Particulars matter

Different pieces, similar conclusions:

Jake Meador on the importance C.S. Lewis’ Anglicanism to his mere Christianity:

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course. Remember your Aristotle—the universal form adheres within particulars. If you set out to tell a story about Everything, you’ll get nothing. It will be so broad and ambitious that it ends up signifying nothing. But if you, for instance, tell a story about an ordinary family in an ordinary Texas town, you might end up with an incredible story of love and loyalty and duty, of courage during times of trouble, and of fidelity to people and to place, that speaks in universally accessible language. By committing yourself to a particular confessional (and orthodox) tradition, you open to yourself the full riches of Mere Christianity. To paraphrase Lewis: Aim for the particulars of a specific confessional tradition and get the universals of mere Christendom thrown in. Aim for mere Christendom without any confessional roots, and you’ll get neither.

Alan Jacobs’ criticism of The Green Bible from several years ago (Lewis also makes an appearance):

So it’s possible that The Green Bible is actually poised between two audiences: one unready for the message, one already tired of it. Meanwhile, the creation, still “subjected to futility,” continues to “wait with eager longing” to be “set free from its bondage to decay.” And we, even at our best, still strive to know what it means to hold this world in stewardship. Creation remains always too large for us, too abstract. What’s real is this furrow of black soil, that crabapple tree: These we can protect insofar as we see them, touch them, and therefore know them. But no general principle, no notion of greenness, can tell us how to care for what occupies our field of vision this moment, what sifts between our outstretched fingers.

A philosophical memoir

Survival in AuschwitzSurvival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Levi narrates not only his time from capture to imprisonment to freedom, but also reflects quite a lot on the systematic cruelty of the German authorities that set the inmates against each other and encouraged them to collaborate with their captors. Levi describes the horrors of “selection” that chose inmates for life or death but also talks about those that he came to admire. There’s even a memorable scene where he talks a friend through their arduous task by quoting from Dante’s Inferno.

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International relations and relativity

MIT professor David Kaiser wrote a short piece in the New York Times on international politics’ impact on the development of the theory of relativity. Some excerpts:

Some of the barriers to acceptance were conceptual. Isaac Newton had argued that there was a universal force of gravity, the incessant tugging of one body on another. But Einstein argued that there was no “force” of gravity at all. Space and time were as wobbly as a trampoline; they could warp, bend or distend in the presence of massive objects like the sun. Objects simply moved as straight as they could, flowing through curved space-time. This idea could be hard to wrap your head around….

One year after the armistice that ended World War I, [British scientist Arthur] Eddington announced that his team’s measurements of the apparent positions of stars during a recent eclipse matched Einstein’s predictions. In an interview soon afterward, Einstein noted that the public recognition of his accomplishment had a political slant. “Today I am described in Germany as a ‘German servant,’ and in England as a ‘Swiss Jew,’ ” he said. “Should it ever be my fate to be represented as a bête noire, I should, on the contrary, become a ‘Swiss Jew’ for the Germans and a ‘German savant’ for the English.” Here, he shared with a wink, was yet another application of the theory of relativity.

Sadly, events quickly proved Einstein right. Just months after Eddington’s announcement, right-wing political opportunists in war-ravaged Germany began to organize raucous anti-Einstein rallies. Only an effete Jew, they argued, could remove “force” from modern physics; those of true Aryan spirit, they went on, shared an intuitive sense of “force” from generations of working the land. Soon after the Nazis seized power in 1933, they banned the teaching of Einstein’s work within the Reich. Einstein settled in Princeton, N.J.; the German relativity community was decimated.

Hat tip: Albert Mohler

Turkish demographics, ISIS, and the Kurds

Writing at The American Conservative, Philip Jenkins points to a surprising demographic trend in Turkey:

Overall, Turkey’s fertility rate is a little below replacement, but that simple fact obscures enormous regional variations. The country can be divided into four zones, stretching from west to east. The Western quarter is thoroughly European in demographic terms, with stunningly low sub-Danish fertility rates of around 1.5. The rates rise steadily as we turn east, until the upland east has very high rates resembling those of neighboring Iraq or Syria. “Europe” and the Third World thus jostle each other within one nation.

High-fertility eastern Turkey is of course much more religious than the secular west, and this is where we find the Qur’an Belt that so regularly supports Islamic and even fundamentalist causes. It simply makes electoral sense for the government to respond to the interests of that populous growing area, and to drift ever more steadily in Islamist directions.

But there is a complicating fact. Those fast-breeding eastern regions are also home to what the Turkish government euphemistically calls the “Mountain Turks,” but which everyone else on the planet calls “Kurds.” Turkey’s Kurdish minority, usually estimated at around 15-20 percent of the population, is expanding very rapidly—to the point that, within a generation or two, it will actually be a majority within the Turkish state. This nightmare prospect is front and center in the mind of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who a couple of years ago issued an apocalyptic warning of a national Kurdish majority no later than 2038. That date is a little implausibly soon, but the principle stands.

Thus we can understand why the Turkish government is far more eager to strike Kurdish fighters than ISIS: “ISIS is an irritant; the Kurds pose an existential demographic threat.”

Robin Hood or catechism?

