I believe in signs: little symbolic signals from God that clue me in about what is important: things I need know such as warnings or encouragements or promptings about direction. Recently I read a pretty good book called The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails by Randal Rauser in which the author shared his experiences with what he calls “LAMPS” or “little amazing moments of providence” which are basically the sorts of providential signals I am talking about. My trouble I have is I get so many of them: license plates, birds, the patterns in tree branches, snatches of overheard conversation, juxtapostions of words, colors, patterns—you name it, —or I turn on the radio hear a song that says the exact next word in my thought dialog and PING!— the ball hit the bullseye in my mental video game. So, if only to filter, I tend to pay close attention only to the signs that are related to books; the others I let splash me like a pleasant spray of water, noticing them, but not making any special effort to act on them.
So a couple days ago my son AJ was cleaning out the packed-solid “coat” closet, filling up donations bags for the DAV pickup, and he pulled out a box from the back of the closet and a paperback book tumbled out onto the carpet: a Penguin Classics copy of Pensées by Blaise Pascal. When I looked at the book my head immediately flooded with my favorite river of thought: the one I think of as Christian Existentialism, a thought “weather system” that pumps warm pulsing energy through me body, excites my spirit, and makes me want to write – always a good thing. I had been trying to decide how to focus my next group of essays and there was there it was lying at my feet: my sign.
I read Pensées a couple years ago for the first time and wrote a series of essays about some of Pascal’s ideas but I know I have barely tapped the surface. How could anyone get the bottom of an unfinished book about infinity anyway? But that’s what I love—this solid square of a book about the size of a jewelry box that when you lift the cover all kinds of starry jewels come exploding out and if you grab any shiny gem and crack it open out comes another colorful explosion of ideas. In short, the book is an endless source of juicy writing prompts.
Pascal did not finish the book because he became ill and died in 1662 at the age of 39, but considering the vastness of his topic, I have to wonder how he could ever, had he lived to 90, have put down his pen and said “It is finished.” The Penguin edition includes a hefty preliminary section about the scholarship involved in producing the book, how the publishers decided to arrange Pascal’s posthumous notes and manuscripts into a coherent form after his death. After that is a sort of an outline that Pascal wrote about ideas he planned to eventually flesh out. Other parts of the book read as completish chapters. I read through the first four intriguing outline entries and then get to the 5th which is reads:
“A letter of exhortation to a friend, to induce him to seek. He will reply: ‘But what good will seeking do me? Nothing comes of it.’ Answer: ‘Do not despair.’ Then he in turn would say that he would be happy to find some light, but according to religion itself it would do him no good even if he did thus believe, and so he would just as soon not look. The answer to that is ‘the Machine.’”
Pascal’s friend has a good point. Religion does seem to demand faith without definite answers, and even when we do seek answers to the most pertinent questions such as the reason for suffering as in Job, we do not get straight answers. Only “Who are you to ask such questions?” and “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job’s question and God’s answer are many pages long and the words are some the most beautiful poetry in literature, so I would hate to even attempt to paraphrase it and highly recommend that everyone read the Book of Job for themselves.) So Pascal’s hypothetical friend asks a very reasonable question as to why he should bother to make the effort to ask questions when he knows from the outset he won’t get satisfying answers. Pascal’s cryptic response is fascinating: “the Machine.” My first instinct is that this means our choices are to seek truth even if we cannot expect definitive answers or to become an unthinking cog in the natural or manmade machine. Maybe the seeking itself is what makes us human, since we humans do come loaded with that ability and our fellow creatures do not.
This is really the heart of Pascal: the paradoxical balance of what is with what is not – infinity vs. nothingness and humanity’s place in the precarious balance of existence. In keeping with its very nature, the idea of a paradoxical core of reality is both simple and complex. I tried to express it in a simple nursery rhyme for postmodern children:
* * * * * * * * * *
All we know in this
world of stars
is bouncing balls
on the tip of a pin
sparking in and sparking out
growing big then shrinking small
once diamond hard
then not at all.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hmmm. I feel like this little ditty both needs and does not need a title. Maybe “Twinkle Twinkle Little Particle”? Or maybe not. Maybe you can see what I mean when I say Pensées is an endless fountain of writing prompts. I am still on the first page.
Precious little is right with this world, but as long as I have my books and art supplies, I am a reasonably happy person. However, if there is one thing that bothers me almost enough to become politically active, it is “Zero Tolerance” policies, especially when such policies persecute and traumatize good children who are supposedly attending the school to obtain an education. Every time I hear about one of these incidents – you know, little boys expelled and sent for psychological assessments for bang-banging with their fingers or a teenage girl expelled from school or arrested for giving her friend a Tylenol – it makes me short of breath and clouds my soul with a dark oppressive terror. So I thought, maybe it was time to do a little writing therapy and explore why of all the many horrors, outrages, and injustices in our world, these sorts of incidents should disturb me so deeply.
I don’t think my reaction owes much to personal experience; I was a “good” kid, meaning that I generally followed the rules and rarely got into trouble with the authorities. Except for a few speeding tickets, this pattern has continued into my adult life. In fact, if I had to guess, I would suppose that most people see me as a solid law-abiding citizen. So I really cannot say I have direct experience with this exact type of injustice. Except…. Well there was that one tiny incident in first grade. I might as well tell you about it.
It must have been quite early in school year because we were all practicing printing the letter “e” on yellow loose leaf dash-lined paper. I remember it as 6o kids and a black-haired nun named Sister Bernadette, although you could only see about an inch of the black hair sticking out the top of her wimple. I’m sure I remember Sister Bernadette correctly but I question my memory of the sixty kids; the number seems excessive. Still, my visual memory clearly shows a large classroom with six precisely straight rows of 10 tiny desks, each desk occupied by a tiny person wearing either a boy’s uniform with a button-down shirt and tie or girl’s uniform with a jumper and beanie. And Sister Bernadette was all alone – no teaching assistants or reading specialists for her – just two reading groups that she taught alone: Group 1 (the quick kids) and Group 2 (the slow kids).
Anyway, there we were forming e’s on our papers with pencil and one of the rules was you were not allowed to erase. If you made a mistake you were to put a neat line through the error and move on to the next e. When we reached the bottom of the paper, we were to bring our work to Sister at the front of the room. As the first few kids turned in their paper Sister began to look irritated. She said, “The next child who brings me a paper with erasures will get the eraser chopped off their pencil!” Now this seemed terribly unjust to me because I had already completed my paper and, being a bit of a perfectionist, there were eraser smudges all over it. It wasn’t fair for her to have said that when a person was already done. But there was nothing for it but go forth and face my doom.
Sister B looked at my offending paper and said “Get your pencil.” I did and she pulled out the eraser with her bare fingers. I was devastated. Had I read Jane Eyre at that point in my life, I would have completely merged with Jane in shame as she stood on a stool in front for her class at Lowood School, an accused liar. Only, rather than lying per se, I was accused of erasing, which I suppose was a form lying in that I was sort of denying my error, and certainly, I accepted that erasing pencil marks was a horrible sin without knowing why. After all, at six I was compelled by necessity to accept most rules without knowing the reason.
But however traumatized I may have been by this incident, it was not a policy of my school to punish children by pulling out their erasers. It was only Sister B’s caprice. Had I felt the power of the whole system weighing down on me for my offense, had the respected authorities coldly delivered me over to the harsh punishments of an unthinking policy machine, I do not want to think about how the deep would have been my psychological scars and how they might have affected my attitude toward the world in the years to follow. And under zero tolerance policies, kids have been expelled or suspended from school for transgressions less egregious than smudging their papers.
I think that is one major source of my disturbance: the idea of the whole weight of governmental power dumping systematic fear-based policy on the person of one child who has come to school and made a mistake. School is supposed to be a happy place where the child comes to learn among adults who supposedly care about his or her wellbeing. What does it do to this spirit of such a trust contract when the caring adults suddenly turn into stone-faced agents of some invisible inflexible wall of a law and tell you that you are so bad you cannot come to school anymore?
Most children, I think, will recognize that they are being treated unfairly, even stupidly. Otherwise they would have to believe that they deserve such treatment. Children do not have the experience to stand back and philosophically consider the history of how it has come to this and not take it personally. Such an experience is likely to put a negative pressure on the child’s psyche that they should not have to deal with, especially in an “educational” setting. They are left with a choice between recognizing that authority cannot be trusted to be just, reasonable, or caring, or accepting themselves as wretched transgressors who must try harder to follow the rules and please the authorities. If it were my child I would prefer he chose the first option; but I think it is a great evil to put a child in that position to begin with.
If you want to teach a child that authority is worthy of respect, representatives of the system should behave reasonably and responsibly, especially where children are being educated about things such as the nature of authority and how the world works.
Too many people accept that this sorry situation is simply the way things have to be. If mindless nonsensical policies that victimize good kids are really essential to school safety, maybe it is time to rethink our educational system. These policies do real damage to children, sometimes creating negative records that materially damage their prospects for the future, but always damaging their respect for authority and violating their innocent trust in justice. I recognize that there are plenty of incidents in which a student is a viable danger to the school and needs to be disciplined or removed. The problem is the mindless blanket approach. If each student were treated as an individual and each incident could be considered with sensitivity and reason, we would not have these issues.
It is not only the direct victims of Zero Tolerance policies who learn the skewed lessons, but all of their friends who witness it happening. Although the media reports many of these incidents and many of us express due outrage, it seems like there is little being written about the specific corrosive effects about these policies and little effort to change them. However, here is one excellent article of the subject: Zero Tolerance Policies: Are Schools Becoming Police States? by John W. Whitehead.
“The most discouraging difficulty about this discussion, however, is that apparently it cannot lead to any so-called practical conclusion; certainly not to any conclusion, as far as I can see, which will at all answer to the general faith in machinery as an effective substitute of thought, and the general reliance upon machinery alone to bring about any and all forms of social improvement.”
Recently I had the pleasure of reading another classic by Mr. Albert Jay Nock: The Theory of Education in the United States. This book originated with a series of lectures Mr. Nock presented at the University of Virginia in 1931. The educators of that time were not happy with the results of the current system of education, and invited Mr. Nock to speak on the subject as part of the Page-Barbour lecture series. It’s hard to imagine he would receive any such cordial invitation to speak at a university campus today. Nock did not mince words, stating his case plainly that no amount of “tinkering with the machinery” would produce satisfactory results because the problem was that the educational system was based on a flawed theory which produced a flawed design, flawed practice, and unsatisfactory results – i.e., graduates who, after undergoing the program from grade school to college, were not educated. The theory was this: that all citizens are equal in ability to learn, that education should be democratic, and that universal literacy would make for a better society.
In 2013, our educational system still operated according to the same basic theory as were in 1931, and we are still generally unhappy with the results. Since my children and I and nearly everybody I know have all gone through the same program, I could not help but find this book interesting; also enlightening, embarrassing, scathing and, as with all Nock’s writing, utterly delightful. When reading Nock’s ideas about education, I thought it might be helpful to put together a little glossary of sorts.
A Short Glossary of Nockian Terms
|The Great Tradition||The traditional curriculum for formative education used for many centuries in western civilization.||Bargain-counter curriculum||Program of education based on many choices and oriented toward preparing students to perform a job in society.|
|Education||The formation of the mind and character through a sustained program of classical languages and literature and mathematics.||Training||Instruction aimed at functioning as part of society – i.e., doing something or getting something.|
|Scholar||An educated person dedicated to continued deep study who may allow interested and promising students to study under his or her guidance. The responsibility for learning however, lies entirely with the student.||Pedagogue||A person, either educated or trained, whose job it is to instruct students in body of information. The responsibility for the transfer of knowledge to the student lies primarily with the pedagogue.|
|Educable||A person with the intellectual firepower and force of character to undergo The Great Tradition.||Ineducable||A person unwilling or unable to benefit from The Great Tradition.|
|Literate||A person who is able to read, comprehend, and critically analyze high-quality writing including news, literature, and scholarly writing.||Able to decipher words||A person who can read well enough to follow instructions or obtain basic information or propaganda from the written word.|
|Formative||Describes education geared to proper formation of the student’s mind and spirit.||Instrumental||Describes training geared toward teaching the student skills or imparting knowledge to enable him or her to perform a job.|
The Great Tradition
Traditionally, up at least to the university level, education was formative. Formative means that the purpose of the curriculum was to develop the student’s mind and character, rather like you would gird and prune a tree so that it could yield the maximum fruit. This would equip the person for lifelong learning and render him well-suited to apply himself to the profession he chose. All education below university level was basically the same: Latin, Greek, mathematics, some rhetoric, history, mostly classical history.
“The intention was, moreover—and this is most important—that the character of this progress through the schools and the undergraduate college should be fixed, invariable, and the same for all participants. There should be no elective studies.”
