The Decline and Fall of the Person

Dr. Jeff Mirus over at Catholic Culture did some musing the other day on his stack of unread books. I tend to be sympathetic because I have one of those plus a bunch of half-read ones on my Kindle. That tends top be life in the Information Age. His musing is a lot more informative and useful than my whining though. Here’s some of what he had to say:

The grand synthesis between Christian revelation and classical reason which formed Western culture placed the person at center stage. As a direct result, the universe was perceived as pregnant with meaning, created by and for persons, and capable of generating a kind of wonder that leads back to the Creator. But under various internal and external pressures, this intensely human synthesis tended to break down. People began to relativize ideas—the human grasp of meaning which is so often subject to disagreement, debate and conflict. And they began to absolutize facts—descriptions of material reality which are amenable to physical measurement and empirical proof.

There are so many ways to trace this shift in perception that it is difficult to know where to start. However it is traced, what we now call “science” gradually took the first place in human studies. Deeply dependent on earlier Western ideas about order in the universe as a whole, the rapid advance of the physical sciences won them deep respect. They offered largely non-controversial benefits to mankind while appearing to reduce the need for moral improvement.

The attraction is not hard to understand. Nobody has to grow in love or overcome habitual vices to appreciate the benefits of science and its resulting technology. In fact, whether good or evil, the achievements of science readily appeal to personal selfishness. They can make us healthier and more comfortable; they can reduce sweat equity; they can maximize pleasure.

I can’t really say I disagree with any of that nor, in some ways, do I think it bad.

Unfortunately, this relativization of what we might also call the moral or the spiritual, and this absolutization of what we must call the material, led the West as a whole to commit a fundamental error. We might call it a philosophical or a logical error, but it is just as much an error of common sense. A whole culture began by choosing to focus overwhelmingly on the material world. For obvious reasons, it then lost awareness of what it chose not to focus on. Finally, it proclaimed—completely without warrant—that what it was focused on is all there is. In other words, the West slipped progressively into a deeper and deeper materialism.

This has created gargantuan problems. If everything is material, how can we account for meaning and purpose? The answer is that we cannot, and the long-term result of this reticence concerning meaning is an insistence that everything must be random. In its evolutionary form, this randomness is thought to tend toward continuous improvement, at a huge but justifiable cost to whatever is left behind.

Nothing to disagree with here either but like the author, let’s think about this a bit. If there is nothing but the material world, then there is no cause for any morality at all, might is right is the way they phrased it in Camelot, if for some reason you are not the one with the power, you simply do not matter, get out of my way. Sounds a lot like a stone age tribal society, doesn’t it? Or maybe the twenty-first century industrialized world. Because in large measure we have devolved to a society in which if you can’t buy enough influence from the corrupt court, you’re gonna lose.

Another way modern Western culture has dealt with the absence of meaning is through the reduction of happiness to pleasure. It is an ever-present human tendency to prefer easily-gained and primarily physical pleasures over hard-won but more deeply satisfying growth in perfection (which presumes purposes and ends). Technology excels at producing pleasures for our consumption. Unlike ideology, pleasure does not provide an alternative form of “meaning”. Instead, it makes it easier to forget meaninglessness. In this sense it is also an escape from moral responsibility. But this is really a flight from despair, a flight from the frightening emptiness of a valueless existence, of a life without meaning.

Sound familiar? Yeah, it does to me as well, and I suspect it is true for a large part of our populations. There just aren’t many things our society thinks worthy of belief, are there?

There is quite a bit more at this link, The decline and fall of the Person: Musings on my stack of unread books – Catholic Culture. all of it worth reading, including Benedict’s  Caritas in Veritate. But let’s finish as Dr. Mirus does, because I don’t think it can be improved on.

[…] But when I looked at the clutter on my desk today, I realized that there was a very definite pattern to the clutter. A pattern, yes, and therefore purposes and ends and meanings which can only be discerned by persons.

