Commonplace Book #134

“I don’t care what they think” has become public currency with us; saying it, we always mean to imply that we are persons solemnly devoted to high principle–rugged individuals in the somewhat fictional sense Americans usually give to that term.  In fact, this ready defiance of the opinions of others is a rhetorical fossil from our frontier experience.  Once it meant that if our neighbors’ opinions were repugnant to us, we were prepared either to kill our neighbors or to move west.  Now it doesn’t mean anything; it is adolescent bluster.  For when there is no frontier to retreat to, the demands of one’s community will be felt, and ways must be found to deal with them.

Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope,” in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural, 153.

Commonplace Book #133

… a good teacher is the trustee of a vital and delicate organism: the life of the mind in his community.  The ultimate and defining standards of his discipline is his community’s health and intelligence and coherence and endurance.  This is a high calling, deserving of a life’s work.  We have allowed it to degenerate into careerism and specialization….Education is coming to be, not a long-term investment in young minds and in the life of the community, but a short-term investment in the economy.  We want to be able to tell how many dollars an education is worth and how soon it will begin to pay.  

To accommodate these frivolous desires, education becomes training and specialization, which is to say,  it institutionalizes and justified ignorance and intellectual irresponsibility….The careerist teacher judges himself, and is judged by his colleagues, not by the influence he is having upon his students or the community, but by the size of his salary and the status of the place to which his career has taken him thus far.  And, typically, he is where he is only temporarily; he is on his way to a more lucrative and prestigious place.  Because so few stay around to be aware of the effects of their work, teachers are not judged by their teaching, but by the short-term incidentals of publication and “service.”  That teaching is a long-term service, that a teacher’s best work may be published in the children or grandchildren of his students cannot be considered, for the modern educator, like his “practical” brethren in business and industry, will honor nothing that he cannot see.

Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope,” in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (1970), 135-137.

Commonplace Book #132

…we have also come to attribute to ends a moral importance that far outweighs that which we attribute to means.  As thought we have arrived in our minds at a new age of fantasy or magic, we expect ends not only to justify means, but to rectify them as well.  Once we have reached the desired end, we think, we will turn back to purify and consecrate the means.  Once the war that we are fighting for the sake of peace is won, then the generals will become saints, the burned children will proclaim in heaven that their suffering is well repaid, the poisoned forests and fields will turn green again.  Once we have peace, we say, o abundance or justice or truth or comfort, everything will be all right.  It is an old dream.

It is a vicious illusion.  For the discipline of ends is no discipline at all. The end is preserved in the means; a desirable end may perish forever in the wrong means. Hope lives in the means, not the end. Art does not survive in its revelations, or agriculture in its products, or craftsmanship in its artifacts, or civilization in its monuments, or faith in its relics.

Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope,” in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural  (1970), p. 130-131.

Commonplace Book #131

Training is a process of conditioning, an orderly and highly efficient procedure by which a man learns a prescribed pattern of facts and functions.  Education, on the other hand, is an obscure process by which a person’s experience is brought into contact with his place and his history.  A college can train a person in four years; it can barely begin his education in that time.  A person’s education begins before his birth in the making of the disciplines, traditions, and attitudes of mind that he will inherit, and it continues until his death under the slow, expensive, uneasy tutelage of his experience.  The process that produces astronauts may produce soldiers and factory workers and clerks; it will never produce good farmers or good artists or good citizens or good parents.

Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope,” in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (1970), 103.

Commonplace Book #130

The extremes of public conviction are always based upon rhetorical extremes, which is to say that their words–and their actions–have departed from facts, causes, and arguments, and have begun to follow the false logic of a feud in which nobody remembers the cause but only what was last said or done by the other side.  Language and behavior become purely negative in function.  The opponents no longer speak in support of their vision or their arguments or their purposes, but only in opposition to each other. Language ceases to bind heart to heart, action to principle, and becomes a weapon in a contention deadly as war, shallow as a game.

Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope” in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (1970), p.89

Commonplace Book #129

Though he remained an invalid for the rest of his life, [Emanuel] Carnevali continued writing in English, taking backward glances at his American experience.  One of his poems, written as he approached his native land, bespeaks his ambivalent feelings and those of many another immigrant toward both Italy and America.  “In America,” he wrote,

. . . everything

Is bigger, but less majestic. . .

Italy is a little family:

America is an orphan

Independent and arrogant, 

Crazy and sublime,

Without tradition to guide her,

Rushing headlong in a mad run which she calls


American cities, he continues, are mechanical; “in their hurry, people forget to love and be kind.  Immigrants are hungry not only for bread but for people, but America you gather the hungry people/And give them new hungers for the old ones.”

