Friday, October 14, 2016

Personally, I don't think you have a clue

From Gaston Velle's Voyage autour d'une Étoile (1906), via somebody's Pinterest.
Sentences you'd probably never get to read if there were no David Brooks ("The Beauty of Big Books"):
Personally, I have issues with born-again paganism. 
This is not coming out of nowhere, I should say. He's been checking it out, in the form of a very big new book, Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, by Anthony T. Kronman, a Yale law professor who did a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1972, before he went to law school, and has found his mind going back there in recent years, toward the elaboration of a systematic sort of pantheism.

Brooks has looked at the book, or several of its pages—you can get a good idea how many of them by listing the quotations he has culled from it:
  • one from page 2
  • one from p. 39 and two from p. 45, in the last section of the Introduction, an outline of the book's part IV (detailing the "joyful teachings of this new theology")
  • one from p. 1067 ( the first page of the Epilogue); and
  • one from p. 1044, midway through the last chapter of the book proper, on Walt Whitman and democracy
He entirely skipped the 999 pages in the middle! and, tellingly, the only bit of body text he seems to have thumbed through at all carefully is that last bit, on a subject he already (wrongly) thinks he knows all about.

He hasn't looked at the book hard enough to avoid ridiculous mistakes—
He’s learned from the Greeks and the atheists, but he thinks such thinkers render people too prideful and solitary. He’s also learned from the Christians, but he thinks their emphasis on the next world disparages this world. He doesn’t like the way religion asks the intellect to bow down before faith.
The reference to pridefulness isn't about "the Greeks and the atheists" but specifically Aristotle and his "theology of pride" in opposition to another Greek, Plato, and it has nothing to do with solitude, since Kronman emphasizes how much value Aristotle gives to the active mutual love of citizens in his concept of democracy. What Kronman says about Aristotle's "great-souled man" is that he insists on being the generous one in every relationship, and independent of those who might be generous to him, excluding himself from the emotion of gratitude, which is particularly important to Kronman. His complaint about atheists (p 5) is neither that they are proud nor that they are solitary, but that in throwing out the bathwater of personal gods they throw out the baby of all the most passionately interesting philosophical questions. His own god is indistinguishable from Spinoza's, identical to "the world", so in that sense he might as well be an atheist himself.

And Kronman doesn't feel that Christians give too much "emphasis" on the next world, he is very clear that the next world doesn't exist and Christianity is just philosophically wrong.

Also, Brooks uses the word "enchanted" twice, in incommensurable contexts, which is a lot of enchantment for 800 words:
Weber argued that science and reason give us vast powers, but the price is that we no longer feel our lives enchanted by religious significance....
Democracy isn’t a political or legal bargain. It’s enchanted like romantic love, but on a larger scale.
And Brooks's personal "issues" with Kronman's philosophy literally have nothing to do with it. It's dorm-room talk, entirely unconnected with the book, which he made up out of whole cloth as he tried to worm his way to some kind of independent conclusive-looking paragraph:
Shapeless, it leads to laxness — whatever moral quandary you bring it, it gives back exactly the answer you’d prefer to hear. It throws each person back on himself and leads to self-absorption and atomization, as everybody naturally worships the piece of God that is one’s self. Naïve, it neglects the creedal structures that are necessary for those moments when love falters.
And readers will note all the different kinds of projection squeezed into that little package.
But Kronman’s book is like a gift from another epoch, a time when more people did believe that time-tested books held the golden keys to life, a time when people defined themselves by philosophic commitments as much as by partisan, sexual or ethnic ones, a time when it was generally believed that if you didn’t throw yourself in some arduous way at the big questions of your moment, you’d live a meager life, and would have to live and die with that awful knowledge.
Personally, I have issues with defining myself by philosophic commitments, talk about the dangers of being prideful and solitary, and I don't believe there has ever been a time when question-vaulting, arduously or otherwise, was a requirement instead of a privilege.


1. Inventory of Brooks's quotations from Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan:

"Since I first began to think about things..." (2)
"Although we cannot be immortal..." (45—second last page of the Introduction)
"a life without the yearning to reach the everlasting and divine..." (45)
"The world comes back" (1067—first page of the Epilogue)
"the eternal intelligibility of the world, now expanded" (39—the outline of Part IV)
"The supreme goal of democracy" (1044)

2. "Personally, I..."

I started collecting all Brooks's use of the formula "personally, I..." but got tired of it, even though I decided to skip all the ones from Brooks-Collins dialogues. It's kind of funny to contemplate this incomplete list, anyway.

Personally, I think Paul’s description of the problem is ingenious but her solution is incomplete. (8/25/15)
Personally, I’ve supported tighter gun control laws. (7/24/12)
Personally, I long for the day when rich people were free to be rich people, when Franklin Roosevelt could cruise around in that roadster with that big cigarette holder jutting from his mouth (7/17/04)
Personally, I don’t think the government is very good at investing in green energy (12/17/10)
Personally, I'd rather see four years of vacancy in Washington. (12/8/05)
Personally, I’d like to see it go farther. I’d prefer a system in which potential immigrants were admitted on an audition basis (5/22/07)
Personally I find this faith epistemologically naïve. Clinton seems to have no awareness... (7/14/05)
Personally, I wish Obama would use this convention to embrace Bowles-Simpson. (9/4/12)
Personally, I hate the idea of 10 guys sitting around in the White House trying to redesign huge swaths of the U.S. economy on legal pads. (2/20/09)
Personally, I think he’s a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not (9/18/12)
Personally, I don’t think there is one correct answer to whether we want a dog or a cat as leader (3/11/16)

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