Some Comments on Metaphysics and Societies

I’m a big fan of Ross Douthat. In matters prudential, we’re often on opposing sides (I’m crazier), but he, better than a lot of Conservative Catholics™, is willing to inhabit the confusing existential crisis zone where one recognizes that modernity is both baked into our DNA and is on the brink of collapsing. What such a collapse will mean for the aforementioned DNA is anyone’s guess.

His recent comments on major figures in the French Négritude movement point to the groping attempts in understanding the matter. They ring somewhat with my comments on our segregating society – not one-to-one, but inhabiting the same thought space. The question is how we live as a united society while recognizing that we are made of differing societies.

This gets me thinking about a metaphysical question plaguing philosophers throughout history – the unity/plurality of being. In a nutshell, we say things ‘are’, that they have being. However, we also say things are different because of what they are. An apple is different from a chair (an apple is not a chair) because an apple is an apple and a chair is a chair. These are common sense statements, but once you start poking at them things get very complicated.

Two errors can quickly appear. One can say that being is the same in all things – chair, apple, animal, human, angel, God. Thus, it is only the appearance which is different. We call this Monism. Such thinking gives rise of pantheism – all things are God because all things are the same thing. On the other hand, you can say all things are absolutely different – there is nothing the same about the apple and the chair. This we call Radical Pluralism. Reality is just a bunch of disconnected chunks without some real underlying harmony. Any harmony we see is simply foisted upon it by man.

There’s an analogy (Thomists, I’m getting to it…) to the way the political questions are stirring about. Is humanity fundamentally the same across all locales? Can we expect the same sorts of basic values and practices to dominate across the board? This tends to be the assumption of a lot of elite globalists and cosmopolitans, believing in some sort of universalism of values with only the appearance of difference in food and dress.

Or maybe humanity is fundamentally different? Maybe there is no possible unity of culture, society, and tribe? Maybe we are all so radically different that our first, and maybe only, loyalty is to our own nation? This is the rhetoric of those like Trump in America and the various nationalisms in Europe. It basically leads to a kind of universal isolationism, where political relations are only made for self-interest.

In addressing the philosophical problem, a solution was articulated by Thomas Aquinas in declaring that being is present throughout creation analogically. God is all being. All other things participate in varying fashions and degrees in that being. Thus a bird manifests only one way of being while a dog another. Further, certain beings manifest more of being than another – God is the plenitude of being, man less than God, and animal less than man, down the chain to particles which participate so minimally in being they are almost completely indeterminate – talk to a particle physicist about what a particle is and prepare for some interesting answers.

Key to this, though, is the recognition of some plenitude of being. This is called God, though the astute observer will recognize that this God is not necessarily the God of the bible. This is the God of the philosophers. The important point is that all creation shares in what God is, being, though in different ways and different degrees.

Our political structures of the past worked in just such a framework. There was a political ideal which contained the plenitude of being, often portrayed in eschatological visions like the Jerusalem Above, and every society was to conform itself as much as possible in the concrete to that political ideal. As no finite being could manifest the plenitude of the infinite, and thus would be different from other finite beings, so societies would as well. However, as all beings were still measured against the plenitude of being (thus morality is that which is in conformity with being), so societies, even though different in the concrete, must be united in their proportional and diverse conformity to the political ideal.

Christendom manifested this. France, England, Spain, Italy, the German kingdoms, these were all wildly diverse, though remained united in their commitment to living in conformity with the heavenly Jerusalem. This unity of ideal was manifested in the religious sphere by the episcopal union around the Pope and the political sphere by the regnal union around the Holy Roman Emperor. This continued in those later neo-imperial attempts of the post-revolutionary period (e.g. French, British, American) – colonies would be conquered and be brought into conformity with the new ideals (either in culture or in political form).

Going back to Douthat’s piece cited above, the struggle one sees in the declining west is one where we are struggling to define what that political ideal is. The past 300 years (and arguably only the past 50) have been the first time in history we’ve attempted to do this in radically and purely secular terms. We’ve banished God. Have we also banished the plenitude of being, that which protects the analogical way of unity that was manifest in Christendom and its warped successors?

