2023

  • 13 October 2023 Libraries and Laboratories

    The bookish people that gravitate toward classical education can sometimes take a harsh view of science, mathematics, and rigorous quantitative reasoning. They champion poetry and the imagination at the expense of empirical fact and deduction. This is a mistake.

  • 22 September 2023 The Freedom of the Artist

    In the last two posts, we explored two ways of thinking about freedom that I have argued are ultimately inadequate. In this post, I will articulate a third option that I believe preserves the best intuitions in these two models while avoiding their inadequacies. This third option conceives of freedom on analogy with an artist's act of creation.

  • 16 September 2023 The Freedom of the Übermensch

    Echoing the sentiments of some sophists contemporary with Socrates, Nietzsche articulates a thoroughly constructivist (and therefore dismissive) account of conventional values. We have the capacity, by our own acts of esteeming not simply to select from objectively given options, but to create the very options and the terms in which we value them.

  • 8 September 2023 Freedom in the Myth of Er

    In Plato's famous Myth of Er, we find a memorable image that becomes a major source of inspiration for Western thinking about freedom. In this post I argue that it encourages us to think about freedom as a kind of selection from objectively given alternatives, and that this is ultimately misleading.

  • 1 September 2023 Introduction to Hildebrand - Value

    Hildebrand is well known for his philosophy of value and value-response, which grounds many of his most important philosophical insights and appears in nearly all his works. Value, according to Hildebrand, is a basic datum of experience appearing as the "important in itself" as distinct from the "merely subjectively satisfying" and the "objective good for the person." The encounter with this excellence presents itself as something more than merely neutral, something that demands a kind of respect even though it may not hold any element of subjective pleasure for me or involve a benefit to me at all.

  • 25 August 2023 The Virtue of Orderliness

    Orderliness is the first of the cultured virtues because the development of all the others presupposes an orderly way of life. The disorderly person might strike upon something, from time to time, that looks like elegance or intelligence, but such happy coincidence does not proceed from virtue because it does not proceed from deliberate cultivation.

  • 18 August 2023 Reading for Wisdom

    Ancient cultures had a special wisdom literature, such as Proverbs or Ecclesiastes in the Bible, a literature which gives direct, sage counsel. To a great extent, however, all of ancient and medieval literature counts as wisdom literature. The authors frequently understood themselves to be passing on wisdom to their readers whether they wrote poetry or philosophical dialogues, and readers sought out literature as a principal means of becoming wise.

  • 11 August 2023 The Idea of a Canon

    How do I know what to read? If I have not read a book before, how do I know whether it will be any good? After all, reading a book, especially if I read it well, is a significant investment of hours. Every time I commit to reading one book, I am simultaneously choosing, by implication, not to read a functionally infinite array of other books that may be just as good---or better. In reality, of course, this isn't how it works. When I sit down to read a book, even one I have never cracked open before, I usually have a pretty good idea whether it will be worth my time. I know this because the book has a reputation.

  • 4 August 2023 Aesthetic Conservatism

    Do you want to lose a culture war? Here is a simple recipe. Start by conceding to the radicals all the taste-making venues, the salons, the cafes, and the galleries. Next, concede all the educational institutions, the museums, and the endowments. Then conclude that, since the arts are now dominated by radical politics, there must be something suspicious about high culture itself.

  • 28 July 2023 The Cultured Virtues

    While paling in comparison to the achievement moral virtue, the refinement of a cultured life is nevertheless a worthy pursuit. By contrast with the moral virtues, the cultured virtues cannot be required of every man because they contain in their very essence a cultural inheritance that not everyone is fortunate enough to have and for which he cannot be held responsible.

  • 21 July 2023 Focus on the Smaller Scale

    Analysts and pundits lavish a disproportionate amount of attention on Society, always intoned with a capital S. This causes us to lose sight of the smaller forms of association that play a much larger role in our real lived experience. We go to schools, we work at jobs, and we come home to families where we hope to find some measure of belonging. The degree of impact that my place of work has upon me as an individual is thousands of times larger than the impact that Society has upon me as an abstract totality.

