‘Leisure: The Basis of Culture’ By Josef Pieper

Pieper begins the book as almost a marxian (though also anti-communist and anti-totalitarian) tract and ends as an apologist for Christian philosophy (though not, necessarily, for Christianity the religion).

Part of this is that he writes as a German in the years immediately following World War II. Neither Stalin nor Hitler nor the devastation of war can be ignored. Leisure, he notes, seems a luxury in such times, when so much rebuilding is necessary. And, though he doesn’t explicitly say it (though I think it implied in the book), when so much recompense is necessary.

He rejects the idea of intellectual ‘work’ in favor of less loaded words. How is ‘work’ loaded? It is for him because he wants something that does not demand an outcome, as in the product of work. He wants something that reflects contemplation and wonder (and revelation? It naturally follows, though he eschews such gnostic language).

The obvious comparison is between ‘pure’ scientific research and ‘practical’ scientific research (which, as Pieper would no doubt be quick to point out, had he made the comparison, is founded upon the results of pure scientific research).

Ultimately, though, the title is really misleading. He is not advocating, in the end, for leisure, but for philosophizing as a vital part of life.

He most frequently cites Plato and Aquinas (which made me wish I knew more than broad strokes about his philosophy), but it is Heidegger who most clearly haunts him. He mentions him, but tries to avoid mentioning him (not unsurprising, considering the time when he was writing). Like Heidegger, he seeks a way of being in the world and this leisure, which is really philosophical contemplation and study, is his solution. But while Heidegger’s is nearly theological, Pieper’s is, in the final analysis, explicitly theological. Sort of. He doesn’t argue that Christianity is necessary for man, only existentially profitable, arguing, as it were, but not proselytizing.

‘Confucius: A Throneless King’ By Meher McArthur

This brief book is an interesting, but ultimately disappointing ‘biography’ of Confucius. I say ‘biography’ because, as the author admits, it is almost impossible to put together an accurate bio of the man, because so much of what is known is not able to be disentangled from myth. While he admits the problem, it’s not clear from the book itself how he went about it. How much can we trust the incidents described? I certainly don’t know. And the ending is downright confusing, because it’s a series of short narratives about the spread and influence of Confucianism outside of China (Vietnam, Korea, etc). Interesting, but felt like filler because… wasn’t this a bio of the man? And if you were going to do more, why not actually talk more about the philosophy cum religion called Confucianism? There’s a little, but honestly, if I hadn’t read Fung’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (also disappointing), I wouldn’t really have known what he was talking about when he says things like ‘Neo-Confucianism.’ Perhaps my main takeaway from this book is that it’s past time for me to read the Analects.

Choral Works At The National Cathedral

First of all, I was glad to see that nets were gone at the Washington National Cathedral. For a long time, post-earthquake (which was in 2011 or 2012, I think), there nets strung up inside the Cathedral to protect visitors and worshipers from falling bits of cathedral. While appreciated, from a safety perspective, it took away a bit from the sense of awe, grandeur, and general aesthetics.

The last time I saw a concert here, it was period pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries, composed or performed for the French court (and played using period pieces). The music was beautiful, but the acoustics just swallowed the orchestra’s sound (maybe it was the nets).

This time, the sound just soared wonderfully. It was the cathedral’s resident chorus, plus New York Polyphony (an all male vocal quartet), a guest soprano soloist, strings (roughly the size of chamber music orchestra, which is to say, larger than a quarter, but smaller than a full orchestra), and the cathedral’s own organ.

The selections were actually dominated (marginally) by either pieces by contemporary composers or else by pieces arranged by contemporary composers. With a few, arguable, exceptions, they were religious works – often liturgical. I say arguably, because one of the works set some stanzas by Whitman to music and, especially in America, Whitman could be considered to be almost religious.

That said, there wasn’t as much variety among the pieces as I might have liked. At a certain point, one Ave Maria starts to sound like another. That being the case, I could make the argument that they might have been better off taking a longer piece by someone like Tallis and playing that as the entirety of either the pre- or post-intermission half.

On A Recent Sunday

On a recent Sunday, I visited the Holocaust Museum with some friends. It was only my second visit and just as sad and moving as the first time; it’s hard not to feel tears welling up at various junctures.

The Holocaust, as a historical event, is sui generis. It is not there to be our metaphor. It is too singular.

But good God, it is simply impossible to visit that museum and see the history and artifacts leading up to the Holocaust being possible and not think about the terrible act, the bigoted act, the ignorant act, the base act, the racist act undertaken by our president.

