Why I like Obamacare [the Spiritual Masters Series]

When the heart is right
“For” and “against” are forgotten.

— Chuang Tzu (from Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu)

I like Obamacare’s medicine and policy; let’s get that out of the way. I liked it in 1993, and I like it now. But what I like best is the political process.

We have listened to one another. We have given in to one another. We can still compromise, we can still solve big problems. But time has taken the place of reason. Our deepest failing – our short collective attention span – has become our highest virtue.

We Americans are a forgetful people. We have forgotten that Obamacare is essentially the Chafee bill co-sponsored – co-sponsored! – by nineteen Republican U.S. Senators. The Chafee bill became the Republican rallying cry, the chief alternative to Hillarycare.

The Chafee bill contained that infamous Republican innovation, the individual mandate. It contained Obamacare’s state-based exchanges, its ban on denials for preexisting conditions, its subsidies for low-income people to buy insurance policies. It contained Obamacare’s expansion of the private insurance industry, its allowance for individual state innovation, its efficiency requirements, its reduction in growth of health care costs, and its expansion of Americans covered to around 94%. Even though the impartial Congressional Budget Office never did the analysis, the Chafee bill probably would have reduced the deficit in real dollars almost as much as Obamacare will. (Here’s a chart summarizing a comparison of the Chafee bill and Obamacare.)

I like how Democrats can now say, “Ha ha! You Republicans thought you lost when Obamacare was passed and upheld, but you really won! You got exactly what you wanted almost two decades ago, including your precious individual mandate that we hated, and the public voted us out of office in 2010 instead of you! Nyeh!”

I like how one can fall asleep a Republican in 1993 and wake up, Orlando-like, in 2010 a Democrat without modifying a single view. And how one can argue passionately as a Republican one decade and passionately as a Democrat the next while making the same points, even using the same words. In the alternative, I like how one can remain true to an inconstant party, ignoring the lipstick, the nights out of town, even the recently discovered love letters. We are virtuous consumers of political rhetoric: we remain loyal to a brand even when the brand itself is sold to its competitor. Time, aided by a certain peer pressure, makes it the most natural thing in the world to argue for more freedom as a teen and more responsibility from our teens, all the while hearing faint echoes of one’s future or former self. We have raised a child who (the ode reminds us) is father of the man.

Studdy to be quyet

Because some men study to have learning rather than to live well, they err many times, and bring forth little good fruit or none. — The Imitation of Christ

I like the feel of the purposeful study that Thomas à Kempis recommends to his fellow monks, at least as it comes across here in Harold Gardner’s version of Richard Whitford’s 1530 translation.

Study to live well. Does that mean study (apply myself to knowledge) in order to live well? Or does it mean, as the OED has it, “To endeavour, make it one’s aim, set oneself deliberately to do something” — in this case to live well?

I’m tempted to answer as the kids do today: “Yes.” But “study” here almost certainly means something like the OED definition I quote. Still, I like the ambiguity the word “study” affords. I want the word to mean both things at once. If I can’t have a denotation that is stronger than the sum of two of the word’s definitions, then I want at least one of these definitions to permit a strong connotation of the other.

That’s why I like older English Bibles. You’ve already got the problem of a translation, and now you have to consider the text in a language that it almost, but not quite, your own. You might even find something that was never there and live in it. There are more straws to grasp, and straw makes nice nests.

I know no Greek. I’ve looked up philotimeomai in two Bible dictionaries. The word more closely fits the above “endeavour” definition from the OED. The King James translates the word as “labour,” “strive,” and “study,” depending on the word’s context. The modern English Bibles I have looked at do not translate the word as “study,” probably because the “endeavour” definition is, of course, archaic.

I like “Study to be quiet” from First Thessalonians. It’s part of a string of verses tied among several epistles in which Paul tells his readers or his readers’ charges, in so many words, to follow his example and get a job. But none of the modern versions say anything like “Study to be quiet.” The Revised English Bible, for instance, says, “Let it be your ambition to live quietly. . .”

I lived in a similar verse for years, the more famous “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

[photo of William Faulkner]At the four-times-a-week Bible studies I attended in my youth, we assumed that study meant study. (We understood that Paul wrote in Elizabethan English, and we understood Elizabethan English as well as he.) This verse from Timothy was one of the ones we used to justify our group study. But here’s the New American Standard’s take: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” “Be diligent” is not “study” as we normally use the word today.

But part of diligence in such a context might be what we call study today, no? I’m all the richer for my linguistic ineptitude.

Perhaps you see why I like Tindale, Geneva, King James, and Webster?

I’ll never discover new planets. (I’m quite nearsighted, and my discoveries usually come from tripping over large objects most people see from a distance. This tendency alone takes me out of the running.) But finding evidence of another definition of “study” in college while reading The Sound and the Furymade me feel as if I had discovered another planet adorning my bright “study” star.

In the idiot’s presence, one of Luster’s companions denies Luster’s suggestion that perhaps he had secretly discovered Luster’s missing quarter. “I aint studying no quarter. I got my own business to tend to,” the companion says. (“And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business. . .”: more of that verse in First Thessalonians.) A page later, the same companion denies any interest in the show Luster apparently wants to gain admission to with the quarter: “I aint studying that show.” Later in the book, Luster himself uses the word to deny Dilsey’s charge that he broke a window: “I aint stud’in dat winder.”

These black characters — Faulkner’s angels sent to live among the disintegrating Compson family — helped me in my darkness, too. These dialogs introduced me to “study” as something like “To be addicted to; to direct one’s efforts to; to be solicitous for, after; to set one’s mind upon. Obs.” (from the OED again). Never mind that this definition doesn’t generate a quotation in the OED from later than 1603.

Luster’s and his acquaintance’s use of “study” may have something more to do with “To think intently; to meditate (about, of, on, upon, in); to reflect, try to recollect something or to come to a decision. Now dial. and U.S. colloq.” (OED). Faulkner is even quoted in the OED using “study” in this sense, though the word’s context in that quote sure points to this last definition more than the context in which Luster and his companion use it.

So, not knowing a thing about linguistics or etymology, I go with the “To be addicted to; to direct one’s efforts to; to be solicitous for, after; to set one’s mind upon.” I throw in some “endeavour” and some normal study, too. But of course I use the word in this amalgamated sense usually only when I talk to myself. I think I limit it to that.

I attach meaning to words from their contexts. Shoot first; open the dictionary later. This is a wonderful tool for learning vocabulary, I am told. Few of us learn new words by looking them up straightaway in a dictionary, anyway. And even when I do look up words that are new to me, I often forget their meanings. But maybe I’ll become influential, and my misuses will germinate into new definitions in a future edition of the OED. Why discover planets when you can grow them?

So I use words incorrectly, or at least imprecisely. When I peck through all of this straw, I usually get something wrong — the original or the translation or both. At the same time, something is gained in the translation. I slowly build a nest I can live in.

Posted October 2006.

Job’s friends

I wonder if I would ever sit silently with a friend for seven days out of respect for his suffering.

I wonder if I would ever stay with him after he began to talk for the hours or days it took him to grieve his loss, to get in touch with his feelings, and to stand against his God.

I wonder if I would ever stay with him long enough to stand up for his God and to be rebuked by his God for it in the end.

I wonder if I would ever love someone enough to spend hours accusing him as a means of defending my bad theology against my friend’s suffering that would, in the end, invalidate my theology. I wonder if I would ever love someone enough to risk the kind of abyss the loss of such a closely held theology might lead me down.

Would I love him enough to discover that I truly hate him, that the comfort I offer makes everything worse for him?

When I was younger, I tried to avoid hospitals, nursing homes, viewings, funerals — anything that required me to get close to other people in their sufferings. I didn’t know what to say to comfort the sick and the bereaved. Job’s friends later taught me by their example that I don’t have to say anything, and that it is important just to call, just to visit.

At one point, I also shared Job’s friends’ judgmental theology: suffering generally results from sin. My theology was another reason for my avoidance of hospitals and funeral homes. The sick and the dying pitted my heart against my stiff, sick understanding of God. Job’s friends could have helped me here, too. By following their example, I might have stuck it out with others in tight quarters where, sooner or later, God would have shown up and challenged my thinking.

I see the same struggle I went through going on in each of Job’s friends. The struggle plays out in their speeches to Job. They try to help Job by preaching to him about God’s judgment and, in the process, making not-overly-subtle references to the tragedies that rocked Job’s world. For example, Zophar, knowing full well that all ten of Job’s children died when a great wind blew down the house where they were eating, is kind enough to remind Job that ” . . . God shall cast the fury of his wrath upon [the hypocrite], and shall rain it upon him while he is eating.” (Job 20:23)

The following may be only a partial list of remarks by Job’s friends demonstrating how they connect Job’s suffering with what they judge to be his sin:

Job’s disaster (chapter:verse) Friends’ remarks to Job (chapter:verse)
The Sabiens take Job’s oxen (1:15), and the Chaldeans take Job’s camels (1:17) “Whose harvest the hungry eateth up, and taketh it even out of the thorns, and the robber swalloweth up [foolish men’s] substance. (5:5) “[The wicked] shall not be rich, neither shall his substance continue. . .” (15:29)”The robber shall prevail against [the wicked].” (18:9)”In the fullness of [the wicked’s] sufficiency he shall be in straits; every hand of the wicked shall come upon him.” (20:22)”The increase of [the wicked’s] house shall depart, and his goods shall flow away in the day of his wrath.” (20:28)
The sole surviving servant over the oxen and the sole surviving servant over the camels escape and tell Job the news (1:15 & 17) “A dreadful sound is in the [the wicked man’s] ears: in prosperity the destroyer shall come upon him.” (15:21)
“The fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep, and the servants…” (1:16) “. . . brimstone shall be scattered upon [the wicked’s] habitation.” (18:15) “The heaven shall reveal [the wicked man’s] iniquity… (20:27)”… the [estate] of [the wicked] the fire consumeth.” (22:20)
A great wind blows Job’s son’s house down, crushing and killing all of Job’s children while they are eating (1:18-19) “Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off?” (4:7) “[The foolish man’s] children are far from safety, and they are crushed in the gate, neither is there any to deliver them.” (5:4)”If thy children have sinned against [God], and he have cast them away for their transgression. . .” (8:4)”[The hypocrite] shall lean upon his house, but it shall not stand. . .” (8:15)”[The wicked] shall neither have son nor nephew among his people, nor any remaining in his dwellings.” (18:19)

“When [the wicked and the hypocrite] is about to fill his belly, God shall cast the fury of his wrath upon him, and shall rain it upon him while he is eating.” (20:23)

I suppose one could read Eliphaz’s, Bildad’s, and Zophar’s remarks in light of Job’s tragedies and figure that these friends are simply somewhat insensitive. In this way, one might give them the benefit of the doubt, supposing that they might have added, “present company excepted” to each remark had the events of Job’s trial come to their minds during their orations. It is difficult to believe, however, that these three friends would have so entirely forgotten the remarkable events that had led them to remain silent with Job for seven days. Surely the correlations in the above table are more than instances of insensitivity.

