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Five English modernist Catholics poets

May 16, 2016

Charles Williams (1886-1945). Anglican. Eliot admired his novels, and wrote an introduction to one of them. Tolkien knew him through C.S. Lewis, but disliked him, and thought his writing too modern. Jones wrote approvingly of his Arthuriana, but thought his writing not modern enough. Auden adored his theological writings, every year reading again his The Descent of the Dove.

Thomas Sterns Eliot (1888-1965). Anglican (and really American, not English, but he pretended it were otherwise). Tolkien despised what was called modernist poetry, including, presumably, that of Eliot. He edited Jones and Auden at Faber & Faber. Jones liked him and made “the waste land” a key term in his own thinking, though he thought Eliot ultimately too subjective. Auden liked but distrusted him, and said his books should be kept on a high shelf away from young poets.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973). Roman Catholic. Taught Auden at Oxford about Anglo-Saxon poetry; Auden later defended The Lord of the Rings against “highbrow” critics. Jones read and recommended Tolkien’s philological essays.

David Jones (1895-1974). Roman Catholic. Auden called Jones’ The Anathemata a masterpiece; Jones said that Auden better say so, he borrowed enough from it.

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973). Anglican.


Most of these poets met each other at least once. I’m not sure about Tolkien-Eliot, Jones-Williams, or Jones-Tolkien; there may be anecdotes of which I’m unaware. The younger writers on this list usually had opinions about their elders’ work; less often, the elders had opinions about them. Again, I haven’t read all their papers so there may be opinions expressed which I haven’t taken into account.

None of these writers, however, were close friends, and to my knowledge no three of them were ever in the same room at the same time. They do not form a coterie, only a nexus of people who I think can fairly be called at the same time English, modernist, Catholic, and poet. This is the nexus in which I happen to be particularly interested. Of course there’s little point in drawing these sorts of boundaries too precisely, and it was a more or less arbitrary decision to exclude from this list people like Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), and Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966).

The chain of being and the net of language

May 5, 2016

[Just in time for the feast of the Ascension, some Iris-Murdoch-inspired thoughts about the idea that God is “above us.” Consider this a review, of sorts, of Existentialists and Mystics.]

Evil does not exist. No thing is evil, anyway; only human choices can be evil. A choice is evil not when the thing chosen is evil, but when the choice itself is disordered. These are theological commonplaces.

Disordered means wrongly ordered, suggesting that a disordered choice is one which chooses a lesser good over a greater one. To have greater and lesser goods requires a hierarchy. Enter, in traditional theology, the great chain of being: rocks, trees, dogs, at the bottom, God and his angels on top, human beings in the middle. To choose wrongly means to direct one’s will towards the bottom of the chain rather than the top. This picture has, however, two problems. First, it makes God the top link in the chain, but God is not a thing among other things; he exists prior to the order of things. Second, it does what it was meant to avoid, confusing actions with objects. No one ever faces a choice between thing A and thing B; you face a choice between doing A and doing B. Actions, too, may exist in a hierarchy, but the hierarchy is not obvious, since the set of actions open to you is determined by your particular circumstances.

So choosing wrongly is not so much like going to a buffet and picking dirt instead of God. It’s more like going to a salad bar and taking iceberg lettuce instead of spinach. One isn’t higher on the hierarchy than the other (both are vegetables). One is healthier, but you can’t know which off the top of your head. Choosing properly requires proper knowledge. And I can only have the knowledge in the proper way if I care about being healthy (since it’s not enough to know “spinach is healthy for me,” I have to know “I should eat spinach to be healthy”). If I have this knowledge, I’ll choose the spinach without effort; if I lack this knowledge, the spinach won’t appeal to me at all. Nothing particularly important happens in the “moment of choice.”

The knowledge necessary for health seems at times hierarchical: do A, don’t do B. But it’s not just an ordered list of preferences, A>B>…>Z. It’s a set of interrelations: if I do A, doing B also becomes important; if I don’t do A, B doesn’t matter but C becomes crucial; if I A and B then I better not D but if I only B then D is fine…. This is less a chain of things than a net of words, each word connecting to many others. There’s no “top” or “bottom,” but mixing up the order is still a danger—nets can get knotted as easily as chains. Even worse than knots, though, are holes, blind spots, places where we ought to recognize a connection between two concepts but we just don’t.

A hierarchy of sorts reenters here. The chain of being takes the order it does because the lower rungs are thought to be metaphysically less notable: humans have rational souls, animals have only sensation and locomotion, plants have only the vegetative soul, and minerals have no soul at all. A net of language which captured only bare matter, and could understand nothing of soul, wouldn’t do a very good job at decision-making. The choices themselves wouldn’t necessarily all be evil; a stopped clock is right twice a day, and a materialist can do good deeds even more often.  But they would have no tendency towards good. More important than individual choices, is paying attention to things, and finding the proper language for describing them.

The same problem, though, afflicts that chain-like net which captures only the bare hierarchy. Breadth is needed as well as height. The word “good” is not sufficient for our moral reasoning; we require a whole host of moral concepts, of evaluative words more nuanced than +/-, like courageous, temperate, just, magnanimous…. Metaphysical conceptions matter morally only insofar as they expand or limit, clarify or distort, our list of such terms. It basically never matters for our moral reasoning that angels are “above” us on the great chain of being.  It does matter for our moral reasoning what words were used by Christ, who is human, and so in the middle of the great chain of being, and also God, and so an ideal moral reasoner.

What is Caesar’s?

April 25, 2016

[A year ago, also around tax time (a coincidence, I promise), I tried to think about rendering unto Caesar and a few months later wound up talking about equivocation as a response to the threat of force. Now I find my thoughts returning to the render-to-Caesar scene…]

When Jesus tells us to pay the Roman tax with Roman coinage, how does this differ from complacently admonishing the will-be-martyr to just burn the damn incense already? I suggested in a previous post the skeleton of an answer: actions do not just have consequences, they also bear significance. While paying the tax may have worse results than burning the incense, speaking consequentially, it means something acceptable, whereas the incense-burning means damnation. Fine—but what does tax-paying mean?

Before answering the Pharisees, Jesus found it relevant to ask this question: “Whose image and inscription is this?” And, of course, Caesar’s face and name are stamped onto the coin. But so what? The stamp’s function is closer to the treasury secretary’s signature on a dollar bill than to George Washington’s face. It does not brand the coin as the property of Caesar, rather it puts Caesar’s authority behind a guarantee of the coin’s purity and weight, which physical properties themselves, so it was thought, determined its value. Moving from here to “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” seems a bizarre non-sequitur, as if Jesus thought that avowing that A is P makes one the owner of A, rather than just the owner of the statement. Were that true, of course, I could never bring a piece of jewelry in to be appraised without thereby transfering ownership to the appraiser. In fact it is the appraiser who owes me a fair estimate.

But perhaps it is not too far-fetched to say that Jesus was not naive about money, and understood that even gold coinage derives its value, not from the physical properties of the gold, but from the network of trust built up around its image and inscription. The stamp on a coin is not just a statement of its purity and weight, it is a promise to treat the coin as bearing a certain value, which promise itself confers value. It makes sense to say that such a promise is one of “the things that are Caesar’s.” It seems significant, at this point, that Jesus says to pay the tax in coinage, not in kind. One needn’t be a Sovereign Citizen to believe that money is the government’s property in a way other things aren’t. Currency is a bit like the king’s highway: all of us are able to use it only because the ruler owns it.


That the things are Caesar’s, then, isn’t so hard to understand; it remains difficult, though, to see why we have to render them back to him. One account would look something like this. The stamp signifies not just a promise, but also the terms of that promise, and if I don’t fulfill those terms, I can cling to the worthless lump of gold, but the money it represents is no longer mine. The main obligation, of course, is to pay taxes.

