Thursday, July 9, 2015

Steinbeck on Overfishing

"In about an hour we came to the Japanese fishing fleet.  There were six ships doing the actual dredging while a large mother ship of at least 10,000 tons stood farther offshore at anchor. THe dredge boats themselves were large, 150- to 175 feet, probably about 600 tons. There were twelve boats in the combined fleet including the mother ship, and they were doing a very systematic job, not only of taking shrimp from the bottom, but every other living thing as well.  They cruised slowly along in echelon with overlapping dredges, literally scraping the bottom clean.  Any animal wich escaped must have been very fast indeed, for not even the sharks got away.  Why the Mexican government should have permitted the complete destruction of a valuable food supply is one of those mysteries which have their ramifications possibly back in pockets it is not well to look into."
John Steinbeck, The Log From The Sea Of Cortez. (Penguin, 1995, p. 205)  Emphasis added. Feel free to substitute the name of any other coastal government for the word "Mexican."

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What Thucydides Can Teach Us About Imperial Overreach

My latest article, co-authored with John Kaag.  Here's a sample:
"As we dwell in our golden, Athenian age of military and economic might, perhaps we should learn another lesson from the ancients as well. Aristotle tells us that a virtuous soul is not a soul without fear, but one that fears only the right things; and it is not moved by fear, because it tempers it with wisdom. In the end, the loss of virtue may be more dire than the loss of geopolitical prominence."
You can read it all here.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Is Thinking Real? Peirce On Neuro-Determinism

"Tell me, upon sufficient authority, that all cerebration depends upon movements of neurites that strictly obey certain physical laws, and that thus all expressions of thought, both external and internal, receive a physical explanation, and I shall be ready to believe you. But if you go on to say that this explodes the theory that my neighbour and myself are governed by reason, and are thinking beings, I must frankly say that it will not give me a high opinion of your intelligence."

Charles Sanders Peirce, "A Neglected Argument For The Reality Of God."

A Commercial Company Becomes A Church...And Then A Nation

“When the king and High Church party under Archbishop Laud became masters of the Church of England, many Puritan leaders wished to emigrate. They had property, social position, and an independent spirit. They did not wish to go out to Massachusetts Bay as mere vassals of a company in London. Moreover, they hoped to set up the kind of Church government they liked. Therefore, the principal Puritans of the company simply bought up all its stock, took the charter, and sailed with it to America. A commercial company was thus converted into a self-governing colony—the colony of Massachusetts Bay.”
Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager, A Short History of the United States. (New York: The Modern Library, 1956) p.11

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

On Church Organs and Church Music

Recently I had the good fortune to hear an organ concert in Westminster Abbey.  Not long afterwards I heard someone asking whether churches should get rid of their old organs.  The question is a reasonable one, since organs are expensive to maintain, nigh impossible to move, and not many people can play them well.  To those charges we should add the charge that organs are old-fashioned, and we are not.

I happen to love organ music, so that's one reason why I think we shouldn't get rid of the organs that remain in our churches. But there is at least one more important reason to think carefully about replacing them.  Sometimes organs don't fit well with the buildings they are in, as though the organ was purchased on its own merits and not for the way it matched the acoustics of the building that holds it.  In those cases, I don't see the loss if they're removed.  

But this is a failing of architecture and economics, not just of music. The problem in that case is far greater than the sin of not being contemporary.  An organ that does not match the church, or a church that is not made to be acoustically beautiful - both of these are failures, the kind of failure that comes from people who think that design and aesthetics are luxuries.  But design is never neutral; it always helps or hurts. Efficiencies and economics can be the enemies of accomplishing the most worthwhile ends.

Here's what Westminster Abbey reminded me of: a well-built organ is not just an instrument; it is a part of the edifice itself. Specifically, it is the part that turns the whole edifice into a musical instrument.  When the organ at Westminster is being played, it is not just a keyboard or pipes that are being played, but the whole building. Every bit of the building resounds.  The music is not an isolated event anymore; the notes played and the place in which they are played have merged, and each reaches out to affirm the other.  A good organ turns a church into a musical instrument.

Too often churches think of aesthetics last, if at all, or refuse to make aesthetics part of their theology.  This is a huge mistake.  The prophets describe the architectural adornments of the Ark and the Tabernacle and the Temple, giving those aesthetical elements a permanent place in Jewish and Christian canonical scripture.  Similarly, the scriptures are full of songs and poems that - one could argue - are unnecessary to salvation. As Scott Parsons and I have argued, art and the sacred belong together. Our faith is not a matter of mere talk; sometimes what must be articulated cannot be said in words, but needs the smell of incense, the ringing of a sanctus bell, the deep bellow of a pipe organ, the beauty of light well-captured in glass or terrazzo.

If you're not sure of what I mean, listen to Árstí∂ir sing the medieval hymn Heyr himna smi∂ur -- in a train station.  Can you imagine that being sung in a church with similar acoustics?  Here's what I love about the video: when they sing that beautiful old song, everyone around them stops to listen.  The beauty of the song is arresting, especially when it is paired with the building.  What keeps us from dreaming of building churches, writing music, and designing instruments that could similarly arrest us?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Made In The Image

Those who think the mind is only a calculating machine, or that thought is alien to willing and feeling - do they not wind up creating themselves in the image of a machine that is, in turn, created in the image of our own thinking?

This is like taking a picture of our reflection in the mirror and then arguing that we are two-dimensional, a fact that is proven both in the photograph and in the reflection in the mirror.  What further proof do we need?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Liberal Education And Freedom

"We seem to have forgotten that the expression "a liberal education" originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only. But taking a hint from the word, I would go a step further and say, that it is not the man of wealth and leisure simply, though devoted to art, or science, or literature, who, in a true sense, is liberally educated, but only the earnest and free man."
H.D. Thoreau, "The Last Days of John Brown"