Why do these three friends act this way? Logically, of course, they proceed abductively from a faulty explanation. They believe that sin causes all suffering. At a certain stage of many people’s spiritual life, this simplistic belief reinforces itself. At an immature stage of my spiritual life, I may judge others in order to feel good about myself. This makes me quite conscious of other people’s faults. (Needless to say, my judgments are often quite inaccurate.) I am susceptible both to fixating on others’ sins and to accepting the explanation that their sin causes their suffering.

But the root of Job’s friends’ behavior is really not logic but the unrecognized fear that drives the logic. Job’s trials must have scared his friends. After all, if sin doesn’t cause all suffering, what would keep these guys from fates similar to Job’s? What good would their religion be if it ceased to protect them or even to make them feel comfortable or good about themselves? What good would their religion be to them if its essential purpose were not their well-being?

Before Job’s friends show up, the third-person omniscient narrator points out that Job does not “sin with his lips” despite all of his losses. Later, though, his friends’ fear drives them to remonstrate with him, and their attacks in turn drive Job to defend his righteousness. (His rebuttals against their accusations also include some snappy and sometimes sarcastic rejoinders:

Do you imagine to reprove words, and the speeches of one that is desperate, which are as wind? (6:26)

No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you. (12:2)

But ye are forgers of lies, ye are all physicians of no value. (13:4)

I have heard many such things: miserable comforters are ye all. (16:2))

Job’s friends stick around, and Job’s stubborn penchant for justifying himself against God eventually causes them to lose all subtlety. By chapter twenty-two, for instance, Eliphaz no longer requires Job to put two and two together:

Is not they wickedness great? and thine iniquities infinite? For thou hast taken a pledge from thy brother for naught, and stripped the naked of their clothing. Thou hast not given water to the weary to drink, and thou hast withholden bread from the hungry. (22:5-7)

The narrator starts the book by telling us that Job is “perfect and upright, and one that feared God and eschewed evil.” (1:1) The narrator returns after the speechifying to sum up everyone’s chief faults. Job has “justified himself rather than God.” Job’s friends have “found no answer, and yet had condemned Job.” (32:2-3)

Why do I and others I know feel like we have to have answers? What drives us to bright-line theologies that we will defend at the expense of old friendships and normal human kindness? My own experience tells me that fear is involved. Perhaps we have a premonition that, by pretending to possess God, we have grabbed a patient, powerful tiger by the tail.

Yet I have nothing on Job’s friends. I’m not sure I would have goaded Job to defend himself, and I’m not sure I would have risked having my theology ripped away from me by the God it turns out I never knew. At once comfortable and vaguely uneasy in my piety, I’m not sure I would have shown up to comfort Job in the first place.

Posted July 2006

The middle way

The Anglican Communion, including the Episcopal Church, considers itself the via media (“the middle way”) between the rest of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Richard Hooker, an Anglican priest and theologian, cleared this path from a theological and philosophical perspective through his book Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, published in two sections in 1593 and 1597. But in the process of becoming the first great theologian of Anglicanism, Hooker – along with John Locke a century later – created a middle way in political theory between a Calvinist theocracy and an absolute monarchy. In so doing, Hooker and Locke brought Thomas Aquinas’s medieval natural law understanding into England’s early modern period and made it available for the American Founders. The sixteenth century argument for a Calvinist theocracy and the seventeenth century argument for an absolute monarchy were opposite extremes that rejected at least three medieval notions: the existence of a natural law by which a community may judge positive law and the rulers who propagate or enforce them, the existence of a civil society that predates a political one, and the proposition that all men are created equal.

Crown under LawMost of my information comes from reading Locke’s Second Treatise of Government as well as Alexander S. Rosenthal’s book Crown Under Law: Richard Hooker, John Locke, and the Ascent of Modern Constitutionalism, published in 2008. Rosenthal doesn’t describe Hooker’s and Locke’s philosophies as a middle way, and he doesn’t look for similarities between Hooker’s opponents and Locke’s as I do here, but he demonstrates the almost complete similarity among the natural law theories of Aquinas, Hooker, and Locke. Most of what some writers have found dissimilar among the writers has more to do with emphasis, which in turn has to do with the historical time frame in which each wrote and the particular audience and arguments each was addressing.

Hooker believed that the Calvinist conception of law threatened to overthrow English law and government. Hooker wrote his Laws as part of a pamphlet war with Puritans (English Calvinists) who were disappointed that Elizabeth’s settlement, while outlawing the practice of Roman Catholicism, retained several Catholic practices, such as the use of priests’ vestments, and more importantly for my purposes, asserted Parliament’s authority over the Anglican church’s ritual and government. The Puritans didn’t believe the state should have any say over church affairs, even over “things indifferent” – the designation Elizabeth’s backers used to describe church practices which the Scriptures seem to neither condemn nor condone. As Calvinists, Puritans believed that God was indifferent to nothing in his church; if a practice could not be discovered in Scripture, then it was anathema to God (18 – 20). This Calvinist argument was often applied to both civil and ecclesiastical government. Hooker’s chief opponent, Thomas Cartwright of Cambridge University, argued that “the positive enactment of Scripture alone should be the guide of all civil and ecclesiastical affairs and whatsoever is without explicit warrant in Scripture is without warrant at all,” according to Rosenthal. Hooker feared that the Puritans would effect in England what the Anabaptists effected on the continent: “From this they proceeded unto public reformation, first ecclesiastical, and then civil,” he pointed out (88).

Hooker argued that the Scripture was only one of three forms of law binding on men (as opposed to God or beasts). In doing so, he was asserting what had been the basis of English law up until that point, taken from Thomas Aquinas:

In the Thomistic theory of law, man is not only under the divine positive law, but under a “three fold” subjection to the three orders of law – the divine positive law revealed in Scripture and known by the supernatural light of faith, the natural law discerned by reason and founded upon human nature itself, and finally the human positive law enacted by the civil authority. (20)

The middle of these three orders – the natural law – is best known to us from references to it in the Declaration of Independence, but it has been out of vogue since the end of the American Civil War. Aquinas discovered “first principles” of natural law, which he called “self-evident truths” available to all mankind through reason. An example would be that all things seek after good, that is, that all things seek to actualize how they were designed. “Second principles” are not as self-evident, he wrote, and people may need Scripture (for instance, a lot of the Decalogue) or the teaching of the wise to assist their reason in order to apprehend them. Examples of secondary principles are honoring parents, not stealing, and not committing murder.

According to Aquinas, natural law is discernible chiefly through man’s ability to reason, but reason is an ability that Calvinists believed man lacked after Adam’s fall. It is therefore the Calvinists’ pessimism concerning human nature that led them to reject natural law. From Crown Under Law:

Thus Calvin wrote that:

It cannot be doubted that when Adam lost his first estate he became alienated from God. Wherefore, although we grant that the image of God was not utterly effaced and destroyed in him, it was, however, so corrupted, that any thing which remains is fearful deformity.

With this conception of post-lapsarian man, it is not hard to imagine why the older conception of natural law – where man is able to discern certain ends within nature by his natural powers – comes under increasing skepticism among the Calvinists. (47)

Aquinas’s view of post-lapsarian human nature was more optimistic:

A central Thomistic motif is . . . Grace strengthens and perfects nature but does not destroy it. The natural powers of human reason and will, though affected and disordered by the Fall, but [sic] still retain some of their natural potency and goodness. Man in Aquinas has two lights to guide him, the natural light of human reason, and the supernatural light of faith. (49)

Calvin’s pessimism is linked not only to his understanding of post-lapsarian man but also to his famous views on predestination, which in turn colored his followers’ views on whether a civil society existed before a political one and whether all men are created equal. Predestination, of course, is kind of a “Can God make a rock so big that he himself can’t lift it?” controversy, but it was never considered to be reducible to such a simplistic formulation. Nevertheless, at the heart of the controversies surrounding predestination have always been the theological problems associated with either a yes or no answer to whether God ordains some souls to eternal damnation:

To answer in the negative might seem to question God’s providence over all events and omniscience, since God being omniscient would certainly foreknow from before the moment of their creation that some persons would be lost . . . . But to answer yes might seem to call God’s beneficence and justice into question, as well as God’s desire to save all men . . . (24)

Aquinas nevertheless answered the question in the negative, threading the needle somewhat by reasoning that reprobation is “a consequence of the free rejection of God’s grace and not of God’s antecedent will for the reprobate. On the other hand, Aquinas does not hold that predestination to eternal life is conditional, but rather absolute, meaning that God’s election of the predestined occurs without consideration of his foreknowledge of their merits.” God compartmentalizes his foreknowledge so that people have a choice.