To put the case in a nutshell, there really is a theology of the body. The end of our modern insanity is to learn again who we really are. I have chosen my words carefully: I do not mean what, but who.

The Catholic Pagan: 10 Questions for Camille Paglia

Frankly, I have little to add here, except that Camille Paglia is one of my favorite authors, not because I agree with her, I often disagree almost violently with her. But she is ruthlessly, inexorably honest, in her beliefs and in why she believes such. In fact, my first exposure to her was in a Playboy interview in the late 80s or early 90s (yes I did read the articles, although not always first, that was the joke page):)

I simply admire her, for above saying what she mean clearly, well, and honestly, no matter who gets caught in the crossfire. The world would be a better place if more of us did so.

Camille Paglia is an American cultural critic who serves as the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she has taught since 1984. She received her B.A. from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1968 and her M.Phil and Ph.D degrees from Yale University in 1971 and 1974, respectively.

Her six books are Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990); Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992); Vamps & Tramps: New Essays (1994); The Birds, a study of Alfred Hitchcock published in 1998 by the British Film Institute in its Film Classics Series; Break, Blow, Burn:  Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems (2005), and Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars (2012). Her third essay collection is currently under contract to Pantheon Books.

Professor Paglia was a co-founding contributor and columnist for, beginning with its debut issue in 1995.  She has written numerous articles on art, literature, popular culture, feminism, politics, and religion for publications around the world—most recently includingTIME and the Sunday Times of London. Her essay, “Theater of Gender:  David Bowie at the Climax of the Sexual Revolution,” was commissioned by the Victoria & Albert Museum for the catalog of its major exhibit of Bowie costumes, which opened in London in 2013 and is currently touring internationally.

Although raised Catholic in an Italian-American family, Professor Paglia left Catholicism in her youth and embraced the sexual revolution. Nevertheless, she still cites Italian Catholicism as the strongest influence on her personal identity. On Feb. 22, I conducted the following email interview with Professor Paglia about her secular work and its Catholic influences.

You’ve been teaching at University of the Arts since 1984. What do you love most about your job?

There is no doubt that my commitment to the vocation of teaching is part of my Catholic heritage. I view classroom teaching as a discipline and duty, a responsibility to convey the legacy of the past to the next generation. As I strictly monitor attendance and enforce order, I sometimes ruefully feel like a teaching nun from the over-regulated era of my upstate New York youth! I have a powerful sense of the descent of modern education from the medieval monasteries and cathedrals, whose Gothic architecture has been imitated on so many college campuses here and abroad. My faith in that nurturing continuity is certainly diametrically opposed to the cynically subversive approach of today’s postmodernist theorists, who see history as a false or repressive narrative operating on disconnected fragments.

Despite your teaching schedule, you’ve found time to speak and write a great deal, including your last book in 2012. What’s your next big project?

For the past five years, I have been researching Paleo-Indian culture of Northeastern America at the end of the Ice Age, as the glaciers withdrew. I am particularly interested in Neolithic religion, which was focused on elemental nature, a persistent theme in my work. I have been studying Native American tribal history and doing surface collecting of small stone artifacts. Professional archaeologists and anthropologists have tended to gravitate toward Indian lifestyle issues like kinship patterns, governance, hunting strategies, food preparation and fabrication of tools, clothing, and shelter. I have found surprisingly few attempts to approach Native American culture from the perspective of world art and world religion. There is a puzzling gap in the record, and I hope to be able to make a contribution. However, this challenging project will be long in the making. In the meantime, I am preparing for my third essay collection, which is under contract to Pantheon Books.

Identifying yourself as a “dissident feminist,” you often seem more at home with classical Greek and Roman paganism than with postmodern academia. How has this reality affected your public and professional relationships?

I feel lucky to have taught primarily at art schools, where the faculty are active practitioners of the arts and crafts. I have very little contact with American academics, who are pitifully trapped in a sterile career system that has become paralyzed by political correctness. University faculties nationwide have lost power to an ever-expanding bureaucracy of administrators, whose primary concern is the institution’s contractual relationship with tuition-paying parents. You can cut the demoralized faculty atmosphere with a knife when you step foot on any elite campus. With a few stellar exceptions, the only substantive discourse that I ever have these days is with academics, intellectuals, and journalists abroad.