That most every recent attempt at bureaucratic unity has failed when founded on secular ground and with that especially long lasting experiment called history almost ignorant of such secularity… It makes me think this whole banishing of God thing is only a form of ritual societal suicide.

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The New Segregation(s) and the Path of Evangelization

So this is going to take a tortuous path. My brain works weird. But in nutshell, we’re discussing this:

Thomas Cole - 1836 - The Course of Empire 4 - Destruction

One hell of a party this has been. (Thomas Cole – The Course of Empire 4: Destruction)

And how to uncomfortably make it out alive. Let’s begin.

For one reason or another I’ve been watching the recent brouhaha around Vidcon. At this year’s conference, a certain wing of youtubers, the “skeptics” or “anti-SJWs” made their presence known. While overlapping a lot with what some would call the alt-right, the major hobby horse of these guys and gals is a rejection of at least the current trends in feminism and gender theory.

Scandal popped up in a few places, fed into by drama around a prominent feminist youtuber, Laci Green, “taking the red pill”, and things really hit the fan when another feminist youtuber, Anita Sarkeesian, called out one of her detractors in the audience in a manner unbecoming of a panelist discussing harassment. This fueled fire on both sides with each taking the moral high ground and it looks like the dumpster fire is only beginning.

Wasting time watching this trainwreck both on youtube and on twitter, I came across this little comment, put out by Anita:

Yes, this is from way back…

The comment gave me a lot of pause. First of all, I’m fully on board with gender-segregated classrooms, though probably for reasons Anita would find atrocious. Single-sex education keeps kids from obsessing so much about the sexual “other” and (ideally) moves socialization between the sexes to the purview of the family rather than the unsupervised hotboxes of hormones and social anarchy that are school “cultures”. Basically, segregating sexes would allow us to reform traditional gender roles. Not a feminist end.

But racial segregation? This comment had Anita’s detractor reminding her of certain historical circumstances in the US. Like Jim Crow.

I was at first tempted to agree with those detractors. Then again, you have places like Evergreen State College. Here the yearly celebrated “Day of Absence”, where the school’s population is separated by race to reinforce the importance of an integrated community, became a sort of raucous sit-in including the pseudo-hostage taking of the cooperative president. The activists were predominantly of the typical “SJW” crowd. This was basically voluntary segregation, with calls for the removal of all perpetrators of “the patriarchy” from places of public worship, er, practice. If anyone disagreed, their opinions were deemed invalid if they were “cis”, “white” and/or “male” – depending on who it was, of course.

This just seems ludicrous. Wasn’t much of the history of the 20th century about removing barriers between peoples – men and women, whites and black, gays and straights, rich and poor? We’ve done a messed up job of a lot of it, sure, but what’s currently going on smacks a lot of resegregating the populace, of upending much of this work.

Further, while there are definitely white supremacists all in favor of it, this appears to be primarily an impulse from within the minority (now or soon-to-be diverse majority?) communities – a silencing of those deemed to be the children of the oppressors, inheritors of their mantle in a panoply of forms.

This call for some form of societal segregation isn’t only a liberal phenomenon. On “my side” of things, there’s also Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option and its variations. In a nutshell, it is call for committed orthodox Christians to recognize that our society holds values hostile to our own and to create intentional communities which can act as “parallel poleis”. Many only see it as withdrawal, which to some degree it is, but it is also about building communities which can be founded upon perennial human virtues and Christian faith. It’s a form of self-segregation.

That final point about the Benedict Option, building communities around some shared values, points to why this call for new forms of segregation are arising not from without but from within these communities. There has been a fallout, a collapse of any central values in our society. We don’t have much of anything that binds us beyond sharing the public spaces. Thus these communities see little to seek to integrate into – and some see what’s left of the center as something they don’t want to integrate into.

Our lack of shared central values is made worse by the existence of many opposing values among the various communities. Radical Feminists seek to create cultures where womanhood is valued without reference to masculinity. LGBT communities seek to make sex and gender personal decisions and expressions with little reference to the social role of sexual relations. SJWs are looking to build societies where historically oppressed minorities become at least vocally dominant and rectify the sins of the historically oppressive majority.

On the other side of the coin, the “anti” communities, seeking to push against the above, often glorify freedom – freedom of speech (libertarian) or of inquiry (skepticism), though it really boils down to freedom of conscience, where conscience is understood as following what you believe is right no matter what. These folk tend not to coalesce as much as the above, save in response to the above. They don’t share a predominant value save freedom, but in recognizing that another is having their freedom trampled (even if this freedom is being used in defense of an opposed value – see the odd bedfellows of right-leaning atheists and theists) they have come together as a force against the above.

Then you have the traditional Christian communities, which were dominant less than a hundred years ago and are seeking to hold on to that dominance (moral majorities and the like). Their thesis is that Christian values, if not Christianity itself, needs to be the central core of society. Even those still in favor of the separation of Church and State, still believe that some non-denominational or even non-theist “natural law” need to be at the heart of things. (Of course, that this “natural law” comes from the Christian tradition is just a happenstance… right?)

Upshot: The core values of these communities, the thing which defines their worldview, are incompatible. Thus they are seeking to at best withdraw from the infidel, or to silence them, or even to remove them. We’re seeking to segregate.

I think this is especially important for Christians to recognize. Dreher and others are quick to point out that traditional Christians are on the cusp of experiencing persecution. This is true, but it’s not because of the rise of some new moral majority. There may be such a majority around an issue like gay-marriage, but the divisions in our culture are so great that Christians will be persecuted for little reason other than being one among the many warring factions that need to be purged or silenced to restore social stability. The segregation we’re seeing is the beginning of this warring.

While this is scary, it also points out the direction evangelization needs to go. Christianity, and especially Catholicism, cannot limit itself to being a personal preference. Neither can it claim only to be an aid to societal formation. Rather, it must vocally claim to be the source of perfected society. It needs to preach the Church.

This is something that’s been elided since Vatican II. The push to “open to the world” as many read Gaudium et Spes to direct made us believe that we no longer needed to be a society founded on Christ, but rather a (growing?) part of the societies founded upon other values – whether that be national identity, freedom, race, interests, political movements, what-have-you. The Church was no longer to be the foundation of society, but simply a (hopefully important) voice at the table.

There’s a slew of reason for this reading, some I’m sympathetic to, most I’m not, but I’m not going to get into them. What’s becoming clear is that there simply isn’t a stable table anymore. What the “openness to the world” failed to realize then and is probably failing to realize now is that the world is not stable.

The West has spent the past five hundred years denying the Catholic Church as its point of the stability and descending into violence because of it. The west has then spent the last three hundred years denying Christianity and descending into violence because of it. And now the world has spent the last hundred years denying God himself and descending into violence because of it. The experience now is the painful place of looking around at the rubble and wondering what makes the foundation of a society.

The Church needs to be able to say “I AM.” I make society. We need to recognize that the world, without Christ and His Church, falls inevitably into chaos and brutality, segregating itself into oblivion, stabilizing only by violent force. This is not a call to be that violent force (though a little bit of defensive militancy would not be uncalled for), but it is a call to triumphant trust in God, Christ, and His Church to bring about peace in this world – “thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” Seek souls, yes, but seek to make them one-of-us. Not just another atomized person who claims to follow some Galilean’s 8 step program.

We need to be the Church, in all it’s triumphal Glory.

I have some disagreements with him, but Christians wanting to recognize something of how to do this, of how to live in a way that takes seriously their tradition as a basis for society, should look at Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. I’m finishing it up now and will have some comments in a week or so. It points the way out of this segregating oblivion, though not a comfortable one (there is no comfortable one).

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Comments On: A Wizard of Earthsea

I’ve read A Wizard of Earthsea before. I knew I had at least attempted to, but not until I finished the short book did I recognize that I’ve definitely read this before. Certain scenes came out of the mist of memory as I read them, placing them in contexts I had long forgotten. I think it’s a testament to something like maturing that I probably devoured this when I was younger and was left unimpressed by it and found myself absolutely mesmerized this time around.

Le Guin’s style is beautiful. She strikes this perfect balance of mythological rhythm with modern interior reflection and it sings. Her sentences are wonderfully wrought, packed with mysterious meaning in simple unadorned language, sounding like those of a bardic priest retelling the legends of old. The narrator never becomes lost in Ged’s head while keeping the story tight to his point of view. The world is explored in short asides which never pull from the action but paint a picture of world large enough to contain the mystery that gives the scent of verisimilitude. It’s a pleasure just to read.

The story of Ged is a simple one – a prideful boy, humbled by his own mistakes, and reclaiming his confidence by confronting them. There’s images of balance throughout, and one may be tempted to reading relativism. However, I think it’d be too on the nose to reduce it to that.

I’m far more tempted to read it as a man coming to grips with his own virile might (ha! I can hear many an SJW upset at this turn). Ged is powerful and this is clear from the get go. And with that power comes pride and a desire for fame. He’s not evil. Just a man wrapped up in himself. When this finally comes home to roost, it manifests in a literal fashion as he summons some sort of shadow being. Le Guin never delves into the nature of this thing, which makes it all the more terrifying and all the more meaningful. It clearly wants to possess Ged and he’s terrified of it doing just that.

This terror defines him for much of the book. He becomes a nicer person, yes. Far more humble and desirous of helping others. But still, there’s something pathetic about him. Any great feats he performs are all in the service of running from his shadow. And the shadow is hunting him and is more powerful than him.

Things change once Ged is directed to hunt the shadow. This is not a “do away with fear” thing, but a matter of confronting the fear. His fear becomes the very way he seeks it out – as he grows in fear, he knows he is approaching the shadow.

In the end, he doesn’t defeat the shadow. Rather, he names it. No one had been able to name the thing and some even said it had no name. Ged, though, names it. And it’s his own name. The shadow becomes a part of him and he has succeeded.

The shadow was born from his own prideful use of power and one’s tempted to read it as an avatar of his power. However, the power itself is not wicked. What Ged must learn in the course of this adventure is to confront his own power, his own capacity to do so much, both good and evil, and recognize it as himself. In this way, he is able to become one with his power, live in peace with his virile might.

I’m reminded of the Christian and Aristotelian tradition of the Cardinal virtues, especially fortitude. True fortitude is about the proper application of thumos – of spiritedness or anger. Ged begins the tale full, over abundantly full, of this thumos, but it’s all directed at serving himself. In seeing it misfire, he grows scared of it, scared it will possess and destroy him. Only once he confronts it, seeks it out to name it, does it no longer have power over him. He has perfected his fortitude, his command of thumos, in overcoming his fear for the good of peace.

It’s not an allegory the story demands – Le Guin’s not writing an explicit allegory – but the mythological quality calls one to not only enjoy the story but recognize eternal truths within.

Read this book. Incredibly short, beautifully written, and wonderfully insightful. Highly recommended.

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Comments on Science Fiction

Jon Mollison discusses a Podcast about Science Fiction by the SETI institute. He’s very right to point out the bias here – emphasizing the Campbellian Trinity, leftist leanings, and a penchant for the boring stuff (though I’m not so harsh on the boring stuff – you just need to be in the right mood for it). I think it’s all pretty interesting and worth a listen, though the limitations of the interviewer’s knowledge of the field are a little cringe-worthy. And you might be triggered by certain of these gaping holes, as was Jon.

Most of the interviews are taken up with discussing the relation of science and science-fiction. The genre, for obvious reasons, has a pedigree of inspiring young men to be scientists and of scientists using the genre to explore ideas. It struck me how many of these connections were almost purely about the technology or man’s response to technology. Then comments denigrating “simplistic” black and white morality, well, triggered me.

My own preferred brand of science-fiction is Space Opera. I like stories about new technologies, but unless it’s grounded in some human plot I tend to think “Huh, that’s interesting…” then promptly forget it. My proclivities make it so I’ll generously forgive certain logical inconsistencies (like the questionable military prowess of the Amazon culture in Wonder Woman) if a story magnifies certain distinctly human traits or struggles (like the glory of fighting for the good even in the face of insurmountable odds). This also extends to Science-Fiction, where I’ll ignore the wrong or now outdated science if the real thrust are the eternal things (John Carter, Star Wars, EE Doc Smith).