  • 14 July 2023 A Liberal Education

    Liberality---freedom---is the opposite of servility, and this means escape from our cell. The trick is that the door is locked from the inside. The only thing needed to open it is the will to do so, just as Lady Philosophy told Boethius in his cell before his execution so many centuries ago. The servile men speak of escapism as a dirty word. It's irresponsible to become distracted from the grind, for the grind is the whole of their religion and their only hope of salvation. The escapism of the bookish life, they think, is to lapse from the real world where things are getting done into the realm of fairy tales and lofty, abstract philosophies. Quite the reverse is true. The chthonic liturgy of their daily grind is the unreality of Plato's cave. The world we open onto in literature, history, poetry, and philosophy is the real world seen aright, the world of acorns and mountains and the human heart.

  • 7 July 2023 Dead Friends

    I play a little game with my dead friends. I collect their faces and attach them to my notes on their body of work. The first thing from Wikipedia won't do. I search carefully for a portrait that strikes something inside me. John Singer Sargent said that a portrait is just a picture with something wrong about the mouth. The portraits that I collect are just faces with something right about the eyes. It's the eyes that tell me that we can be friends.

  • 23 June 2023 Ashes and Shadows

    This is my translation Horace's Ode IV.7, famous for the opening words 'Diffugere nives,' and the echo of Abraham's sentiment that we are but 'ashes and shadows.'

  • 16 June 2023 Teaching Virtue

    We all want our children to become virtuous, so we naturally shop around for the schools and communities that have the best results. Upon inspection, however, we find that the graduating classes at even the best schools are not infallibly filled with saints. Parents eventually complain. Teachers complain too.

  • 9 June 2023 Personhood, Personal Identity, and Personality

    It is helpful to draw a distinction between three things. Persons are persons just by their mode of existence, even as an embryo or in a coma. This is constituted by their personhood, which is the same for all persons. Personal identity, however, distinguishes one person from another and establishes that person as the same person over time. This personal identity is a stable possession, but it can develop a person's capacities into the full expression of a personality.

  • 26 May 2023 Constrained Goods

    Sometimes we cherish things that we would not wish upon our own children. Isn't this a puzzle? If such things are so good, why would we strive to eliminate the conditions that make them possible? I propose a basic distinction between constrained goods and liberal goods that will help to solve the puzzle.

  • 19 May 2023 Vulcans and Androids

    Science fiction has made popular a certain trope concerning us logicians. The thought is that logic is somehow cold and calculating, the activity of a merely robotic kind of intelligence. Students sometimes assume that this is the point of logic class. Emotions get you into trouble, so your parents want you to be more like Spock. The unfortunate side-effect of the treatment is that you will be less fun at parties. In defense of logicians everywhere, especially those passionate, very-fun-at-parties, Platonic logicians, I submit that this stereotype misses a deep truth about the nature of the human soul.

  • 12 May 2023 The Socrates Effect

    A curious thing happens when a young man meets Socrates for the first time. To a young man, the humiliation of successful men in the previous generation holds a perennial fascination. They gathered around. They enjoyed the spectacle. They imitated the method. A few of them listened and understood.

  • 5 May 2023 Against Polemics

    I hereby declare war on all polemics. The kind of person who writes aggressive, sarcastic, negative pieces about other people is so odious to me that I find their presence nauseating. Hit pieces, exposés, hell-fire preaching, complaining blog posts, most existentialism, songs of the rebellious youth, letters sent by Susan to the HOA, all reveal a wicked character. We must vilify such people and all their works in no uncertain terms lest their moral contagion spread to the beautiful and the good (you and me, my dear reader).

  • 28 April 2023 Student Writing

    I am often required to give students "helpful feedback" on their writing. I mark missing commas or misspelled words in red ink. I circle the occasional awkward phrase. I fear, however, that these marks are really doing the students a disservice. They give the illusion that their bad writing would become good writing if they were to insert the missing commas and fix the spelling mistakes. To become good the whole thing would need to change, and this means a change to the student's deeper habits of life. So here are my four recommendations.

