On the Death of a particular Friend
AS those we love decay, we die in part,
String after string is sever’d from the heart;
Till loosen’d life, at last but breathing clay,
Without one pang is glad to fall away.
Unhappy he who latest feels the blow!
Whose eyes have wept o’er every friend laid low,
Dragg’d ling’ring on from partial death to death,
Till, dying, all he can resign is—breath.
In Earliest Spring
William Dean Howells
Tossing his mane of snows in wildest eddies and tangles,
Lion-like March cometh in, hoarse, with tempestuous breath,
Through all the moaning chimneys, and ‘thwart all the hollows and
Round the shuddering house, threatening of winter and death.
But in my heart I feel the life of the wood and the meadow
Thrilling the pulses that own kindred with fibres that lift
Bud and blade to the sunward, within the inscrutable shadow,
Deep in the oak’s chill core, under the gathering drift.
Nay, to earth’s life in mine some prescience, or dream, or desire
(How shall I name it aright?) comes for a moment and goes-
Rapture of life ineffable, perfect-as if in the brier,
Leafless there by my door, trembled a sense of the rose.
Chorus from ‘Atalanta’
Algernon Charles Swinburne
When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,
The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;
And the brown bright nightingale amorous
Is half assuaged for Itylus,
For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces.
The tongueless vigil, and all the pain.
Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers,
Maiden most perfect, lady of light,
With a noise of winds and many rivers,
With a clamour of waters, and with might;
Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet,
Over the splendour and speed of thy feet;
For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers,
Round the feet of the day and the feet of the night.
Where shall we find her, how shall we sing to her,
Fold our hands round her knees, and cling?
O that man’s heart were as fire and could spring to her,
Fire, or the strength of the streams that spring!
For the stars and the winds are unto her
As raiment, as songs of the harp-player;
For the risen stars and the fallen cling to her,
And the southwest-wind and the west-wind sing.
For winter’s rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remember’d is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.
The full streams feed on flower of rushes,
Ripe grasses trammel a travelling foot,
The faint fresh flame of the young year flushes
From leaf to flower and flower to fruit;
And fruit and leaf are as gold and fire,
And the oat is heard above the lyre,
And the hoofèd heel of a satyr crushes
The chestnut-husk at the chestnut-root.
And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,
Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid,
Follows with dancing and fills with delight
The Mænad and the Bassarid;
And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
The god pursuing, the maiden hid.
The ivy falls with the Bacchanal’s hair
Over her eyebrows hiding her eyes;
The wild vine slipping down leaves bare
Her bright breast shortening into sighs;
The wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves,
But the berried ivy catches and cleaves
To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare
The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies.
Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy
I made another garden, yea,
For my new Love:
I left the dead rose where it lay
And set the new above.
Why did my Summer not begin?
Why did my heart not haste?
My old Love came and walk’d therein,
And laid the garden waste.
She enter’d with her weary smile,
Just as of old;
She look’d around a little while
And shiver’d with the cold:
Her passing touch was death to all,
Her passing look a blight;
She made the white rose-petals fall,
And turn’d the red rose white.
Her pale robe clinging to the grass
Seem’d like a snake
That bit the grass and grounds, alas!
And a sad trail did make.
She went up slowly to the gate,
And then, just as of yore,
She turn’d back at the last to wait
And say farewell once more.
All by Christina Rossetti
In the Bleak Midwinter
In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
Enough for Him whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Throng’d the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped her Beloved
With a kiss.
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,–
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.
Sweet sweet sound of distant waters, falling
On a parched and thirsty plain;
Sweet sweet song of soaring skylark, calling
On the sun to shine again;
Perfume of the rose, only the fresher
For past fertilizing rain;
Pearls amid the sea, a hidden treasure
For some daring hand to gain; –
Better, dearer than all these
Is the earth beneath the trees:
Of a much more priceless worth
Is the old, brown, common earth.
Little snow-white lamb, piteously bleating
For thy mother far away;
Saddest sweetest nightingale, retreating
With thy sorrow from the day;
Weary fawn whom night has overtaken,
From the herd gone quite astray;
Dove whose nest was rifled and forsaken
In the budding month of May; –
Roost upon the leafy trees;
Lie on earth and take your ease;
Death is better far than birth:
You shall turn again to earth.
Listen to the never-pausing murmur
Of the waves that fret the shore:
See the ancient pine that stands the firmer
For the storm-shock that it bore;
And the moon her silver chalice filling
With light from the great sun’s store;
And the stars which deck our temple’s ceiling
As the flowers deck its floor;
Look and hearken while you may,
For these things shall pass away:
All these things shall fail and cease;
Let us wait the end in peace.
Let us wait the end in peace, for truly
That shall cease which was before:
Let us see our lamps are lighted, duly
Fed with oil nor wanting more:
Let us pray while yet the Lord will hear us,
For the time is almost o’er;
Yea, the end of all is very near us;
Yea, the Judge is at the door.
Let us pray now, while we may;
It will be too late to pray
When the quick and dead shall all
Rise at the last trumpet-call.
Christmas has a darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas has a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas has a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.
Earth, strike up your music,
Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven has answering music
For all angels soon to sing:
Earth, put on your whitest
Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.
The Great Breath
George William Russell
Its edges foam’d with amethyst and rose,
Withers once more the old blue flower of day:
There where the ether like a diamond glows,
Its petals fade away.
A shadowy tumult stirs the dusky air;
Sparkle the delicate dews, the distant snows;
The great deep thrills—for through it everywhere
The breath of Beauty blows.
I saw how all the trembling ages past,
Moulded to her by deep and deeper breath,
Near’d to the hour when Beauty breathes her last
And knows herself in death.
I find myself reading a lot of diagnoses of the modern world-picture.1 There are perhaps too many of these, they all generally arrive at the same conclusions, of the sort we’ve recently explored in Schumacher, and you wish they said more about the cure than the disease.2 In any case, I tend to believe that the convergence of these diagnoses is a sign of their plausibility and when we step back we can see how each individual author is taking up a thread of a vast and multifaceted problem. It’s therefore always interesting when an author offers a different perspective on things. Such is the case of Guardini’s The End of the Modern World. Like virtually everyone, he situates the roots of the modern weltbild in the late Medieval period—his “culprit” is Copernicus and the end of the medieval picture of the cosmos (a claim I only find mildly convincing)—and like many he also argues that the titular end has already come, sometime during or around the time of the two world wars.3
In the wake of this ending, Guardini understands the central question of the next phase of history to be man’s relation to power. What he means by power is not entirely obvious, something like “real energies capable of changing the reality of things, of determining their condition and interrelations” (End of the Modern World, 121). A definition that encompasses both what we might call material technology—atomic bombs, computers, bulldozers, and the like—and social technology—propaganda, mass education, mass media.
He’s weak on the latter sort of power. The specter of nuclear war very obviously lurks in the background here,4 yet it turns out that it is not in material technology that power has developed most insidiously in the decades since Guardini wrote.5 Nevertheless, his key worry remains legitimate, that modern man understands technology as an essentially natural force, detached from human choice
The use of power is accepted simply as another natural process; its only norms are taken from alleged necessity, from either utility or security. Power is never considered in terms of the responsibility for choice which is inherent in freedom.
End of the Modern World, 83
The worry is that control over power, which man has very deliberately seized, usurping God, to inaugurate the modern revolution in thought, has been abdicated in light of the horrors and exigencies of the World Wars and the attendant collapse of the modern world-picture that resulted (is resulting). Thus, power is now understood to progress as a consequence of some internal logic, rather than as something actualized by human agents.
Of even more significance, the development of power has created the impression that power objectifies itself; that is, power cannot really be possessed or even used by man; rather, it unfold independently from the continuous logic of scientific investigations, from technical problems, from political tensions. The conviction grows that power simply demands its own actualization.
End of the Modern World, 83
The very development of news sources of power, in other words, demands that this power be used. Atomic weapons are, as mentioned, the prototypical case. The fact that the hydrogen bomb can be built means it must be built. The fact that it has been built, means me must build bigger and bigger bombs and must build scores of them. The need to do so is not because the people, our leaders, have specifically chosen, but because political circumstances imagined as beyond the control of human agents, have necessitated it. Thus, they bear no moral agency for their choice to make ever more destructive weapons, not really.
