Extremist Nation

President Obama has not demonstrated that he is a despot and I think it is very important to say so.

Yesterday, I was reviewing my son’s logic lesson with him and we got going on the difference between statements that are contrary and those that are contradictory. My father used to tell me all the time that I was being contrary, so this is a particularly meaningful lesson for me. If he was wrong, and I was really being contradictory, I’m going to make sure he finds out!

So I was paying attention while I went over this with my son.

Here’s the difference: If two statements are both universal, they are contrary. In other words, if I say, “Every time you go to the store, you buy a radio,” and then you say, “I never buy a radio when I go to the store,” our statements are contrary.

It is very possible, indeed it is probable, that we are both wrong. Why? Because we are taking such extreme positions. This is the way we fight on a normal day. “You always…” “You never…”

And we talk past each other because of the extreme language we are using. Odds are very high that we are both wrong.

Contradictory statements are different. If I say, “Every time you go to the store, you waste my money,” and you say, “Sometimes when I go to the store, I don’t waste money,” now we have contradicted each other. This time, I have taken the extreme position, but you have taken a more moderate position. I’ve made a universal statement, but you have made what is technically a particular statement.

In this case, one of us must be right and the other must be wrong if we are talking about the same thing.

The media thrive on contraries. They love pushing people into extreme camps. Clever politicians shrewdly move their opponents into contradictory positions. They make the opponent appear extreme, while placing themselves in the ever shifting middle.

The dynamic created by these motives is not pretty. Each party presents the oppponent as an extremist and the media loves it. But now the media have been driven into extremes themselves. Fox news redresses the rather leftist leanings of the so-called mainstream media, but to highlight the differences they continually present extreme cases of any difference they can find. Then they go to extremes themselves.

Meanwhile the old media of the networks, CNN, and the major dailies holds to a basic Progressivism moderated by sales. Conservatives were made gullible to a Rush Limbaugh or a Fox News network by the absence or minimization of people who represented their views in the established media. They’ve always felt a bit hunted because the snear of the established media isn’t well-hidden.

That snear is reciprocated and multiplied by the right-wing media, with the Limbaughs and the Becks and others who abandon the essence of conservatism (reverence) to score points against the “enemy.” And of course, the hunted rednecks who vote for a Sarah Palin and want to shoot people who burn the flag (but don’t) hear the screeds of their own pent up frustration and feel, finally, at last, like they aren’t alone. So they forgive the extremism of their spokespeople (and sometimes adore them excessively – a sin both sides are prone to), and don’t recognize that the soul of their argument has been sucked out of it by the tone of its presentation.

A simple lesson in logic would have helped all of us. So would a lesson in rhetoric. And so would a paragraph in Aristotle.

In logic, we need to learn to stop arguing extremes.

From Aristotle’s politics we need to remember that we know almost nothing with certainty in the political realm. That, in fact, is why I am a conservative of the old school.  Politics is the art of decision making in community. When I make a decision alone I do so based on utter uncertainty about the future. How much more when a city, or a state, or a nation makes decisions.

So I want the upper levels of government to provide a stable structure for the lower, more local levels to make the best decisions they can with the knowledge that the state and federal government won’t arbitrarily alter reality based on who is owed favors.

We need to learn to rest in the reality that politics is difficult, that you survive in a polis, that a polis survives, when its members argue and debate instead of shooting each other, but that those arguments, as heated as they might become, lead to decisions that are never irrevocable.

We need to stop expecting so much from politics. People are always going to die, they are always going to fight, and cheat, and steal, and manipulate. Loving our neighbors can help minimize that within a few square feet of where we live and a just government can help lessen the extent of the fighting and cheating. But the hope for a new world in which people become good and fair because the state regulates them into goodness is a bit mad.

To demand too much justice too fast is to increase the likelihood of tyranny. Until the second coming, we have to do everything in our power to be just and accept that we won’t be repaid in kind.

But with those moderated expectations, we must do everything in our power to be just.

The third lesson is from rhetoric. Classical rhetoric includes a very hand element in a speech called the Division. This is where you identify exactly and precisely what the disagreement is by pushing the agreement as far as possible.

The great concern I have about the debate over “Obamacare” is the increasingly widespread claim that opponents to this law are, almost de facto, racists.

From the evidence I have seen there are some racists among the opponents and even among the tea partiers. But there aren’t as many and it doesn’t seem to me to be as strong as some Progressives want us to believe. For example, I’ve tried to find evidence for the 15 uses of the N-word or of a senator being spit on when they walked up to the capital. So far as I can tell, the second did happen, but not in the sense that we usually think of being spat on. Somebody was yelling at the senator (Lewis?) pretty aggressively and very impolitely, to the extent that he was letting fly with the saliva as people do when they are yelling out of control.

So here’s how that would appear in a “division.”

We agree that somebody in the crowd spat upon Senator Lewis. Some people present this spitting as though somebody consciously and intentionally spat on the senator as an act of contempt. Others argue that the spitting was an effect of his yelling, and not a deliberate and intentional act of spitting.

Or we could say something like ” We all agree that the person who spat on Senator Lewis was wrong to do so. Some people argue that it was wrong because it was an act of racism. Others argue that it was an act of out of control anger.”

By defining the difference more carefully, we aren’t delivered from the discussion, but we are now able to think about it more carefully and with less accusation.

Racism as a concrete reality has done untold damage to our country. Racism turned into an abstract idea probably can’t do as much damage, but it is being used to harm us as a people as well.

So when the tea partiers, for example, are portrayed as necessarily racist, I know that more careful thought needs to be applied.

We all agree that the tea partiers are angry. Some believe that they are angry because President Obama is black. Some argue that they are angry because they feel threatened by his policies.

America is undergoing some significant changes right now. Is it too much to ask that the discussion take place without the self-righteous short cut of jumping straight to the extremes? President Obama is not a despot. And the tea partiers don’t fear him because he is black.

They fear him because he went to Harvard. And as we all know, every problem this country has ever had has come from Harvard.

The Art of Reading

The Teaching Company puts out many college level lecture series called The Great Courses. Over the last decade or more I’ve collected quite an exaltation of these larks (in the best sense of the word) and have enjoyed most of them immensely – from CS Lewis, to Modernism, to The Fundatmentals of Music, to The Philosophy of Science, to The History of Mathematics – and so on.

It’s really a priceless resource, and most of their materials are high content quality as well as high production quality.

They sent me another sale catalogue yesterday, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to open it, especially when I saw, featured on the cover, a program I had not noticed before: The Art of Reading. So I opened it to see how it merited front-cover space.

It looks good. For one thing, it respects the reading process as a skill one never entirely masters. There is always something new. Also, it provides a number of different objects for the reader’s attention, most of which should have been learned by high school, but some of which could not have been.

The sequence makes sense, moving from the specific elements to  formal elements and then providing some samples at the end.

The main problem I have with it is not superable, and that is that it is a series of lectures, which makes it necessarily analytical. Reading is an art and can only be learned synthetically, dynamically, synergistically.

A person who is already a good reader would find this series, I imagine, invaluable. It would provide him with new tools by which to access the text. But those tools would be presented in an analytical mode.

In this day and age, many people need more dynamic tools, literally instruments that can show them how to pay better attention to what they are reading. If those are included in this set, they are skillfully woven into the individual lectures.

Let me hastily add that I would not be surprised if they were. In the introduction, under a section called The Artful Reader’s Toolbox, we read three suggestions for “artful reading:”

  1. Holding an initial reading session
  2. Pre-reading
  3. Constantly asking questions

While I don’t think the term for number 2 is valid because it suggests a narrowness to the art of reading that I don’t accept, I love the third and I think the first is a smart suggestion to. In fact, I think the second is a smart suggestion as well, but I don’t like the term used to describe it.

My point is that he probaby weaves these suggestions through the lectures, so my earlier request is probably answered.

Literature teachers should secure this set this for professional purposes, but anybody who loves or wants to love reading should read it for its real purpose: to learn how to read better.

If you are a professional teacher of literature, please be careful of two things. One, teaching professionally, and two, teaching subjectively.

By professionally, I mean teaching literature so your students can do silly, useless things like “get through the materials,” or silly, harmful things like worry about AP tests and other godless, standardized acts of academic tyranny. Students, especially those delicate souled high school students, should read books so they can experience the encounter with a genius who sings to their souls, not so they can do well on a test.

Maybe that’s why I never lost my taste for literature. I never let school get in the way of my education. I never let the fact that we were reading books for a class interfere with my own determination to like or dislike books that spoke to me or didn’t.