In your view, what’s wrong with American feminism today, and what can it do to improve?

After the great victory won by my insurgent, pro-sex, pro-fashion wing of feminism in the 1990s, American and British feminism has amazingly collapsed backward again into whining, narcissistic victimology.

Read the whole article, The Catholic Pagan: 10 Questions for Camille Paglia | America Magazine. it’s all this good.

H/T to somebody on Twitter, sorry I forgot who, though. :(

The Culture of Prayer Amongst Persecuted English Catholics; 1560-1760

PROFESSOR JOHN MORRILL University of Cambridge

This is a very interesting lecture, I think. It’s sponsored by the University of East Anglia Institute,  and the Newman Lectures. This is the second season of the lecture series they sponsor each spring, and I think they need more exposure here as well as in England.

In full disclosure the head of the Institute, Professor John Charmley is one of my closest friends, and yes, I met him through Jessica.  In fact I was one of several people worldwide who urged John to make these available to the rest of us in podcast or video form. As he told us, it is up to the speaker what form, if any, we will have available but we will have them here as available. He is ably assisted by another friend of mine, Siobhan Hoffmann Heap. The appropriate biographies are here.

But you know me well enough to know that I don’t feature things here because a friend had something to do with it, for me it’s all about quality, and John is the same way. He is also why you get a fair amount of British history here, through John I  have interacted with quite a few distinguished British historians, some whom you will see on TV (if you watch British history anyway).

This lecture was delivered by Professor John Morrill of Selwyn College, Cambridge. One of his main research interests is the religious dynamics of early modern British History. His biography is here.


John and I commented yesterday that knowing how the Catholics managed their prayer life in early modern Britain may be useful knowledge given how poorly our governments are doing in dealing with ISIS, although Elizabeth was far kinder to her Catholic subjects than ISIS is likely to be. And it looks to me like what she really wanted to do was look the other way, until the Pope foolishly told her Catholic subjects that they should depose her.

Help Wanted

Need a job in the far outskirts of London? Well here you go. Probably not for the lazy guy who wants to make a £500,000 but, then again we know hanging around Hampton Court worked out fairly well for that blacksmith’s son Thomas Cromwell. Well, for a while, anyway.
Tudor Kitchens

Have you got biceps of steel, a rufty-tufty attitude to food, a penchant for intense heat and a bristling, burly beard? Then here’s the job for you.

Historic Royal Palaces is looking for an apprentice ‘turn-broach’ to join its Tudor roasting team at Hampton Court Palace.

The right man (and it has to be a man; there was just the one woman in Henry VIII’s kitchen and she made the puds) will be responsible for preparing massive joints of meat and loading them onto a roasting spit over the gigantic open fire in the Tudor kitchens.

Is This The Oddest Job In Modern London? | Londonist.


HT Suzannah Lipscomb @sixteenthCgirl

The Times, They are a Changin': As Usual

A few days ago, John O. Mcginnis, writing in The Online Library of Law and Liberty, had some refuting thoughts to Leon Wieseltier’s polemic in the NY Times Book Review.

It starts this way:

Old Complaints about New Technology

In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review Leon Wieseltier has polemicized against the digital age. While beautifully written, its major propositions are either wrong or not wholly coherent.  All have been heard before in previous ages of technological change. While it is difficult to isolate all the sources of Wieseltier’s distemper, here are four in ascending order of their claim to be taken seriously.

1. Wieseltier claims that “the greatest thugs in the history of the cultural industry” (by which he means Amazon and the like) have destroyed bookstores and record shops. Similarly, journalists now earn less money because of competition from digital platforms. These complaints are the whining of producers displaced by competition that helps consumers. […]

Wieseltier’s complaint resembles nothing so much as those of French publishers of the late eighteenth century who complained to the National Assembly about competitors with cheaper means of production:

We request, sir, that you glance over it and lend all your influence to our demands. From these abuses of the freedom  of the press, yet greater abuses have resulted. Countless persons who can barely read have established and maintain shops in every quarter of the capital, hanging over their door their name and the title of Bookseller, which they have no scruple about usurping. We dare to hope, sir, . . . the National Assembly will take the book trade in hand . . . in view of the abuses and thefts as well as the sale of bad books with which France will soon be infected if everyone is free to do business as a bookseller.

Old Complaints about New Technology | Online Library of Law & Liberty.

He goes on to discuss Wieseltier’s apparent ignorance of the definitions of information, data, knowledge, and hypothesis, and perhaps even opinion. He also does a fair amount of complaining about economists, blaming them for quantifying everything in sight. In history I’m a bit sympathetic to the view but I believe it’s not due to the fact that a lot of things have been quantifiable, it’s due to the fact that a lot of historians wouldn’t know a narrative if it bit them on their backside. They’re just lousy writers, and we’re the poorer for it.

He also asserts that ‘Global Competiveness’ shouldn’t be the highest value of humanity. Well, he’s right and that’s the wonder of our communication systems; we can handle much more information much more efficiently, and thus do more in less time than ever before. That some people lose sight of the fact that this is not the highest role of humanity is essentially irrelevant. It’s also something that each generation has to learn for itself, to protect itself.

McGinnis ends with this:

It is a confusion to claim that the better knowledge offered by natural science or the greater leisure made possible by markets and technology mean that the enduring issues of honor, of responsibility, of love for others disappear. The nineteenth century Romantic Rebellion against the rise of natural science was wrong about many things, but it was right about this.  Even as our technology becomes more powerful, we can continue to “wander lonely as clouds.” Our inner life and moral choices are ever billowing and not able to be captured by digitization, however capacious the cloud of computation becomes.

I  think he is exactly right about that. All of these technologies are tools, to extend man’s power, knowledge, and strength. Like all tools, going back to fire, itself, they can be used for good or ill. And so the question becomes:

How will you use them?


Simon de Montfort’s 1265 Parliament

750 years ago something unique happened, Simon de Montfort (acting in King Henry III’s name, the King was his captive at the time) called a parliament. For the first time (other than for taxation purposes), he summoned what has come to be called “The Commons” citizens (not knights) of the towns and cities of England.

A Close Roll (TNA ref C 54/82) records the various writs sent out to summon people to the 1265 parliament

A Close Roll (TNA ref C 54/82) records the various writs sent out to summon people to the 1265 parliament


Tuesday 20 January marks the 750th anniversary of the beginning of a crucial parliament in the history of government – one that marks an important change in the extent to which people outside the aristocratic classes were involved in politics.

The parliament was instigated by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, the leader of the baronial rebellion against King Henry III. Simon had defeated Henry III and his forces in battle at Lewes in May 1264, and as a result was in charge of the government – though he was still ruling in the name of the king, who was his captive. But even in these circumstances Simon’s grip on power was far from complete: many powerful nobles were hostile to him, royal officials still controlled many key castles and Henry’s loyal and dynamic queen, Eleanor of Provence, was a few miles across the sea in France.


The roll shows that writs were addressed to the sheriffs (who were the key royal officials in each county) that they should send ‘two of the more law-worthy, honest and prudent knights from each of the counties’ and to the ‘citizens of York, Lincoln and other boroughs of England that they should send… two of their most prudent, law-worthy and honest fellow citizens or burgesses’. Other summonses were sent to nobles loyal to Simon, to churchmen, and to the Cinque Ports (five Channel ports that had special privileges and responsibilities).

Simon de Montfort’s 1265 Parliament | History of government.

I’m doing a course from the University of London on the Magna Charta this winter (and yes, it’s fascinating) which was only 50 years old at the time of Montfort’s innovation. Both mark significant events on the road to the freedom we enjoy today.

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