The antidote to arrogance

The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover just how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.

—Paul Johnson


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae was a physician and occasional poet from Guelph, Ontario. Upon the outbreak of the Great War, he was called to the colours under which he had served, and despatched to Belgium with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. As brigade surgeon to the 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, he treated the wounded under fire during the Second Battle of Ypres in April and May, 1915. During the intervals of the battle, he wrote the rondeau above, which was published anonymously in Punch that December and immediately became world-famous.

In every war before the advent of antibiotics, and a good many wars since, disease was a greater killer than enemy fire. Lieutenant Colonel McCrae (he had been promoted from major during the war) died of pneumonia and complications in January, 1918, ten months before the armistice. He was one of 60,000 Canadians killed in the First World War, out of a population of only eight million.

We still remember. God save us all from breaking faith with those who died.

Eponymous, King of Kings

H. Smiggy McStudge returns from sabbatical with another load of notorious codswallop. All the usual disclaimers apply, and possibly some unusual ones, too.

Since I have been on secondment to the Historical Branch, my lovelies, I have had a chance to observe some of the so-called talent that our academies have been vomiting forth. Just the other day, during a marathon committee meeting, we heard from a bright young thing who must be fresh out of the breeding vats. He had his full share of the myopic optimism and theory-fed smugness that one usually sees in those who have been extensively schooled but never educated: a type, fortunately, that breeds just as copiously among the humans as in our own genus. We are at no disadvantage there. Still it soured my gizzard to hear this puling brat snigger mechanically and say: ‘You know, we really ought to call ourselves the Society for the Prevention of Historical Knowledge.’

Fortunately the chairman squashed him like a beetle, but not as convincingly, perhaps, as I would have done. His objection was that whatever we might do for the grand cause of preventing historical knowledge among the humans, that in no way made us a society. Abhorrent word! It still stinks of its own etymology; for the Latin language, in which (as some of you poppets may have omitted to learn) socius means ally, is not yet as dead as we should like. Allies! Faugh! Society means cooperation; means mutual benefit; means, if anything at all, a voluntary gathering of people in pursuit of some common good. The Historical Branch does not exist for anybody’s good, except in so far as we all benefit from wreaking harm upon the humans. An army in battle is not a society, and nor is a plague of locusts. So spake the chairman; and they were sound enough remarks, but wide of the point.

The point, you see, is that our committee actually is there to prevent historical knowledge; and the worst way to go about it is to say so. Back at home in the Cultural Division, we have worked main hard for many years to infect the humans with a visceral loathing and contempt for the obvious; but even a human can take a hint, sometimes, when it is dropped on his skull in the form of an anvil. In the last century, the Communist Party U.S.A. (which learnt so much from us in methods and philosophy) operated numerous front groups in order to infiltrate and control liberal organizations. These front groups had names like ‘Patriotic Americans for a Brighter Tomorrow’. They were not called ‘Bolshevik Bastards with Bombs’. That much truth in advertising they dared not risk; nor should we.

That issue having been expertly mishandled, we returned to the subject of the meeting: how to destroy the various social sciences by contaminating them with each other’s methods. We have achieved great and lasting success by teaching silly historians to apply the techniques of anthropology to their own field. Anthropology is an inherently bogus field to begin with, for the proper study of mankind is anything but man. Man, if such an insect deserves to be studied at all, is the proper study of us McStudges, who have the proper critical distance to be objective about it. Even a human anthropologist can be right sometimes; or wrong in an interesting direction. But if we can once get a social scientist to work on solid historical evidence in the same vague and woolly way that he works on folkways and tribal tales, we can be sure that the result will be neither good anthropology nor good history. Motor oil is good for lubricating engines, and wine is good for lubricating souls; a mixture of the two is good for nothing. That is the principle that we follow, and it works beautifully as long as the humans never figure out what we are actually making them do.

I have before me a book not intended for scholarly consumption, but written by an ostensible scholar (a worm named Cavendish) to give gullible laymen the idea that they are reading a valuable summary of scientific findings. It is called Legends of the World. So far as this goes, it does us little good. Legends are harmless enough; a human can consume several tons of the things without any apparent ill effect. Where the Historical Branch goes to work is in smudging the border between legend and history: a harmful thing for the humans, and therefore very profitable for us. [Read more…]

On St. George Revivified

An essay by G. K. Chesterton, as collected in All I Survey, reproduced here in honour of St. George’s Day.