Calvin, however, answered the question unequivocally in the positive:

All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to either life or death. (25)

Calvinist views on predestination and the complete depravity of man after the Fall colored the Puritan understanding of law. To the extent Calvinists believe in a natural law, it takes on a strain of natural law called voluntarism developed by fourteenth century Franciscans such as William of Ockham. A voluntarist view of law emphasizes the superiority of the lawgiver over the law. Therefore, the divine will expressed in natural law is more important than its teleological purpose. Rosenthal summarizes the debate:

If then the natural law proceeds from divine reason, then a given act may be good or evil in virtue of its own intrinsic nature. Since goodness belongs to the very nature of the divine essence, God could not will that an intrinsically evil act be good. If however the natural law proceeds solely from divine will, then there is nothing intrinsic to any given act to make it good or evil – it derives its moral character solely from the divine command. (290)

In contrast to Ockham’s, Aquinas’s and Hooker’s notions of law start with God’s divine nature and not with his superiority over the law. Under Hooker’s expression of natural law, “the first law eternal lies within the divine nature and is that by which God determines His purposes and binds Himself to them. The second law eternal consists in the eternal law as mirrored in the purposes of nature and mediated through the hierarchy of being” (55). For Aquinas and Hooker, natural law is teleological as it was for Aristotle: its primary purpose is to allow each kind of being under its purview – human, animal, and plant – to become what it was designed to become. And God binds himself by his law – he creates the rock so big that he himself can’t, or at least won’t, lift it.

But for Calvinists such as the Puritans, natural law, at least this essence of natural law as it was developed by and handed down from Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hooker, was not possible. Man in his natural state is too depraved, and his reason is too much under the influence of sin, for him to have been guided by it.

Closely associated with the existence of natural law was the rights and responsibilities of the government enforcing the law. For political theorists in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, man’s state before government determined whether rulers served with the consent of the governed or whether they ruled by right. Hooker and Locke believed that man was in civil society by nature and moved into political society by choice. In other words, civil society preceded government and is not coterminous with it. Rulers therefore serve by the consent of the governed and not by right.

Aquinas and Locke recognized a right of resistance when a ruler violates natural law. Hooker never addressed a community’s right of resistance against a ruler because, in his pamphlet war with the Puritans concerning the extent to which the Crown could govern ecclesiastical affairs, the issue never came up. Like Hooker, Locke worked out his most important ideas on political theory as part of a tract war, but unlike Hooker, the issues Locke addressed directly bore on the extent of royal power over society as a whole. (Despite their different purposes for writing, however, Locke quoted Hooker extensively in his two treatises; well over ninety percent of the quotations he included to support his material was from Hooker.) Locke’s two Treatises on Government were in response to arguments by patriarchalists that rulers served by right as descendants of Adam. Patriarchalists applied the metaphor of a father’s right to rule his children to a king’s right to rule his people. (King James I was, more than any English monarch before or since, enthralled with patriarchalism.) Patriarchalists believed that men were not born free or equal since some were born to rule and the rest weren’t. While Aquinas, Hooker, and Locke all acknowledged that people are not equal in the sphere of their talents, all three asserted that people were born with equal political rights. Although Aquinas’s theory wasn’t worked out in the direction of whether rulers served at the consent of the governed, he acknowledged a populace’s right to resist its ruler if his positive law or his execution of that law violated natural law. Locke’s Second Treatise of Government is in agreement with Aquinas’s views concerning a people’s right to resist its ruler but offers a lot more hypothetical situations to flesh out how that right would work in practice.

The recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission reminds us that conservative forces can alter tradition and precedent as easily as progressive forces, and such was the case with patriarchalist theory as well as the idea of absolute monarchy that it supported. In the pamphlet war in which he was engaged, Locke and the core of his natural law teaching were backing tradition, and his opponents were seeking to establish a modern innovation.

Contrary to a popular misconception, the absolutist conception of government where the sovereign or king is both the source of law and above the law is much more a product of early modern thinkers (e.g., Bodin) than the medieval tradition. The medieval political order rested on a delicate balance between kings, feudal princes, and the Roman Catholic church, with the whole structure conceptualized as a loose unity under the Pope as spiritual head and the Emperor as temporal head. By the sixteenth century, the Royal authority tended to gain in relative position – the federation of Christendom was giving way to a Europe of nations ruled by kings. On the level of practical power, the consolidation of the national monarchy in, for example, Spain, France, and England undermined the older feudal structure with the rise of centralized professional bureaucracies and armies. In England, Scandinavia, and elsewhere we see also the effort to bring ecclesiastical affairs under royal jurisdiction. The new power of kings made an absolutist system a practical possibility in the early modern period. (89)

Although on opposite sides of the ecclesiastical (and, therefore, political) spectrum, Puritans and absolute monarchists had some similar basic elements in their political theories: people were not born free, people were not created equal, and rulers served by right and not by consent of the governed.

Medieval natural rights theory, as it expanded slowly over the centuries, had to defend itself against single-order, positive law systems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries just as it did in the sixteenth century against the Puritan notion of a theocracy and in the seventeenth century against the patriarchalist notion of an absolute monarchy. Many ideas in the American Constitution, including freedom of religion and freedom of the press – not to mention something close to pure representative democracy – were real innovations in European and American history. However, natural law, natural rights, and the equality of man enshrined in the Declaration of Independence were recognized aspects of political theory from at least medieval times. In some sense, the American Revolution was not a revolution but a war to apply rights under the English Constitution and medieval natural law to Americans.

The American Civil War, too, was a struggle between a conception of law that included natural law and one that involved only positive law. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, John Calhoun, the political theorist behind Southern secession, argued that men were not born free, that men were born into a political state by nature, and that men were not created equal in any sense. And Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s opponent in both 1858 and 1860, argued for his doctrine of “popular sovereignty” by putting the natural-law notion of man’s equality up for a territory-by-territory vote as if natural rights didn’t exit or could be overturned by popular vote. (While natural law detractors – at least as natural law was applied to Americans – were royalists during the Revolutionary War, they were sometimes proponents of majority rule before and during the Civil War.) As the Gettysburg Address makes clear, Lincoln saw the war’s central issue as whether a government dedicated to a central natural law proposition could endure.

Most people, I think, believe our nation is better off as it is now with only one order of law – positive law. I think we’re worse off for it. I’ll address four arguments I’ve heard against the idea of natural law. The first is the Christian-nation argument. Because we receive much of our understanding of natural law in Christian terms from the likes of Aquinas, Hooker, and even Locke, some believe that a return to natural law would be tantamount to becoming a Christian nation with a government dedicated to living out someone’s or some group’s understanding of the Bible. I believe a system of only positive law would run the greater risk of that happening. It was Hooper’s notion of multi-ordered law – a system of law that included medieval natural law – that countered the Calvinists’ single-order, positivist system of law. And today’s adherents of something like a Christian nation see human nature, law, and government much more like Calvin than Aquinas.

Besides, self-righteous movements such as the Communists, Nazis, and Islamists that toppled governments over the past hundred years were rarely later accused of doing anything illegal under their own systems of law – systems offering no recourse from unjust positive laws. The Nuremberg trials faced this dilemma at their outset (Rosenthal 249).

A second argument concerns our national values. Some people think that never having to decide on the values that animate our laws and Constitution would serve to unite us, or at least, unlike natural law, not do anything more to divide us. But positive law cannot long be a means of uniting us, if the experience of the last twenty or thirty years is any indication. One group’s legislation always seems to be another group’s injustice and outrage – often an outrage not based on reason, facts, or history.  Much of today’s outrage has its origins in poorly-thought-through sets of values discovered or developed not by national debate but within intellectual ghettos – echo chambers where points of view are always reinforced and never challenged. Perhaps a national discussion of natural rights might help us look back to clarify our nation’s values again – values not voted upon but discovered in the political philosophy our Founders chose to enshrine in some our chief founding documents. Looking to history as a source of the Framers’ political philosophy instead of only as a source of legal precedent sounds healthy, too.

A third argument against natural law is the perceived vagueness of the terms used by the likes of Aquinas, Hooker, and Locke – the end of man, happiness, life, liberty, and equality, for instance. I’m not sure if this vagueness is a good or bad thing. There’s something via negativa about the via media – something that courts can’t pin down the way they can the constitutions, statutes, regulations, and case law of the lex positiva. On the other hand, perhaps the jurisprudence of our liberal republic is well suited to apply such concepts in specific cases, having grappled over the years with rather vague notions such as due process, interstate commerce, and the establishment of religion.

A related argument is that courts would have to construe philosophical – yea, even theological – texts in order to flesh out natural law. As a trial lawyer in Virginia – the state with the least number of printed appellate opinions per year of its existence – I was sometimes in the position during property rights disputes of having to argue state supreme court opinions construing masters’ ownership rights in their slaves. Surely philosophy and theology aren’t as bad as that. Besides, as someone who has studied a little philosophy, theology, and law, I think the study of philosophy and theology might have a salutary effect on our jurisprudence.

Lincoln argued for the ascendency of natural law when he argued that the Declaration of Independence was the “sheet anchor of American republicanism.” We would do well to examine Lincoln’s call for a “political religion” – not one involving just the adherence to positive law, as he seemed to emphasize when he first used the term in 1838 – but one that involves the mature political religion he developed over the last dozen years of his life. Few people today would understand Lincoln’s political theory as calling for anything like a Christian nation.