Aaron Denlinger recently wrote about a 16th-century English catechism by Robert Legate in which a husband was to catechize his wife:

In his opening letter to the “Christen reader” Legate provides a brief apology for his catechism. He notes that many parents fail to properly instruct their children in the knowledge of the Lord because they “knowe not themselves wherein the ryght and true Chrstendome consysteth.” “How is it than possyble,” he continues, “that they shulde instructe and geve good example to their chyldren, whan they knowe not themselves the wholsome learnynge and will of their loadesman & master Jesus Christ, of whose name not withstandynge they boaste and bragge themselves?” Part of the problem, he seems to think, lies in Christian folk’s gravitation towards tomfoolery and entertainment over thoughtful theological conversation. “Ye fathers and mothers, learne your children these [Christian] thynges, and not tales of robyne hood with suche other vayne fables.” Legate’s goal, in sum, is to see parents sufficiently versed in Christian doctrine to fulfill God’s command to bring children up “in the instruction and discipline of the Lord” (Eph. 6.4).

He has some of the text from the catechism, but to my odd mind the reference to Robin Hood was unexpected, and as a fan of Robin Hood stories I wanted to note an early modern reference to them.

P.S. I’m also a fan of catechisms.

The humanities and state funding of higher education

Terry Eagleton penned an eloquent essay on the academic decline of British universities, especially in the humanities. A few passages:

Universities, which in Britain have an 800-year history, have traditionally been derided as ivory towers, and there was always some truth in the accusation. Yet the distance they established between themselves and society at large could prove enabling as well as disabling, allowing them to reflect on the values, goals, and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up in its own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much self-criticism. Across the globe, that critical distance is now being diminished almost to nothing, as the institutions that produced Erasmus and John Milton, Einstein and Monty Python, capitulate to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism….

Education should indeed be responsive to the needs of society. But this is not the same as regarding yourself as a service station for neocapitalism. In fact, you would tackle society’s needs a great deal more effectively were you to challenge this whole alienated model of learning. Medieval universities served the wider society superbly well, but they did so by producing pastors, lawyers, theologians, and administrative officials who helped to sustain church and state, not by frowning upon any form of intellectual activity that might fail to turn a quick buck….

[A British government that wanted to deal with the debt accumulated by young adults] would also seek to restore the honorable lineage of the university as one of the few arenas in modern society (another is the arts) in which prevailing ideologies can be submitted to some rigorous scrutiny. What if the value of the humanities lies not in the way they conform to such dominant notions, but in the fact that they don’t? There is no value in integration as such. In premodern times, artists were more thoroughly integrated into society at large than they have been in the modern era, but part of what that meant was that they were quite often ideologues, agents of political power, mouthpieces for the status quo. The modern artist, by contrast, has no such secure niche in the social order, but it is precisely on this account that he or she refuses to take its pieties for granted.

A quick aside: I’m not sure how that third quoted paragraph is related to debt, either.

But to return to the main point, Eagleton’s ideal of a university is admirable. But he also misses the irony. He calls for resistance to the private university in Britain, but Oxford and Cambridge seem to be largely privately governed (let me know if I am wrong on this).

There’s a saying that “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next” (attributed here to William Ralph Inge). It seems to me that by and large academics have married themselves to the ever-growing welfare state. Yet they are surprised that, in the age of neoliberalism, which prioritizes cuts and efficiency, politicians don’t see much value in the humanities. After all, how many people or societies want to pay people to criticize them? It’s no wonder that the defense of the humanities falls flat.

Alan Jacobs has pointed to this kind of failure of imagination on his blog, Text Patterns, a couple of times (here and here – do read these short pieces). It is easy to assume that people who share your values will always be in control, and to build your institutions on that assumption. But it’s a pretty precarious assumption, and I think that Eagleton’s article illustrates that.

Capital, capitalism, and inequality

Capital in the Twenty-First CenturyCapital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this more quickly than I might have since I was trying to keep up for a book discussion and the central argument is pretty clear: r > g (the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth). He demonstrates this in many ways, so the book has a repetitive feel to it. From my understanding of the discussion surrounding the book, the assembling of this economic data was really important, so I’m grateful to Piketty and his fellow economists for doing this work.

I appreciated what appeared to be Piketty’s realism about the economic patterns of the 20th century. He notes that the glory years of the European economic equality (1945-1975) were possible because of the massive destruction of wealth in the two world wars and the Great Depression as well as the programs passed because of these events. Yet unlike many that are left of center, he does not treat this as the natural state of things, and he shows that economic inequality is returning to previous levels since the 1970s. He also recognizes the challenges of creating the kind of robust social democratic welfare state that he wants. One thing that he misses in all of this is that, it seems to me, American political culture has much of the same sense of nostalgia for the same period. I think that the maxim that conservatives want to live in the 50s and liberals want to work in the 50s is true and shows the reality that we as Americans often take our post-World War II economic dominance for granted, when it was actually the result of a set of historical conditions.

I can’t really comment on Piketty’s economic methodology, and I am not bothered by economic inequality in the same way that he is. I believe that he focuses too much on how the economic pie is divided rather than the fact that the pie continues to grow and living standards continue to rise. But surely you will be able to find more competent reviews than mine if you wish to read more. I appreciated Brad Littlejohn’s review here:….

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