David Bentley Hart on Modern Freedom

We all talk about freedom, or freedoms: the modern period is shot through with liberating the individual from the tyrannical claims of the group, and various self-help and movement-politics trends position themselves as furthering the cause of freedom.

Talk of freedom –the concern for further spreading freedom-as-liberties, for maximizing personal freedom-as-autonomy– is everywhere today, and the pursuit and establishment of freedom are a hallmark of the modern period. Financial success and stability is marketed as offering freedom. The Stoic trend that has steadily risen in philosophically-oriented self-help fora concerning liberation from one’s own passions is one form of this concern for freedom — it simply turns the eyes of the individuals from liberation from external forces and conditions that enslave to liberation from internal masters. The LGBTQ movement is another form of this, overturning conventions and taboos for the sake of freedom. Fears about potential or actual threats against journalistic freedom are another form of this; concerns about religious freedom are another form of this; movements to bring about a state of greater economic parity between segments of the population are yet another form of this. I could go on.

The concern for freedom is everywhere. But what is freedom?

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Fukuyama and Lilla on the Older Left vs. the Fractiousness of the Politics of Identity

Identity politics has been a hot-button issue lately, galvanizing people across the political spectrum, and the high-visibility responses it has generated have mostly been from the alt-right; I have seen very few good short articles that have been produced from moderates or those on the left.

Here, I cite from two authors regarding the fractiousness of current identity politics, one of whom is on the political left (Lilla) the other of whom seems to share that broad identity, even though he was once associated with Neoconservatism for a short time (Fukuyama).

The citations seemed to overlap; here they are.

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On Oceans (and Ascetics) and Mechanisms (and Revolutionaries)

For Yuri; an afterthought to how Dostoyevsky may have replied to Gerard’s objections to the focus on tending to the heart, and his championing of economic development and rationalization of the social world as the primary route leading to the reduction of the world’s problems and, seemingly, the improvement of human nature — in which moral and ascetical practices, such as tending to one’s heart, are seen as superfluous at best. What follows below is not an argument against this (who would begrudge development?), simply an attempt at being an amanuensis of sorts.  Continue reading

The Genealogy of Secularization

Jan Bremmer is an impressive figure. (–but do not confuse him with the political scientist Ian Bremmer, whom you should follow on Twitter.) I was first acquainted with Jan’s work as a ravenous undergrad taking courses on the classics, when a professor suggested a book of his along with Walter Burkert’s standard tome. He has quite a large list of publications under his belt (you can browse the Amazon.com selection), having written some of the standard secondary texts on ancient Greek (pagan) religion, and branching out into early Christianity and myths and ritual worship in general.

About fifteen years ago Dr. Bremmer took to writing a remarkably concise set of notes, in the form of a narrative, titled “Secularization: Notes Toward a Genealogy“, published in a collection of essays titled Religion: Beyond a Concept edited by Hent de Vries. (The article may be visible in Google Books, and this is great, because the pages of the Academia.edu upload didn’t scan well near the spine.) Continue reading

Some Rambling Thoughts on Chinese Shadow Puppet Plays, as Well as a Vonnegut Quote and its Context — Oh, and Simone Weil

The Harvard Ed Portal near me hosts several events, and yesterday’s was “Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band” (there is a YouTube clip of the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band here (that family has been doing this for eleven generations!), and an NPR clip of Wu Man here; there is also a disc they were selling at this event titled “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”, available as a disc and for streaming, YouTube trailer here — more on this disc later, and its accompanying school lesson-plan material, which prompted this post). The event was, in several ways, both eye-opening and beautiful (alien in its tones and stories and some of the conventions of singing; familiar in its musical similarity to Blues and the visual similarity of the puppets to certain Late Antique Anglo-Saxon and Celtic knotwork illuminated manuscript conventions; moving all around).

I loved the show, the performers seemed like wonderful people, and they were very gracious in fielding our questions. I was sad to hear that there were fewer than thirty people left in China who knew this trade — the performers told me that they were 12 when they made their first puppet (out of cow skin, via a rigorous process), and 20 when they could manipulate the flat figures, which each have three poles to move the many parts, with one hand only (to see what I’m talking about, expand this post by clicking “continue reading” below, then look at the image on the header of the expanded post). The younger generations want to leave the villages, want lucrative careers, just want to watch cartoons — though they flock to the performances when they’re held. Thankfully, the Chinese government recognizes the cultural value of this profession, and supports the mission of these puppeteers (similar to how Irish Gaelic survives in the state-sponsored Gaeltachtaí).

On my way out the door, however, I was dismayed to find that an American product was being pushed at the door that, despite its best intentions, was not only smugly imperialist in its self-assured nihilism but insulting to the richness of the Chinese tradition, and its clear apprehension that value is real, and insulting to the Western European tradition, which has also traditionally recognized that what is worth pursuing is worth pursuing because of its inherent worthiness. Continue reading