Notebook

If you would like to browse past essays from the Notebook, you can see the big chronological list in the Archive or you can browse through the list of Tags. In this notebook you can read my attempts to work out my ideas in a public space before they make it into the longer and more polished Essays. If you are interested in receiving such writing along with my favorite art of the week straight to your inbox, you can join our cultural cadre by subsribing to the Newsletter.

Horace Ode I-11

This is my translation of Horace’s Ode I.11, which is the origin of the famous phrase “carpe diem.” I’ve been working on polishing this on and off for a while now, trying to convey not only the meaning but also the emotional tenor in English. Original Latin below.

Don’t seek to know what is a sin to know:
What end the Gods will give to you, to me, Leuconoe.
Nor try the Babylonian numbers either. But suffer whatever will be.
Whether Jupiter give many winters or one last,
as the Tyrrhenian sea breaks on the rocks.
Be wise, prepare the wine, and since time is short,
long hopes cut back. While we talk, envious age flees.
Take today, and trust what comes after as little as you can.

Tū nē quaesierīs, scīre nefās, quem mihi, quem tibī
fīnem dī dederint, Leuconoē, nec Babylōniōs
temptāris numerōs. Ut melius quidquid erit patī,
seu plūrīs hiemēs seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositīs dēbilitat pūmicibus mare
Tyrrhēnum: sapiās, vīna liquēs, et spatiō brevī
spem longam resecēs. Dum loquimur, fūgerit invida
aetās: carpe diem, quam minimum crēdula posterō.

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The Varieties of Excellence

I have twice eaten a dinner of quail. On the first occasion, I walked with my beloved past Victorian houses and early autumn leaves to sit with her over china plates and little white flowers. The room was entirely devoid of screens. The dark green they had chosen for the walls and the rich paisley fabric of the cushions combined to form a sense of cozy luxury. An ever-so-suave musician, clearly enjoying himself, played classic jazz, not too loud, at the piano. My quail was served, three birds in all, in a savory brown sauce over grits. My wife had lamb, and her eyes looked to me in the dim light like deep lapis in a setting of ivory. We drank wine, we laughed, we looked at each other, and we loved.

On the second occasion, we brought my parents to the same restaurant for my father’s birthday. Ours was the first party to arrive as soon as the door was unlocked. For some time, we had the dining room to ourselves as we ordered our drinks and joked with the waiter. Sunlight came through a tall window in abundance, as it had not done that other time, giving the room an entirely different cast: light, playful, elegant. The piano was silent, but the quail was just as good. We relished that fragile preciousness which is a loving family, mothers and fathers, wives and husbands—a preciousness which is the foundation of so much human happiness and the loss of which is the cause of so much human misery.

On these two occasions I observed the profound inseparability of moral and non-moral excellence. In the sweetness of those times, I could not 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.

I speak of excellence instead of goodness, not because I conceive of these as denoting different spheres, but because I suspect that “goodness” carries to one’s ear a greater suggestion of specifically moral goodness, while “excellence” more easily suggests just how far extended is the empire of the Good.

In preparing my quail, the chef achieved a rare excellence in his craft. To do so he needed to combine the traits of care and attention, the discipline of holding oneself to a high standard, the discerning judgment of experience and good taste. From these excellent qualities of his own soul he brought into the world for less than half an hour an independent being possessing it’s own objective excellence: a harmony of arrangement, a harmony of flavors, and there for one vanishing moment, a perfect harmony of heat. To decorate the room like that, someone understood the fundamental principles of color theory and the moral abhorrence of grossly enlarged two-dimensional heads silently attempting to sell one garish objects from every corner of the room over dinner. To look at me as she did, my beloved must have known the mystery of loving—in spite of everything—a flawed, fumbling, and often downright sinful human being. All of these are forms of excellence to be cherished, extolled, and carefully cultivated wherever possible, provided that this cultivation does not require the sacrifice of something better.

All this stands in contrast to those “sophisters, economists, and calculators” who are ever trying to reduce all forms of excellence to their one favored idol. Such men create whole systems to feed the variegated grandeur of human life into their devouring god, whether it be pleasure, practicality, or power. I laugh at most attempts to recreate the human soul in the form of a microchip, but perhaps in the case of such men, robotic artificial “intelligence” will be possible after all.

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Survivor's Guilt

I suspect there are two main reasons why many today do not aspire to the life of long culture. First, we have come to worship the ideal of authenticity, which means doing one’s own thing. One must move to New York City and start from scratch. One must find oneself. One must be original—just like everyone else. A certain amount of independence and self-knowledge is, of course, a requisite part of a complete human life. But I begin to worry when I see friends feel the need to move and start from scratch every five years. If we have not already found it, we will never discover our real self—unconstrained by parents, hometown, responsibilities, or spouse—after the third career or the second divorce. Mostly, that dream of the real self is just the product of marketing.

The second reason is deeper and has more moral force. We are increasingly aware today of the many sins of our forefathers. How many of all those innumerable prior soups before I make this onion and crouton soup were made by oppressed peasants for their haughty overlords? Might this not dirty my hands? More directly, we worry that our whole inheritance, both intellectual and material, was only gained through systems of injustice. Might it not be better to burn the whole house down in hopes of beginning again with a clean conscience? Our very sensitivity to such moral qualms, however, is part of the inheritance laboriously gained through centuries of moral reflection. The Assyrians were not so nice. Burning the house down might offer a momentary sense of catharsis, but it might also bring us right back to the level of the Assyrians. What is more, keeping our hands clean from anything tainted by a past of injustice might make us feel pious, but it really does nothing to help anyone in the present still suffering from injustice.

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Generational Wealth

I heard a story from a friend who visited a winery in Croatia. It was small and family owned. Nobody knew how long a vineyard had occupied this patch of land ideally sloping down to the Adriatic, but one suspects that grapes have grown there in one way or another since before the Romans came. Nobody knew, likewise, how long the vineyard had been in the family since the genealogy has grown so long that the whole story can no longer be told. Such a family always has little projects going on to improve what they love. “Grandfather built that wall over there and now we are extending it to surround the new storage building.” Such family wealth is not the wealth of coins but the substantial wealth that allows a father to pass on a whole way of life. Not every generation, however, gains ground. My friend told me that the family brought out a bottle for her to try. They could not sell it, they said, because it was ruined. Its flavor was all ashes and smoke. Years ago, the whole region had been devastated by wildfires, and an entire year’s harvest had turned bitter along with the loss of buildings and equipment. “We keep it,” they said, “To remember what we have been through.”

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Onion and Crouton Soup

I would like to see fewer biographies of great individuals and more biographies of great families or villages. We tend to overrate the singular man of original genius, while ignoring the slow accumulation of culture built up layer upon layer, century upon century, that makes the individual man of genius possible in the first place. Only so much culture can be gained in a single generation. If I may steal a metaphor from Joseph Epstein’s essay, “The Ideal of Culture,” who steals in turn from Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, culture is like the onion and crouton soup served to Bishop Latour by his friend, Father Vaillant. Only a Frenchman could make such a soup, which leads Latour to say,

I am not deprecating your talent, Joseph, but, when one thinks of it, a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.

A constantly refined tradition—some provincial subject of Rome learned from her mother a way of making a certain kind of bread. Perhaps she found a way to make it just a little better by changing the kneading process slightly. Twelve generations later, a baker from the next village finds that the dried-out leftovers from this type of bread make nice croutons. Someone else in the north of France, during the reign of Philip IV, seasons such croutons from a stock pot left simmering with marrow-rich bones. And on and on, just to get the crouton piece of the onion and crouton soup.

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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. The little ideals are worthy of some response if not war and death, and when neglected they have a way of making their spurned honor felt in the realm of the big ideals eventually. The modern world hurts for lack of it, although the world as a whole—the real world—is just as full to the brim of loveliness as it has ever been. We have forgotten, however, how to look for it, and I suspect that we have forgotten this pleasant art because somehow we forgot how to sing its proper praise.

Loveliness is something more specific and lower in the hierarchy than beauty, but it is also something more important and more objective than the merely pretty. Loveliness is that gratuitous light that falls upon a situation, a person, or even a common object adding to it a more than common luster. The opposite of the lovely is the drab, the aggressively banal. Loveliness is not shocking or awe inspiring; it does not rise to the level of the glorious. But it can give us pause if we slow down enough to see it and give it its due. The lovely is not useful; it is not efficient. Being gratuitous it is useless on purpose. Being without a market price it is precious.

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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. Before the fatal scene, Dorian had fallen rashly in love with the beautiful actress Sibyl Vane. Among the tawdry vulgarities of the two-penny theater where she played, Sibyl was a goddess. Night after night, Dorian would go to see her perform with talent and refinement, and he worshiped her for it. He would go backstage; he would praise her charm and her artistry; he would declare his love and propose marriage. Sibyl, for her part, ignored the counsel of her mother and fell for the flatteries of this rich, good-looking gentleman, whose full name she did not even know.

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The Unread Library

The only thing preventing me from reading every volume in my library is my death. If it comes soon, the number of unread volumes will be quite large. If it comes many decades from now, the number will be many times larger.

I fear you will think this situation arises because I never read, but I assure you that I do little else. Only illiterate people read all their books.

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Dust Jacket 3: Towles

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Scientism and Ancient Philosophy

In the last post, I drew a distinction between science (the methodology) and scientism (the worldview). This distinction helps us to see that the real battle-line is drawn between ancient philosophies and scientism, rather than between pre-modern and modern methods of science. Much of my writing is devoted to pre-modern philosophies and spiritualities because I find these pre-modern viewpoints rich with meaning even when I disagree with some of their conclusions. By contrast, I find scientistic accounts evacuated of meaning even when they are more correct in the precise details of physical reality.

In this post, I want to explore an important asymmetry between their two points of view: the pre-modern viewpoint can usually absorb the physical insights of science, while scientism cannot absorb the spiritual insights of pre-modern philosophy. This follows from the basic assumptions of the two viewpoints. (Most) pre-modern philosophies fully admit the material, mechanical layer of reality, but also admit a further dimension, a “something more” that we can broadly call the “spiritual” dimension so as to capture what is common between Plato, Aristotle, early Christianity, and even Stoicism for all its ostensible materialism. By contrast, the scientistic viewpoint takes its starting point from an only—it only admits the physical layer of reality and in principle rejects whatever layer of reality would possibly include fairies, ghosts, and God.

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