  • 21 April 2023 The Abdication of Ethics

    Self-help literature has come to fill the void left in contemporary ethics by the abdication of wisdom. Ancient ethics concerned itself with providing real guidance toward living a good life. Modern ethics concerns itself with large-scale social questions or abstract thought-experiments. The result is that people turn to self-improvement literature for concrete guidance, a genre that studiously avoids broaching the hard questions.

  • 14 April 2023 The Logic of the World

    The study of logic is the study of that which makes sense, the study of those structures that necessarily must be for things to hang together without contradiction. The Greeks called the intelligible structure of something its "logos," and this is where we get our word. These necessary structures, these "logoi," are not things that we make up in our heads or record in our books. They are all around us, everywhere, the basic fabric of the world we inhabit.

  • 7 April 2023 The Cost of Beauty

    With an excess of wealth, one can afford the uselessness of finer things. It helps that this uselessness signals to everyone else just how much you can afford. Rich or poor, however, there is one splendid reality that confronts us all every single day and gives the lie to the idea that beautiful things must be expensive. Every morning the sky shows its face, smiling simply in bright blues or flirting coyly in wisps of white. Sometimes it downright sulks in gloomy greys, or blasts its anger in overwhelming tempest blacks.

  • 31 March 2023 Gratitude

    Every morning, I write my gratitude. Lest I offend my disgruntled waking eyes, only one small desk lamp illumines the leather chair in my office. I begin by writing the date in Shaeffer red with a fountain pen that I have dedicated to this color. Then I write at least one paragraph in sepia, beginning with the words "I am grateful for..."

  • 24 March 2023 In Defense of the Non-Moral

    Of course we aim at virtue, and of course the pursuit of virtue should take pride of place in everything we do. But the truth is that we should also educate our children in non-moral excellencies that are intrinsically valuable and choiceworthy for their own sake. It is simply a beautiful thing to learn history well whether or not it makes you a better person morally.

  • 17 March 2023 The Mind of a Gentleman

    This essay explores St. John Henry Newman's conception of a gentleman's education; it was originally published in the Classical Teacher.

  • 10 March 2023 The Comforts of Misanthropy

    My pessimism makes me hopeful. Human beings---myself very much among them---cause me so much dismay, with their perpetual stupidity, immorality, incompetence, incivility, and philistinism, that I am inclined to judge the present shambles of our society to be rather good in the grand scheme of things.

  • 3 March 2023 Asceticisms

    The whole ethos of asceticism, with its valorization of difficulty, can obscure the radically different motives for which ascetic practices might be adopted, and in the literature of these religious orders, one sometimes meets with a rhetorical excess, which, if we are not careful, threatens to undermine the philosophical foundations of our most basic thinking about goodness.

  • 24 February 2023 Wrong-Headed Charity

    Christians sometimes think—or talk as though—any glorification of excellence signals a hostility toward everyone who has failed to achieve it, that genuine love for the least of these requires the denigration of excellence. The only issue with this line of thinking is its utter incoherence. The very idea of charity presupposes the goodness of that which is given and the badness of the recipient's condition.

  • 17 February 2023 False Humility

    A man who looks for excellence, it is thought, must surely be both proud and judgmental. In some circles, one gets the impression that the good news of the Gospel is that human beings will always and forever be terrible at everything they do, so we can all breathe a sigh of relief and stop trying. If some trouble-maker comes in and suggests that we can do better at this or that, such exhortation is interpreted as a case of 'human striving.'

  • 10 February 2023 Self-Acceptance

    It is no surprise that a whole self-help industry has sprung up centered around the notion that we have no real inadequacies or failures: You are perfect and beautiful just the way you are. After all, there is a large, highly-motivated, paying audience who desperately wants just this message.