I question whether a Constitutional convention – even one that would, upon its conclusion, be recognized by most as wildly successful – would go far to solve the fundamental problems of our republic. We’d still be left with a constitution and with only flawed strategies such as “original intent” and “living constitution” for interpreting it. Natural law, on the other hand, was recognized early on as a natural means of judging the validity of positive law.

I’m just beginning to work some of this stuff out, and I look forward to learning more about natural law and rights as time permits. As emphatic as I sound, I’m really just laying my thoughts’ keel here. I haven’t launched them, and I certainly haven’t commissioned them.

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Crown Under Law crystalized for me three misconceptions under which I believe many of my fellow citizens labor. The first – the misconception that reason is antithetical to faith – is mostly among Christians, though I believe they have managed to persuade many of their non-Christian neighbors that it is a tenet of Christianity. In fact, reason was far more prominent in medieval Christianity’s cosmology than it is in Protestant Christianity’s. The failure of many Protestants to acknowledge man’s ability to reason about what matters most probably led to the cession of reason to more secular concerns. “The Age of Reason” may have been instituted in part by the Reformation’s overall rejection of reason as a means of apprehending God’s eternal law. Indeed, “reason” is still a naughty word today in many Protestant strands. For most pre-Reformation Christian theologians, though, faith was never opposed to reason; instead, faith and reason were means of comprehending different orders of God’s law – faith for Scripture, and reason for natural law. Proper Christian theology has never left an “Age of Reason.”

The second misconception is the lasting notion that Locke and some other Enlightenment figures such as Thomas Hobbes invented natural law and natural rights – or at the least they put an entirely new secularist understanding on an already-outmoded medieval theory – permitting the Americans the necessary cover from the standpoint of political theory to rebel against English rule. Instead, the absolute monarchy is the modern innovation which threatened a balanced system of English government. Absolute monarchy is the modern innovation, and not the lion’s share of the natural law explicated by Hooker and Locke.  As Locke himself put it in his Second Treatise:

Though they [the earliest societies] never dreamed of monarchy being iure divino, which we never heard of among mankind till it was revealed to us by the divinity of this last age; nor ever allowed paternal power to have a right to dominion, or to be the foundation of all government.

The last misconception is similar to the second one, I think. It’s this: Locke’s natural law and natural rights theories are somehow a godless bastardization of classical or Thomistic natural law – a radical departure from the past and one that has led to a less virtuous American citizenry and nation. For this misconception I blame the twentieth century philosopher Leo Strauss’s book Natural Right and History more than anything else. (I hope to blog about Strauss’s negative impact on the struggle to understand natural rights before too long.) In truth, the nation’s all-too-brief reconciliation with Locke’s natural law and natural rights theories just before and during the Civil War helped to save the Union and led to a more just society.


Posted July 1, 2010. Featured image is a photograph of a statue of Richard Hooker.

A few luminous seconds

A real devotional book is one that you can live with year after year and that never stales or never fails to speak to some needs in your life.

Douglas V. Steere wrote those words near the end of Prayer and Worship, one of a handful of devotional books he authored. By Steere’s definition, Prayer and Worship is a real devotional book. Whenever I start over, which is frequently, I find Prayer and Worship waiting for me. Employing insight and a cloud of witnesses, it reintroduces me to the fundamental practices of a devotional life.

Steere, who succeeded fellow Quaker Rufus Jones as a philosophy professor at Haverford College, is not a great proponent of structure in prayer. He accepts a wide range of means to communion with God, however, and he argues in his introduction for “a much-needed psychology of the deeper reaches of life.” He disagrees with those who dismiss visual aids in prayer as idolatry and who dismiss selective meditation as autosuggestion.

Steere sees such structure as scaffolding – a means to an end – and is more interested in the broader areas of regular practice “that serve to arouse this spiritual nimbleness and swiftness and vivacity of devotion.” Prayer and Worship is divided into three areas of this practice: private prayer, corporate worship, and devotional reading. Each section nudges us on with examples from history and literature. Steere seems never to forget that devotion comes from the heart and not from a regimented practice or method.

One of Steere’s comparisons struck me this morning, and I never got beyond it in my reading. Steere compares the mind subject to silent prayer with the mind of an author. He describes the state of an author’s unfinished, chaotic manuscript just after his death:

The materials were all there…. But the mind that was to have brooded over this mass, this heap – the mind that would at some moment have seen a simple line dart through all of these materials, make most of them superfluous, underline the few remaining, and produce out of it all a living unity – this mind was withdrawn by death.

Silent prayer does for our lives what the author was to have done with his manuscript. “It restores us to the creative matrix.”

There is freshness and openness in Steere’s thinking that befits a wide-ranging mind whose heart early on joined itself with a small sect of Christianity. Steere was an ecumenicist, andPrayer and Worship draws from the examples of many sects and faiths. Steere found in Quakerism the spiritual roots and the humility and flexibility of expression that fitted his mind and heart.

[picture of Steere]This union of mind and heart is most evident in the book’s final section, which amounts to an energetic and inclusive introduction to Christian devotional reading. Steere felicitously discusses the virtues of works as disparate as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life. Steere suggests how to approach different devotional classics and points out what to look for in the ones he guides us toward. For instance, he hopes the reader of Augustine’s Confessions will discover “how readily and how naturally the writer of a devotional book can flow from precise description into the most passionate prayer and then on into our narrative again without any note of artificiality whatsoever.”

Along the way, Steere offers simple advice on how to read devotional books in general. Paraphrasing Keyserling, Steere believes “that in a whole lifetime we only have a few luminous seconds of insight.” When one comes, declare a holiday. Don’t rush to finish the insightful book:

To hurry on in order to finish the book, to take up the book again “for the purpose of scaring away one’s own original thoughts,” is, as Schopenhauer once remarked, a “sin against the holy spirit.”

There is no need to become the master of all of the works Steere mentions, either. “Nowhere does novelty count for so little as in devotional reading,” he writes.

With the exception of the unusual depth of devotion one feels in his writing, most aspects of Steere’s book may lead one to believe that it was recently published. For instance, Prayer and Worship describes the business and loquacity of our society as the enemies of devotion. Prayer and Worship is the third devotional book that I have read from the 1930’s and 1940’s that inveighs against radio. What would these writers think about the distractions of our present age!

Prayer and Worship is the middle book in a volume entitled The Religious Life, an anthology of three small devotional books by different authors. The books were first published separately in a series in 1939, and the present hardbound anthology was published in 1953. A seventy-seven-page paperback edition of Prayer and Worship is in print, but its editor saw fit to change historical references found in the original version in order to make it more relevant to post-World War II America, presumably. The editing manages to disturb the feel of the original considerably. Fortunately, copies of the 1953 volume can still be found at several used book sites on the Internet. (Links to two of them are here and here.)


Orality and intimacy

A good book or essay or poem is not primarily an object to be put to use, or an object of experience: it is the voice of You speaking to me, requiring a response.

– Martin Buber, I and Thou

At times I am gripped by an absurd desire: that the sentence I am about to write be the one the woman is reading at that some moment.  The idea mesmerizes me so much that I convince myself it is true: I write the sentence hastily, get up, go to the window, train my spyglass to check the effect of my sentence in her gaze, in the curl of her lips, in the cigarette she lights, in the shifts of her body in the deck chair, in her legs, which she crosses or extends.

– From the diary of Silas Flannery in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler

I hope I didn’t make you feel too uncomfortable last month.  I guess my paragraph in my “Of Time and the River” post about what I wanted out of readers and writers was kind of creepy:

If I wrote you a book review or report, it would only foreshorten the book, creating waterfalls in the navigable, tidal river.  Besides, even if I wrote the best book review, it would only stand on its own, pour itself into only its own river, so – best case – I’m no longer reading with you when you read it.  I want you to read with me.  We’d feed off of each other’s reactions, but even that’s not enough, ultimately.  You have to read the book with my reactions and associations, and I have to read it with yours.  So you have to read it with me, maybe as me, and maybe me as you, or maybe in heaven one day.

I think I’ve been going through an aesthetic crisis of sorts, though “aesthetic crisis” is a ridiculous formulation, almost an oxymoron that belittles both words.  Maybe I’ve just reached some kind of impasse with reading and writing.  For the past few years, I’ve struggled with the place of writing in a more contemplative life.  I like what I’ve learned about contemplation and writing both, but I strongly suspect that writing – at least as I’ve understood writing – detracts from a more contemplative life.  Carrying around all those words, fussing over sentences and diction in my daydreams . . . how can I clear my mind when I have such a demanding hobby on top of everything else?  It has helped me spiritually and mentally, granted.  Is writing part of my calling, or is it only a distraction?

And am I trying to make reading and writing do what contemplation does?  If so, why?  To justify a compulsion?  Or to find reading’s and writing’s limits – to satisfy myself that reading and writing can’t do what I want them to do?

Part of us is very intellectual, wanting to read all the books in the library – or even wanting to write all the books in the library.  Then there’s the other side of us, which is sheer silence, inarticulate – the silence of nature, of the sky, of pure being.  [Joyce Carol Oates, quoted in Greg Johnson’s Invisible Writer, A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates, 10-11]

And, off and on during the writing process, I think about readers.  Not readers in general, but you.  (Still creepy, huh?)  I wonder how my writing may carry on some sprawling conversation blogging helps bring about – sprawling for me, anyway – sprawling over topics and web logs and, after five years, over some remarkable time.  You’re in my head, in other words.