On the other hand, students need to learn how to read and that requires skilled reading coaches. It’s not, ultimately, about how you feel about a book that matters. What matters is whether you have the intellectual wherewithal to enter the world of the author. There is no getting around it – you have to be trained to like good literature every bit as much as you have to be trained to like good music or good games. It’s a training in perception.

When my wife watches basketball she simply cannot see greatness. It goes right past her. She doesn’t perceive it because she has never been taught how.

In professional sports there is no egalitarianism. That is why some athletes are so great. The same is true in writing. If you want your students to appreciate greatness, then you need to teach them what makes a writer great.


Let me conclude with some wise words from my reading mentor, Jack Lewis:

One sad result of making English Literature a ‘subject’ at schools and univerities is that the reading of great authors is, from early years, stamped upon the minds of conscientious and submissive young people as something meritorious. When the young person in question is an agnostic whose ancestors were Puritans, you get a very regrettable state of mind. The Puritan conscience works on without the Puritan theology–like millstones grinding nothing; like digestive juices working on an empty stomach and producing ulcers. The unhappy youth applies to literature all the scruples, the rigorism, the self-examination, the distrust of pleasure, which his forebears applied to the spiritual life; and perhaps soon all the intolerance and self-righteousness. The doctrine of I.A. Richards in which the correct reading of good poetry has  a veritable therapeutic value confirms him in this attitude.

CS Lewis An Experiment in Criticism

I do recommend this program, though I have not yet used it, but with the universal caution: never teach something the same year you learned it.


(No, I don’t have any relationship with The Teaching Company, except as customer)

Coleridge on Naturalistic Materialists

Those blind omniscients, those almighty slaves,
Untenanting creation of its God!

Such men need discipline, not argument; they must be made better men before they can become wiser.

Biographia Literaria, Chapter 7

Unartistic notes on Art

The essence of art is the just rule of the elements brought under the artist’s dominion.

The most important thing is purity and simplicity.

From that simplicity great insight can grow.

A great work of art never loses its simplicity, but grows from a seed mighty enough to extend its harmony over great spaces of thought without ever entering into tyranny.

The greatness of a work of art is the extent of the harmonizing power of the artist.

A work of art to grow draws into itself all that surrounds it, then filters it to transform what can be transformed into itself. Only by knowing what it is can the work of art succeed in this transformation.

Tyrannical art extends its reach beyond its capacity to harmonize. Consequently, it forces elements into submission that were better left to flourish on their own. Every element that submits freely to the harmonizing reach of the artist flourishes in this submission because its integrity is honored, it is brought into sound relationships with other flourishing elements, and it has the resources of its own flourishing in and around it – and neither the element nor the resources come under any threat in any way. A great work of art is a sort of Utopia.

But the greatest artist makes no attempt to rule beyond his reach. He resurrects all that he is able to resurrect, giving it new life in the world he is creating from the old world around him.

The artist is therefore a second creator, a second redeemer, and a second king. Perhaps his primary function is to redeem the time – to buy it out of its slavery, to restore its value, to enable it to become what it was meant to be, to assist its flourishing. At the very least he sets a pattern for this redemption in a work of art that nourishes a seed to fruitfulness by transforming the world around him into a fruitful tree. Perhaps formal salvation is more important than we have wanted to acknowledge.

As a critic, “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come,” at least by analogy in the most secular work of art, or more formally in an artifact produced by one whose soul is filled with the life of the world to come, who is himself in the process of resurrection.

Art as Discipline; Self-Expression as Decadence

I have argued, and will argue, that art ought not to be a matter either of self-expression or of “impressing” the audience. This matters for many reasons, not least of which is the inevitable historical decline of any art that reduces itself to “expressionism” or “impressionism.”

Believing that art is an expression of the human spirit, the sort of art that a community produces is both cause and effect of its spiritual condition.

It is cause, because whatever the artists theorize about how they became artists and do art is likely to end up in the classroom one or two generations later. Picasso, for example, was trained classically, and some of his early works, during this classical period, are astonishingly beautiful.

However, he developed a disintegrated visionof reality that came to be reflected in his paintings. Lovers of Picasso’s later works who would have trained their students in Picasso’s vision, would have failed to lay the foundations that were laid in Picasso’s training, and the art of painting will have declined as a result.