The basic framework of the Great Tradition was roughly as follows:
Primary: The 3 Rs plus basic Latin and Greek
Secondary: Latin & Greek, mostly grammar and vocabulary, mathematics, geography, some readings in classical history and mythology.
Undergraduate college: Greek and Latin as literature – read for content rather than form as by this time the student has mastered the mechanics of the languages, some rhetoric, some history, perhaps higher mathematics.
University or professional school: Student learns specifics of chosen profession or technical career: Law, Medicine, Theology, or Letters (Literary scholarship usually with some specialty). Student could also opt for a technical career in science or engineering, agriculture or architecture. The point was, these specialties were approached only after the student has completed a formative education.)
* * * * * * * *
In the Great Tradition, Nock says, “Instrumental knowledge of the sort which bears directly on doing something or getting something, should have no place there; it should have as strict an instrumental quarantine raised against it as cities raise against plague.”
Apparently in the 19th century when the notions of democratizing education took hold, the educational pioneers first attempted to expose everyone to The Great Tradition, and found that this attempt did not work: “Our theory assumed that all persons are educable; our practical application of it simply showed that the Creator in His wisdom and in His loving-kindness, had for some unsearchable reason not quite seen His way to fall in with our theory, for He had not made all persons educable. We found to our discomfiture that the vast majority of mankind have neither the force of intellect to apprehend the processes of education, nor the force of character to make an educational discipline prevail in their lives.”
So having discovered that The Great Tradition could not be applied to educating the masses, they discarded it and replaced it with a new program designed to train people for a role in society, a program that seemed to work better with the theory.
“In the course of this procedure there came to pass the complete obliteration of a most important distinction which several writers have of late tried to revive—I dealt with it in a brief essay published three years ago—the distinction between training and education. As we have observed, very few people are educable. The great majority remain, we may say, in respect of mind and spirit, structurally immature; therefore no amount of exposure to the force of any kind of instruction or example can ever determine in them the views of life or establish in them the demands on life, that are characteristic of maturity.”
By maturity, Nock means all the pieces are in place in mind and spirit to receive understanding of the nature of things to the level ordained by God for fully human understanding. Each creature by nature has a scope of understanding beyond which it cannot extend. A dog can understand many things within its scope—including the presence of a favorite treat, the emotional state of its people, the smell of prey—but a thing like the finer points of algebra are outside of its scope and no amount of reading algebra books in its hearing will cause the simplest algebraic concept to take root in its mind.
With human beings it seems to be a bit different; not all human beings are endowed the same scope of understanding. Unfortunately this fact is not compatible with the concept of equality as generally applied to our current educational system. Herein lies the confusion. The theory tells us that any two children are capable of learning and understanding the same things, but a little observation will show that this is not the case, especially when it comes to the traditional areas of formative education such as languages and mathematics. Go into a public high school and tell me what percentage of the students are sincerely interested in the fully understanding the literature of say, Shakespeare. How many of them pass the Hamlet test based on Cliff Notes and how many of them ever think about Hamlet again after the test? The problem, however, is not with the students. Nor is it with the teachers. The problem, according to Nock, is that we have based a giant complicated system every more expensive system on a theory that is not true.
At the time Mr. Nock delivered these lectures the new system had been in practice about 35 years, long enough to observe its effects on its participants and on society and long enough for Nock to need to try to explain to his university audience the value of what was lost:
“The literatures of Greece and Rome comprise the longest and fullest continuous record available to us, of what the human mind has been busy about in practically every department of spiritual and social activity; every department, I think, except one—music. This record covers 2500 consecutive years of the human mind’s operations in poetry, drama, law, agriculture, philosophy, architecture, natural history, philology, rhetoric, astronomy, politics, medicine, theology, geography, everything. Hence the mind that has attentively canvassed this record is not only a disciplined mind but an experienced mind; a mind that instinctively views any contemporary phenomenon from the vantage-point of an immensely long perspective attained through this profound and weighty experience of the human spirit’s operations.”
Educating a person in The Great Tradition requires a certain understanding of what a human being is. You cannot teach or partake of this approach if you hold a materialistic conception of the human, if you see humans as animated organisms whose only purpose is to perform their part in the machinery of society. To understand the value of formative education you must understand yourself and others as spiritual beings whose primary value is beyond physical functionality, appearance, and material worth on the world. If you cannot understand human beings in this light, then training for a role in the material world is probably your best option.
* * * * * * * *
So to summarize, the gist of The Theory of Education in the United States is that a system built on a the idea that all people are educable and that everyone should be “educated” has led to the necessity to redefine the meaning of education and change schools to a training-based curriculums, but still call it education. It seems that our ideas about how to educate the masses really took hold in the late 19th century. I will need to do a some research on the pioneers of our educational system to find out more about how this took place. I know that in the early 20th century it was not assumed that everyone would finish high school. My grandfather, born in 1911, only went to school up to 6th grade and then went to work in the coal mines, and I do not think that was unusual. He was literate and could and did read and learn on his own as time and economics permitted.
As with all of Nock’s writing, The Theory of Education in the United States is a delight to read, as pleasant in tone as it is scathing in content. I have a feeling his ideas wouldn’t go over well at an NEA convention, but I’d sure love to be in that audience!
Next on my list: Jefferson by Albert Jay Nock.
Albert Jay Nock was sort of an American scholar gentleman who lived from 1870 to 1945 and seems have been a popular inspiration for libertarians but is apparently not particularly liked by the current Republican Party. A few months ago his book Memoirs of a Superfluous Man fell into my lap, almost by accident. You know how you browse for books in the library or in a bookstore or on the internet. This one I found on the internet. I think it may have been in a list of books for Libertarians. I think Who Killed Homer? was in that same list and I also read that.
Out of hundreds of books you could choose to read, why do you read one and not another? I think it may be some kind of magnetic energy. You just feel drawn to a book, and sometimes it is as if you do not want to let another moment go by before you dive in. In a bookstore of a library you grab the book and buy it or check it out. With online shopping it used to be you had to wait, or sometimes rather than wait, you’d run to a book store or a library and find it. Now with my Kindle, I can have the wanting and grabbing experience even on the internet. Not sure if instant gratification is a good thing in the long run, but considering the time available, I am all for it when it comes to books.
Perhaps had I read Memoirs of a Superfluous Man at a different age or moment in my life it would not have had so profound an effect. Sometimes the book’s spirit impacts you at just such an angle to incite maximum spark. I suppose Nock would have considered me one of the unwashed masses – few could meet his standards for being truly literate – but I suppose the fact that I discovered and appreciated his book might have elevated me to the ranks of “the remnant.” The remnant, is that small percentage of humanity that has risen above the roiling mass of materialism and become truly human. He explains in Memoirs how he came to believe this with the help of a 1932 essay called Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings by Ralph Adams Cram; but I think Nock’s 1936 essay Isaiah’s Job explains it best.
