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.

In Defense of the Non-Moral

A part of me wishes that being good at something were the same as being good. That part views the gap between skill and virtue as a regrettable fact of life: “If only my commitment to practicing the piano—by itself—would transform me into a saint.” A larger part, however, sees the split as something delicious, an aspect of existence to be savored, a sign that reality is so overflowing with so many types of goodness that they cannot all be contained within the narrow strictures of a single value hierarchy.

A subtle genius, living and organic, animates the English language. We say, “He is good at chess,” and we say, “He is a good person.” We say, “Try to be good,” and we say, “I am not so good at math.” the simple nuance in the language, covered by just a few syllables, signals both a distinction and a deeper unity. We maintain the distinction because we know from experience that there are many people who are very adept in many things who nevertheless turn out to be scoundrels, and conversely, we know that a profound moral purity shines out from many who are extremely limited in their abilities. Nevertheless, both expressions rightly utilize the most important word in any language—the word for Goodness—and this usage is not a mere equivocation, as though “good” were a homophone.


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The Mind of a Gentleman

This essay was originally published in the Classical Teacher.

An educated gentleman should live with a confident bearing toward the world. He stands with chin up. He looks out on the variety of human life and the vastness of the cosmos with an eye that takes it all in. He may not be an expert, but he knows how to think about any of the things he sees, and more importantly, he knows how to think about them all together as a unified whole.

By contrast, the servile man sits with hunched shoulders and head down, toiling at his one assigned task. Being a slave to a particular kind of work, he will naturally become knowledgeable about that very specific subject. He knows exactly how to stack Widget A on top of Widget B, and he can tell you anything you want to know about these two specific widgets—but no more. He does not share the gentleman’s flexibility and liberality of mind, capable of approaching the whole of life with intelligence and dignity.

In his magisterial book, The Idea of a University, St. John Henry Newman argues that the goal of education in a university should be the cultivation of students away from the servile and toward the gentlemanly, “liberal” type of mind. (In Latin, liber means a “free man” as opposed to a slave, and the education appropriate for such a man is an education in the “liberal arts.”) One might define the gentleman as the free man who uses his freedom wisely by becoming a man of broad culture, taste, and learning.


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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.

My wife says that I have always been crotchety. In my defense, there is a lot to be crotchety about. People don’t seem to read anymore. The schools are going to pieces. People today seem to think exclusively in the slogans of shallow ideologies. They already know the answers, and when they are asked to reason, they simply reason backward from the answers they already know. They let their children read Captain Underpants.


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This essay concludes our series, Enemies of Excellence, after which I hope to turn to a more encouraging, positive account of what excellence is and how best to pursue it. In the last two essays, we examined Christian, or really pseudo-Christian, ideas that sometimes keep people from valuing excellence or wholeheartedly cultivating it out of a misplaced sense of piety. In this essay, I will briefly examine three distinct kinds of asceticism that are frequently confused. Confusing the kinds confuses the motives, and hence confuses our understanding of what it means to be motivated by excellence. The kinds of asceticism are: (1) abstaining from something that is intrinsically evil, (2) cutting back on something that is good in itself but harmful in excess, and (3) sacrificing something that is intrinsically good for the sake of a higher good.


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. How can someone genuinely love the “least of these,” it is suggested, while striving to become a better businessman and admiring the greats in his field? Flipping this around leads one to the conclusion that a love for the humble and the downtrodden must necessarily involve the denigration of excellence. Charity means anti-elitism, and conversely anyone who achieves an elite status in some field necessarily lacks charity for those beneath. How else could they have climbed the ladder of success besides stepping on the unfortunates below? At its worst, this yields a kind of Christian Marxism that sees the world divided between the haves and the have-nots, the former the villains, the latter the heroes of the gospel story.

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. Suppose, for example, that someone genuinely believes wealth to be a bad thing. Would such a person be kind to the poor when he sells everything that he has and gives away the proceeds? No. Since he believes wealth to be an evil, he is simply loving himself at their expense, getting the poison out of his own system by injecting it into theirs.


False Humility

In the next few posts, we will wrap up our current series by turning our attention to a collection of ideas that oppose themselves to the pursuit of excellence in the name of Christianity. The common thread of these last ideas is that they share an antipathy toward any kind of elite and they support this antipathy with a (spurious) appeal to the Christian gospel. At its worst, this antipathy tragically gives some justification to Nietzsche’s accusation that Christianity is nothing more than a “slave morality.” One hears frequently in sermons, for instance, that the Pharisees were the “religious elite” of Jesus’s day, and hence Jesus’s opposition to the Pharisees is interpreted as a general opposition to any kind of religious excellence, church hierarchy, or moral authority. We will break this antipathy down, however, into three more basic categories: (i) the appeal to humility as a reason to ignore or oppose the pursuit of excellence, (ii) the appeal to our love for the “least of these” as a reason to level all distinctions between the lowly and the great, and (iii) the appeal to various practices of asceticism as a way to invalidate other forms of excellence.

We begin with 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.” In such circles, the main point of most sermons seems to be that we all think we are pretty hot stuff and God’s primary purpose is to take us down a few pegs.



Some of the strongest negative emotions are those we feel when we are faced with our own inadequacy and failure. We cope with these feelings in a variety of ways from simple distraction to elaborate self-deluding lies. It is no surprise, then, 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.

The ability to truly believe this message, however, faces one major obstacle: the mere existence of actual excellence. As long as I’m listening to the audio book telling me to breath deeply and accept myself, I can hold back the feelings of failure. When I meet—or even learn about—a much better person, however, I am confronted by the fact that he has succeeded where I have failed. The reality of his success has a solidity that my self-talk does not, and I lapse back into the negative feelings that I am trying so hard to keep at bay. The mere existence of the excellent man, therefore, is a threat to the whole project of self-acceptance.



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. As soon as a school sets real standards of academic achievement and behavior, it necessarily puts expulsion on the table. Whenever a basketball team strives to win a tournament, the coach must make decisions about who plays and who sits on the bench. It can feel sad when we do not make the cut, but the possibility that somebody does not make the cut is a precondition for there being a team in the first place.

This principle operates at a deeper level than clubs, schools, and teams. Every time we begin to make distinctions between better and worse, we inevitably draw a circle around the excellent exemplars in that field. We put the greats in that circle, and by necessity, this means that others are out. It can be painful to recognize that—try as we might—we may never break into the circle. A professional pianist, for example, may happily find himself in a group of musicians invited to a particular music festival, but he may also be painfully conscious that he will never be counted among the true greats of his art. When we find ourselves on the outside, it may become tempting to resent the very existence of the circle and hence come to resent the standards of excellence that create it.



No slogan is more ingrained in the specifically American political psyche than the line from the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal.” This is axiomatic for many, and I have often met with people who are utterly flabbergasted when I suggest that such a claim needs to be heavily qualified. They simply take for granted that everyone believes in universal human equality, and meeting someone who might challenge that idea is shocking. Seconds later, they frequently shift from shock to suspicion: I must be a truly evil person, the kind of over-acted authoritarian psychopath they see in the movies.

As we will see again and again in this series of posts, 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. We will discuss in depth the many epistemological and ontological questions that simple statement raises. For now, it will suffice to say that any understanding of excellence requires the capacity to mark differences in quality, and this capacity is incompatible with a blind axiomatic faith in human equality.


Individual Relativism

Once we discuss cultural relativism in my ethics classes, some students become more comfortable voicing their real convictions. At this point, a slightly different anti-excellence attitude rears its head. Someone will raise her hand and say, “Can’t we just agree to disagree? Brian has his truth, and Alex has his truth. Brian can live how he wants and Alex can live how he wants.” There is certainly a value in tolerating disagreement and allowing others to live in different ways, just as there is value in acknowledging that the same practices do not always work for different people in different circumstances. Nevertheless, behind the words, one detects a palpable negative emotion: the outright fear that Alex and Brian might start a public disagreement right here in class. This pathos, I believe, is one of the chief driving forces in the acceptance of individual relativism aside from any philosophical considerations that are put forward. Such students have perhaps experienced family members falling into ugly, animated discussions over politics, morality, or religion. It ruins the evening. They have learned, therefore, to deflect any substantive disagreement with a quick verbal maneuver appealing to “your truth, my truth.” Hence, in one corner of contemporary life, we see a whole subculture devoted to “acceptance,” “hugs,” and soft pastel colors while rejecting any “negative energy” that might disrupt that warm cocoon. Ironically, the virulence of this rejection itself frequently takes on distinctly negative “vibes.”