Jerry Mangione and Ben Morreale, La Storia: Five Centures of the Italian American Experience, 361-362.


Commonplace Book #128

Although the Irish were more advanced economically and socially than any of the other new immigrants, many were still unskilled laborers who found themselves competing with Italian laborers willing to work for substandard wages.  The two people seem to be irreconcilable, especially in the great disparity in their concept and practice of Catholicism.  While both groups considered themselves Roman Catholic, the Irish adhered strictly to the Church’s official liturgy and doctrine and revered their clergy, whereas the southern Italians showed little respect for the clergy and practiced a folk religion that had changed little since the birth of Christ.

The southern Italian religion was based on awe, fear, and reverence for the supernatural, ‘a fusion of Christian and pre-Christian elements of animism, polytheism and sorcery along with the sacraments prescribed by the Church.”  These Italians believed in the power of the evil eye and in spells cast by witches that could kill a person or destroy a crop.  To protect themselves against malevolent forces, a peasant family might employ an exorcist when prayers to the local patron saint, the central figure in any southern village, went unheeded.

Jerry Mangione and Ben Morreale, La Storia: Five Centures of the Italian American Experience, 326-327.


Commonplace Book #127

The wide gulf between the Old World and the New went beyond custom and moral values.  At the center was a basic difference in philosophy.  Ingrained in the Southern Italian’s peasant soul by centuries of poverty and oppression were strong elements of fatalism, which some of them referred to as Destinu.  This fatalism contradicted the philosophy that their children brought home from school, where repeatedly their teachers talked of freedom, free enterprise, and free well, constantly stressing the individual capacity’s to change and improve his or her situation.  For the second generation that grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, the message of freedom was further accentuated by images of flappers, Rudolph Valentino, the gospel of free love, and the sermons of Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger–images that conflicted with the old ways of their parents.  Inevitably, these sons and daughters became aware of the basic differences between their parents and other Americans, which heightened  their dissatisfaction at being obliged to lead a double life, a state of mind that often generated serious identity problems as they approached adulthood.  An erosion of self-esteem was not uncommon for those who ventured into the American mainstream.

Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale, La Storia:  Five Centures of the Italian American Experience, 218.

Commonplace Book #126

…Others, however, were invigorated by New York.  Arriving in the city at the age of fifteen, Pascal D’Angelo was startled, then entranced, by the spectacle of an elevated train dashing around a curve.  “To my surprise not even on car fell.  Nor did the people walking beneath scurry away as it approached.'” Minutes late, while riding a trolley, he was distracted by the sight of a father and son moving their mouths in continuous motion ‘like cows chewing on cud.’  Never having known of chewing gum, he assumed, ‘with compassion, that father and son were both afflicted with some nervous disease.’  Later, just before he and his immigrant companions reached their destination, he was surprised to note signs at street with “Ave., Ave., Ave.’ printed on them.  “How religious a place this must be that expressed its devotion at every crossing,” he mused, though he could not understand why the word was not followed by “Maria.”

Gerre Mangione and Ben Morreale, La Storia: Five Centures of the Italian American Experience, 125.

Commonplace Book #125

Several decades before the exodus began, while the southern Italians, as subjects of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, were still firmly in the grip of Bourbon rule, the dream of America was thriving as a quasi-religious vision of a paradise on earth–a comfort for the miseria (misery) of their lot.  First inspired by the travels of Columbus, the dream grew into a myth fueled by other travelers: the occasional returning immigrant who gave it substance and shape through stories that became increasingly elaborate and vivid with each retelling.  As more Italians returned from the United States, the myth became so Americanized as to incorporate the Statue of Liberty as the Madonna of Liberation, and the American dollar bill as a sacred object to be pinned to the garments of their most cherished religious statues.  Adding to the weight of the myth were the legendary deeds of Garibaldi, the apotheosis of Italian heroes, who himself had been an immigrants both in South America and the United States.

Jerry Mangione and Ben Morreale, La Storia: Five Centures of the Italian American Experience, 45.