Now, the scrupulous Christian will still object that, since to pay taxes is to state one’s support for one’s government’s actions, and since some of government’s actions are intrinsically evil, we cannot willingly pay taxes because to do so is to support intrinsic evil. True! I cannot intend to pay my taxes. But if I’m not willing to support those actions, and so not willing to pay taxes, then I have no right to the currency I hold. Having no right to it, I am obliged to return it to the government—and once I return the amount of tax assessed, I regain the right to the remainder. So I cannot intend to pay my taxes, but I can still pay them. If that sounds casuistic, consider a more concrete situation. A friend loaned me his lawnmower, on the understanding that I would mow his lawn as well. I refused to mow his lawn, and so was obliged to return the mower to him. But in the process of returning it, I accidentally mowed his lawn after all, and so fulfilled my part of the bargain, and so can keep the lawnmower, without, however, having at any point intended to mow his lawn. If this is right, then I can pay my taxes without saying anything damnable.

The real problem, I think, is that this analysis would only apply to the paying of taxes, not to the having of money in the first place. If the promise of the stamp comes with implied terms, then bearing currency implies acceptance of those terms. Accepting a coin now seems to resemble Jephte’s vow (“Whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord”): if I cannot in good conscience fulfill the terms, then how can I in good conscience contract to fulfill them?


Instead of thinking the coin a shackle we wear, perhaps we can see it as binding Caesar. Money comes with no terms of service; there is no obligation to pay taxes, and Caesar’s request that we do so is nothing more than a request, in the form of a threat, for us to forgive a promise he made us. Perhaps in such a world we never would pay taxes—but perhaps, instead, the moral calculus transforms utterly. Taxpaying becomes an act of mercy, like pulling aside on the highway to make way for the president’s motorcade can be an act, not of deference, but of generosity. We do it, not because we fear punishment, but because we want to allow the government at least some limited amount of agency. We pull over because, though the highway is for us, it is the state’s, and we pay taxes because we should see Caesar’s promise, not as as a magic spell guaranteeing the coin’s value, but as something Caesar has said, and might wish he could unsay.

But, we are warned, Caesar will use that agency for evil. Well, yes but after all the criminal who serves his time is also quite likely to do evil with his newfound freedom. When we consider paying taxes the question before us is not “Ought I to act as Caesar does?”, but rather “Are Caesar’s actions so horrendous that we must prevent him from acting at all?” Well, the answer may still in the end be “Yes,” about which circumstance Thomas Jefferson had some things to say. But until it is, grant Caesar the agency that is Caesar’s. In the end, this is just an application of the doctrine of argumentative pacifism: respond to the illocutionary force of each speech act, even if the perlocutionary force contradicts it.

Freedom is not choosing

April 16, 2016

From Iris Murdoch, “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited”:

Virtue is not essentially or immediately concerned with choosing between actions or rules or reasons, nor with stripping the personality for a leap. It is concerned with really apprehending that other people exist. this too is what freedom really is; and it is impossible not to feel the creation of a work of art as a struggle for freedom. Freedom is not choosing; that is merely the move that we make when all is already lost. Freedom is knowing and understanding and respecting things quite other than ourselves. Virtue is in this sense to be understood as knowledge, and connects us so with reality.

There’s something quite powerful in Murdoch’s liberal Platonism. I appreciate both her insistence that, although ethical reflection can cause our form of life to change, our form of life is nevertheless not a matter of choice; and her insistence that forms of life are not autonomous, and insofar as they fail to be autonomous, they can be judged to be better or worse.

Aesthetically, Murdoch resembles both the later Auden, in insisting that art must undermine its own attempts at enchantment. It would take some effort to demonstrate, but I suspect that The Sea, The Sea! owes something to The Sea and the Mirror. They both also resemble Bakhtin, in finding modernist poetry particularly susceptible to the entrapment of self-in-self, and thinking the 19th-century novel the form best suited for escaping it. I find these sorts of claims compelling, but also suspicious.

Further the flight in me

March 27, 2016

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:
With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne
And still with sicknesses and shame.
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thinne.
With thee
Let me combine,
And feel thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

George Herbert, “Easter Wings.”

