11
You must defeat this tendency to flatness within your soul, inculcate wonder and reverence. Sit in silence and stare at nature, trees swaying softly in the breeze, the patter of the rain, the never-ending rolling of the waves.
Beginning another series of posts, this time concentrating on E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.
Schumacher was a mid-20th century economist, a student of Keynes, who advised the British National Coal Board (a far bigger deal than the name alone indicates) for decades. Influenced by his study of philosophy, particularly the traditional social thought of the Catholic Church,1 and his travels around the world as an economic consultant (particularly to Burma), he formulated an understanding of economics and technology that is a vital corrective to prevailing attitudes both in his day and our own. His book was surprisingly popular, yet the problems Schumacher critiques are still very much with us and his solutions sadly unimplemented, at least on any mass scale.
By and large I believe that Schumacher is correct both in his diagnosis of what is wrong with modern economic systems and in his prescriptions to resolve the problem, and his writings have greatly informed much of the “what is to be done” aspect of my thought on the environment/economy.2
Schumacher suggests that the core problem is a philosophical one, an unwarranted confidence that material advances have eliminated the problem of production. This false confidence is rooted in a materialistic techno-centric outlook3 that is, at its very core, false and will thus lead inexorably to collapse. This outlook leaves us blind to the ravenous consumption/destruction of three irreplaceable resources :
This illusion, I suggested, is mainly due to our inability to recognizes that the modern industrial system , with all its intellectual sophistication, consumes the very basis on which it has been erected. To use the language of the economists, it lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. I specified three categories of such capital: fossil fuels, the tolerance margins of nature, and the human substance.
Small is Beautiful, 21
My eye is, of course, most drawn to the last of these, though Schumacher gives ample space to all three.
The problems related to the first are fairly obvious, no less so in our modern era of seemingly never-ending violent entanglement in the Middle East than in Schumacher’s own ecologically-troubled time.
The second points to the broader set of ecological stresses placed on the natural world by careless, over-scaled industrialization. Conceive of the natural world as an exceedingly complex system that is, for the most part, able to absorb any number of shocks. A single summer without much rain does not cause an ecosystem to collapse nor does an especially cold winter or even a more violent natural disaster, such as a hurricane. However, these events do place pressure on the system and, if they accumulate dramatically, a point can be reached where the “safety margin” of they system’s resiliency is overcome, leading to rapid collapse. Perhaps the most obvious case of this sort of thing is what happened to isolated island ecosystems after the arrival of man. A population of only fifty people–who brought with them dogs, rats, etc.–was enough to guarantee the extinction of the Dodo in less than a hundred years.
The third category that is consumed by the modern industrial system is, to put it in even more severe terms than Schumacher, the human soul. One needs to only think of the Satanic mills of industrial England, suicide nets outside iPhone factories, or the bleak dehumanizing horror of Soviet architecture, to say nothing of the terrible all-consuming atomization of modern America. There is simply no point to industrial society if it deprives us of our humanity, and no point to any reform that does not confront this corruption/consumption head on.
In the next few posts, I’d like to continue this diagnosis, looking at both the moral character of the current crisis and the systems of thought that underlie it, before proceeding to Schumacher’s suggestions of how to fix these issues in the realms of education, technology, and, perhaps, social organization.
1. Schumacher eventually converted to Catholicism a few years before his death in 1977.
2. The two are, of course, inextricably linked. One of the pervasive and obviously true contentions of Small is Beautiful is that economics cannot simply be an arena cordoned off from the rest of human activity.
3. Which I would define as the idea that the attitude towards nature of humanity is essentially one of control and domination
Mine be a cot beside the hill,
A bee-hive’s hum shall sooth my ear;
A willowy brook, that turns a mill,
With many a fall shall linger near.
The swallow, oft, beneath my thatch,
Shall twitter from her clay-built nest;
Oft shall the pilgrim lift the latch,
And share my meal, a welcome guest.
Around my ivy’d porch shall spring
Each fragrant flower that drinks the dew;
And Lucy, at her wheel, shall sing
In russet gown and apron blue.
