Latin Lessons III

Some more simple sentences from my Latin reader, with my translations.

Nihil sine magno labore vita mortalibus dat. — Horace

“Life gives nothing to mortals without great labor.”

***

Boni propter amorem virtutis peccare oderunt. — Horace

“Good men due to their love of virtue hate to sin.”

***

Populus stultus viris indignis honores saepe dat — Horace

“A stupid people often gives honors to undeserving men.”

***

Otium sine litteris mors es. — Seneca

“Leisure without literature is death.”

***

Eximia forma virginis oculos hominum convertit. — Livy

“The extraordinary beauty of the maiden turned round the eyes of the man.”

(charming amateur painting of Lúthien in the woods by Carina Beringuilho)

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The New Epicureans

Chesterton famously said, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes in anything.”

[Actually Chesterton did not say this, but it’s a real zinger of a line anyway. And it sure sounds like Chesterton. The American Chesterton Society has a fascinating letter explaining the origin of this quote at First Things. This must be a very powerful nut, because in the course of looking up the quote to make sure I had it right, I noticed several impassioned responses from atheists, a sure indicator that it hit home.]

Yesterday I noted the religious iconography of our society, hardly an original observation, but I’m studiously trying to avoid any hint of originality on this blog.

Emptied of a belief in a literal God people feel vacant, and yet feel the same old need to express the spiritual yearning they will always feel aching away inside them, so they invest all kinds of strange things with spiritual meaning. Thus, the cults of our day. MLK is an example of a near-universal cult, at least in the United States.

Another pseudo-religion now is the new Epicureanism. All over the cities of the western world now there are chefs, bartenders, and other “culinary professionals” who are passionate about, and devoted to, and mad for food and drink. These are the words they use themselves.

Any visit to one of these bars or restaurants is accompanied by a lecture from the waiter, from the chef, from the bartender, from the menu, etc. The lecture explains all the ingredients, explains the provenance of the recipe, and more importantly, is meant to convey the vaguely holy status of the one who has shown so much “passion and dedication” in creating your [espresso/cocktail/meal/etc].

This needn’t really be a problem. One can simply decline to take part in this world. It’s easy enough to avoid all this by eating simple meals with friends. I simply have regular exposure to it as part of the current circumstances of my life.

And I don’t mean to complain about quality food per se. To the degree that people actually pay attention to their food and what’s going into their bodies, it’s surely an improvement over McDonald’s or what-have-you.

I should also say that I have met people who love food, cooking, and specialty beverages (fine wine, fine coffee) who seem to operate with genuine joy and childish enthusiasm. They eat and cook with gusto, and they are a pleasure to be around. No pretentiousness, just happy pleasure and gratitude.

No, I’m talking about a different species here when I talk about the New Epicureans: people who use food and drink as a status booster. Very often these people also are at pains to explain how they are “passionate” about it, which is of course the first clue that they are not sincere, not in their heart of hearts. If I love to play chess (which I do), I don’t go around telling everyone I can find about how passionate I am about chess. I simply study and play chess, and enjoy it. Easy as that!

“Foodies,” on the other hand, are foodies as a public demonstration. They take pictures of their food/drinks and post them on the internet, usually tossing off the rare or interesting ingredients casually, as if it were no big thing to them, thus subtly demonstrating their credentials for all the world. Or they post things like “really enjoying the butterscotch notes in this malbec right now.” If they were really enjoying the wine, they’d be enjoying it, not posting about it online.

The new Epicureanism is perfect for an affluent, liberal society. It comes draped in environmentalism and social activism. Food is touted as local, organic, sustainable, small-batch, rare, etc. Particular coffees claim to be supportive of poor, brown, third-world farmers. Etc. (All of these things can be excellent qualities of course… but the real purpose of such designations is as status markers for the people using them.) It is also something that the proles don’t engage in. Boring, low-class people eat mass-produced food. The in-the-know elite eat special things. Knowing about special food is a way to signal your elite credentials while maintaining plausible deniability. “Oh no.. I don’t do this for status. I’m just passionate about food!”

Bottles of small-batch liquors become holy objects. A fancy bar with homemade bitters is a holy reliquary. The bartender is a kind of priest, and the best ones — the most original, in the pejorative sense that I use here on this blog — become bishops of their towns. People come to religious service at the bar, spending too much money and focusing on their own beverages as if they were liquid manna from the gods.

