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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Why the spirit of cynicism haunts the internet and how to exorcise it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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*.
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 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.