The author must more or less consciously create the image of the reader he is addressing.  [Louise M. Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem, 76]

Creative activity is often – again, perhaps always – powered by the drive to accomplish, in terms of the production of an object of art, an adjustment or readjustment in certain obscure relationships with other persons.  [Walter J. Ong, The Barbarian Within and Other Fugitive Essays and Studies, 19]

Living with an audience is like learning to surf.  The ocean – the audience – is too much.  Surfing puts the audience in its place, and it requires balance.  Blogging’s spikes in readership and positive, life-giving comments are fun to ride but can lead to some hairy wipeouts.  In writing, I feel what Ong calls the “adjustment or readjustment in certain obscure relationships” at both the intellectual and the inarticulate levels that Oates refers to.  What is going on?

Writing that “Of Time and the River” post helped me feel more what I want from reading and writing.  I was speaking of impulses and drives, trying to feel something primary or primordial going on inside of me.  What is it I want from you?  If you’re in my head as I read and as I write, why is that feeling of wanting to understand your writing and wanting to be understood in my reading rooted in wanting to be one with you: a marriage of true minds, and a polygamous one at that, since I’d have other intimates – others readers and writers – others with whom I’d be one?

Yet though there is a sense in which every reader writes the book he reads, paradoxically the writer is the one person excluded from such an activity by virtue of having already written the text.  Thus the reading figure comes to signify not only the reader’s pleasure but also the writer’s alienation, both from the reader and from his own text.  As Beckett said apropos Proust: ‘Art is the apotheosis of solitude.’ The very medium of language which unites reader and writer also drives them apart. . . . To read a book, to love a person, it is necessary to be other than that book and that person, and we read in order to overcome our otherness.  [Peter Washington, from his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition to Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler]

The end of contemplation is theosis, at least in Orthodox thought.  Is my desire for oneness with my readers and writers more deeply similar to my interest in contemplation than I had suspected, and in a fundamental way legitimate?

If so, could my aesthetic crisis be attributable to an unconscious suppression I’ve participated in as an American reader and writer of the early twenty-first century, years after New Criticism began dominating classroom instruction and prevalent attitudes toward reading and writing?  Though New Criticism’s greater influence on me may have come before I had ever heard of New Criticism, I have also studied it, enjoyed its delicious fruit (as Louise Rosenblatt said of New Critics, “their practice was always better than their theories”), and defended it in discussions against deconstructionism and all other comers.

But I am no longer sure that a poem is an object.  I think this New Critical notion has tended to suppress an experience of intimacy I have begun to discover as a reader and a writer.

A primary tenet of New Criticism is that a poem or any other work of literature is an object, that it has a separate existence from its author and the particular period and artistic movement in which it was produced, and that it may be considered as a work of art without reference to these outside things.  The independent object-ness of a poem allowed Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and the other New Critics to consider the poem on its own linguistic and aesthetic terms.  While the New Critics later incorporated scholastic tools, such as historical and genre-oriented studies, to buttress their aesthetic, literary readings, they stayed true to their view of a work of literature as being primarily an object.

The “object” tenet allowed New Criticism to move American literary criticism away from earlier textbooks and criticism that examined poems only for their message and their place in the poet’s biography and in literary schools and movements.  A poem cannot be reduced to its message, the New Critics asserted, and, to me, New Criticism was one of the greatest gifts to the world for getting that idea across.  But perhaps a poem cannot be reduced to an object, either.  Seeing a poem as an object distances the poet from her readers and bars the reader from a more intimate reading experience.

How is it possible to defeat not the authors but the functions of the author, the idea that behind each book there is someone who guarantees a truth in that world of ghosts and inventions by the mere fact of having invested in it his own truth, of having identified himself with that construction of words?  [Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler, 154]

Since I wrote my “On Time and the River” post last month, I stumbled on a quote by Walter J. Ong, whom I mentioned earlier, that seemed to express something like my impasse:

As contemplation [of a work of art or literature] enters upon a more serious stage, the human being is driven by the whole economy of what it is to be man to find opposite himself, in that which he contemplates, a person capable of reacting in turn.  This drive is primordial and will not be denied.

That’s it! I thought.  Reading (and maybe writing) as a primordial desire for intimacy.

It’s sad (and, as we’ll see, ironic, too) that the guy is basically out of print.  Ong offers a major, early critique of New Criticism.  He is grateful for New Criticism’s attack on what Ong calls “the personalist aberration” and “personalist deviationism” in criticism, tracing this aberration back at least as far as Dr. Johnson, but he is critical of New Criticism’s tenet that works of literature amount to objects.  He published the essence of his critique in 1954 in his essay “The Jinee in the Well Wrought Urn,” which became the first chapter of The Barbarian Within and Other Fugitive Essays and Studies published in 1962, the preface of which, in turn, refers to the “now aging New Criticism.”  (It’s aging pretty well: Cleanth Brooks’s seminal essay collection The Well Wrought Urn has been in print continuously since its original publication in 1947, while I had to pay forty bucks for a copy of The Barbarian Within that came, as advertised, with the binding falling apart.  If I had wanted the book in one piece, it would have cost me a good deal more.)

Mark McGurl, whose book The Program Era was a subject of my “Of Time” post, writes that Ong “with Marshall McLuhan would come to symbolize the [1960’s] fascination with the relation of print and other media technologies to the human voice” (231).  Ong was also part of what McGurl calls “the reflexive return to orality” that began more or less in 1960 with Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales, which advanced the notion that Homer’s epics were oral compositions.

Orality has been clawing its way back.  Starting in the sixties, the emphasis in university writer’s workshops nationwide switched from “show don’t tell,” a formulation that predates New Criticism but that dovetailed with that school’s emphasis on mimimalism and irony and on its attention to craft, to “find your voice.”  (Under the guidance of New Critical tenets, however, the writers workshops swallowed up this newer mantra, too, taking the orality out of “voice” and changing the mantra’s essential meaning to something like “discover yourself, or at least your individuality, in your writing.”)

Ong’s ideas fit me.  He finds that in an important, theoretical sense, all of literature, and not just Homer’s epics, has a “primary oral and aural existence.”  A poem is not an object but “radically a cry, a sound emitted from the interior of a person, a modification of one’s exhalation of breath which retains the intimate connection with life which we find in breath itself . . .” (Barbarian 28)  (Ong’s argument should not be confused with any form of deconstructive criticism.  Indeed, far in advance of deconstruction’s heyday in the 1970’s and 80’s, Ong advanced arguments reiterated later by literary critic George Steiner and others that the parsing of sounds below a level recognizable to the speaker is not grist for meaningful literary criticism simply because such sound is not “heard” in any meaningful sense. “[I]t is fallacious to imagine that words are capable of being reduced to impulses,” Ong says (52). It occurred to me, reading Ong, that the New Critics brought deconstructive arguments upon themselves as the next logical step to their tenet that poems are objects.)

Ong positions words (and, consequently, poems and other literature) as both interior to the speaker and invitational to the hearer:

For, although, as Eliot justly maintains in [his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent”], works of literature are “not the expression of personality but an escape from personality,” and in this are unlike ordinary dialogue, they are nevertheless not quite an escape to an object, a thing adequately conceivable, even analogously, in terms of surfaces and visual or tactile perceptions.  Works of literature consist in words, and, as we have suggested, words themselves retain in themselves ineluctably something of the interiority of their birth within that interior which is a person.  As cries, they go “out,” but they are not extensions of, or projections of interiority.  In this sense Camus’s and Sartre’s view of man as an interior exteriorizing itself is quite inadequate to the totality of the human situation.  We are more accurate if we keep our metaphors closer to the world of sound and think of speech and of works of literature as “amplifications” or, better, as intensifications of an interior.  All words projected from a speaker remain, as has been seen, somehow interior to him, being an invitation to another person, another interior, to share the speaker’s interior, and invitation to enter in, not to regard from the outside. (32)

That’s Ong’s basic formulation, stripped of its supporting arguments.

A couple of other schools of thought have also kept me from suffocating under New Criticism up to now, but neither of them has the potential reach that Ong does, I believe.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read Walter Pater and the so-called impressionist critics, but I admire Pater’s desire to turn his reactions to literature into more literature.  I’ve seen this idea picked up by a modern literary critic I mentioned earlier, George Steiner, in his book Real PresencesLouise Rosenblatt, whose transactional theory of poetry is the second school I refer to, criticizes Pater for “charming us away” from the initial art that serves as the subject of his own art (Rosenblatt 132), but isn’t that the point?  Pater is simply reading like a writer, and there can be – and most often should be – a fine line between poetry and good literary criticism, I think.  Literary criticism that can’t admit that it goes beyond its subject is kidding itself.

Rosenblatt criticizes Pater in part because her project is to stay at the center of the reading experience, and in that project she resembles Ong.  She claims that a poem “must be thought of as an event in time.  It is not an object or an ideal entity” (12).  A poem is “an event in the life of a reader, as embodied in a process resulting from the confluence of reader and text” (16).  Rosenblatt applies to reading the transactional theory initially developed by John Dewey and Arthur Bentley in the 1890’s.  Transactional theory in psychology eschewed a stimulus-response model, noting that “the living organism selects from its environment the stimuli to which it will respond” (17).  For Rosenblatt, calling a poem a stimulus (or an object) and a reader a passive responder to that stimulus or object shortchanges the reader’s role in a poem.  Her book has helped me understand the levels of my involvement as a reader, and because her principal focus has always been on pedagogy, her book has put some theoretical backbone into my lit teaching.

But to pull off her transactional analysis, Rosenblatt makes a distinction between the text of the poem, which she sees as static, and the poem itself, which she sees as the event – the transaction between the reader and the text.  Ong, however, goes further.  He sees the text as in one sense dangerous, threatening to reverse the “objects as words” formulation he believes the pre-typography world was more sensitive to.  “In a sense every one of man’s works is a word,” Ong says (49), an internal expression, an external invitation to the speaker’s interior, and destined to perish, in an actual word’s case, “as soon as it has passed to the exterior.”