The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present. History is a hill or high point of vantage, from which alone men see the town in which they live or the age in which they are living. Without some such contrast or comparison, without some such shifting of the point of view, we should see nothing whatever of our own social surroundings. We should take them for granted, as the only possible social surroundings. We should be as unconscious of them as we are, for the most part, of the hair growing on our heads or the air passing through our lungs. It is the variety of the human story that brings out sharply the last turn that the road has taken, and it is the view under the arch of the gateway which tells us that we are entering a town.

Yet this sense of the past is curiously patchy among the most intelligent and instructed people, especially in modern England. Among a hundred such scraps and snippets, I saw this morning a literary competition in an exceedingly highbrow weekly, a prize being awarded for a conversation between a modern interviewer and St. George. And I was struck by the fact that clever, and even brilliant, contributors missed much of the point, even about the modern interviewer, by missing the point about the ancient saint. [Read more…]

‘The War of Ignorance versus Faith’

Yet another ignoramus announces his belief, founded upon nothing but prejudice and public education (but I repeat myself), that the Catholic Church is the mortal enemy of science; and John C. Wright boils over with justified dudgeon. In his response, he lists well over 200 Catholic scientists, and not merely Catholics, but Catholic clergymen every one, new and old, living and dead, who have made important (dare I say cardinal?) contributions to the sciences, from José de Acosta to Giovanni Battista Zupi. (I confess my own ignorance: I myself had never heard of quite half of these persons.)

Hmph. I just came across another antieducated sophophobe who declared there to be a war between science and faith, especially the Roman Catholic Church.

I asked him to name the Papal Bull or Encyclical, or any other official document of the Church prohibiting or condemning the practice of scientific inquiry. He did not know what a ‘bull’ was.

I asked him if he knew anything about science and the history of science, and he said yes. I asked him for the evidence of any Catholic interference, or even lack of enthusiastic support, for any scientific inquiry of any kind, in any time or place?

He mentioned Galileo. I asked him if he knew the circumstances of Galileo’s trial, or what Galileo was accused of? He said no. I asked him if he knew who Cardinal Bellarmine was. He said no.

I asked him if he had read Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences? He did not even know what the book was, much less who the characters in it were, or what positions in the contemporary debates they represented.…

Calibrating my questions to the level of someone without a Saint John’s College level of education,  I asked him if he knew who Albertus Magnus, William of Ockham, Roger Bacon, Nicholas Steno were. He said no.

I asked him who invented the mechanical escapement used in clockwork. Or when. He did not know what mechanical escapement was. (Villard de Honnecourt circa 1237, in case you are wondering.)

Recalibrating my question to the high school level, I asked him if he knew who Pascal was, Copernicus, Descartes. He said no. Mendel. No. Still no.

He then told me that all the European inventions in mathematics and medicine came from the Muslim world. I asked him if he knew where Andalusia was, or when the Reconquista happened. Did not recognize those terms. I asked him what religion the people were in the lands conquered by the Muslims in the Seven, Eighth, and Ninth Centuries, et cetera? He guessed that they were some sort of pagans.

I did not bother to ask him if he knew who Abu Hamid al-Ghazali was.

He did not even know enough to raise and throw into my face the old, tired, and oft-refuted slander about Hypatia the neoplatonic philosopher (always described as a female scientist) being flayed to death by a Christian mob wielding sharpened clamshells.

In other words, I could have argued in favor of the War between Science and the Church better than he. He had not even memorized his side’s own talking points.

He was a disgrace to the forces of evil.

Go and read the whole thing; or better yet, bookmark it for permanent reference. Links are included to information about nearly every scientist in the list. (At the moment, there is no link for Fr. Benito Viñes, who does not have his own page on Wikipedia, though he is mentioned in other articles there. Fr. Viñes was a Jesuit priest who invented the first system for forecasting hurricanes.)

Theyocracy: The argument

My dear junior McStudges, field operatives, and propagandists,

Here follows, for your benefit, a short treatise on the Myth of Government. It does not describe, except incidentally, the so-called art of Government itself. What the humans believe about government, you can discover for yourself quite easily. They have an entire profession called Political Science, the practitioners of which are too weak-willed and scrupulous to be politicians, and too stupid to be scientists. If you want to know the fifteen prevalent superstitions about government and its alleged uses, you can go and waste your time with them; but I do not recommend it, except as a source of cheap laughter to help your digestion. What government is really about – the final end which we have in view when we spread this particular vice among the humans – is a secret kept, successfully so far, by wiser heads than yours. That information is distributed strictly on a need-to-know basis, and you do not need to know.

However, you do need to know what government is; and you also need to know the Myth. [Read more…]

‘The frightful landslide into Theyocracy’

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights, nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!