After I finished this book, I wrote a little piece about it for this blog. I was still under the influence of its special moody glow then so I think I will read it again with a more critical mind before I write any more about it. Or maybe I just want an excuse to read it again
This book has given me a new perspective from which to look at my life, the world, and my place in the world. As a Christian, I find Jesus’ perspective on the world compelling (“Seek first the Kingdom of God…”). But Mr. Nock gives me a clear sharp lens through which to look at this particular world.
After Memoirs I found Isaiah’s Job which was first published in The Atlantic Monthly. It is about how the prophet was called by God to speak the unpleasant truth, knowing full well that both he and his message would be rejected by nearly everyone who heard it. And how God told him to go and speak the truth anyway. Isaiah obeys willingly but eventually the rejection and futility wears him down and he goes out somewhere alone and laments that there is not a one person who cares or understands or even hears the words he is saying. God comforts him by revealing to him the exact number of persons who do care, can hear, and are capable of understanding. The number is 7000, a healthy number that would make it worth anyone’s time to say what he has to say.
But the point is that these worthy souls have been invisible to Isaiah; if they have heard his words they have not left comments or made themselves known. Nock thinks that whether you see your audience or not, if you have truth to speak and feel compelled to write it or speak it, it you ought to do so with a humble spirit. Do not become angry or resentful if you do not get an overwhelming response. Those who can – the remnant – will find you. The essay is Isaiah’s Job. It is worth reading.
Next I read the short book Our Enemy, the State. I think what I like most about this book is the tone; he is not calling for militias and pitchforks. It is more like he is just mentioning it, with a wry smile and a small shrug, “It is the nature of things that the State is the enemy of the people, always has been, always will be. Just be aware of what you’re dealing with.” Then he calmly explains why he thinks this is.
Not only does he not make a “call to action”, he discourages any such action and explains why it would be futile. The best you can do is to understand how things are. Then you will not surprised when your government seems to continually act against the best interests of the people but always in the best interests of itself. When you interact with the State you will have a clear understanding of its workings and purpose and will be able to take advantage of any opportunities to protect yourself from damage by association with it.
I did not feel upset or despondent after reading the book, but rather cleansed and encouraged, like the world was a dirty old painting and Nock has washed off all the grime and dust so that now I can better see the real picture. If it turns out to be a hellish scene from Hieronymus Bosch, at least I can see it for what it is.
Nock first lays his foundational premise that there are two ways that human beings can get what we need and want: the economic means (applying labor and capital to natural resources and producing something useful) and the political means (living off the labor of others). The State – in whatever external form it takes, whether Monarchy, Communism, Socialism, Fascism, or Democratic Republicanism – is a legally-sanctioned organization set up to enable its members to live by the political rather than the economic means. In other words, the State exists to enable one portion of the population to exploit everyone else (producers, serfs, slaves, whatever) so that its members can get what they want – such as wealth, power, and luxuries, without working, or at least without working very hard.
Every State-run civilization that has ever existed has followed the same trajectory – it grows continually – in the size of its bureaucracies, expense, power, and opulence – for perhaps 400 years by feeding on its producers until it begins to suck them dry. Then trouble ensues as the people begin to suffer scarcity and oppression. The civilization begins to fall into disrepair and, exhibiting cynicism and dissolution as signs of decay, and eventually weakens to a barely functioning hulk of rusted-out machinery. When some calamity, such as natural disaster or foreign invasion inevitably occurs, the fragile skeleton collapses, and not having the strength or resources to recover, the civilization dies. Centuries later it gets dug up and studied by archeologists and its artifacts, ruins, and mummies become tourist attractions.
Not that anything can be done about it, Nock says, but when we notice our civilization collapsing like every civilization that ever existed before it, we will understand why. So… if nothing can be done about it why did he bother to write the book? Why bring up a problem if you don’t mean to propose a solution? Nock explains: he wrote the book because he thinks it’s true. When you notice something about the truth of things as they really are, you are almost obligated to write about it; perhaps there might be a reader or two who is interested in knowing the truth of things for no other reason than because they are true. I always read with the hope of gaining some new insight to an essential truth about things as they are so I liked the book very much and think Mr. Nock makes a compelling case, but I can certainly understand how many people might not enjoy it as much as I did. Whether you agree with the ideas or not, Our Enemy, the State is quite pleasant to read and easy to understand.
I think it is all true as far as it goes. But as Mr. Nock well knew, the book is only a description of the bare bones of how and why human beings organize themselves as they do. He is only talking about the skeleton and does not get into the flesh and muscle that develop on the bones. Much happens on the support of this skeleton that is good: people live, love, dance, create art, and enjoy music. They have wars and other adventures, marry and raise children, many of them living perfectly happy lives without ever being aware that they are part of an exploitive system. To borrow the tired but surely the most useful metaphor history has ever provided, many of the passengers on the Titanic were having a wonderful time until three hours before the ship sank.
Next on my list: The Theory of Education by Alfred J. Nock.
After driving semi-randomly around the city for a while I have ended up, like a homing pigeon, at Panera, a place I like because it’s cheap, has a wireless connection and decent coffee, and has one or two menu items that fit my dietary restrictions. My mind today is about as blank as it ever gets. It is never completely blank – it’s more like a low buzz of conflicted frequency radio stations. You hear many voices and some tunes all at once but you can’t make out what any of them are saying; they might be speaking different languages.
How I want to learn different languages, to be able to see out those windows to different views, not views to different worlds, just different views of this one. I don’t want different worlds, at least not in this lifetime. Eighty or even 100 years would not be time enough for me to absorb what is important about this world. I am a slow learner. I know a smattering of Spanish and am studying ancient Greek, but really English is my only clear linguistic window to the world of meaning.
As I stare at my crisp cold Greek salad I see they have put some kind of olives among the green lettuce. I think of a Prismacolor pencil I have that matches their color – Black Cherry, really a dark purplish shaped of brown, very rich. It strikes me how little I know about olives. I suppose them to come from a tree because of certain Bible stories and a song from the musical Kismet. I know that many recipes call for extra-virgin olive oil, so I always have a large bottle of the golden green stuff in my pantry. I know extra-virgin olive oil is supposed to be good for you, but I don’t know if plain-virgin or non-virgin olive oil is less good for you. Also I know that Harris Teeter has an olive bar so they must be some kind of gourmet thing with many varieties that gourmet-loving people know about, like wine. Or peppers. And since apparently olives grow on trees, I suppose them to be fruits. And that, my friends, is the totality of my knowledge of olives.