Nuclear weapons are passe these days, but we can see this reasoning to other areas. The surveillance state is necessary because it is useful, how else will we prevent the terrorist attacks that are only possible because of the (apparently inevitable) choices made by policy makers in other areas? Globalization and corporate consolidation are necessary due to market forces, entirely distinct from the people we’ve appointed (or who have appointed themselves) to manage the markets. That these have disastrous effects, morally and materially, is simply an unfortunate natural by-product, no different than a natural disaster and certainly no one’s fault.
Guardini contends that this ostensible lack of agency is a colossal lie, the unfolding of the energies that control the world are not directionless. They cannot be.
There is no being without a master. As far as being is nature–or the non-personal creation–being belongs to God, Whose will is expressed in the laws by which this being, this nature, exists. As far as being is taken out of nature and into the sphere of human freedom, it belongs to man and man is responsible for it. If man fails in his responsibility and does not care for being as he should, it does not return to nature. To think that it does is a negligent assumption, one with which the contemporary world has consoled itself with more or less awareness. But being is not something which one can dispose of by putting it away in storage. When man fails in his responsibility toward the being which he has taken from nature, that being becomes the possession of something anonymous.End of the Modern World, 83-4
That (more properly, these) anonymous possessor(s) are demons. Guardini is not being metaphorical here, he means actual demons. Man in the slowly crumbling ruins of the modern age is given a choice. He can give himself over to unconsciousness, and the inhuman, demonic consciousness that will the vacuum,6 or he can master himself, something only possible (as the failure of the modern world-picture to do makes clear) through a proper awareness of our true relation to power and power’s real source, God:
If human power and the lordship which stems from it are rooted in man’s likeness to God, then power is not man’s in his own right, autonomously, but only as a loan, in fief. Man is lord by the grace of God, and he must exercise his dominion responsibly, for he is answerable for it to him who is Lord by essence. Thus sovereignty becomes obedience, service (134).
Guardini believes the choice between these two options, demonic and divine, will only become obvious as things progress. The crumbling of the modern world-picture reveals the stark reality of the struggle lying behind it. No longer will we be deceived by the mush of false sentimentalism masquerading as Christianity or the insistence, much derided by Nietzsche, that Christian values can be retained after their bedrock has been denied. He ultimately sees this as a good thing, though it will certainly not be a quiet and peaceful time. At least the lies of the modern age will hold less currency and, in collapse, awaken the possibility of something true taking their place. Meanwhile, each individual still faces the choice, as they always have, must make it and make it well.
- I think I’ve settled on this term, we might substitute condition, worldview, mindset, etc.
- The reason for this disparity is because the cure is rather simple, “cultivate virtue.” Simply stated, yet exceedingly difficult. Still, there ought to be more practical advice on attaining this life, particularly amidst the corrupting miasma of the modern world. To his credit, Schumacher outlines some high-level curatives that we’ll discuss in the next few posts.
- when dealing in meta-history, it’s all right to be vague about these things
- making me realize we never really talk about nuclear weapons anymore, when I was a child, living in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, they were still very much on peoples’ minds. Odd how these things slip away.
- As an aside, there is a fairly strong argument that technological development has essentially stalled as of late, a troublesome development for a world-picture so dependent on continual technological advancement for its own self-justification.
- “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-6). We might also thing of the terrifying consumption of Prof. Frost in That Hideous Strength as a metaphor for the modern described by Guardini (this should horrify you).
Here they went with smock and crook,
Toiled in the sun, lolled in the shade,
Here they mudded out the brook
And here their hatchet cleared the glade:
Harvest-supper woke their wit,
Huntsmen’s moon their wooings lit.
From this church they led their brides,
From this church themselves were led
Shoulder-high; on these waysides
Sat to take their beer and bread.
Names are gone – what men they were
These their cottages declare.
Names are vanished, save the few
In the old brown Bible scrawled;
These were men of pith and thew,
Whom the city never called;
Scarce could read or hold a quill,
Built the barn, the forge, the mill.
On the green they watched their sons
Playing till too dark to see,
As their fathers watched them once,
As my father once watched me;
While the bat and beetle flew
On the warm air webbed with dew.
Men from whom my ways begin,
Here I know you by your ground
But I know you not within –
There is silence, there survives
Not a moment of your lives.
Like the bee that now is blown
Honey-heavy on my hand,
From his toppling tansy-throne
In the green tempestuous land –
I’m in clover now, nor know
Who made honey long ago.