Commonplace Book #123

The first thing that must be said , and which can never be said powerfully and triumphantly enough , is that human fear has been completely and definitively conquered by the Cross.  Anxiety is one of the authorities, powers, and dominions  over which the Lord triumphed on the Cross and which he carried off captive and placed in chains, to make use of as he wills.  In the Old Covenant , too, there was a powerful command to “Fear not!”  But this command was challenged in various ways within the process of revelation: by the finiteness of the region illuminated by grace, by the fact that the grace that had been granted was characterized by hope for what had not yet arrived , by the incomprehensible threat of darkness breaking into the region of light despite the guarantees, and finally by man’s relapse again and again into sin.  Christ removed both the finitude of grace and its modality of hope when he tore down the dividing wall between heaven and earth (by his Incarnation), between earth and the netherworld (by his salvific suffering and his descent into hell) , and between the chosen people and the unchosen Gentiles (by his founding of the Church) and when the Father established him as the light of the whole world and the king of all three realms (Phil. 2:11).  Thereby every reason the redeemed might have for fear has been invalidated….Insofar as he possesses the life of faith, the Christian can no longer fear.  His bad conscience, which make him tremble, has been overtaken and girded up by the “peace of God which passes all understanding.”

Hans Ur von Balthasar, The Christian and Anxiety.

HT: Anton Sorkin

Commonplace Book #122

 First, as to putting the clock back.  Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do?  But I would rather get away from the whole idea of clocks.  We all want progress.  But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be.  And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.  If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man….And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes.  We are on the wrong road.  And if that is so, we must go back.  Going back is the quickest way on.

C.S. Lewis quoted in Alan Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord, 194334-35.

Commonplace Book #121

In fact, [Robert Maynard] Hutchins continues, by splitting the human lifeworld in the way they do, positivism and pragmatism leave us with “a colossal confusion of means and ends.  Wealth and power become the ends of life,” because the realm of value is the realm of opinion, in which I seek nothing more than easy justification for my desires.  “Men become merely means.  Justice is the interest of the stronger.”  This corrupted and simplistic approach to decision-making, in which we have no higher ends than the satisfaction of our immediate desires, happens when “moral and intellectual and artistic and spiritual development…receive the fag ends of our attention and our superluous funds.  We no longer attempt to justify education by its contribution to moral, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual growth.”

Alan Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord, 1943, 16.

Commonplace Book #120

…while I am aware that there is no Truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either; no verity, eternal or otherwise, no Truth about anything, there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable.  And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is.  And finding facts–through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing–can’t be rushed; it takes time. Truth takes time.

Robert Caro, Working, 112.

Commonplace Book #119

…human beings enjoy a dignity and value that no other creatures possess.  Too often we have arrogantly distorted this uniqueness into an unbridled license to trample and destroy the rest of creation.  Actually, the biblical text explicitly commands people to “work it and take care of” the rest of creation (Gen. 2:15 NIV).  But the truth remains–and it is fundamental to the whole project of civilization–that human beings possess a unique dignity and worth.

But what exactly does it mean to be created in the image of God?  There have been two major ways that Christians through the ages have understood the imago Dei: a substantial and a relational understanding.  Those in the substantial tradition (e.g. Thomas Aquinas) identify some essential capacity or faculty (e.g., our reason that makes rational thought possible or our will that enables us to choose freely) that distinguishes persons sharply from the rest of creation.  People in this tradition tend to put less emphasis on the way that the fall has damaged the imago Dei in sinful persons.

Those in the relational tradition (e.g. Luther, Calvin, Karl Barth) understand the imago Dei by analogy with a mirror that reflects some object.  The imago Dei, then, is not something inherent in persons, but rather the imago Dei is the relationship with God, which exists when one obeys God.  Through one’s right relationship with God, one truly reflects God’s will and thus bears God’s image.  In this view, sin largely or completely destroys the imago Dei in fallen people.  

Ronald Sider, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics, 52-53

Commonplace Book #118

Evangelical pronouncements on the role of government are often contradictory.  Sometimes when attacking government measures they dislike, evangelical voices use libertarian arguments that forbid almost all government programs to help the poor. (“Helping the poor is a task for individuals and churches, not the government.  Government should provide a legal framework, fair courts, and police protection but then leave almost everything else to the free choice of individuals.”)  But when the issue changes from the poor to the family, the definition of marriage, abortion, or pornography, the same people quickly abandon libertarian arguments that maximize individual freedom.  Instead they push vigorously  for legislation that involves substantial government restriction of individual choices.  It is possible that there are valid intellectual arguments for adopting libertarian arguments in the first case and nonlibertarian arguments in the second.  But a careful argument would have to be made.  Without such argument, flipping from libertarian to nonlibertarian arguments looks confused and superficial.

Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics, 20.

Commonplace Book #117

The idea of secularism has been in play for centuries–some might say millennia.  At the assorted genius bars of Western Civilization, it has long been one of the regulars, and as such it has been defined in a lot of plausible ways….Yet the following definition seems powerful, precise, and the most conducive to its survival: Secularism is a political philosophy, which, at its core, is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of, any and all relations between government and religion.  It translates that preoccupation into various strategies of governance, all of which seek to balance two necessities: (1) the individual citizen’s need for freedom of, or freedom from, religion, and (2) a state’s need to maintain order.

Jacques Berlinerblau, How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, xv-xvi.

Commonplace Book #116

…presidential musicals have only rarely shaped presidential politics. Sometimes a musical’s political impact is unexpected, as when a catchy musical number in the 1950s Ethel Merman vehicle Call Me Madam (“They Like Ike”) introduced a turn of phrase that would become one of the most effective political slogans of the twentieth century.  As the historian David Haven Blake has noted, “Long before Dwight Eisenhower had joined a political party, let alone agreed to run for office, Call Me Madam was advocating for an Eisenhower presidency.  Sometimes presidents have tried to shape musicals.  Richard Nixon sought the excision of certain musical numbers such as “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” (which depicted Revolutionary War era conservatives as financially motivated warmongers) from a special White House presentation of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776, the meticulous restaging of the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence that opened on Broadway in 1969 and played to great critical and commercial success before being adapted to film in 1972.  The 1776 cast balked at Nixon’s edits, and the command performance proceeded without the requested changes.  However, when the film of 1776 was released several years later, studio head Jack Warner (an avid Nixon supporter) had “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” deleted from the film’s final cut.  It remains unclear whether Warner ordered the negative destroyed as a favor to Nixon or a result of his own antipathy to the son; a copy of the number was surreptitiously preserved, however, permitting a restored version of the film to be released in 2001.

Brian Eugenio Herrera, “Looking at Hamilton From Inside the Broadway Bubble,” in Renee Romano and Claire Potter, Historians on Hamilton,  227.

Commonplace Book #115

Hamilton‘s brief forays into the place of women in the Early Republic suggests that Americans do not fully understand, or have not come to terms with, the idea that our founding happened with an instrument of gender domination like coverture in place.  Marriage under coverture was such an oppressive system that it can be hard for contemporary Americans to appreciate its scope and depth.  While  many of us are familiar with the phrase “second-class citizenship” to describe women’s place in the polity, the contrast in liberties for men and those for women was so great, and eighteenth-century make control over female bodies so absolute, that women’s legal status did, in fact, more closely resemble that of slaves than free citizens.

Of course, white women enjoyed some rights not available to enslaved people, women or men.  While enslaved people could never legally own property, some single women and widows of means could enjoy the protection of their property by law.  Wives had legal rights in extremis–a wife could divorce her husband or swear out a warrant against him if he committed a crime against her.  Slaves could not “divorce” their masters and the law provided no refuge for them against excessive physical force.  But when it came to their rights as specifically women and as wives, legally the only difference between a slave and a married woman was that a husband could not sell his wife nor could he prostitute her out, and even these distinctions were sometimes shaky.

Catherine Allgor, “‘Remember…I’m Your Man’: Masculinity, Marriage, and Gender in Hamilton,” in Renee Romano and Claire Potter, Historians on Hamilton, 106.

Commonplace Book #114

But claiming Hamilton’s migration to North America as the ultimate immigrant story obscures two elements of the nature of migration in Hamilton’s era.  One is that that Hamilton is traveling within the British Empire as a British citizen, and this is not an immigrant from the Caribbean in the ways that we would imagine his status today….Hamilton is actually part of a small and elite group of migrants with significant cultural and financial capital.  Secondly, Miranda has also reinscribed the invisibility of one group of migrants in the story of American progress: enslaved Africans.  Few accounts of our immigrant past include the forced migration of African laborers, who were the majority of immigrants (migrants, in) to the Americas in Hamilton’s era.  Histories of twentieth-century U.S. immigration have only recently begun to include African-descended peoples’ migration to the United States from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean as part of the history of African forced migrations into the generally celebratory tone of traditional immigrant histories that are characterized by the desire for freedom: the vast majority of people of African descent arrived in the Americas between the sixteenth and late nineteenth centuries chained in the holds of stinking slave ships.

Leslie M. Harris, “The Greatest City in the World?: Slavery in New York in the Age of Hamilton,” Renee Romano and Claire Potter, Historians on Hamilton71-72.