Understanding “words as objects” doesn’t just keep us from being better readers, as Rosenblatt asserts.  For Ong, it keeps us from ourselves and, thereby, others.

Here are other quotes from “Voice as Summons for Belief: Literature, Faith, and the Divided Self,” one of the essays in The Barbarian Within, all of which in one way or another help me begin to understand my own “cry” in my recent post (i.e., “I want you to read with me.  We’d feed off of each other’s reactions, but even that’s not enough, ultimately.  You have to read the book with my reactions and associations, and I have to read it with yours.  So you have to read it with me, maybe as me, and maybe me as you . . .”):

If we can conceive a thought within ourselves, it is the sort of thing that our fellows – the more perceptive ones, anyhow – can enter into.  If we can think it, others can, too.  (50)

Every human word implies not only the existence – at least in the imagination – of another to whom the word is uttered, but it also implies that the speaker has a kind of otherness within himself.  He participates in the other to whom he speaks, and it is this underlying participation which makes communication possible.  The human speaker can speak to the other precisely because he himself is not purely self, but is somehow also other.  His own ‘I’ is haunted by the shadow of a ‘thou’ which it itself casts and which it can never exorcize.  (52)

This other within must hear all, for he already knows all, and only if this other, this thou, hears, will I become comprehensible to myself.  (53)

Although the wearer of a wolf mask among primitives is not a wolf, he somehow really participates in wolf-ness.  In this situation, where the object-world is not clearly differentiated from the world of voice and person, belief has not the depth of meaning it enjoys in a civilized society, for the same reason that science itself has not: the two are confounded with each other, for the dialectic which sets them apart with some precision has not yet sufficiently progressed. . . . As the tension between visual and vocal grows [in theater over the ages], and with it the use of the truly dramatic character and the formalized separation of drama from life, there grows also, paradoxically, and awareness of the foundation in real human existence for dramatic character.  A character in a drama is a person set off, advertised as other.  Yet this state of being-set-off, this remoteness in the midst of intimacy, is found in real life, too, and experience of drama teaches us to recognize the fact. . . . The sense of being-set-off is not annihilated by intimacy.  Indeed it is heightened . . . For in assuring me of my closeness to your consciousness, this dialogue assures me also of the uniqueness of your consciousness and of its ultimate inviolability – of the fact that, naturally speaking, I can never know what it is to be you, can never share this ultimate experience of yourself with you.  (60 – 61)

. . . any utterance, even a scientific utterance, is the manifestation of a presence, which cannot be “grasped” as an “objective” of knowledge can be, but only invoked or evoked. . . . we know how difficult and unconvincing it is to apply the notion of “grasp” to a poetic work.  The notion can, of course, be applied to some extent.  We can speak of “grasping” Hamlet or The Marriage of Heaven and Hell or Absalom, Absalom! But to so speak is not very satisfactory, not convincing.  It seems much more real to speak of the response which these works evoke from us.  The “evocative” quality – which is to say, the “calling” quality – is paramount in a work of real literature.  Literature exists in a context of one presence calling to another.  (58 – 59)

Ong’s essay weaves these ideas with theories of why the “evocative quality” of the more detached writers, such as Joyce or Faulkner, is more poignant than that of Poe, who can’t achieve the “masklike detachment” of the former; what it means to read a poem; the role of criticism today; the intimacy of music; why poetry is “in one sense communication par excellence”; and why the “poetry of withdrawal” common in the twentieth century is a good thing.

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All of that interests me.  The quotes bunched at the end of this post’s previous section help me understand what I’ve been feeling as a reader and as a writer, and they validate those feelings to a large extent.  But what really draws me to Ong is his central project – the reorientation of poetry and the rest of literature from object to voice.  It feels like my slow spiritual reorientation from Evangelical Christianity to a more Orthodox formulation.  The reorientation also suggests a strong connection between my current aesthetic impasse and my earlier, full-fledged identity crisis.

I think I’m approximately at the same space aesthetically as I am theologically.  The theological aspect of my identity crisis a dozen years ago parallels the aesthetic theory behind my current reading and writing impasse.  New Criticism represents, for me, a kind of fundamentalism that nurtured and directed my aesthetic pleasure in reading early in life.  But just as I discovered twelve years ago that my version of Evangelical Christianity was my chief mechanism for keeping me from myself, I am discovering that New Criticism is enforcing a kind of false separation between aesthetics (beauty) and intimacy in my reading and writing.   Understanding literature as voice might help me bridge that separation, and it might even help me resolve the conflict I feel between contemplation and writing.  Reading, writing, sex, contemplation – one looks for the one in the two and, finding it or something like it, becomes herself again, maybe for the first time again.

New Criticism’s emphasis on the autonomy and “object-ness” of literature, particularly its exegesis of literature without regard to historical or literary movements or to the writers’ biography, reminds me of Evangelical Christianity’s essential approach to the Bible.  (Cleanth Brooks would turn over in his grave at such an association: he used New Criticism’s tools to advance a high-church conception (i.e., irony and metaphor) of literature against a reformist conception (experience) associated with the Romanticists, as Harold Bloom has pointed out.)  Some critiques of both New Criticism and Evangelical Christianity point to the same historical forces that parented them: the Enlightenment and its philosophers (on the Evangelical side, see Nancey Murphy’s excellent, slow read, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism) as well as the Gutenberg press.

The 1960’s was a pivotal decade for both Evangelical Christianity and American criticism, and both pivoted from text to orality, or, more truly, from text alone to text tempered with orality.  In what McGurl calls a “reflexive return to orality,” the sixties generation implemented recording technology, experimental writing, and aspects of theater to emphasize a more immediate, intimate, and voice-oriented approach to literature.  At the same time, the Jesus Movement and the Charismatic Movement brought a more immediate, intimate, and spirit-oriented understanding of Christianity to Evangelical circles.  The Charismatic Movement’s emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit, particularly speaking in tongues and modern-day prophecy, is part of that movement’s commitment to orality and intimacy. (In the Bible, of course, “spirit” can also be translated as “breath,” which is a term Ong uses along with “cry” and “voice” to emphasize literature’s intimate and oral basis.)  Indeed, while Homeric scholars were beginning to debate how much of the Illiad was created during poets’ oral performances, Charismatic Christians were beginning to debate how much credence to give prophecy spoken during church services at which the gifts of the Spirit were manifested.

It is significant to me that both the literary and theological movements toward orality succeeded only in “balancing,” but not transforming, their respective fields.  On the literary front, college and high school writers workshops still maintained a New Criticism-certified “object” approach to literature with the same attention to craft; the experimental orality of the 1960’s served mostly to reemphasize sound in printed or electronically published poetry.  But it is still principally only the sound of the silent, written word.  With or without the writer’s care for sound and her implementation of sound devices, very little poetry is experienced orally today.  (There are signs of change today as there have been off and on since the 1950’s, however.)

On the theological front, much of Evangelical Christianity, including Charismatic churches, has absorbed the Charismatic movement with little change to dispensational theology prevalent since the nineteenth century.  Many Evangelical circles have dropped the dispensational formulation that “spiritual gifts passed away with the apostles,” but most have kept other dispensational notions, particularly eschatological and exegetic ones.  The movement has caused many Evangelicals to overemphasize a New Testament distinction between the two New Testament words for word, logos and rhema, but it hasn’t put much of a dent in fundamentalism’s literal (from the Latin for “letter,” a concept which Paul compares unfavorably with “Spirit”) approach to the Bible.

But the movements towards orality both in literature and in theology ultimately point to more than mere adjustments.  Various Orthodox theologians understand the Charismatic movement as something between God’s grace in the face of, on the one hand, and a culture’s severe reaction to, on the other, a Western Church that long ago separated mysticism from theology and relegated religious experience in large part to either saints or kooks.  The Orthodox Church still commits little of its theology to the formality of paper, preferring instead to house it in its liturgy and other practices – practices that are mostly oral in nature – that have existed for centuries.

And Ong, for his part and in the name of literature, concludes “Voice as Summons for Belief” in 1958 with the hope that “voice is in some ways regaining a prestige over sight, that we are at the end of the Gutenberg era.”

I hope so, too.  But if my own intellectual, personal, and spiritual struggles over the past dozen years are any indication, it may be just the beginning of the end.

Why I’m a Whig

I am a Whig, perhaps the last member, after Jack Benny’s death, of the American Whig party that existed until the late 1850’s. A party of also-rans, a party that never got its real leaders elected president.

As much as I can relate to the Whigs’ political failures, I am a Whig mostly because I wish I could have been a Federalist. “Then why not say you are a Federalist, and be done with it?” I hear a reader ask rhetorically. “The Whigs are no less defunct.”

Yes, but the distinction lies with their respective projects. The Federalists built something, and they wanted to build more. Most Whigs just wanted to return to something the Federalists started. I have the latter political instinct – the instinct to look back and to recover. That’s the main reason I relate to and revere the Whig Lincoln more than the Federalist Washington.

“Then why not say you are a Democrat or a Republican?” you might ask. “One can see Federalist influences in both parties.” But I see mostly nineteenth century Democratic-Republican leanings in both of our current major parties. Today’s Democrat vs. Republican isn’t Hamilton vs. Jefferson, you know. It’s kind of Jackson vs. Calhoun, an intra-party squabble. The views of today’s dominant American political parties are mostly derived from what Madison in Federalist No. 10 called “interest.” But their ideologies – to the extent they have consistent ideologies – are similar; in fact, they complement each other. The Democrats’ historicism, which dominates the social science curricula in many undergraduate programs today, prepares us for the Republicans’ law-school positivism. At least with regard to the parties’ ideologies, I agree with George Wallace’s assessment: “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats.”