Schumacher was an economist, and thus some of his most penetrating analysis comes in his section on economics and the evils attendant therein. First, in keeping with the materialistic orientation of the world discussed in the previous post, we see that, in a materialist world, the gravest error is to fail to be profitable:
If an activity has been branded as uneconomic, its right to existence is not merely questioned but energetically denied. Anything that is found to be an impediment to economic growth is a shameful thing, and if people cling to it, they are thought of as either saboteurs or fools. Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be “uneconomic” you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper…something is uneconomic when if fails to earn an adequate profit in terms of money.Small is Beautiful, 44
Of course, this is a downright stupid way to think about the world and about value, it’s ridiculousness so obvious that it hardly needs to be refuted, merely stated. It is, like the vision of Chesterton’s madman, cripplingly narrow:
The judgment of economics, in other words, is an extremely fragmentary judgment; out of the larger number of aspects which in real life have to be seen and judged together before a decision can be taken, economics supplies only one
Small is Beautiful, 45
This narrowness, I have referred to it elsewhere (here and here) as flatness, is the defining characteristic of the modern mindset and the biggest reason why a world shaped by that mindset (and ours is everyday more so, though it resists1) is so deeply unsatisfying (in a profound metaphysical way, this is a dissatisfaction that destroys souls2).
To make matters worse:
Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions
If I could destroy just one myth in the mind of my readers, it would be this presumption of neutrality. Economics, like all the bastard children of the “Enlightenment,” presumes to detach itself from its own practitioners (if you listen carefully, you can hear Kierkegaard screaming and kicking in the distance). Detached from men (who have already been detached from God), these practices become fundamentally anti-human and begin to devour.
A few concrete instances of how the economic world-picture has impoverished us. First, despite ostensibly being the science that describes work, economics fundamentally misunderstands the very nature of labor:
Now the modern economist has been brought up to consider “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.
Small is Beautiful, 57
And today more and more people see their livelihoods sucked into the maw of automation, while an even greater number can find no joy in their work, their jobs having been designed in light of this mindset and thus deprived of joy in their very constitution. As Josef Pieper, the great theorist of work and leisure (see also Sayers and von Hildebrand), has pointed out the economic world-picture also drains the leisure and comfort that is supposedly the point of work of any true meaning. Leisure simply becomes the island of not doing anything amidst the grind of the day-to-day.
Many of the corruptions brought about by the economic world-picture (and of modern thought more generally) are obscured by technology’s shininess. Ignored, however, is the reality that this technology rarely makes us happier. Indeed it rarely even makes us more efficient or grants us more leisure.3
While people, with an easy-going kind of logic, believe that fast transport and instantaneous communications open up a new dimension of freedom (which they do in some rather trivial respects), they overlook the fact that these achievements also tend to destroy freedom, by making everything extremely vulnerable and extremely insecure, unless conscious policies are developed and conscious action is taken to mitigate the destructive effects of these technological development.
Do you have more or less time for yourself since you first bought an iPhone?
We, therefore, not only have emptied out work and leisure of any real significance, making the former especially onerous, but we’ve also dramatically increased the amount of time we spend at work in the name of becoming ever more efficient.
This process leads to ever greater social disconnection, especially as economic circumstances require the consolidation of people in urban areas (this is a huge topic, and I’ll thus only gesture towards it here).
The factor of footlooseness is, therefore, the more serious, the bigger the country. Its destructive effects can be traced both in the rich and in the poor countries. In the rich countries such as the United States of America, it produces, as already mentioned, the “megalopolis.” It also produces a rapidly increasing and ever more intractable problem of “drop-outs,” of people, who, having become footloose, cannot find a place anywhere in society. Directly connected with this, it produces an appalling problem of crime, alienation, stress, social breakdown, right down to the level of the family. In the poor countries, again most severely in the large ones, it produces mass migration into cities, mass unemployment, and, as vitality is drained out of rural areas, the threat of famine. The result is a “dual society” without any inner cohesion, subject to a maximum of political instability.
Small is Beautiful, 75
America has always suffered from rootlessness of a sort (see Chateaubriand, for instance), but it has now reached, perhaps surpassed, the stage of crisis, and we can see this crisis manifest essentially everywhere if we have eyes to see.
Enough with the dour diagnosis, however. Next time, what is to be done!