Let them speak cake

March 17, 2016

David Jones, in his 1955 essay “Art and Sacrament,” on whether cakes are speech:

If the cook should say: ‘This is for Susan’s birthday—don’t you think it a work of art?’ you may or may not agree with the cook’s notion of beauty but you would not be able to deny the ‘art’. For leaving aside the art of cooking and the supererogatory art of icing, in so far as the cake is ‘made for Susan’s birthday’ it is ‘made over’ in some sense. By every possible test it belongs to Ars. It belongs to Ars, or rather it was pre-ordained to Ars, from the first movement of the cook’s mind to make something that should be significant of Susan’s birth. We might almost say it belonged to art ante omnia saecula, though perhaps that is going a bit far and we don’t want to be a sitting bird for the guns of unsporting metaphysicians. But certainly all the conditions, determining what is art from what it is not, are more than fulfilled. There is making, there is added making, there is explicit sign, there is a showing forth, a re-presenting, a recalling and there is gratuitousness and there is full intention to make this making this. Moreover this particular making signifies a birth. It recalls a past event and looks back at some anniversaries and looks forward to future anniversaries, it is essentially celebrative and festive: it would be gay. For as Poussin said of another art: ‘The goal of painting is delight.’ And this is universally true of all art no matter how difficult it is to posit the delight. But this mkaing, though joyful and celebrative of a birthday, recalls also, by implication, a day, or many days, of at least some degree of acute pain, perhaps of great anguish, and, perhaps, even of death. So that this making covers, in a rudimentary way, or contains in embryo, all that is shown forth in the greatest imaginable art-works. I mean no art can compass more than that attempted in the line of the Sequence for Easter Day: Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando.

It was pure good fortune that we stumbled on this example in the kitchen, for indeed we might have searched further and fared far worse. For probably there are not many arts that would so simply and conclusively show forth to us the nature and function of Ars.


March 9, 2016

The etymology of “hypocrisy” is somewhat strange. As the OED tells it, it traces back to the Greek ὑπό (hypo-, “under”) + κρίνειν (krinein, “to decide, determine, judge”). In a first step which I don’t quite understand, the combination ὑποκρίνεσθαι, which would seem to mean “under”+”determined,” came to mean “to answer.” Then, in another odd but by no means unprecedented development (cf. the dual meanings of “to act” and “to perform”), it became “to play a part on a stage.” Now, for us, hypocrisy means to play a part when not on a stage.


Hypocrisy, like irony, is one of those terms whose meaning we can’t seem to keep straight. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both concepts derive from Greek tragedy.) It can’t just be saying one thing and doing another: that’s not hypocrisy, it’s akrasia, a failure to follow through on our best intentions. But it’s too broad to define it as saying one thing and thinking another: that’s lying, of which hypocrisy is a specific kind.

The topic is confusing because saying is both a bit like thinking, and a bit like doing: it’s a kind of doing the whole point of which is to show other people something about what we’re thinking. The thing to remember is that saying sometimes fails to actually link up with thinking (we don’t always say what we think), and (so) sometimes fails also to link up with doing (other people aren’t always convinced that we think what we say). We can only make sure our saying does anything, by doing other things as well; when our doing is consistent with our saying, it suggests that both are consistent with our thinking. When our doing and saying fail to be consistent, two explanations present themselves: either we suffer from akrasia, or we are perpetrators of hypocrisy.


To see the difference, imagine someone who volunteers for military service. By doing so, he gives the appearance of the virtue of courage, that is, valuing the city’s survival over his own life, but all he’s done, so far, is say something. Now suppose that when he’s actually called on to go into battle, he flees. What he said was undermined by what he later did.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus and the Sphinx

We can, at this point, point out to him how his deeds undermined his words. If he merely suffers from akrasia, then this will shame him, and his desire to avoid shame will lead him to do what he said after all, and eventually he will actually acquire the virtue of courage of which he deeds gave the appearance. This is, basically, how Aristotelian moral education works.

If, on the other hand, he refuses to be shamed into doing what he said he would, then we consider him to be a hypocrite, that is, someone who desires to look virtuous but has no desire whatsoever actually to be virtuous. Hypocrisy interferes with the process of moral education: the student has no desire to be taught, but he wants to trick his teachers into believing that he has learned.


But there’s something strange here: didn’t I just say moral education comes about through shame? And doesn’t shame result, not from acting poorly, but from being thought to have acted poorly? So doesn’t that make every student of virtue a hypocrite?