If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to ‘King George’s council, Winston and his gang’, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy.

Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 52
(to Christopher Tolkien, 29 November 1943)

(Paragraph breaks added.)

The infernal and redoubtable H. Smiggy McStudge has some things to say about all this, and has asked (or rather, peremptorily ordered) me to put some of it up here in the near future. Perhaps I shall oblige (or obey) him. He says it is to be a manual of advice for all the little McStudges, who, he says, have great zeal for their work but are in danger of believing their own propaganda. It will also be an ‘outline of history’, a form that was very popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but is pretty well extinct now. Smiggy makes his pitch thus:

‘The average human now has nothing but contempt for history – contempt born of utter ignorance. The schools teach a kind of compost of outdated sociology and falsified anthropology under the name of Social Studies, and graduate chuckleheads who cannot tell you whether George III came before or after George II, and who, if given a globe, are exceptionally lucky if they can point a finger at the Earth. History has been abandoned to the history buffs, who have the characteristic stupidity of experts, the ant’s-eye view. There are people who can tell you in minute detail the costume and weaponry of a Pecheneg warrior of the eleventh century, but who cannot tell you what the Pechenegs did, or how they influenced other nations, or why anyone should bother to inform themselves about the God-rotted Pechenegs at all. And we McStudges are very content that this should be so.

‘But let us not be fooled because we make fools of others. We need a clear eye for the prize. History is a game that we have played, using the humans as pawns and fodder. Let us not be dazzled by the lies and distractions we design for them. Our workers in the field need a clear understanding of what the game is, and what the stakes are, and which tactics are most likely to be successful. There is, of course, some risk in making this information widely available. Some of the humans are likely to read it. Fortunately, few of them have (thanks to our efforts) the mental equipment to take notice of the truth; fewer still have the gumption to act on it. These perishing few may safely be ignored. The risk is nothing compared to the risk of letting our own people wallow in the ignorance they have created. Ink is a wonderful poison. Let us cover the world with it, let us use it to drown human wit and human reason, such as they are, once and for all. But let us take care not to drink it ourselves.’

Mark Shea on a certain tall story

We sometimes hear it said that Jesus was just a teacher full of punchy aphorisms and turns of phrase: a mystic who wandered around saying nice things about the niceness of being Nice.  But his stupid disciples, being 2000 years stupider than Extremely Clever Us, managed to completely misunderstand him and construct an elaborate religion around him that he absolutely never intended.  It’s a narrative in which our culture places an extraordinary amount of faith — far more faith, in fact, than the Christian story requires, since the Christian story does not require us to believe in absolutely ridiculous claims about human psychology that nobody would ever advance for one second were it not for the special need to debunk Christianity.

—Mark Shea, ‘Palm Sunday’

‘On Turnpikes and Mediaevalism’, by G. K. Chesterton

Collected in All I Survey (1933).


Opening my newspaper the other day, I saw a short but emphatic leaderette entitled ‘A Relic of Mediaevalism’. It expressed a profound indignation upon the fact that somewhere or other, in some fairly remote corner of this country, there is a turnpike-gate, with a toll. It insisted that this antiquated tyranny is insupportable, because it is supremely important that our road traffic should go very fast; presumably a little faster than it does. So it described the momentary delay in this place as a relic of mediaevalism. I fear the future will look at that sentence, somewhat sadly and a little contemptuously, as a very typical relic of modernism. I mean it will be a melancholy relic of the only period in all human history when people were proud of being modern. For though today is always today and the moment is always modern, we are the only men in all history who fell back upon bragging about the mere fact that today is not yesterday. I fear that some in the future will explain it by saying that we had precious little else to brag about. For, whatever the mediaeval faults, they went with one merit. Mediaeval people never worried about being mediaeval; and modern people do worry horribly about being modern. [Read more…]

C. S. Lewis on radical change

The Guide laughed. ‘You are falling into their own error,’ he said, ‘the change is not radical, nor will it be permanent. That idea depends on a curious disease which they have all caught — an inability to dis-believe advertisements. To be sure, if the machines did what they promised, the change would be very deep indeed. Their next war, for example, would change the state of their country from disease to death. They are afraid of this themselves — though most of them are old enough to know by experience that a gun is no more likely than a toothpaste or a cosmetic to do the things its makers say it will do. It is the same with all their machines. Their labour-saving devices multiply drudgery; their aphrodisiacs make them impotent: their amusements bore them: their rapid production of food leaves half of them starving, and their devices for saving time have banished leisure from their country. There will be no radical change.’

—C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress