Notes From Babel

Archive for the ‘Quotes’ Category

Society and Order

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Man is rational; but also man is rebellious and depraved, and his evil impulses cannot be controlled by the Law Rational alone.  If men are to live in society, there must be provided checks upon their wills and appetites.  Scripture, though unerring, does not furnish a complete set of rules by which men may govern themselves in all circumstances and ages.  Therefore men have developed, and submitted themselves to, what Hooker calls the Law Positive—enacted law, that is, law enforced by the commonwealth.  To set aside that positive law would be to ruin all civil social order.

. . . .

So Hooker is a convincing exponent of the idea of continuity—of the principle that in concerns of both church and state, we must seek to link generation with generation.  Churches and states are immortal corporations: if we break down established laws, thriving customs, and beloved ceremonies, we rashly ignore the lessons of the past and endanger society’s future.  Our religion, our culture, and our political rights all are maintained by continuity: by our respect for the accomplishments of our forefathers, and by our concern for posterity’s well-being. Just as the individual human body can survive only if its vital continuity is maintained during its processes of organic change, so the Church and the civil social order must perish unless law and custom remain the same from year to year, decade to decade, century to century.  Any man is foolish who disregards the beneficent incorporation of society, which goes on though individuals perish; for it is not in the power of anyone to create a new church or a new society out of whole cloth.

Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order.


Written by Tim Kowal

September 18, 2010 at 1:04 am

Creeping Progressivism

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Allan Bloom on the almost century-long intellectual hijacking of the American right of self-rule:

The reaction to this problem [that enforcement of legal equality did not result in enforcement of social equality] was, in the first place, resistance of the notion that outsiders had to give up their “cultural” individuality and make themsleves into that universal, abstract being who participates in natural rights or else be doomed to an existence on the fringe; in the second place, anger at the majority who imposed a “cultural” life on the nation to which the Constitution is indifferent.  Openness [i.e., the deconstruction of absolutism, and thus, unwittingly, of rights] was designed to provide a respectable place for these “groups” or “minorities”—to wrest respect from those who were not disposed to give it—and to weaken the sense of superiority of the dominant majority (more recently dubbed WASPs, a name the success of which shows something of the success of sociology in reinterpreting the national consciousness).  That dominant majority gave the country a dominant culture with its traditions, its literature, its tastes, its special claim to know and supervise the language, and its Protestant religions.  Much of the intellectual machinery of twentieth-century American political thought and social science was constructed for the purposes of making an assault on that majority.  It treated the founding principles as impediments and tried to overcome the other strand of our political heritage, majoritarianism, in favor of a nation of minorities and groups each following its own beliefs and inclinations.  In particular, the intellectual minority expected to enhance its status, presenting itself as the defender and spokesman of all the others.

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind.

Written by Tim Kowal

August 24, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Posted in Progressivism, Quotes

The Law of Modeling Limits

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Before a model becomes complicated enough to be useful for planning, it becomes too complicated for anyone to understand.

Randy O’Toole wrote this about urban planning, but it seems a portable enough principle to apply just as well to any other kind of government planning.

Written by Tim Kowal

August 23, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Posted in Quotes

A Nation of Tinkerers

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I’m currently reading Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  I was impressed with Austin Bramwell’s vigor on land use planning issues, and Bramwell listed Death and Life as his #1 most influential book, so I figured I’d have to check it out.  Nearly a hundred pages in, however, and Jacobs has not yet finished fawning all over how neat sidewalks are.  Not a very rigorous work.  But she opens her book with a quote from Ollie Wendell Holmes, Jr., which has been ringing in my head the past week:

Until lately the best thing that I was able to think of in favor of civilization, apart from blind acceptance of the order of the universe, was that it made possible the artist, the poet, the philosopher, and the man of science. But I think that is not the greatest thing. Now I believe that the greatest thing is a matter that comes directly home to us all. When it is said that we are too much occupied with the means of living to live, I answer that the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex: that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts, instead of simple, uncoordinated ones, in order that the crowd may be fed and clothed and housed and moved from place to place. Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. They mean more life. Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.

I realized yesterday that the reason I’m so taken with this quote is that it expresses almost the very same twisted condition of humanity noted by Dostoyevsky in Notes from Underground.  I quoted this once before, but its import cannot be exhausted:

In short, anything can be said about world history, anything that might just enter the head of the most disturbed imagination. Only one thing cannot be said—that it is sensible. You’d choke on the first word. And one even comes upon this sort of thing all the time: there constantly appear in life people of such good behavior and good sense, such sages and lovers of mankind, as precisely make it their goal to spend their entire lives in the best-behaved and most sensible way possible, to become, so to speak, a light for their neighbors, essentially in order to prove to them that one can indeed live in the world as a person of good behavior and good sense. And what then? It is known that sooner or later, towards the end of their lives, many of these lovers have betrayed themselves, producing some anecdote, sometimes even of the most indecent sort. Now I ask you: what can be expected of man as a being endowed with such strange qualities? Shower him with all earthly blessings, drown him in happiness completely, over his head, so that only bubbles pop up on the surface of happiness, as on water; give him such economic satisfaction that he no longer has anything left to do at all except sleep, eat gingerbread, and worry about the noncessation of world history—and it is here, just here, that he, this man, out of sheer ingratitude, out of sheer lampoonery, will do something nasty. He will even risk his gingerbread, and wish on purpose for the most pernicious nonsense, the most noneconomical meaninglessness, solely in order to mix into all this positive good sense his own pernicious, fantastical element. It is precisely his fantastic dreams, his most banal stupidity, that he will wish to keep hold of, with the sole purpose of confirming to himself (as if it were so very necessary) that human beings are still human beings and not piano keys, which, though played upon with their own hands by the laws of nature themselves, are in danger of being played so much that outside the calendar it will be impossible to want anything. And more than that: even if it should indeed turn out that he is a piano key, if it were even proved to him mathematically and by natural science, he would still not come to reason, but would do something contrary on purpose, solely out of ingratitude alone; essentially to have his own way. And if he finds himself without means–he will invent destruction and chaos, he will invest all kinds of suffering, and still have his own way! He will launch a curse upon the world, and since man alone is able to curse (that being his privilege, which chiefly distinguishes him from other animals), he may achieve his end by the curse alone—that is, indeed satisfy himself that he is a man and not a piano key! If you say that all this, the chaos and darkness and cursing, can also be calculated according to a little table, so that the mere possibility of a prior calculation will put a stop to it all and reason will claim its own—then he will deliberately go mad for the occasion, so as to do without reason and still have his own way! I believe in this, I will answer for this, because the whole human enterprise seems indeed to consist in man’s proving to himself every moment that he is a man and not a sprig! With his own skin if need be, but proving it; by troglodytism if need be, but proving it.

As I’ve said before, we are a people defined by a will to tinker.  Not because our world wants for tinkering, but because we are tinkerers.  Take any perfect thing and man will mar it so he may satisfy his urge to put his hand to it.

Apparently, Justice Holmes, one of the fathers of the Progressive movement, believed the same thing.  Simple constitutional doctrines can never satisfy those whose tinkering proclivities are directed toward our legal system.  Progressivism is not the ideology of choice of Progressives because it renders better results, but for the more fundamental reason that it gives activists something to do.

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Written by Tim Kowal

April 24, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Who Cares About the Constitution? Not Phil Hare

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The Cato Institute provides the transcript of this exchange with Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.):

Off-camera: Where in the Constitution…

Rep. Hare: I don’t worry about the Constitution on this, to be honest.

Off-camera: [Laughter.] Jackpot, brother.

Rep. Hare: What I care more about — I care more about the people that are dying every day that don’t have health insurance.

Off-camera: You care more about that than the U.S. Constitution that you swore to uphold!

Rep. Hare: I believe that it says we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Now you tell me…

Off-camera: That’s the Declaration of Independence.

Rep. Hare: It doesn’t matter to me. Either one…

[Lots of childish sniping.]

Off-camera: Where in the Constitution does it give you the authority to…

Rep. Hare: I don’t know. I don’t know.

Off-camera: That’s what I thought.

“The welfare of humanity is always the alibi of tyrants.” -Albert Camus

“Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when government’s purposes are beneficial.  Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers.  The greater dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”  -Justice Louis Brandeis

Written by Tim Kowal

April 2, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Posted in Politics, Quotes

Tagged with

Sentiment and Reason

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That it does not matter what a man believes is a statement heard on every side today.  The statement carries a fearful implication.  If a man is a philosopher in the sense with which we started, what he believes tells him what the world is for.  How can men who disagree about what the world is for agree about any of the minutiae of daily conduct?  The statement really means that it does not matter what a man believes so long as he does not take his beliefs seriously.  Anyone can observe that this is the status to which religious belief has been reduced for many years.  But suppose he does take his beliefs seriously?  Then what he believes places a stamp upon his experience, and he belongs to a culture, which is a league founded on exclusive principles. To become eligible, one must be able to say the right words about the right things, which signifies in turn that one must be a man of correct sentiments.  This phrase, so dear to the eighteenth century, carries us back to the last age that saw sentiment and reason in a proper partnership.

Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences 23 (Univ. Chicago Press 1948).

Written by Tim Kowal

February 27, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Man’s Access to the Divine Through Language

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[There is an] ancient belief that a divine element is present in language.  The feeling that to have power of language is to have control over things is deeply imbedded in the human mind.  We see this in the way men gifted in speech are feared or admired; we see it in the potency ascribed to incantations, interdictions, and curses.  We see it in the legal force given to oath or word.  A man can bind himself in the face of contingencies by saying Yea or Nay, which can only mean that words in common human practice express something transcending the moment.  Speech is, moreover, the vehicle of order, and those who command it are regarded as having superior insight, which must be into the necessary relationship of things. . . .

. . . .

So when wisdom came to man in Christ . . . “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”  The allegory need give no difficulty; knowledge of the prime reality comes to man through the word; the word is a sort of deliverance from the shifting world of appearances.  The central teaching of the New Testament is that those who accept the word acquire wisdom and at the same time some identification with the eternal, usually figured as everlasting life.

Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences 148-49 (Univ. Chicago Press 1948).

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Written by Tim Kowal

February 21, 2010 at 9:56 am

Posted in Language, Quotes