So why in the world would I want to look into other worlds when I don’t even know much about the olives that grow in this one? I suppose that’s why I have never been able to get into science fiction. Besides, this world feels plenty alien to me.
* * * * * * * * *
Lyrics from the musical Kismet….
The Olive Tree
A fool sat beneath an olive tree
And a wondrous thought had he
So he rose and he told it to the sky
And where was I
Behind the tree
I overheard his reverie
Why be content with an olive when you could have the tree
Why be content to be nothing when there’s nothing you couldn’t be
Why be contented with one olive tree when you could have a whole olive grove
Why be content with a grove when you could have the world
The fool stood beneath the olive tree
What a wondrous thought said he
But alas it is very very deep
And then he yawned and went to sleep
Because you see….. he was… FOOL !!!!
Why be content with an olive,
when you could have the tree…
that which has lulled you to sleep fool,
has awakened me…
Why should I cry
that my lot is my lot
that I can’t make it anything more….
when this is a lie
an excuse for a fool
to SNORE !!!
I STRODE, FROM BEHIND THE OLIVE TREE
with a wondrous change in me
for I looked, with my eye upon a star…
If you have heard… and do not heed…
there is a word….
for what…. you are….
and oh… my friend….
the word…. is…..
Imagine you receive a letter, hand-written no less, from a man you do not know postmarked from a mysterious island. The letter says the man found your name and address inside the cover of a book of essays he bought in a used book store, and would like to inquire if you know of any more books by or about the author. He says he is a farmer who belongs to a literary society and he is enthralled by the writing of Charles Lamb, who he never heard of until he found your book. Personally I would be intrigued. Especially in 2013 when such a thing would be even more surprising than it would have been in 1946, which is the year this fictional incident takes place. It happens to Juliet Ashton, the central character in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and so begins Juliet’s relationship with a quirky group of characters who inhabit Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands that have recently been liberated from German occupation.
I listened to the audio book version narrated by Paul Baymer, Susan Dewidan, Roselyn Landor, John Lee, and Juliet Mills, and loved every minute of it, from its playful beginning to its soul-satisfying end. Between these two points, however, I was surprised to find that despite plenty of humor and wit, the subject is far from lighthearted. Well, I guess it is as lighthearted as a novel can be that is set during World War II that involves slave labor, concentration camps, and separation from loved ones, and battle deaths. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a wonderful story of what might happen when regular people who just want to live happy lives get stuck in the crosshairs of a wretched war. The island natives make the best of a bad situation and make some discoveries about their neighbors as well as the sustaining power of literature.
I loved the flow of the stories, the eccentric characters, and as a bonus, was fascinated by the new information I learned about World War II. For me, history becomes exponentially more interesting when viewed through the eyes of a compelling character. At the risk of exposing to the world, or at least my few readers, the vastness of my ignorance, before I read this novel I had never heard of Guernsey and did not know that the Germans occupied any portion of England during that war. But not I am more informed even while once again being made aware of how little I know.
Juliet Ashton, is a free-spirited adventurous writer and book lover in her dearly thirties. I liked her independent thinking, sharp wit, and willingness to question conventional wisdom. For example, when aggressively wooed by handsome, rich American publisher Mark Reynolds Juliet is tempted to accept his proposal of marriage. After all, she likes Mark and as an orphan with a need for family and connection who has just lived through the terrors, grief, and deprivations, a luxurious life as the wife of a successful man doesn’t sound half bad. However, she hesitates and opts instead visit the channel island of Guernsey to meet the members of the literary society with whom she has been corresponding for several months. Mark Reynolds thinks she is crazy.
I suppose what I liked most about this novel was that the entire story is told in letters to and from the various characters, giving each the opportunity to express his or her voice and perspective, At times it is amusing to see the same incident related from different points of view. In reading through some of the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, I noticed that some readers found the letters somewhat contrived when they narrated incidents or mentioned things the recipient would already know. I find these kinds of reviews a bit snippy when compared to the delights the novel offers. Anyway, I had an entirely different reaction – I began to long for the intimate kind of correspondence demonstrated by the characters, a form of communication between individuals that is all be lost in our Internet-dominated world.
Not that I’d want every novel to be written in epistolary form, but I found it worked well for this one. For one thing, the novel centers around writers and publishers and people who are at least interested in literature, so it is believable that they would be writing long entertaining letters to each other. For another, the letters are a great way to connect people living and working in diverse geographical areas: The English mainland, the Channel Islands, France, and Australia. And as I mentioned, it was a great way for each quirky character to express his or her quirkiness. Besides Juliet, some of my favorite characters were Dawsey Adams the quiet farmer who loves Charles Lamb, John Booker, former valet who only reads Seneca, Sidney Stark, close friend, publisher, and closest confidant of Juliet, and Isola Pribby, eccentric lady who collects herbal cures and loves the Bronte sisters.
In addition to the great characters, I loved the use of classic literature as a unifying theme and was thrilled every time the novel made use of one of my favorites, such as Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and of all things, The Pickwick Papers, which I have just recently read and reviewed. I was not familiar with Charles Lamb, the favorite of Dawsey Adams, but the novel inspired me download some of his works onto my Kindle and I am now halfway through Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. One of my most cherished interests is to find ways to incorporate literature into ordinary life – so this book, with its stories of ordinary people discovering the value of literature for the first time was truly an irresistible delight.
This book came out in 2008, so as usual I am very late to the party, I get to a book when I get to it. But apparently this has been a book club favorite and has also inspired many people to try old-fashioned hand-written correspondence. I can see why. What a rare treat it would be to get a real letter in the mail! You can even print out official Guernsey stationery at the book’s official website: http://www.randomhouse.com/rhpg/guernsey//send-a-letter/.
I have also discovered that there is a film in development based on the novel. Can’t wait!
I originally published this post last February 14th and I am re-posting (a few minor modifications) because a) I have been too short on time to write a new one, and b) it says what I want to to say about Valentine Day.
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Today is the day named for third century Roman priest Valentinus who was executed for insisting on spreading the Christian faith. What that has to do with cardboard hearts and heart-shaped boxes of candy is a bit of a stretch, but somehow one thing led to another and here we are February 14, 2013, the day for which Americans spend $17.6 billion to show our loved ones how much we love them. But I am not in the mood to be cynical this year.
So even though the whole commercial thing puts a garish spotlight on a delicate personal thing such as your love for another soul, and even though Valentine’s Day throws together willy-nilly the various kinds of love – romance, friendship, and obligatory (as in you have to give every kid the class a card) – this year I want to take a look at what it is mean we mean by “love” anyway. The best book I know that explains love, or at least sheds some light on its nature, is The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. I first read it about five years ago and yesterday I downloaded from Audible.com a wonderful 1958 recording of Lewis giving a series of radio addresses from this book, reading his handwritten copy of the manuscript.
Unlike English, the Greek language has precise words for distinct kinds of love: storge for natural affection for the familiar, phileo for brotherly love or friendship, eros for romantic love, and agape for self-sacrificing Godly love, the highest and rarest. The first three, according to Lewis, are natural loves and although they have wonderful and positive qualities, all have a dark side. Each has elements of agape, and only to extent that the lover tries to emphasize and grow in these elements, do these loves because purified and eternal.
I love this book. (Hmmmm….I wonder which category love for books fits into…..) It’s hard for me to imagine that at least some parts of Lewis’ exquisite yet accessible descriptions of love in all four senses would not resonate with any member of the human race. It may also help you to avoid some of the pitfalls and thus save you a lot of grief. Here are some quick summaries of each of the four loves, none of which does justice to Lewis’ warm and cogent prose.
Storge (pronounced stor-gay) finds its most elemental expression in the natural love of parent for child, but it extends to all family relationships, neighbors, co-workers, and anyone we see on a regular basis and begin to feel some affection for. Lewis considers it the base love, comparing it to gin, a base for all kinds of mixed drinks. It is the most democratic of the loves – anyone can be loved in this way – the ugly, the rude, people we would not ordinarily choose to speak to on their own merits. It is the love shared by all sentient creatures, especially dogs, who will wag their tails for anyone they know and bark at anyone they don’t, familiarity their only criteria for affection.
The dark side of storge is a possessiveness or tribalism, expressed when one loved in this way begins to love someone or something else. Storge is subject to jealousy and self-gratification disguised as love.
Phileo, or friendship, is the most spiritual of the three natural loves because it is voluntary and has no connection with biological processes as do storge and eros. Out of these three, it is also the least self-conscious. Real phileo is not just hanging out with co-workers or even sharing interests. Although shared interest is its essential element, it is more than that. Two friends who love each other in this way share a deeper connection. They would do anything for each other, but this willingness is taken for granted, and never the basis for the friendship.
Phileo does not have to be between only two people but can be shared within a group. The dark side of phileo, especially in a group of friends, is that you value the opinions of the group more than the opinions of the rest of the world. The power of your feelings for this group is such that if the group decides to go bad, to become bullies or Nazis or whatever, it is easy to become bad with them.
Then of course we get to everybody’s favorite: eros. Lewis first clarifies that wanting to have sex with someone is not the same thing as eros. Wanting to have sex is…. wanting to have sex – to experience a certain physical sensation in your body, and is not primarily about the other person. Lewis thinks (and this was in 1958!) that our culture has made a way bigger deal about sex than the activity warrants.
Yes, eros does involve sex because you desire union with the beloved, but is not itself simply the desire for sex per se. Eros is the feeling of being in love, the desire to be with a certain person whether it means misery or happiness, because even misery with that person is better than happiness anywhere else. Can there be a dark side to this beautiful thing? I think we all know there can. For one thing, eros believes itself above all other considerations and has been known to stomp all over the happiness of other people to have its way, thinking it can justify all manner of irresponsible behavior. It is subject to disappointment, heartbreak, jealousy, possessiveness, and can even descend into some serious hate.
The final type of love is of course agape, the love of and for God, the rarest and the highest. All other loves have within their positive elements the embryo of agape, and those are the elements we need to nourish and encourage within ourselves and others. C.S. Lewis says many wonderful things about this kind of love, and uses the famous verses from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians as its model. These verses are simply the best possible description of what agape is all about, so for my Valentine post, I will leave you with 1 Corinthians 13: 1-8 (The Bible, New International Version):
1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails.
The world of technology has changed so much in the last century and at a pace so accelerated that the world I was born into was more different from the world we live in now than the world of my grandmother born into in 1903 was to the mid 20th century. She was born into a world in which automobiles were rare and TV was science fiction. I was born into a world without home computers, the Internet, cable TV, or cell phones. Transistor radios, Walkmans, and calculators were the amazing technological marvels of my childhood.
When I think that I was born into a world with only four channels on a black-and-white TV that you had to actually get off the couch to operate, a world in which you danced to disks played on turn tables, typed on typewriters, and dialed telephones, I understand why a my sons think I am a hopeless dinosaur. I try, admittedly in a halfhearted way, to keep up with the latest advances in technology. But I do not strain myself about it to an unnecessary point of anxiety; I believe we all have a natural rhythm and pace and to force ourselves to move or think much faster than what is natural is unhealthy. We can run faster than our normal pace in short bursts; we can get along with less sleep than is natural for us for short periods. These sorts of limited-time challenges are fine and good and it is okay to slowly increase our endurance in various areas; but to constantly force ourselves beyond our natural limits is to invite problems – physical, mental, or emotional.
I suspect that the pace of technology advances is now officially beyond a reasonable pace for the vast majority of us. I for one am feeling left in the dust. The other day my technology-savvy son, age 20, indicated to me through various anecdotes from his technology magazines and conversations heard in the checkout line at Best Buy that iPhones are becoming the Buicks of cell phones. The cool techies, he explained, all want easily modifiable androids but they recommend iPhones for their Moms and the rest of ancient generation.
So it is apparent to me that keeping up with the latest technology or even keeping the cutting edge within my visual horizon is a losing battle. The technology monster demands weapons of speed, agility, and commitment that I simply do have in my arsenal. But I hear there are battle strategies available in situations when the opposition is coming at you in strength and numbers greater than your own. I don’t know much about battle strategies, but my notion is that the options involve an element of surprise the employment of unexpected weaponry, ala David’s slingshot approach to Goliath.
My approach to the onslaught is to climb the tree of sub specie aeternitatis and view the monster from the aspect of eternity or at least within the context of human history. Instead of accepting the terms of the opponent and running after the monster, I turn to the instruments of understanding I know – literary classics, gleaning the gems and artifacts of observation, thought, and feeling left scattered in abundance on roads largely abandoned by the rest of the world.
There are many abandoned paths in the Forest of the Humanities but I have spent much of my time wandering the literary paths of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps I am attracted by the familiarity of these eras as well as their relative stability. A world unchanging for generations at a time would not be a familiar world to me. But in the 19th and early 20th centuries the rapid changes had begun but were still moving along at a comfortable rate – a clip clop or a chug chug as opposed to the speed of light.
Some weeks ago I started thinking about the possibilities for relating classics such as the novels of Charles Dickens to today’s world. After all, if so many people have enjoyed these books for so many decades, and considering we are still living on the same planet and presumably still the same species as we were in the 19th century, surely there must be some important things we can glean from Dickens to apply to the world we live in now. Surely…..
So having just completed and immensely enjoyed The Pickwick Papers, I set out to find some ideas in that novel that I could apply to my world – something that perhaps even my sons or my high-tech co-workers could relate to, something that would make them want to read it for themselves….
I guess I was naively optimistic to think there could be any connection between the world of a novel published in 1836 in which business was conducted via coach and letter and the Internet-based world I live and work in now. After all I had no trouble relating to the novel despite having to Google a term or two. I found the characters and their motivations to be comprehensible which indicates to me that though the forms and mechanisms of society may change radically, and though these changes may affect our behavior, language, even our thought patterns, the most essential things remain the same: human nature, love and hate, and the basic principles of morality – particularly the difference between basing your life on the acquisition of material possessions and status versus basing your life on higher principles such as honor, integrity, and putting the good of others before self.
Literature throughout the centuries going back to the Greeks and including The Pickwick Papers overflows with the contrast between possible moral approaches to life, especially acting out of pure self interest versus putting the interest of others ahead on your own. Wherever the actions of human beings, real or fictional, are recorded you will find the same old people playing or not playing by the same old rules.
I am not complaining that good literature is no longer valued. I don’t think good literature has ever been valued by more than a tiny percentage of any population. While I have not done a thorough study of the matter, I strongly suspect that the vast majority of any human population has always valued immediate gratification more highly valued than deeper learning that takes time, hard work, and offers little or no outward reward. In other words, most people, either by nature or necessity, will always value things that will get them the quickest and easiest material satisfaction over things that will only expand their spiritual character.
In America we have always focused largely on the material good with only a polite nod to the appearance of seeking a higher character. With our vast resources and freedom to “go for it” we have historically done better in the material realm than any other civilization in history. This is well enough. Most people never look beyond the material level anyway and wouldn’t be interested even if they lived in a culture that encouraged learning for the sake of learning.
So whenever I begin to think I ought to keep up with technological advances and learn things valued in the marketplace, the problem becomes how to divide my limited time between reading up on the latest technology and reading great literature. (The book title Like Water for Chocolate flashes through my mind.) Since like most people, I can fight my own nature only so much, I always tend to devote the greater part of my time and energy to what I like. I find I simply derive more value from reading The Pickwick Papers or Les Miserables or Crime and Punishment for two hours than I do by reading technology blogs for the same period of time. Still, I will occasionally give in the residual guilt or vague sense of the need to survive in the workplace, and read a technology article or two. Lately I am fortunate to have my son around, always happy to fill me in on the latest trends and developments as we drive in the car: iPhones versus androids, the latest apps, the imminent emergence of 3D printing….
So where is that missing link between these wonders of the modern moment and The Pickwick Papers? Once I sat down to find it, I’m afraid my initial optimism underwent a bit of strain. But I did manage to come up with a few things:
First, I found a few themes from the world of Pickwick concerning human relations that still apply:
- Whatever people say to you, most often they are primarily motivated by their own interests.
- Long suffering leads to lasting happiness if the suffering is for the right reasons and not misdirected.
- Friendships are of the greatest value and true friends are different from business associates.
- Kindness may or may not be rewarded in this life, but when it is it makes for a better story.
Next a few thoughts concerning the technology:
- There is a pace of action that is compatible with human thought, sense of satisfaction, and productivity. The pace of the humans in The Pickwick Papers seems perfectly satisfactory for their needs. The current pace of life leaves most of us feeling out of breath.
- The basic ingredients for a happy life are simple and need not necessarily include automobiles, computers, or even cell phones. However, communication with fellow human beings is essential for most people.
- Much of our current technology – email, social networking, mobile phones – is used to exchange funny or touching stories. Much of The Pickwick Papers involved the characters exchanging funny or touching stories. Our appetite for stories does not seem to diminish over time.
And therein lies my hope, the hope of all writers.
Reading Albert J. Nock’s Our Enemy, The State got me thinking about the tendency of human beings in general to exploit others to fulfill our personal needs. Human beings, when given the opportunity to get something for nothing, even at the expense of another person or group, will tend to do so. To resist exploiting takes effort; to exploit is usually the easier choice. In the interest of examining the plank in my own eye before judging anyone else, I began to examine my own life for exploitive behaviors.
Some months ago I heard about this factory in China where they manufacture iPhones. The demand for this product has been great and the employees are overworked. I heard that the working conditions there were so horrible that some workers were committing suicide by throwing themselves out the factory windows. I heard this rumor around the time I got my first iPhone and really loved it; I did not even research the rumor until I sat down to write this post. Apparently it is true; although some apologists say that percentage-wise the rate of suicide at the factory is not greater than the rate of suicide in China as a whole. Okay. And there is no conclusive evidence that the suicides were due to the working conditions. Maybe the workers broke up with their significant others or had other issues. But I found out that an undercover journalist went in there for a few weeks and found out what the working conditions were like. It does not sound to me like a happy place. They make new employees sign an agreement not to commit suicide and warn them not to whine about working conditions that may be less than ideal. Have I given up my iPhone? Not yet. Should I give up my iPhone? I’m not sure. I tell myself that giving up my iPhone could not do any good.
I have recently started purchasing a new food: quinoa. I had read a book called Wheatbelly by Dr. William Davis about how wheat is linked to obesity and a multitude of other health ailments and decided to experiment with eliminating wheat from my diet. Quinoa is a nutritious gluten-free alternative to wheat, a wonderfully useful food, easy to cook, tasty, and with good texture. Yeah! I thought. I can feed quinoa to my family and we can all be healthy, slim, and diabetes-free.