No. Take the soldier who fled battle out of akrasia. His volunteering wasn’t hypocritical, because he did not volunteer while saying to himself, “I don’t want actually to be courageous.” But neither did he volunteer while actually thinking courageously. He had no real understanding of what courage was; he did not know how to apply the concept in conditions different from those in which he found himself before volunteering, namely, conditions in which there was no way to tell the difference between saying courageous things and actually being courageous.

I suspect that this knowledge has to be first-personal, in which case the story would go like this. First, shame makes us desire to be thought like other people who seem virtuous, which we think will makes us virtuous. Then, we suffer from akrasia, and fail to act virtuously. Then we realize that there is a difference between being thought virtuous, even by ourselves, and actually thinking virtuously. Then, we transfer our desire for the former to a desire for the latter, and try to be virtuous even when no one is watching. (We can still suffer from akrasia at this point, but each episode of akrasia will reveal that we do not yet fully understand the virtue we wish to possess.) Or, we refuse to make that transfer, and hypocritically desire to be thought virtuous while disclaiming any desire for actual virtue.

In sum, our virtue shouldn’t be only an act, but still, we can only learn virtue by acting virtuously.


Can anyone ever really be a hypocrite? There’s reason to think that the answer is no.

The Calling of Saint Matthew-Caravaggio (1599-1600).jpg

Caravaggio (1599-1600), The Calling of Saint Matthew

When we accuse someone of hypocrisy, we are saying that he has refused to desire virtue. But the point of making such an accusation is to shame the target of the accusation into ceasing his hypocrisy. This only makes sense if hypocrisy is not, in fact, a final refusal to desire virtue, but only a particularly intrenched form of akrasia, that is, a forgetting of what virtue requires in a particular situation. In which case, though the person has engaged in hypocrisy, he is not a hypocrite, if that phrase is taken to mean that he is a hypocrite essentially, irrevocably, or intentionally.

And this makes sense. Rarely does the perpetrator of even the most brazen hypocrisy think to himself, “I am a hypocrite.” Rather, he thinks of himself as virtuous “in the ways that matter.” Only, he thinks that other people do not understand in what virtue really consists. He actually cares very little about public opinion; he cares only for the consequences it can bring. This makes it impossible to shame him into virtue through the normal terms of censure (e.g. “coward”). It’s this impossibility that makes the use of the term “hypocrisy” necessary. It’s meant to remind him that there is no such thing as a private definition of virtue: we come to understand virtue, not through isolated cogitation, but through recognizing virtue in other people, and desiring to be like them.


What about someone who applies the name hypocrite to himself (though not, of course, out loud)—and applies it, not in self-censure, but in self-approbation? For example, Julian Sorel, antihero of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, who early in life takes “a vow of hypocrisy.”

Well, he cannot do so sincerely. For him to call himself a hypocrite in self-approbation, he has to think hypocrisy a virtue. But then he has to desire, not actually to be a hypocrite, but only to be thought a hypocrite by everyone whose opinion matters. The only opinion that matters to him is, of course, be his own, since only he shares his positive valuation of hypocrisy. So even the self-proclaimed hypocrite is not truly a hypocrite, because his proclamation is itself hypocritical. Even when we try, we cannot refuse to desire virtue, we can only avoid our desire for virtue.

But the self-proclaimed hypocrite differs from the perpetrator of everyday hypocrisy in that not even an accusation of “hypocrite” can rouse him from his akrasia. If the akratic is like someone whose beliefs entail a contradiction, and the hypocrite is like someone who affirms a contradiction, then the self-proclaimed hypocrite is like someone who denies the law of non-contradiction. He cannot really deny it—his denial demonstrates that he does not understand it—but he is still impossible to reason with.

An optimistic reading of The Red and the Black has Julian snapped out of his hyper-hypocrisy by his realization that he is about to die. (A pessimistic one leaves him a hypocrite till the end.) Whether or not it’s what happens in the novel, the optimistic reading offers a reasonable account of how hyper-hypocrisy might come undone. If the hyper-hypocrite really desires, not to be a hypocrite, but to be thought hypocritical (by himself), then he will abandon his hypocrisy if (and only if?) he realizes that this desire will inevitably be defeated by death: after he dies he will no longer think anything, he will only be whatever he turns out to be.


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