The village-church, among the trees,
Where first our marriage-vows were giv’n,
With merry peals shall swell the breeze,
And point with taper spire to heav’n.
The wind had a mysterious voice and carried nothing now of the songs of birds, or of the rustling of palms and fragrant vines. Its burden was gathered from a stormy expanse of crested waves and briny tangles. I could see no striving in those magnificent wave motions, not raging; all the storm was apparently inspired with nature’s beauty and harmony. Every wave was obedient and harmonious as the smoothest ripple of a forest lake, and after dark all the water was phosphorescent like silver fire, a glorious sight.
John Muir, The Spiritual Writings47, TMW, 145-6
In previous posts, we’ve seen the tremendous appeal of the totalitarian ideology to the intellectual as a means of overcoming social alienation and the terrific social pressure on doubters that ensues after the ideology has become ascendant. This ascendancy is unstable, however, because the totalitarian ideology is, ultimately, a lie.
Moreover, it is a lie that is quite often directly opposed to the work of the intellectuals themselves. Can we truly square Plato, Confucius, Jane Austen with the ideology? What can it mean to study these figures through a lens expressly hostile to their deepest convictions? Or, to move beyond specifics, how can we pursue the truth through the means of a truth-denying lie?
The success of the ideology, therefore, leads to a sort of schizophrenia. The intellectual must become double-minded, seeking truth in a conceptual framework that denies the existence of truth (implicitly or explicitly). Double-mindedness manifests in a deep-seated anxiety:
A patient has a hard time, however, when the moment comes for him to swallow the [ideology] in its entirety. He becomes such a nervous wreck that he may actually fall ill.
The Captive Mind, 17
There’s a marked unhealthiness, mental and physical, to the intellectual world. Interestingly, Milosz suggests that guilt is at the root of much of this anxiety, something I had not considered previously, but fits with the alienation between the Procrustean bed of theory and actual objects of study, the mutilation necessary to make reality “fit” the ideology. There’s an awareness that something real, beautiful, and meaningful is being destroyed/lost in this process. Since we crave reality, beauty, and truth this loss is deeply upsetting, even if only subconsciously. Intellectual life is thus pervaded by a mournfulness for what was and what could be.
The result is acedia, that most besetting of modern sins. Milosz doesn’t actually use the term, but it’s quite obvious that’s what he’s talking about:
The one thing that seems to deny the perfection of [the totalitarian ideology] is the apathy that is born in people, and that lives on in spite of their feverish activity. It is hard to define, and at times one might suppose it to be a mere optical illusion..Yet there is something impalpable and unpleasant in the human climate of such cities as Warsaw or Prague
The Captive Mind, 23-4
Apathy and torpor, despite frenetic activity, with an accompanying despair of any possibility for meaningful change. As a result, we’re miserable, no matter how fancy our offices, how lush the campus, how privileged the position we hold:
Whatever we may call it, this much is certain; if Hell should guarantee its lodgers magnificent quarters, beautiful clothes, the tastiest food, and all possible amusements, but condemn them to breathe in this aura forever, that would be punishment enough.
The Captive Mind, 24
In the face of this misery, it takes an enormous amount of effort to maintain the ideology, to buttress social pressures, to assuage misgivings with material comforts, to punish dissenters. There comes a point where maintenance costs become untenable, where they system becomes deeply fragile and unable to respond to crisis without huge expenditures, expenditures which deplete the ability of the system to respond to subsequent crises and even to day-to-day stresses. Increasingly desperate and brutal attempts to quash dissent and enforce intellectual hegemony are a symptom of what is likely an irrevocable decline. Ketman proliferates. Ideological collapse is imminent.
The sheer mass of machinery required to maintain the ideology is the greatest sign of its weakness. The apathy and despair of the majority is to the advantage of the reformer. To cast off the ideology is simpler than it seems, though not easy (like all good things). One simply must have the will, the courage, to do so. The true enemy, therefore, is not external structures or other people or even the ideology itself, but our own cowardice and torpor. To overcome the forces Milosz so ably diagnoses, we must overcome ourselves.