So to explain why I’m a Whig, I must first explain why I wish I were a Federalist. My first fourteen reasons do that, and my remaining reasons explain why I like the Whigs without regard to the Federalists, too.


Most Federalists opposed the inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution. They did so neither because they didn’t recognize the rights (they did), nor because they were afraid that any enumeration of rights would limit rights to those recognized (though they were (afraid of just that)). Most Federalists opposed the adoption of a bill of rights principally because they believed that people would eventually come to see a bill of rights as the source of their rights.


It’s not the Federalists’ fault. It’s all the Federalists’ fault.


The Federalists were bumbling politicians, as a whole. They overplayed their hand following the XYZ Affair with the thirty-five bumbling arrests under the Alien and Sedition Acts. They were, therefore, the first party to nationally snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I can relate.

The High Federalists lived in a shrinking sectional echo chamber. They made life miserable for the moderate Federalists living south of New York. I get that, too.


When I was growing up in Tidewater, Virginia, the whole state shared the same telephone area code – 703. Now my county alone has three area codes. Mine is 703.


The theme of the introductory Federalist essay reminds me of the theme of the Gettysburg Address:

. . it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government by reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

I think Madison, Hamilton, and Lincoln were the big names who were the most consumed with the central problem of our democracy, then and now: the capacity of a people to govern themselves. (Madison was a Republican, of course, but he was a Federalist when it counted most – when Hamilton adroitly applied the term to describe those in favor of the 1787 convention’s proposed constitution.)


Adams was as disheveled as Jefferson, but he had no instinct for PR. There’s an innocence about Adams that makes Jefferson look even more like a crocodile.


John Marshall.


Marshall gets two numbers. He’s one of those “but for” guys: but for Marshall, we might not have ratified our Constitution, and we might not have avoided war with France. He fought with great distinction under Washington and Daniel Morgan, but his father, Thomas Marshall, gets the earliest “but for”: but for his slowing Cornwallis at Brandywine, we most likely would not have won the Revolutionary War (Jean Edward Smith’s John Marshall: Definer of a Nation).

John Marshall, George Washington, and a few others gave Federalism a share in Virginia’s past, for which, as a Virginian, I’m grateful. Marshall was elected to Virginia’s ratifying convention and to Congress from a heavily Anti-Federalist district in Richmond because the people there liked him and cared more about his character than his views. I like that, too.

Marshall turned the Supreme Court from a national joke into a respected branch of government. In the process, he defined the Constitution’s relationship to law and society. Smith writes:

. . . the Marshall court established the ground rules of American government. The Constitution reflected the will of the people, not the states, said Marshall, and the people made it supreme. That Federalist concept provided the basis for the constitutional decisions of the Marshall era. It was bitterly contested at the time; in many respects it lay at the root of the Civil War.

(As John C. Calhoun did years later, Patrick Henry and other Anti-Federalists disliked the Constitution’s “We the people” preamble, preferring “We the states” instead. Even as early as 1788, nationalism was seen as a threat to states’ rights, and states’ rights was linked to slavery. Henry’s frequent refrain against the Constitution during the ratification debate was, “They’ll free your niggers.”)

Marshall took over a Federalist bench when he was appointed Chief Justice at the end of the twelve years of Federalist administrations. Twenty-four years of Republican rule later, it was still a Federalist bench, thanks to Marshall’s leadership skills, his legal acumen, and his insistence that the justices share living quarters during term. And all but a relative handful of the court’s opinions under Marshall’s long stewardship were unanimous. Imagine anything close to that today!

Marshall loved Jane Austin’s novels. I mean, he was the whole package.


Okay, three numbers. As Hadley Arkes points out in Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law (Cambridge 2010), Marshall sometimes went out of his way to base his Supreme Court opinions on natural law principles instead of on specific constitutional language. In other words, Marshall was no legal positivist. (A legal positivist believes only in the law posited by a sovereign.)

Marshall seemed to believe what most of the Founders seemed to have taken for granted:

If there is no natural law, there are no natural rights; and if there are no natural rights, the Bill of Rights is a delusion, and everything which a man possesses – his life, his liberty and his property – are held by sufferance of government, and in that case it is inevitable that government will some day find it expedient to take away what is held by a title such as that.

(From Harold R. McKinnon’s book, The Higher Law, 1946.)


Jefferson, not Nixon, pioneered the Southern Strategy:

. . . the prominence of slaveholders among the Jeffersonian critics of Federalism is more than an irony: slaveholding was, in fact, central to the preservation, not just of a racial hegemony, but of a ruling class among whites in the South after the Revolution, and that ruling class preserved itself in the face of revolutionary egalitarianism only by pretending that slavery had, in fact, created a kind of white egalitarianism. By equating the slaveholder and the rural farmer as “agriculturalists” and allying them together in a white racial alliance which ensured that enslaved blacks could never become the “equals” of whites, Jeffersonians like Randolph, Taylor, and Jefferson himself ensured the support of white farmers, who cared far more about keeping blacks in bondage than about leveling white elites. They looked, in other words, to slavery to preserve gentility; and then insisted that the presence of blacks made all white men, ipso facto, into gentlemanly equals. Hence, in the 1790s, rural farmers in Virginia and Pennsylvania found themselves lining up behind a slave-holder in order to oppose merchant “aristocrats”; and in the 1830s, Northern workers would oppose those same merchant “aristocrats” and pay the same price by following Andrew Jackson and acquiescing in Southern slavery.

(From Allen C. Guelzo’s article “Learning to Love the Federalists.”)


The Federalists believed in the political oversight of the market economy. Guelzo again: “[Jefferson] abandoned the Federalist goal of a strong mercantilist state and detached the economy from political oversight at just the moment in the great market revolution when that oversight might have done it some good.”


I don’t dislike Jefferson. Honest. While I spent my evenings sleeping in the library of the university he founded, Dumas Malone was two stories above me, almost blind by then, dictating the last of his six-volume biography of Jefferson. I joined my classmates in referring to “Mr. Jefferson” in hushed tones as if he were just out of earshot. You’ve got to visit Charlottesville and Monticello just to feel his presence.

Jefferson’s great enemy Hamilton paid him the highest and most accurate compliment, I think, describing him as “a man of sublimated and paradoxical imagination.” Anyway, I can’t figure the guy out, even after reading four and a half of Malone’s volumes.


The Federalists were the only actively anti-slavery party in America to hold power. (The 1850’s – 1860’s Republicans were anti-slavery, but in sentiment more than in policy. (I take Lincoln at his word on this.))


I’m a republican more than a democrat. (Small r, small d.) The threat of majority faction scares me more than the threat of aristocratic rule. Madison’s checks and balances have saved us more than either side in a given debate would ordinarily acknowledge.

The Anti-Federalists wanted a more democratic form of government, one that made the other branches more accountable to the legislative branch. They wanted more representatives per capita, they weren’t wild about bicameralism, and they wanted term limits.

But I agree with Madison in Federalist No. 10: direct democracy is not an ideal that the Constitution aspires to, or should. I prefer the Constitution’s representative democracy and its tensions between the branches to direct democracy for the reason Madison preferred them: direct democracy would lead to majority factions – permanent arrangements of majority oppression of minorities.


The last long stretch my political party has been in power was from 1789 until 1801. I don’t think the Federalists or Whigs or anything like them will ever be in power for longer than a term or two at a time. The reason comes down to this quote from Book 1 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

. . . What it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action[?] Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise.

I’m not up for Aristotle’s class-structured government, and Aristotle’s teleological understanding of happiness is a tough sell in a democracy dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But I agree with his teleological understanding of happiness, and I agree that, usually, “the many do not give the same account as the wise.” I think Lincoln agreed with both, too. In fact, I think he lived out this paradox. A democracy is blessed if its leaders, during a critical time such as our Civil War, demonstrate wisdom consistent with a high notion of what Jefferson called “societal happiness.”

In the late 1850’s, the Republican Party inherited the Whigs’ role of representing a kind of American aristocracy. The Whig Party’s notion of aristocratic duty was less class structured than Aristotle’s, and while it generally represented the country’s labor and mercantile interests, I think it sometimes rose to Aristotle’s and Jefferson’s notions of societal happiness.

Since Lincoln’s death, though, the Republican Party has frequently confused money for the wisdom Aristotle alludes to in my Nicomachean Ethics quote above. Americans themselves frequently confuse money and wisdom, which accounts for a lot of the Republicans’ success at the polls. The Preacher acknowledges the similarity but still insists on a distinction:

For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it. [Ecclesiastes 7:12]

So, for me, small r, not big R.


The old battles are the only battles worth fighting, the ones that never get won: Jefferson vs. Hamilton, Jackson vs. Clay, Douglas vs. Lincoln. You get clarity today only if you can see a political fight in those lights. If you can’t, you can pretty much bet the problem will take care of itself or hasn’t really begun to manifest itself. Today’s movements – even the Tea Party – will fade if they don’t line up on one side or the other of an old battle. In one sense, a big political problem we have today is that we don’t understand any of the old arguments, that we don’t see anything in terms of the old fights.


Something about the Whigs’ aversion to territorial expansion resonates with me, even though it contradicted Madison’s reasoning in the Federalist that the bigger the territory, the better the republic, and even though Hamilton was the original advocate of something like Manifest Destiny. Jefferson through the Louisiana Purchase must have co-opted for the antebellum Democrats the Federalist desire to rule the hemisphere, leaving Lincoln to demand on the House floor (to general derision) that President Polk mark the exact spot where Polk had claimed American blood was spilt in his justification of the Mexican War.