In our Progressive schools, public and private, we can see the same decline. Teachers are taught that children should express themselves in art, so they flounder and blunder and bluster about trying to teach children to get in touch with their inner lives when the children have yet to learn how to hold a pencil or punctuate a sentence.

They regard the disciplines of the art as limitations and obstacles to free expression. To this I reply with the words of two truly great artists, Wendell Berry and T.S. Eliot.

Wendell Berry replied, in a characteristically condensed spark, when he said, “The sentence is both the opportunity and the limitation of thought.”

Much can be drawn from that sentence and one day I would like to lead a series of discussions revolving around its insights. I will say this much here: An unlimited thought is a thought not thought. An unlimited expression of self is a self unexpressed.

When children are taught self-expression instead of discipline, they are, quite literally, retarded by the training they receive.

T. S. Eliot loved John Donne’s poems, especially in his early life. In fact, one could argue that Eliot was responsible for the rehabilitation of Donne’s reputation in the 20th century. But later on, he came to see a limitation and a weakness in Donne’s poetry that left him deeply unsatisfied as a reader and as a critic. 

Donne was also a preacher, an Anglican priest. It may in the context of Eliot’s reflections on his preaching that Eliot makes this point most clearly. Comparing Donne’s sermons with the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes, a 17th century Anglican divine,  Eliot says:

Donne is a “personality” in a sense in which Andrewes is not; his sermons, one feels, are a “means of self-expression.” He is constantly finding an object which shall be adequate to his feelings; Andrewes is wholly absorbed in the object and therefore responds with adequate emotion.

This comparison would also merit a whole series of discussions, which I would love to lead. But again, let me highlight two or three points.

First, notice what Eliot regards as the healthy (at least artistically healthy) relationship between the object and the emotions.

Read a book on poetry or take a poetry workshop, and what do they tell you to do? Too often this: find an object adequate to your feelings. Poetry, we are constantly told, is about the emotions. Prose, we are sometimes told, is about thoughts.

So when you write poetry, you are told to scour your memories and your heart for feelings and images, and you are told to draw them together.

This is to confuse blessing with purpose, and in so doing to risk the purpose for the blessing – for if you lose the purpose, the blessing follows.

Instead, Andrewes, because he is “wholly absorbed in the object… responds with adequate emotion.” The emotions follow. The object rules.

Here we see how we should be teaching people to write poetry. Behold. Be held. Contemplate the object. Stay on it. Learn to see. Learn to perceive. Learn to observe. When you do, you will respond with adequate emotion, without being distracted from the object that produces this adequate emotion.

Indeed, by staying on the object, you sustain the very emotion you want to feel. Direct your attention to your emotions and they will shrink away. They don’t like being watched; they don’t want to be written about; they don’t want to be the focus of attention. They want to help us observe the object of our attention (love) by making it enjoyable.

Does love not make this rather obvious, even and perhaps most vividly in love-making? I do not increase my love for my wife or children or friends when I contemplate my love for them. I grow in love for my wife when I contemplate her, and so also for my children and friends.

In fact, at least for most men I know, contemplating our love for each other is a rather embarrassing distraction. Friendships grow through the mutual contemplation of a third object. That is why some of my closest friendships have been with students. That is why working together on a common object (which is a form of contemplation) or thinking together about something that is not immediately useful are essential ingredients of friendship.

The pleasure of friendship seems largely to grow from shared irrelevencies.

When we teach our children any art, therefore, we need to teach them to master the tools of perception first and imitation second.

Even artists trained on bad theory produce great art when they perceive and imitate. Self-expression is disciplined by forms, like sentences, conventions, rituals. Disciplined self-expression has this great advantage over undisciplined self-expression: it can sustain itself through trials, it can endure hardship, it can accomplish great things.

It can produce a bang, when all undisciplined self-expression seems to produce is a whimper.

“You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free.”


The Lost Tools of Writing is a writing program based on this approach to writing. We have already seen extraordinary results and will be releasing Level II very soon. It will be available for the 2010/11 school year. Follow the link to the left to learn more.

April 19, 2010.

Mark it. Big day coming.

Numbers in Nature by the Numbers

Our friends over at Salvo posted this extraordinary demonstration of the beauties revealed when we see beyond the material world to the order supporting it. I’ve watched it four times so far (it’s short and relaxing) and every time I watch it I get a little closer to heaven.