Then out of nowhere someone tells me that the demand for quinoa has recently so increased in industrialized countries that the people in Bolivia where it is produced can no longer afford to eat it. Now, although they are selling doing well and making income selling quinoa, they are spending the money on unhealthy cheaper foods, getting fatter, and developing health problems they never had before.So the other day I was in the Whole Foods Market grains aisle and looking at bags of quinoa. I had not yet checked the veracity of the Bolivia story, so I can still tell myself I don’t know whether it’s true. Can I buy the quinoa without qualms, pleading ignorance? No because I have a gut feeling it is true. I pass up the quinoa; the number of other foods I can eat is an embarrassment of riches. But I cannot guarantee I will never buy it again. I will find ways to rationalize: it is helping the Bolivian economy; it is for our health; it won’t help anyone if I don’t buy it….
The point is this: once we know we are benefitting by exploiting someone somewhere, most of us do not cease the behavior. There are usually excellent reasons for this. We cannot afford to shop anywhere but the Dollar Store for our cheap slave-manufactured party favors; we cannot find athletic shoes made in America, we need a certain food for our health; we cannot harvest crops without illegal immigrant labor. All of our reasons are legitimate to a point. It is difficult to live with perfect morality when you are born, raised, and derive sustenance from an immoral system. We have nothing but scorn and condemnation if our hearts for slave owners of the past. But how much worse were they than any of us who blithely purchase clothing and text on devices all data that were produced under slave-like conditions? We may plead ignorance and distance because we do not have to look out our plantation house window and see where our products come from.
But aren’t we always commenting on how much smaller the Internet is making the world? A person living in Virginia can know a person living in China as well or better than they each know their next-door neighbor. Once you know something and then pretend you don’t know or you conveniently avoid finding the facts or you don’t care enough to look for them, how much “better” are we than a slave owner? At least they could not benefit from an exploitive system and deny they know about it. They could plead they were economic prisoners, born by no fault of their own into a corrupt system they did not create. If we could have the courage to at least admit that much, I think that would move us up one small step of the ladder of morality.
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So is all this to say that I think exploitation is very very bad and everyone should stop doing it? Not at all. I say only, in the most waffling, timid, tentative way that, given I believe exploiting people to fulfill my own needs is at best a morally questionable practice, perhaps I ought to seek to become aware of and reduce my own exploitive behaviors. Until I am sure that my life is 100 percent exploitation-free, I can have nothing to say about what everybody else does.
Recently I have been much taken, probably too much taken, with the writings and philosophy of Albert Jay Nock, a popular inspiration for libertarians. I was first charmed about a month ago by Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. I felt like this book gave me a fresh new perspective on life, the world, and my place in it. As a Christian, I look to Jesus for my ultimate guidance on understanding my place in the world (“Seek first the Kingdom of God…”), and Mr. Nock’s outlook seems to fit within that perspective nicely in a way I can see at my eye level. He introduced me to my new favorite phrase: sub specie aeternitatis – which means “under the aspect of eternity” – which I have found to be extremely useful in dealing with events I have encountered since, personal trivia as well as those disturbing things you find out daily from the news media. He has also inspired me to begin a personal study of ancient Greek.
After Memoirs I was led via web surfing research to read an essay he wrote called “Isaiah’s Job”, first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1936, which is about how the prophet was called by God to speak the unpleasant truth, knowing ahead of time that both he and his message would be rejected by nearly everyone who heard it. Yet he was still instructed to proclaim the unwelcome message. Nock’s explanation as to why is intriguing. Next I couldn’t resist reading his brief radically titled book Our Enemy, the State. This one gave me yet more food for thought. I could write a few paragraphs on the title along. To whom does the pronoun “our” refer and who and what does Nock mean “the State”?
The book answers these questions, directly, plainly, fully, and without ambiguity or hint of wishy-washiness, and without judgment or anger. You’ve got to like that even if you disagree with the premise.
There are two ways that human beings can fulfill our needs and desire: the economic means (applying labor and capital to natural resources to produce something useful) and the political means (living off the labor of others). The State – in whatever external form it takes – Monarchy, Communism, Socialism, Fascism, or Democratic Republicanism – exists to function as a legally-sanctioned socially-acceptable organization that enables its members to live by the political rather than the economic means. In other words, the State exists to enable one group of people to exploit everyone else – producers, serfs, slaves, whatever – so that its members can get what they want – things such as wealth, power, and luxuries, without working, or at least without working very hard.
Every State-operated civilization that has ever existed has followed the same trajectory – it grows continually in the size of its bureaucracies, expense, power, and opulence – for perhaps 400 years by feeding on its producers until it begins to suck them dry. Then trouble ensues as the people begin to suffer scarcity and oppression and the State beneficiaries begin to experience or foresee difficulty in getting what they want and crack down further or raise taxes on the producers. The civilization begins to fall into disrepair and, exhibiting cynicism and dissolution as signs of decay, eventually weakening to a barely functioning hulk of rusted-out machinery. When some calamity, such as natural disaster or foreign invasion inevitably occurs, the weakened skeleton collapses, and not having the strength or resources to recover, the civilization dies. Centuries later the ruins and artifacts provide fulfilling careers for eager young archeologists, museum curators, and tourism entrepreneurs.
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Not that anything can be done about it, Nock says, but when we notice our civilization collapsing like every civilization that ever existed before it, at least we will understand why. So…. if nothing can be done about it why did Nock bother to write a book about it? Why bring up a problem if you don’t mean to propose a solution? If you have already read “Isaiah’s Job” you will have a pretty good idea of Nock’s answer to that question. However, at the end of the book he explains his reasoning in a different way: when you notice something about the essential truth of things as they really are, you are almost obligated to write about it; perhaps there might be a reader or two who is interested in knowing the truth of things for no other reason than because they are true.
I happen to be one of these type readers – in fact I always read with the hope of gaining some new insight to an essential truth about things as they are. So I liked the book very much, thank you, and think Mr. Nock makes a compelling case for his premises, but I can certainly understand how many people might not enjoy it quite as much as I did. Whether you enjoy the ideas Nock presents, Our Enemy, the State is written in a clear and direct way that is pleasant to read and easy to understand.
Though I figure it is all true as far as it goes, it is hardly the last word on the value, history, and fate of western civilization. But as Mr. Nock well knew, the scope of this book is limited to a description of the bare bones of how and why human beings organize ourselves as we do. He is only talking about the skeleton and does not address, at least in this book, the flesh and muscle that develop on the bones. Much happens on the support of this framework that is good: people live, love, create art and technology, dance and enjoy music. They have wars and other adventures, marry and raise children, many of them living perfectly happy lives without ever experiencing a whisper of awareness that they are part of an exploitive system. To use the tired but surely the most useful metaphor history has ever provided the passengers aboard the Titanic were eating, socializing, enjoying music, and making business deals almost up to the hour the ship went under.
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