The stories I like are, by and large, the stories which encompass the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” – you know, the stories you read “when you were 13”? I think we could do with more of those stories. The thirteen year old, just entering the age of reason, is trying to grasp what he is to become – he is seeking to understand man and how to be a man. The stories he craves and consumes with abandon are those which give him those models – heroes, self-sacrifice, overcoming great odds, adventure, romance. They unconsciously seek to navigate the realm of reality which unites abstract qualities with individual instances.

Something, I contend, is very screwy with the adults of the modern world in the way they denigrate this. There’s nothing wrong with having one’s taste change, arguably mature, to prefer the writings of a Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or Haruki Murakami. I’m fine with things getting complex, nuanced, and deeply self-reflective. But I’m not okay with this becoming a denigration of that earlier literature and, by extension, a denigration of eternal truths in favor of some ambiguous relativism about morality and reality.

In fact, the best literature is that which can both fire the imagination and passions of a 13 year old boy and ensnare the reflective intellect of a 50 year old scholar. Shakespeare is perhaps the perfect example of this – works made for action and bawdy loving plebeians now enshrined in academia and high culture. And I think the best of Science Fiction, especially the Space Opera from the early to mid 20th century, can do this as well. I know Burroughs can, if people gave him a chance. Guys like John C. Wright are definitely doing it today. And if Jon Mollison keeps going the trajectory he’s going, he’ll probably be helping it happen in the future as well. Get your 13-year old boys to read this stuff and cherish it. They’ll better be able to wade through the mess of adulthood for it. Heck, you older folk could probably do with reading some of it as well.

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Review: Spacehounds of IPC

E.E. Doc Smith has been on my radar for a while. Considered the father of Space Opera with admirers like Heinlein, Lucas, and Strazynski and a major writer in the pulps, he seemed to perfectly fit the niche I’m currently interested in. While I’m sure others are groaning that I didn’t start with his Lensman or Skylark books, I still rather enjoyed his Spacehounds of IPC (1931). And it’s free from Amazon, so…

300px-Spacehounds_of_IPC_(Amazing_cover)

The Nuts and Bolts

The story is a little disjointed, but charmingly so. The three parts, divided for original publication in Amazing Stories, tell interlocking stories, but the whole reads far more like a travelogue of adventures rather than a single tale. There’s one event which starts everything in motion – an attack by an unknown menace from Jupiter – but Smith takes off from there to recount the survival of the protagonists first in the ruins of a spaceship, then in the wilds of Ganymede, a satellite of Jupiter. The second portion recounts the interaction with new aliens species – from Titan, a moon around Saturn, and Callisto, another Jovian satellite. The third shifts main characters with the addition of rescuers from earth going to war with the belligerent Jovians. This variety could be annoying for those wanting a specific thread to follow, and it definitely has some slogging moments, but the whole is rather charming.

The writing is definitely something out of the early 20th century adventure genre. The prose is as purple as you get, with over the top adjective and adverbs galore, but used unironically which is it’s own sort of breath of fresh air. The dialogue can also be over-the-top with overly wrought hip-scientist lingo – you might get sick of hearing “all x” by the end of the book.

A final critique before some of the thematic stuff. Smith’s romantic plots just make you want to smile in their naivete. I’m sure some will scream about sexist simplicity, but to me these types of plots are heartwarming. Women are attracted to strong, confident men. Men are attracted to beautiful, confident women. Crash them together, and you get a married couple. Other tales can deal with the emotional complexity of these matters. Sometimes you just want to see heroic men and women marry off in heroic bliss. It’s fun.

Science, the glory of man, but not his salvation

Smith definitely has the early 20th century optimism about science. The great discoveries are just around the corner and will be jettisoning us into a future of space exploration and mighty marvels!

But he doesn’t give science this veneer of salvation that pervades our current culture. This is cool stuff, sure. And there’s definitely a bit of making fun of the superstitious. But ultimately it is men who save the day, not science. If someone is not human and attains great scientific skill, like the Hexans of Jupiter, you become monsters.

Smith is all about making the science serve the humanity of his heroes, especially as this is an adventure yarn. After spending a year to build a powerplant, using the wreckage of their life-boat and building many a thing from stone-age technology, the protagonist Stevens, about to run off to look for his missing love interest, reveals that he has become a Conan-life figure in his physicality:

“Swiftly he came to a decision and threw off his suit, revealing the body of a Hercules—a body ready for any demand he could put upon it. Always in hard training, months of grinding physical labor and of heavy eating had built him up to a point at which he would scarcely have recognized himself, could he have glanced into a mirror. Mighty but pliable muscles writhed and swelled under his clear skin as he darted here and there, selecting equipment for what lay ahead of him.”

-Smith, E. E. (Edward Elmer). Spacehounds of IPC (Kindle Locations 902). Kindle Edition.

But Smith is no Robert E. Howard, disdainful of civilization. He recognizes that a bit of engineering ingenuity can turn a brawny warrior into an unstoppable hero. The science here expands what Stevens is capable of, magnifying his own humanity:

“He donned the heavily armored space-suit which they had prepared months before, while they were still suspicious of possible attack. It was covered with heavy steel at every point, and the lenses of the helmet, already of unbreakable glass, had been re-enforced with thick steel bars. Tank and valves supplied air at normal pressure, so that his powerful body could function at full efficiency, not handicapped by the lighter atmosphere of Ganymede. The sleeves terminated in steel-protected rubber wristlets which left his hands free, yet sheltered from attack—wristlets tight enough to maintain the difference in pressure, yet not tight enough to cut off the circulation. He took up his mighty war-bow and the full quiver of heavy arrows—full-feathered and pointed with savagely barbed, tearing heads of forged steel—and slipped into their sheaths the long and heavy razor-sharp sword and the double-edged dirk, which he had made and ground long since for he knew not what emergency, and whose bell-shaped hilts of steel further protected his hands and wrists. Thus equipped, he had approximately his normal earthly weight; a fact which would operate to his advantage, rather than otherwise, in case of possible combat.”

-Smith, E. E. (Edward Elmer). Spacehounds of IPC (Kindle Locations 899). Kindle Edition.

Passages like this reveal an intense appreciation of humanity, something that can be lost in a lot of science-fiction writers as they fall into philosophical abstractions or the glories of science. Science is not about controlling the world or remaking our nature. Rather, the technologies we can develop are the ways in which we perfect our dominion over creation – protecting ourselves from our enemies and aiding our friends and allies. They maximize our humanity, not change or save it.

This emphasis on the way science maximizes may be a scary prospect for some, especially those of us in an age of scientism which denies that humans have natures, but I think Smith’s view here is important and enlightening. Science is not a problem. Rather, it’s that we’ve given up on the kind of optimism in human nature these sorts of science-stories relished in. The scientist heroes like Stevens and the later Brandon and Westfall are not out to change man or enforce their will by their intellect. Rather, they seek to reveal the glory that is man by his exploration of the universe.

It’s a modern and heroic vision that was present in the old philosophers and scholastics – to study the world is the glory of man, and to be fully man is to give glory to God. Smith doesn’t go that far, but I don’t mind reading into it.

The definition of human

The second portion of the story shifts as the heroes make their way off Ganymede in search of needed materials to build a super-radio. In the midst of this, they are attacked and then saved by another group of humans, these from Titan. The Titanians are humanoid in shape, but with a biological development radically different from our own – their bodily temperatures are incredibly low and they have low tolerance of high gravity. Even with all these differences (and Nadia’s distaste for their looks!), they are recognized as human.

Here’s another very interesting point that Smith hones in on – humans are not defined by biological structure, but rather their intellectual capability. How very aristotelian of him! This is something you also see in Lewis’ Space Trilogy as he encounter humans biologically very different from earth-men, but still fundamentally human. It is not DNA which makes us what we are, but that we have the capacity for reason.

Smith doesn’t get into the scientific how, but he’s also pretty clear that all these humans come from some similar source. Either a similar evolutionary development, or some original stock which evolved differently on different planets. He leaves it up in the air. More important is the recognition of the “other” as one who is “intellect of my intellect” in some fashion.

There are limits, of course. The heroes will soon encounter the six-armed Hexans (ha!) and snake-like Vorkulians which are wildly different from humans not only in biology but psychology. They are, properly, not human. Smith doesn’t get deep into this, but it’s an interesting little exercise – encountering races different from us, but still are us; and races similar to us, but still not us.