And he is our president. He is my president. Whatever good I may do in my life, I will also always be, in some part, complicit in whatever evil my country does, especially when it takes place during my lifetime.

In another tragedy, an acquaintance of my mine is a student, studying here on a student visa. The terms of her visa require her to leave the United States every so often (every six months is a common condition of many visas), but she is from one of Trump’s designated countries. She doesn’t know whether to hurry away now and return by judicial stays can be overturned or to wait and hope that things get better. I don’t know either and all my advice to her tastes likes ashes because I am complicit.


Francis Fukuyama & ‘Children Of Men’

As part of series called Future Tense, I dragged my better half to see the movie Children of Men, followed by a brief lecture/Q&A featuring Francis Fukuyama (who actually introduced himself as ‘Frank’ Fukuyama; nothing intrinsically weird about that, but it did strike me, because I only know him as a sort of public intellectual and semi-repentant neo-conservative.

I loved the movie when it first came out, though I spent almost the entire movie on the verge of tears. This time, I was able to appreciate Clive Owen’s wry humor (and also accept that he would not have been a good James Bond; while Daniel Craig added a wonderful element of questioning Bond’s existence, a Clive Owen Bond would have been entirely too despairing).

Let me first admit that I have never read anymore longer than a magazine essay by Fukuyama. Yes, I am the guy in DC who does not own The End of History, in case you were wondering who that person was. Mostly because I know him as a neo-conservative/neo-liberal (hint: they’re the same thing), even though I also know he has backed off those tendencies over the last decade.

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t interested in hearing what he had to say.

He was surprisingly religious and, as a moderator in a Q&A, he took care of the perennial issue of ‘let me ask a question that is actually a long statement intended to show how smart I am but which really shows that I once read an article from a two year old copy of The Economist while waiting to get a crown replaced.’ What he did was to give a brief lecture and then ask a question, so at least the people were supposed to speak and ramble.

While he asked several questions, they were ultimately about what the world might look like if there were no future. While I resisted the temptation to raise my hand and ask to be heard, I will admit that I had a rough idea of a comment in mind. I thought of de Sade’s Philosophy of the Bedroom. Specifically, I thought of that weird interlude when one of the characters suggests they pause their orgy and read an essay. You can google this. My point is that he talks about the death of God, which is the death of the king during the French Revolution. By executing the king, revolutionaries have killed the idea of order and limits coming from a higher power and they should accept that they have made it so that nothing is forbidden anymore. My insight from that is that the death of God can be something besides just a loss of faith (or an enormous, otherwise omnipotent being feeling dead from the sky), but also be something like, say, the loss of fertility. And then, in the words of Uncle Billy Burroughs, everything is permitted, nothing is forbidden.

Fukuyama also told me something I didn’t know: the title comes from the King James Bible’s translation of Psalm 90

Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men

It’s a prayer by Moses, by the way. And Fukuyama put in a nice plug for the King James version, telling folks how much they’re missing when they read those silly ‘modern’ language versions.

Wilmington, Delaware

So, I was in Wilmington, Delaware the other weekend. On Saturday, I walked from Brandywine Park to the Delaware Art Museum, which is famous for its collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and related works. The museum was originally founded to house and preserve the works of Wilmington based illustrator, Howard Pyle, who died in 1911.

On Sunday, I walked through the park and up a set of stairs and wound up at an eighteenth century Presbyterian church which is only open one day month and only for two hours on that day and, by strange coincidence, I walked up there on that day.

My notes are all mixed up, so I’m just going to post a bunch of pictures up and make whatever comments I want in the caption.

This is from the church, obviously

This is from the church, obviously

You can see the date of its construction written in 'brick' on the side

You can see the date of its construction written in ‘brick’ on the side

Colonial graffiti

Colonial graffiti

The classic colonial pulpit

The classic colonial pulpit

A quintessential subject (Lilith) by the quintessential Pre-Raphaelite artist (Rossetti)

A quintessential subject (Lilith) by the quintessential Pre-Raphaelite artist (Rossetti)

'Hymenaeus,' by Edward Burnes-Jones

‘Hymenaeus,’ by Edward Burnes-Jones

I took a picture of this just because of the salon style display of the works

I took a picture of this just because of the salon style display of the works

Another example of how charmingly welcoming this museum is!

Another example of how charmingly welcoming this museum is!