  • 3 February 2023 Inclusivity

    No one likes to be left out of the club, but every club can only exist by making a distinction between those who are members and those who are not. If everyone is part of the club, then there is no club.

  • 27 January 2023 Egalitarianism

    All discussion of excellence rests on a rejection of universal unqualified egalitarianism. Excellence in any field requires a scale of better and worse, and this scale of better and worse rests on the inequality of whatever things are on that scale.

  • 20 January 2023 Individual Relativism

    Individual relativism can often come from both conflict avoidance and antipathy toward authority. We should acknowledge that both of these emotional reactions do give us some insights into the truth, but they do not give us any reason to think that excellence is not objective.

  • 13 January 2023 Cultural Relativism

    Apart from the cheap points we can score by pointing out the internal contradictions of cultural relativism, a much deeper critique can be leveled against the assumption that there is widespread cultural disagreement about core values.

  • 6 January 2023 Luxury Beliefs

    Enemies of Excellence Part 2. Luxury beliefs are those beliefs that one can only afford to hold once sufficient material and cultural wealth guarantees that the implications of those beliefs need never be faced.

2022

  • 30 December 2022 Enemies of Excellence - Intro

    Introduction to the Enemies of Excellence series of posts. What are the mindsets that hold us back from excellence or from valuing a philosophy of excellence? Where do they come from and why do they sometimes have such a visceral force behind them?

  • 16 December 2022 Receptivity to Beauty

    In order for experience to happen, there must be a certain receptivity in the soul. This receptivity requires stillness and silence, watching and waiting. We cannot hear a friend while we are talking. Nor can we hear a friend when we are are silent but only in the manner of those impatiently waiting their chance to speak. We must first undergo a basic conversion of soul.

  • 9 December 2022 Cynicism

    Why the spirit of cynicism haunts the internet and how to exorcise it.

  • 2 December 2022 In Praise of Pretension

    We should not use 'pretentious' as a sneering word. One must, after all, pretend to be something before becoming it. That's how aspiration works.

  • 18 November 2022 Horace Ode I-11

    My translation of Horace's Ode I-11, which is the origin of the famous phrase, carpe diem.

  • 11 November 2022 The Varieties of Excellence

    We can observe the profound inseparability of moral and non-moral excellence. In the sweetest times, I cannot disentangle the aesthetic from the virtuous, the contemplative from the useful, and I would not wish to do so if I could. Doing so would be like disentangling a tapestry or dissecting a living thing.

  • 4 November 2022 Survivor's Guilt

    Many in our contemporary anti-culture are tempted to think that they should not enjoy the wealth of past culture because it comes with dirty hands. The best way to help those left out in the cold when we are enjoying a family dinner, however, is not to cancel the dinner, but to invite them in.

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  • 28 October 2022 Generational Wealth

    We are born into a particular time and place and many of our parents bought into the post-war American culture of the 60s and 70s—some more than others. Many of us did not grow up learning to read Latin or play Bach because we went through childhood as the unwitting subjects of a school system more concerned with denigrating and supplanting a tradition than passing one on. This means that we must be modest in what we can hope to cultivate and leave to our own children. But there is substantial hope for progress: stone upon stone, generation upon generation.

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  • 21 October 2022 Onion and Crouton Soup

    Like a perfectly crafted onion and crouton soup, culture is a constantly refined tradition. Culture is natural to man because human nature *is to cultivate*, in all the senses of that word's root, the Latin word *colo*: to till the soil, to reap the fruits, to inhabit the same estate generation after generation, to devote oneself to the perfecting of something beautiful, to worship. Man is the cultural animal. We are *Homo Colens*.

  • 14 October 2022 In Defense of Loveliness

    The partisans of lost culture are quick to praise the big ideals: Beauty, Goodness, Nobility, Virtue. Such ideals win wars, and rightly so. But loveliness deserves its own praise.

  • 7 October 2022 I Loved You Because

    Are there any crueler words than "I loved you because"? How ominous that conjunction---how devastating that tense. The first sin of Dorian Gray turned on just these words.

  • 30 September 2022 The Unread Library

    The only thing preventing me from reading every volume in my library is my death. It may come soon, in which case the number of unread volumes will be quite large. It may come many decades from now, in which case the number will be many times larger.

  • 27 September 2022 Dust Jacket 3: Towles

    In Session 3 of the Dust Jacket podcast, Martin Cothran and I discuss Amor Towles' marvelous book *A Gentleman in Moscow*

  • 1 September 2022 Scientism and Ancient Philosophy

    Ancient philosophical approaches have an advantage over modern, reductive approaches, because the ancient approach can absorb whatever insights are true in modern mechanistic explanations, while dogmatic reductionism cannot absorb the spiritual insights of ancient thought.

  • 30 August 2022 Science and Scientism

    Scientism is not science. Scientism is a questionable philosophy that misunderstands the methodological bracketing of science.

  • 24 August 2022 Bayesian Reasoning

    Bayesian reasoning often shows us that the likelihood of something being true given our evidence is lower than we think. In this post, however, I examine what happens when we have multiple lines of converging evidence, which often turns out to raise the probability higher than we might guess.

  • 11 March 2022 Leisure

    I appear on the Classical Etc. podcast to discuss the concept of leisure.

  • 28 February 2022 Dust Jacket 2: Nagel

    In Session 2 of the Dust Jacket podcast, Martin Cothran and I discuss Thomas Nagel's *Mind and Cosmos*.

  • 17 January 2022 Dust Jacket 1: Newman

    In Session 1 of the Dust Jacket podcast, Martin Cothran and I discuss St. John Henry Newman's *Idea of the University*

2021

2020

2019

  • 10 December 2019 Religious Experience and Brain Activity

    Even if we could establish a tight connection between religious experience and activity in a certain region of the brain, this would not prove religious experience to be illusory.

  • 3 December 2019 Guilt by Association

    We should not judge philosophical ideas or practices based on a surface similarity to unchristian systems of thought. Rather we should look out for substantive corruptions to the truth.

  • 16 November 2019 Hildebrand on Sin and Sanctity

    The opposite of the self-righteous man is not the sinner but the saint. The saint can be humble in his righteousness only because he walks in a deep awareness of grace.

  • 9 October 2019 Traditionalism

    Traditionalism is best understood as an orientation toward the timeless truth rather than an attachment to old ideas simply because they are old.

  • 4 September 2019 Two Personalisms

    We must distinguish the "Christian personalist" movement from what some philosophers call "theistic personalism" in contrast to "classical theism."

  • 24 July 2019 What are the Forms?

    Following the last post on the meaning of Platonism, I here flesh out the idea of transcendent Forms as intelligible structures that keep showing up again and again in the world of our experience.

  • 27 June 2019 What I Mean by Platonism

    Platonism has come to mean different things to different scholars. When I call myself a Platonist, I mean that I believe in the Forms, that I believe in real, eternal, immaterial, intelligible structures beyond the world of sense.

  • 20 June 2019 Enjoying God

    Gloomy Christianity develops because people learn to associate enjoyment with sin. The solution is not more games in church, but rather a revelation of God's beauty.

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  • 10 June 2019 Conservatism and Ideology

    Ideologies are overly simplistic views of the world, which support themselves through slogans. While slogans may be practically indispensable in a democracy, conservatism is something more.

  • 4 June 2019 Know Thyself

    The Christian notion of self-knowledge is a long way off from New Age self-realization and not quite the same as the pagan Greek original either.

  • 30 May 2019 Eros Comes from Beauty Beheld

    I often encounter Christians who feel guilty because they seem to lack a certain fire or zeal in their pursuit of what they know to be true. I argue they can remedy this by recognizing a link between the psychology of eros and the time they spend imaginatively beholding the beauty of God.

  • 28 May 2019 Apparently Anselm is Convincing

    Teaching Anselm recently, I discovered that many of my students found the ontological argument very convincing. I think this has to do with the way older authors are presented.

2018

2017

2016

2015

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