But it’s all empty and it’s all jockeying for status. There’s no humility, no gratitude, no contemplation. A religion of glowing green and amber bottles, filled with sweetly seductive poisons. Mirrors on the back of the bar to show the drinker the image of what he’s really interested in when he takes part in this ritual: himself.

What might have been a convivial, chummy discussion over drinks with friends instead becomes about the drinks themselves. An acquaintance once said to me “I don’t care who I’m with as long as the food is good.” I responded, “I don’t care what I’m eating as long as the company is good.”

***

Luxuriae enim peregrinae origo ab exercitu Asiatico invecta in
urbem est. … epulae … ipsae et cura et sumptu maiore apparari
coeptae. Tum coquus, vilissimum antiquis mancipium et
aestimatione et usu, in pretio esse, et quod ministerium fuerat, ars
haberi coepta. Vix tamen illa, quae tum conspiciebantur, semina
erant futurae luxuriae.

“For the beginnings of foreign luxury were introduced into the City
by the army from Asia. … the banquets themselves … began to be
planned with both greater care and greater expense. At that time
the cook, to the ancient Romans the most worthless of slaves, both
in their judgment of values and in what use they made of him,
began to have value, and what had been merely a necessary service
came to be regarded as an art. Yet those things which were then
looked upon as remarkable were hardly even the germs of the
luxury to come.”

— Livy

Religious Icons in the New World Order

Today I had lunch in a nice restaurant downtown (this is in the United States). The food was quite good, the service was friendly, attentive and relaxed. It was a pleasant experience. But I couldn’t help but notice one thing.

In the back of the restaurant, in an alcove and lit from above, there was a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. The portrait was done in a pointillist style, in blaring oranges, yellows, and black. King was depicted with hands folded, head bowed in deep, soulful thought.

The theme of the restaurant was an small-town Italian bistro. The menu was mostly Italian food on the lighter side. The decor was meant to evoke the plaza of a quaint Italian hillside village, with white and blue tiles, paintings of olive trees, and a chalk drawing of a pretty young girl zooming by on a scooter.

And then there was: MLK deep in soulful thought. There were no other incongruous pieces of art or decoration in the place. There was no indication that the piece was a temporary installation. Rather, the portrait of King was hung in that back space, lavishly lit, visible from every table in the house.

I realized what it was: a religious icon. It was like a statue of Vishnu or a crucifix on the wall. It’s meant to be a quiet, steady reminder of the religion we are all assumed to share. That religion, I’m sure it goes without saying, is the religion of diversity-worship and the shameful, embarrassing fact that Western civilization and white people exist at all.

Just as in a room of believing Christians, a cross on the wall acts as a subliminal reminder of their beliefs to people who might be discussing anything at all (football, the weather, jokes, work); the image of King watches carefully over the minds of otherwise carefree lunchtime diners as they chat about… football, the weather, jokes, work.

Ever-present, ever-watching over us, our kind savior, here in the New World.

Harmony Not Unison

One of the neatest things in all of Tolkien is his account of the creation of Arda (the world which Middle Earth is part of). The creator-god, Iluvatar, or Eru (“the One”), sets a musical theme. He directs his deity-children, the Ainur, to sing the world into existence.

Each of the Ainur is free to sing his own way, allowing for much greater beauty and interaction and complexity. The freedom also allows the rebellion of Melkor, the source of the marring of the world, and source of much (all?) suffering.

Cory Olsen often points out that one key idea which pops up again and again in Tolkien is that of harmony. To make beautiful music, characters like Beren and Luthien sing in harmony, not in unison.

Beauty does not come from unison. The only thing unison adds to the song is more volume: louder and louder until it becomes braying. Rather, beauty comes from harmony: complexity, counterpoint, chords, tension and resolution. Far more interesting than unison — and far more lovely!

Melkor thinks he is improving upon the music of the world by writing his own theme. But he doesn’t really want to add anything — rather he wants to drown out everything that isn’t his own theme. He wants total sameness and total obedience, and all in the name of creativity and individuality!

In fact, demanding unison is a sure sign of evil in the world of Tolkien. When listening to a talk by Professor Olsen, I realized this. Iluvatar and all the good angels and people work in harmony. Melkor is the angel of unison: darkness, sameness, and all creatures bowing to the iron crown.

Worshiping and cultivating our own petty differences is enough to make us all in unison underneath, all thralls to the same self-will. Insisting on being mini-deities, mini-Melkors: that is disharmonious and striving after unison, and again all in the name of individuality… that’s the irony.

Deep connection to the wellsprings of life and love are what give us a theme, a melodious tune all our own that is at once unique and in beautiful harmony with the rest of the world. Loving the song of others, loving the song that was written a long time ago, and singing our own thread of that great theme: much more beautiful — and more interesting!

The Integrated Soul and the Alienated Soul

I used to be afraid that deliberately entering into a spiritual practice would lead to the end of my individuality. But the opposite is the case.

Union and higher purpose — a sends of the ultimate universality of all true Law, of Love, and of Life — actually free us up to be ourselves. That is, I am, for example, happier to be a white man, an American, of such and such means and such and such abilities, than I ever was back when I insisted with much more pained stridency in the special uniqueness of my own soul.

A paradox. Not am I more happy to accept what is good about my particular situation (I am happy to note the accomplishments and great qualities of my ancestors and my native culture, for example); but I also am more happy to notice and admit to my failings.

I don’t just mean my spiritual failings (indeed these, I probably vastly under-rate… if I rated them as serious as they deserve, they might well be much lesser failings). But I am talking here instead about my limitations as a physical being — my particular mental deficiencies, my physical deficiencies, the diseases that run in my family, etc. I have much less of a feeling of “Why meeeee?” when I dwell on the problems that beset me (such as they are).

It might be overstating it to claim I don’t feel bothered at all by my various (small) pieces of bad luck. But I can say in all honesty that I am perfectly capable of feeling cheerful about my own problems in a way that I never was before. The only sense of cheer I could get before out of a bad situation was a kind of bitter ironic humor. This might have its place sometimes, but unless leavened with real joy, I find we’re left with a hard puck of … bitter irony. Sometimes, nowadays, I manage the joy without any bitterness or irony at all! (Please don’t ask me to demonstrate this on spot-request… I might still be brimming over with resentment on any given day!)

When I think about my good particularities and my bad particularities, I can see how I fit into the bigger picture (at least to a degree I can see it… if I can’t see all the specifics at least I get the feeling, I grasp the concept of fitting into a bigger picture).

It’s ok to be just little old me, because I know that’s just one sliver of what is going on in the universe, and I know that I’m a fully integrated part of that greater whole. I do not need to contain multitudes because I am a part of a much, much greater whole, and entire creation of meaning.

***

The opposite feeling, a feeling of alienation, leads one to reject specificity. Cultural specificity, the burden of family history, the peculiarity of one’s hometown: all this becomes unbearable restricting.

The alienated soul feels an intense desire to burst out of its bonds. Everything specific, most especially those things which come closest to home (one’s own family, history, religion) is like a tie that binds. The alienated soul still dimly senses that there is something very powerful within — a great soul yearning for fulfillment — and so interprets the given world as a horrible prison to be rejected and thrown off. The alienated soul will become a god-man, it declares. “I shall contain all possibilities”

It ends, of course, by containing none… ends in nothingness, and a total lack of personality.

Trust Your Feelings About Who is Good

I think one of the biggest problems people have these days is that they do not trust their own intuitions about good and evil, especially when it comes to people. Immediately upon meeting someone, we inevitably have a very subtle, very fleeting, and yet very real reaction to that person. We can feel whether he is trustworthy, whether he is agitated, whether he is aggressive, or whether he is benign.

Now, people still interact according to basic social customs, and not according to their spiritual intuitions. Despite the general breakdown in manners and courtesy, people still use social custom to interact (the customs have merely been degraded, that’s all). So if you sense someone’s untrustworthy nature, you still extend to that person basic civility and interact with him according to custom. And this is certainly a good thing.

But no one talks about these gut feelings much anymore… or we are vaguely embarrassed to have them. Perhaps our PC training, which teaches us never to to reach conclusions about other human beings (unless they are white, Christian, male, and heterosexual), beats the instinct out of us over time.

“This person has evil intentions,” our gut tells us. “No,” says the brain, “you must not think that way!” And so we learn how to ignore it.

The good news is that the skill does not seem to atrophy. It’s always waiting there for you to tap into. All you have to do is look at people’s faces, look them in the eye, take in their posture and their body language. Your subconscious mind will do most of this for you, but if you want to bring it up to the level of the active, conscious mind, the best way to do it is deliberately remind yourself to study another person’s face.

And it’s not a matter of attractiveness or sexiness. Attractive people can have ugly energy, as we all know. And the homely can be beautiful. One merely needs to let oneself see it.

I find it very liberating and peaceful to do so. There’s a lot more beauty out there than I tend to think in my moments of despair. And when there is ugliness in another person, the mere act of descrying it can bring a kind of calm mastery to the situation. I’m less vulnerable to it, and having put myself in mind of the difference between good and evil as it manifests in people, I am more likely to be good myself and to seek out the good in other people.

(There are studies done proving that people can do this. I don’t think we need the studies to prove a point which should be obvious. Plus the interpretation of the data is often highly scientistic (and not scientific). Still, here is an interesting example of the kind of thing people do all the time every day without realizing it: “Judging a Book by its Cover,” from Psychology Today.)

Worrying About Yourself vs. Worrying About the World

Obviously you should worry about yourself first. You can’t change the world (nor perhaps should you even want to, but that’s a philosophical issue that we can address later). But you can change yourself.

Obviously the beam in my own eye is much greater than the mote in my brother’s eye. “But still,” says the argumentative mind, “the countless motes in my many brothers’ eyes add up to more than my own beam! They are in need of correction!” No matter how great the beam in my eye is, it will be less than the billions of motes added up together. And furthermore, I can easily convince myself that I’m not the only one with a beam. Surely the “mote” is a rhetorical mote. Don’t we all have beams? Who among us has only a mere mote? I personally have a massive beam (several in fact!), stuck right in both eyeballs. But surely also so do many (if not all) of my brothers. Don’t you?

In spiritual terms it is easy to grasp that one should work on one’s own spirit before worrying about anyone else’s. In practical terms, it does not often feel so easy. If I find a great sin being committed all around me, should I not worry about it? Just because I, too, am sinful, does that take away my right — indeed my duty — to fight against the wrong I see?

Specifics might help. Let’s take a case that’s typical, though by no means exclusive nor exhaustive. My own politics, such as they are, are so far to the right as to be basically off the spectrum. In fact, I loathe the right-left dichotomy because I feel it gives the modern left a false legitimacy to speak of it in such terms. (I speak of the case here in America which is my home country, though I imagine what I say applies to most anyone, mutatis mutandis.) If, in my own culture, among those I love and care for, I find falsehood, murder, deception, self-worship and ugliness, should I remain silent?

Difficult! The problem is so obvious that I quail to even spell it out. I am not holy, and therefore I have no call to impel others to holiness. Who am I do to such a thing! And yet I know that no mere man is wholly without blame. If we use the standard of strict blamelessness to decide who is worthy of imposing worldly changes, then we are left with no course of action when confronted with obvious wickedness. Show me the man without blame, please. And so then am I not to speak out against evil when I see it just because I know the evil that dwells in my own soul?

Sharper specificity: I hate multi-culti liberalism, and I hate abortion. (Incidentally and on a personal note, I’m neither a Republican, nor a Catholic… still I find these things evil: creepingly evil in the first case, and screamingly evil in the second case.) But at the same time I’m guilty of all kinds of deception, concupiscence, and general self-seeking. Really and honestly, I have no standing to call another human being “bad.”

And yet, very often their actions are bad! Bad enough to make my own twisted soul revolt in protest! Shall I become a relativist and say there is no such thing as right and wrong? A hateful thought!

Why even write a blog? Well, in this case, as I say in my “ABOUT” page, I mainly write this to spell out clearly for myself what is True. I have made and will continue to make many mistakes. Publishing what I write and not worrying about fame or “hits” is the only thing that will keep me honest. But in the course of writing, it’s inevitable that I will attack things that I see as evil. And the whole time I am doing so, I will still continue being guilty of evil myself.

The only way out is a compromise. I’m sure most people reading this will have seen it coming from the moment they saw the title of this post. Let me try and articulate the compromise as best I can now:

What I do with my own time, my body, my words, my soul, and my spirit, is what really matters. What you do with your own is what matters for you, reader, and it is all that has mattered for any man that has ever lived. Meanwhile, here on earth, as we all struggle along half-blind, we must do our humble best. Speaking out against evil is something we must do. And yet every time we speak out, we must use it as a chance to turn the glass back at our own faces.

Don’t give up on either count. Don’t stop demolishing the beam; and don’t stop calling it like you see it either. When it comes to the world, we must speak with fiery and righteous breath. When it comes to the self, we must bow our heads and be humble. Finding the balance along that razor’s edge is difficult. When in doubt, I should forgive my brothers and blame myself.

Ah, what a liberating thing to say! Father Zossima, speak for me, please.