Most museums won't let you sit in the nice chairs in the galleries

Most museums won’t let you sit in the nice chairs in the galleries

Another very Rossetti-like Rossetti... they did love red-haired women

Another very Rossetti-like Rossetti… they did love red-haired women

From the Pre-Raphaelite gallery; I should note that the museum took a wonderfully liberal view of photographs; no flash, of course, but if the museum owned the piece, you are welcome to snap away

From the Pre-Raphaelite gallery; I should note that the museum took a wonderfully liberal view of photographs; no flash, of course, but if the museum owned the piece, you are welcome to snap away

What I like best is that the man is smiling despite his burden; protecting children is inherently rewarding

What I like best is that the man is smiling despite his burden; protecting children is inherently rewarding

This is a great Motherwell, but also exemplifies the challenge of the smaller, regional museum; how does one work around having an eclectic collection that doesn't really illustrate a movement or artist? What good is one Motherwell, in a way?

This is a great Motherwell, but also exemplifies the challenge of the smaller, regional museum; how does one work around having an eclectic collection that doesn’t really illustrate a movement or artist? What good is one Motherwell, in a way?

Completely random, but cool - a set of Art Deco elevator doors!

Completely random, but cool – a set of Art Deco elevator doors!


About a month ago, my better, my parents, and I visited the ancestral homeland in rural Arkansas. A bit of a culture shock for my better half, as a POC and an immigrant, to make her way there, to say the least.

On Sunday, three of us (father, wisely perhaps, stayed in) went to a pentecostal style church with other members of the extended family.

I was kindly warned by other family members (ok, by my mother) and passed on some of those warnings to my better half.

But I didn’t think much of the warnings. I had, after all, been the pentecostal and evangelical churches before. Many times, in fact. Those were all African-American churches, and I didn’t realize how big a difference that would make.

The service itself (a little odd, for someone raised in the Episcopal tradition and presently an imperfect Catholic churchgoer) lacked ritual, but was, instead, twenty minutes of music and nearly two continuous hours of preaching.

Ahh… the preaching.

I give credit to any person who can pontificate (pun intended) for so long, but the content was absolutely horrifying to my own spiritual/religious/faith sensibilities.

The black prophetic tradition that I have encountered, even when talking about things that are wrong in the world, is ultimately, a positive one. Dr. King noted that he might not make it to the mountain, but the focus was not on that, but on the fact that the mountain was there and within reach of humanity.

For this (white) preacher, the focus was on despair and the negative. Yes, the positive (salvation is attainable) was mentioned, but the focus was on the negative. Same content, if you will, but emphasis matters. Oh, does it matter.

For most my time as a Catholic, I’ve had the fortune to have a wonderful sermonizer at the pulpit, in the form of a jovial priest named Father Byrne. Like most priests I have met, he’s a happy guy (based on my small sampling, job satisfaction seems through the roof for people who have taken orders). His sermons often opened with a challenge, but quickly moved to a loud and happily declaimed declaration along the lines of, “But I’ve got good news for you!”

The contrast was stark and, ultimately, horrifying to behold.

My better half luckily skipped the bible study before the service. Luckily, because there probably would have been altercation had the same comments been made while she was there as were made while she wasn’t (and I have to suspect that the person who made the most reprehensible remark lacks the self awareness to have picked up on the fact that saying what she said around a POC would be no less inappropriate, but wildly more personal offensive).

You’re probably wondering what she said, right?

Somehow, racism came up (along with the impending collapse of civilization, which one can’t help but feel they interpreted as ‘white civilization’) and a woman told the group about how her apparently perceptive/prophetic grandfather had, in the 1950s, predicted an eventual race war between white and black.

Now, a little reflection on that story might lead one to ask, what might have been happening in the 1950s to lead a white man in the South to say this?

Could it be a nascent civil rights movement? Could it have been early moves towards integration, like Truman’s integration of the military or the 1954 decision, Brown v Board?

But every seemed quietly acknowledge the woman as having made a valid point of some kind. Or maybe, like me, the rest of the attendees were cowards who said nothing.

I read this conversation between the poet Jenny Zhang and Nate Brown wherein a story is told about teaching a workshop where someone presents a story about several white college students in a mostly white town who encounter a black man who is, in the story, referred to/named as ‘Black.’

The teacher tries to drive the conversation towards some kind of dialogue about that, but no one seemed to get that referring to the only POC in the story by their color as being at all problematic.

That struck me, because I couldn’t help but think back to that moment at bible study… did the woman never stop to think that there might be more to this sixty year old prediction of a race war than mere insight?

And, once again, I call upon the wisdom of this line:

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.