Who is the monster and who is the man? It’s fascinating stuff.

Final Thoughts

I commend the book. It’s got its slow moments and jerking the reader around as to what sort of story it is could annoy some. But it gives a good model of scientific speculation that doesn’t deify science, but does highlight how it reveals the true glory of man. And it’s fun! Those of us with a streak of snobbery will be bored at time, but the 13-year old in you will love it. Let him love it.

Smith is definitely a writer I want to come back to sooner rather than later. His Lensman stories are calling my name. If anyone can recommend a specific ebook edition, I’m all ears.

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Comments on Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson

It took me a good while to get through Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson. With it’s climax occurring in Pentecost, it’s fitting that I finally finished it during the Octave.

Lord_of_the_World_book_cover_1907

An apocalyptic tale, Benson envisions a world which is overcoming all supernatural religion in favor of an ascendent humanist faith. Julian Felsenburgh, clearly the Antichrist, arises at this moment in history to bring about universal peace and ultimately become a god-like figure obtaining the worship of the world. In the midst of this, we follow the story of Percy Franklin, a priest of Rome thrust into the center of the ecclesial response to the situation; Oliver Brand, a politician in the English government who participates in Felsenburgh’s rise; and Mabel Brand, Oliver’s wife who acts as the reader’s experience of the new humanist religion. The story is far more of a travelogue of this world and time, the characters caught up in events greater than themselves and ultimately learning to trust in greater powers (or accept self-destruction in denying them).

The apocalyptic genre of recent times has basically become an opportunity for an adventure story with moralistic sermonizing – see the protestant Left Behind series or, though I greatly like it, even Catholic Michael D. O’Brien’s Fr. Elijah. Benson moralizes, but he’s far more interested in putting in parallel different kinds of moralizing than positing one over another.

Fr. Franklin is a man who gives himself wholly to God, and so experiences both the great consolation of faith along with the dark tribulations of a world which denies that faith. But in Oliver, we see a man who seeks to overcome all division, to bring about peace, which he is fully assured has been frustrated by Christianity. And in Mabel, we find a woman who desires to give herself to that which is greater than herself – Christianity is a beautiful lie for her, fulfilled in the glorious ascendancy of man. All three of these are put in tension, both in the plot and in the literary voice of the narrator.

Benson is still Catholic, though. He knows that Franklin’s way is that of Christ. However, he doesn’t allow that to mitigate the feeling one has for the non-Christians. One can feel the exuberance of both Oliver and Mabel and even be tempted to see their way of things. Their final ends leave one full of pain. By the concluding events of the book, you recognize as a counter to Mabel the “beautiful lie” of a humanistic atheism.

Any and all triumph in the book is not the triumph of being correct – it is the triumph of Christ. The final images, of bombs dropping as a final mass is being prayed, do not give self-satisfaction but rather drive one to pray that prayer of Advent – Maranatha; Come, Lord Jesus.

A note on the prophetic aspect of the book: With over a century of distance from Benson’s time, the world he outlines is somewhat laughable while still holding a bite. It’s laughable, because Benson is still firmly in the Edwardian era and envisions a post-Christian world marked by a culture still firmly entrenched in the mores of the time. He couldn’t imagine that by the 21st century we would actually jettison most of the natural virtues of his society.

Still, while the culture and practices did not survive the 20th century, the basic thrust of the post-Christian age is prescient. We no longer appeal to the divine, to some good beyond ourself, but rather ground our morals in purely human terms – utilitarian ethics mixed with glorification of self-expression. In a world, Liberalism ascendent. Benson is not the only to see this. From the beginnings of the age of revolutions, the Church has been saying this would happen – that man divorced from God and the hierarchy of the good would soon have no measure of morality but himself. And from this measure would come a morality utterly self-destructive.

Don’t let the externals fool you. At our heart, with some few signs of fighting back and the katechon still having vitality, we are still on the trajectory Benson outlines.

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Comments on Wonder Woman, Part III: Elevation of the Genre

So Wonder Woman balances realism and heroism and it manifests a truly feminine feminism. It also elevate the whole superhero genre.

Gal-Gadot-in-Wonder-Woman-wearing-robe

I will be the first defender of superhero movies as more than just mindless action. From Nolan’s Batman to the Russo’s Captain America, these movies, at their best, have made comment on contemporary issues while manifesting a variety of eternal themes, most especially heroism.

However, the superhero genre has always had a fault in juxtaposing these extraordinary individuals as paragons of human ideals and yet always ending things with their fists. The balance is often struck by having some primary villain which needs to be defeated, or by means of some allegorical storytelling. Better stories, like Captain America: Civil War, reveal the complexity of human struggles and how these can escalate to violence. All, though, tend to posit that some specific villain needs to be defeated to win.

In Wonder Woman, we see this basic idea whimsically played with before, not deriding it, but transcending it. It’s a wonderful arc from naive “destroy the bad guy, save the world” to a maturity which recognizes the wickedness in man himself but affirms the need to continually fight against it.

In a way, it manifests John G. Cawelti’s Generic Transformation. Genres, in his theory, go through a four-stage transformative process of exhaustion – satire, nostalgia, demythologization, and reaffirmation of myth. No one stage is present on its own in any given piece of media, though each piece of media tends toward one of the other.

Wonder Woman begins with Diana wanting to go out into the world of men to defeat Ares. As told to her by her mother, Ares originally corrupted men and the amazons were created to ultimately kill him and free man from his influence. She quickly identifies the cruel, peace-hating, warmongering General Ludendorff as Ares and seeks him out. Along the way, she is forced to confront the horrors of war and even the failures of her friends. Steve keeps from killing Ludendorff for political reasons and a liberated town is gassed in the aftermath. Diana then takes it upon herself to ride down the general and kill him.

It’s here, in a great twist, that the real enemy is revealed. Ludendorff, while a definite bad guy, isn’t Ares. And Ares, well, he may have tipped man this or that way, inspired their plans and weapons. However, as he makes clear himself, the wickedness Diana seeks to remove is not his doing. Man has corruption within him. Ares did not put it there. He has just recognized it and desires to speed on man’s self-destruction so as to remake the world as a paradise.

It’s at this point where the movie both demythologizes and reaffirms the myth of the superhero in one fell swoop. Diana’s original assumption is proved as naive. You can’t fix the world just by beating the bad guy. Killing Ludendorff doesn’t halt the war. And killing Ares won’t fix the heart of men. Diana is confronted with an enemy she can’t beat into submission or slay with a sword – sin.

Trevor, always aware of this, commits the ultimate act and sacrifices himself to try and end the spread of the dangerous gas. This is even more horror loaded onto Diana, losing the man she’s come to love. It’s a moment that can send anyone over the edge, and she becomes, for just a moment, a true goddess of wrathful war.

In the end, though, it is Trevor who brings her to reject Ares and recommit herself to fighting for the good. Remembering his final words to her, words of love even in the midst of horror, she is also called to listen to her better angels. She does not fight to end the war, though that is a commendable goal. She fights to defend the good. And though man is full of wickedness, he is also full of good. She loves and chooses love no matter the horror.

The superheroic myth is reaffirmed, fighting with extraordinary might with and for extraordinary ideals, for love itself. It’s actually a beautiful ending, one which proclaims that love conquers all without ever feeling saccharine or preachy.

Many wish to see in Batman a Christ image – a man who takes on the disrepute of the world to save us from crime. I’ve always found this wrongheaded (for all my love of Batman). Vigilantism is never justice and never Christ-like love.

In Wonder Woman, we see a much better Christ image. She confronts the horrors of the world, has them loaded upon her, but through it all clings to love. Yes, she does finally beat Ares with her fists, but the whole event leaves her transformed, aware of the evil in men’s hearts, but ever fighting, ever giving, in order to turn his heart to love.

It’s things like this which make me fascinated with genre fiction. You can do this in more literary and high brow media, but it has a visceralness when done in genre fiction. The elevation strikes us in the gut, in the passions, in the imagination. Yes, it should rise to the intellect to become truly transformative, but sometimes the passions need to be in order to let the mind take the reins. Wonder Woman does just this with astounding success.

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