President Webster. President Clay. You gotta believe.


I like to think I would have supported the temperance movement, the abolition movement, and the suffrage movement, as Lincoln did. These movements were easy targets for Democrats, but many Whig politicians kept uneasy alliances with them. These movements were end runs around Jefferson’s separation of church and state, and their takeover of “the goals of secular rationalism” made Lincoln afraid that “extreme expectations of worldly perfection would engender extreme political solutions” (Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided, at 244).

I suppose that, since the Founding generation, all successful national politicians have surfed some dangerous waves, and were I a nineteenth century politician, those might have been my waves of choice.


I believe in internal improvements. I also think we’re deliberately sabotaging passenger rail.  The Whigs wouldn’t have countenanced it.


Like many thoughtful Whigs, Lincoln found the best of Jefferson and made it his own. Under Lincoln, “all men are created equal” became the proposition that the nation was dedicated to.

I believe that, in reading the Constitution, one must distinguish between its compromises and its truths, and I believe that its truths are the truths of the Declaration of Independence. This view, enshrined in the Gettysburg Address, had been standard Whig doctrine for years, according to Guelzo in his Lincoln biography, Redeemer President. The Democrats back then didn’t subscribe to this view of the Constitution, and neither today’s “strict constructionism” nor its “living Constitution” is based on it.


Like Obama, I don’t get the Scotch-Irish, and they don’t get me.

My ancestry is largely British, and I grew up in Virginia’s Episcopal Church, which had a small following in my blue-collar, shipbuilding hometown. Bruton Parish Church in nearby Williamsburg wasn’t a tourist attraction for my family but a church – a religious touchstone, in fact.

“It is more than curious that all the greatest Whig names – e.g., Adams, Webster, Clay, Harrison and Tyler, Taylor and Fillmore, and Lincoln – were of predominantly English ancestry. . . . from Washington to Lincoln, the Federalist-Whig-Republican presidents are exclusively of English ancestry” (Jaffa, supra, 72 – 73).

But the Democrats were anything but British. “Jackson and Polk were both of Scotch-Irish descent, Van Buren Dutch, Buchanan Scotch, among the presidents. Even Jefferson traced his ancestors to Wales. Calhoun was of Scotch-Irish stock . . . Douglas, of course, bore one of the most famous of all Scottish names” (73).

The English betrayed the Federalist cause. They did it not so much by their belligerence leading up to the War of 1812 but by their persecution of the Scots and the Irish who moved to the American West largely as a result of it. Professor Wilfred E. Binkley believed that “The nucleus of Jacksonian democracy was an ethnic group, the Scotch-Irish stock. These were descendants of the unfortunates . . . harried from their Ulster homes and finding refuge in the American wilderness, where they nursed an undying hatred of their British persecutors.” Jackson lead them to victory at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 before they lead him to victory at the polls years later.

The Scotch-Irish resented the Whigs’ mixture of Northern mercantile interests and Northern evangelism. Today’s Scotch-Irish seem to support the Republican’s championing of big and small business, though, and they seem to have inherited, more than most other stock, the Whig’s mixture of evangelism and politics, though of a decidedly more politically conservative variety.

Jefferson and Jackson understood the Scotch-Irish, and the Scotch-Irish helped to make the Democrats the dominant political party for the decades before the Civil War.


I hate an organized party. (Oxymoron: party discipline.) The Democrats’ lock-step organization would spook the Whigs every time.


The most thoughtful Democrats read the Whig newspapers. Those papers were quite superior to the Democrats’ papers, I understand.


If you believe in the American Dream, you must consider the Whigs, which was the only party in history to have something close to a monopoly on it.  (The Democrats couldn’t do too much to support free labor: they were too tied to the “Slave Power.”)


Douglas and Lincoln both fought hard to keep the Union together, though each accused the other of hastening its division. Douglas’s impulse was to defuse the slavery issue by distracting America through territorial expansion and the export of republicanism (“Manifest Destiny”) and by making slavery the subject of territorial votes (“Popular Sovereignty”). I distrust expansion, particularly expansion tinged with evangelistic fervor, and popular sovereignty was a forfeiture of natural law to positivism.

Lincoln’s impulse was to face the slavery issue squarely, as he began to do in Peoria in 1854:

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution . . . Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it . . . If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.

I suppose Lincoln is my apotheosis of the inward-looking leader, the leader who, unlike Jimmy Carter, could call for a national, or at least a sectional, soul-searching and still win an election.

Lincoln’s Peoria speech was Whiggery at its best. Befitting the Whig party, though, Lincoln, and the rest of the party’s leaders, would be gone within four years. It’s been lonely around here ever since.

Posted January 15, 2011.

Slow reader

When I was a child, I thought speed reading was the thing to do. To cram all those wonders in, in almost no time at all: how wonderful it would be. I used to think about the champion readers immortalized in the Guinness Book of World Records, that sacred text of my pre-teen years. Anna Karenina in three hours! I was in awe of such genius.

But ever since I started reading as a writer—this coincided with the first sprouting of my facial hairs, though I doubt there’s an essential connection—I’ve read more slowly. It generally takes me about two weeks to get through a two-hundred-page novel, and about a month for bigger books. If I have a long languid summer, I might get through a six-hundred-pager or two.

I can read rapidly—I did pick up the skill of absorbing the gist of a paragraph at one glance—but I have no interest in doing so. Every book I read these days is part of my study of writing: I want to know how things are put together on the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the page.

Like those people who can take a sip of a soup and declare that it contains marjoram, basil, the faintest whiff of such and such a species of thyme and a hint of the earth the thyme was grown in, I am an oversensitive wreck. My own mania is for words, and it borders on synesthesia. I’ve been known to stay up late into the night marveling at the placement of a comma or at a poignant verb-adverb pairing.

In extreme cases—Here is Where We Meet is a recent example—so involved am I with the thing that I read almost as slowly as the writer wrote, somewhat like that old Russian lady who told Uncle Gabo that she copied out every word ofOne Hundred Years of Solitude so she would be sure she hadn’t imagined it all.

Plot is not the most interesting part of a book for me, and this frees me to take pleasure in book fragments. The author’s literary DNA is on every page, at least for any author worth her salt. So what if I start at page 120 and I abandon the book on page 203? What an encounter those eighty-three pages have been. The most fleeting of affairs, consummated with the passion of a death-row conjugal visit, fervid and yet full of delay-tactics.

I read page 346 of The Count of Monte Cristo last weekend, and grew wings.

One day I went to the bookshop and selected a pile of books—Svevo, Kafka, James, Calasso, about a dozen in all—and from each I read page fifty. Naturally, I often found myself in the middle of a sentence at the page’s beginning or end. But these are the fragments from which a life is made, like those snatches of conversation one hears on the subway, which are free-floating pages from a much larger and more intricate narrative. I eventually left the bookshop, late late in the afternoon, and it was as though I had been to the world’s greatest luncheon. I was sozzled on literary wine and the voices of the twelve brilliant guests echoed in my head.

And then there are those books I read and put away and pick up again and put away again. Not because there’s anything wrong with the book, but simply because I see no reason to consume it all at once. For example, I’ve been reading The Human Stain since June 2004. This work’s riches embarrass me, as a blueberry muffin with too many blueberries would. It’s undeserved, it’s sheer dumb luck on the reader’s part. I’m only on page 190, but it’s already one of my favorite books. I know how the story ends, I know who dies, I know who kills whom, but this has nothing to do with what I’m looking for in the work. Ten pages at a time is about all I can handle of Philip Roth, when he’s at his best. Actually, sometimes it’s just the one athletic paragraph, so clean and in tune with its own song, that knocks me off my charted course. I replace the bookmark, put the volume back on the shelf, and, sighing, remortgage my pact with the Devil. He already has my soul, and now we’re down to bartering the household crockery. Long may I continue to live and read and ever slowly read.

As for Love in the Time of Cholera, don’t even get me started. I’ve read the first hundred pages of that book no less than three times, Saint Ursula is my witness. The first time was out-loud to my wife, three pages a night. Maybe or maybe not I will eventually read the rest; more likely, I’ll go back and read the first hundred again. As I’ve said, that’s between me and Mephistopheles. All I know is that what little of it I’ve already taken in has set a fire in my life that I am unable to douse.

I enjoyed the first two sentences of Lolita—filthy, brilliant—so much that I put it down. For fear of damaging myself. I haven’t found the courage to pick it up again.

Beowulf’s first word bitch-slapped me. I surrendered. And I can’t even read Emily Dickinson at all; I simply console myself with the memory of her words.

I have abandoned that ecstatic fury in which one tears through an entire book over the course of nine hours, caffeine coursing through the veins, the wrists sore from page-turning, the eyes streaked with burst arterioles. No more of that for me, I’ve been saved from that particular variety of youthful indiscretion. But, worryingly, I seem to have recently picked up the nasty habit of reading novels right through to the end. As if getting to the end were the point. This is no joke: I’ve completed at least six books in the past three months. If these symptoms continue, I will consult my doctor. But for the most part, as I grow older, I’m less inclined to wolf down my nutrition, the opinions of the literature-police be damned. I think of prize judges and professional reviewers, those fifty-novels-a-year freaks of humanity, with a chuckle of relief: there but for the grace of God go I.

Life is too precious to waste on fast reading; I bet Neruda says something like that in his Memoirs, but I haven’t gotten to that part yet.

© 2007 Teju Cole. Used by permission. Teju Cole is a writer, art historian, street photographer, and Harvard’s first Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice. His novel Open City won the PEN/Hemingway Award. He is also the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine.