When the Well Runs Dry

The trick is not to mind that it hurts.

Above all they need to learn -to remember- that mediation/ contemplation is not normally a lifetime way of praying, even for active apostles. And they also need to remember that beyond meditation/ contemplation is not a splendid oasis of Omar Khayyam delights for the soul (which seems to be what most people understand by “mystic” or “contemplative”), but rather a vast desert with, perhaps, occasional small oases to sustain the spirit. As we shall see, it is only when we come to love the desert, and to prefer it to the oases, that we are well on the way to God. It is an “upside-down” world indeed! One can well be forgiven for forgetting, for refusing to believe he is on the right road, when his throat is parched and his eyes are filled with sand!

-Thomas Green, When the Well Runs Dry

If you would enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of Philosophy.

The Stoic Failure

“I shall take every liberty; for I do not love this one if I am unwilling to hurt his feelings.”

Recently I managed to scrounge up enough time to make it through the Letters of Seneca. Truly a worthy classic, and another one to add to list of books I’m going to force my kids to read. You should read it too. It’s short, and all the shorter because it is divided into letters of only a few pages apiece. It’s also highly quotable; I found myself highlighting dozens of pithy sayings for later usage.

“‘If you wish,’ said he, ‘to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.'”

Anybody who knows me would agree that “stoic” is a good way to describe me, so it’s no surprise that I would find Seneca and the original Stoicisim which he represents appealing. But that’s not merely my temperament talking. The Stoics really did strike pretty close to the truth, especially when it comes to ethics and their embrace of reason. Early Christians recognized this as well, applying bits of their philosophy where appropriate, and sometimes even trying to induct them into the ranks of “pagans so close to the Truth that they were really basically Christians” (Plato got similar treatment). Even the term “logos” probably comes to us through the Stoics.

“I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, -not as a deserter, but as a scout.”

I was enjoying Seneca so much that I decided to learn more about him, and what do I find but this:

He was tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero.

That really puts a damper on my admiration. Seneca had noble ideas, but when it comes to implementation, you can’t fail much worse than bearing responsibility for Nero. (Yes, he probably didn’t approve of Nero’s actions, and yes, Nero eventually had him killed, but still.)

“You are better at approving the right course that at following it out. You see where the true happiness lies, but you have not the courage to attain it.”

This is a repeated problem with the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is another Stoic classic which I will force-feed my children, and has rightly been highly regarded throughout the Church. But if you look at Aurelius’ reign as emperor, his record is not nearly so great. He is credited with initiating the fourth persecution of Christianity, and it was under his reign that the Lyon massacre occurred.

“Let another say ‘Perhaps the worst will not happen.’ You yourself must say ‘Well, what if it does? Let us see who wins!'”

It’s a sobering reminder of the limits of human effort. Even having seen and understood so much about virtue, the Stoics still fell dangerously short. We cannot get there on our own. Without a divine hand reaching down to pick us up, we really are lost.

“Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man’s power to live long.”

The centralization cannot hold

Monkey TowerPascal-Emmanuel Gobry is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. If you haven’t yet read this piece of his, go over and do that now. It is only tangentially about the healthcare.gov rollout; the central thesis is an exploration of why things like free markets, science, democracy, and even the internet work (“work” being defined as “being the worst, except for everything else we’ve tried”). You really should read it, because that why has implications for just about everything.

Did you read it yet? Go, read it.

Ok, fine, here’s the tldr: capitalism (decentralized decision making) doesn’t consistently beat communism (centralized planning) because the private sector is wiser, smarter, or more noble than the public sector. It’s just that the private sector can throw a whole lot of different attempts at a problem, and toss out the ones that fail relatively quickly, minimizing the damage of those failures. Centralized planning fails consistently because planning on a large scale is simply too hard for monkeys like us; the best we can do is fling a lot of poo at the wall and see what sticks.

All of which leads into the recent discussion of whether God hates centralized power. R.J. Moeller says yes, basing his argument on the story of the Tower of Babel. I would point instead to the state of Israel, as originally set up by God in the early books of the OT. I’m actually surprised libertarians don’t point to it more often, because there we have God explicitly creating a state without a king, or really any governing authority beyond some scattered part-time judges. One of the Jews’ greatest sins was to ask for a king, an error that plagued them for centuries to come.

“But what about the centrality of Jerusalem and the temple?” you ask, because you are well-schooled in the ways of exegesis. Indeed, the temple was very clearly a case of centralization. Not all of the high places were dedicated to idol worship, but God still called for their destruction (one can easily imagine people at the time declaring that they knew lots of folks who were good followers of Yahweh and still worshiped at the high places, so surely God didn’t really say that). What accounts for the difference?

Think back. Why does centralization fail? Because we are monkeys. We lack the intelligence and the raw data to make plans that will manage large, complex systems.1

God is not a monkey. He really is all-wise and all-knowing (and all-benevolent). Centering everything on the all-seeing, all-embracing creator and sustainer of the universe does not run into the problems of human authority. It’s just how things are supposed to be.

In fact, attempts to center on something else all involve turning away from God. God actually makes this quite explicit. Even as he grants the Israelites’ request, He directly compares it to idolatry2.

When we find ourselves looking to some human leader to save us from the problems of a fallen world, we are making the same idolatrous mistake. And, dear exegete, when you compared the centralization of worship to the centralization of government, you were making the same dangerous error of confusing man with God.

To recap: you need God-like powers to make centralization work. Man is not God3, consequently a system that tries to center itself around men will fail. It is also idolatrous. And that is why God hates centralized power, and why science beat Aristotle.

1 Please note that I have not even delved into the issue of corruption. That certainly causes problems as well, but the thing you have to keep in mind is that centralized planning fails even with a morally perfect human leader. It simply isn’t possible for them to have all the information that would be necessary. This was the key insight of Hayek, and it’s why he was able to see the impossibility of Communism long before it collapsed, all without even getting into the little issue of all those mass murders it kept performing.

2 God also warns about the terrible things a king will do, like institute a 10% income tax.

3 Or, as the founding fathers put it: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Are we all Donatists now?

My favorite class in my church history curriculum is the one dealing with Donatists. For those of you who have never attended (shame, shame), the Donatists arose as a result of Diocletian’s severe persecution of the church. After it was all over, the church had to figure out what to do with those who had fallen away when the going got tough.

This included members of the clergy. In North Africa, where the Donatist controversy flared up, persecution had actually been relatively light; Christians were mainly “asked” to hand over the scriptures to be burned. Many did so, and in doing so earned themselves the moniker of “traditores” (literally “those who handed over,” and the origin of our word “traitor”). Many of them returned to their priestly duties once the danger was past.

Donatus found this unconscionable, and many people agreed with him, leading to one of the earliest schisms. I like to pose the same issues to my students, and force them to hash out how they would handle the problems the early church faced. It makes for a great class; the class before is all about early Christians dying in lots of horrible ways, so the surrounding context is still fresh in their minds, there are no easy answers to the problems posed, so they have to think hard, and it ties in easily to problems that we still face in church today. Plus, it comes near the beginning of the course, hopefully hooking them in to stay around for the rest.

Anyway, I recently spent some time teaching the youth in our church, and all of them came down on the side of the Donatists. Everybody agreed; if our pastor had turned traitor, they would all leave and find a different church. We even had a group of Novatianists. When I taught the adults, they also tended to side with the Donatists.

But then again, we’re all Protestants. Would Catholics respond differently?

Sex, Soma, and Slaves

Hosurance By now you may have heard of the series of rather crass pro-Obamacare being brought to us by Colorado. I leave it to the left to determine if their marketers have an accurate grasp of their constituents or not.

But I suspect that they do. In a way, there was something very familiar about what was being advertised, and I finally managed to track it down in some of my beloved old books. The first was a work of fiction, from the era when scifi was still in the business of forecasting the future. The second is a work of fact from nearly 200 years ago, but you may note that deep down they are both describing the same thing.

As political and economic freedom diminishes, sexual freedom tends compensatingly to increase. And the dictator (unless he needs cannon fodder and families with which to colonize empty or conquered territories) will do well to encourage that freedom. In conjunction with the freedom to daydream under the influence of dope and movies and the radio, it will help to reconcile his subjects to the servitude which is their fate.

-Aldous Huxley, Foreword to Brave New World

BrosuranceLet us rewind a century or two more:

When a slave is drunk, the slaveholder has no fear that he will plan an insurrection; no fear that he will escape to the north. It is the sober, thinking slave who is dangerous, and needs the vigilance of his master, to keep him a slave. … Our pious masters, at St. Michael’s, must not know that a few of their dusky brothers were learning to read the word of God, lest they should come down upon us with the lash and chain. We might have met to drink whisky, to wrestle, fight, and to do other unseemly things, with no fear of interruption from the saints or sinners of St. Michael’s.

But, to meet for the purpose of improving the mind and heart, by learning to read the sacred scriptures, was esteemed a most dangerous nuisance, to be instantly stopped. The slaveholders of St. Michael’s, like slaveholders elsewhere, would always prefer to see the slaves engaged in degrading sports, rather than to see them acting like moral and accountable beings.

This young woman (Caroline was her name) was virtually compelled by Mr. Covey to abandon herself to the object for which he had purchased her; and the result was, the birth of twins at the end of the year. At this addition to his human stock, both Edward Covey and his wife, Susan, were ecstatic with joy. No one dreamed of reproaching the woman, or of finding fault with the hired man — Bill Smith — the father of the children, for Mr. Covey himself had locked the two up together every night, thus inviting the result.

I say nothing of father, for he is shrouded in a mystery I have never been able to penetrate. Slavery does away with fathers, as it does away with families. Slavery has no use for either fathers or families, and its laws do not recognize their existence in the social arrangements of the plantation. When they do exist, they are not the outgrowths of slavery, but are antagonistic to that system.

-Fredrick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom

All of this has happened before. But must all of it happen again?