‘Behind Metaphor, More Metaphor’

Every intellectual likes to believe that he is struggling manfully against the hostile zeitgeist, or else what would be the need for intellectuals? His belief that he is not only in the minority but currently losing the battle against the opposing forces of obscurantism and wrongheadedness allows him the pleasures both of self-pity and self-congratulation. He likes to believe that he has suffered for his views (for can there be better evidence of holding the correct opinions than having suffered for them?), while at the same time making a comfortable living from them.

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Tradition and Democracy in Burke and Paine

In a wonderful new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of the Right and Left, Yuval Levin shows that much of Edmund Burke’s greatest work was aimed at refuting Thomas Paine, just as much of Paine’s greatest work was designed to rebut Burke. Levin also shows persuasively how both of these men’s views find echoes in today’s ideological struggle between the right and left. Paine championed reason as an immanent force of nature that allows man to discover all social truths, including the deistic truths of religion. In Burke’s view, tradition provides ballast to man, who, far from seeing wholly through the prism of reason, is blinded by partiality, circumstance, and limited knowledge.

I strongly encourage readers of this blog to pick up a copy of this important and lucid work. For me, the book raises some questions about Burke’s relative enthusiasm for tradition and relative disdain for democracy. When Burke was alive, these positions were two sides of the same coin. For Burke, tradition was a way to capture what worked over a long period and the judgment of many minds through the centuries. These were indicia of tradition’s beneficence. Democracy, even representative democracy, in its turbulence and focus on the present, threatened to overturn this source of social stability and wisdom.

But Burke’s veneration of tradition over all of methods of social regulation sits less well today. Because the world now changes a lot faster than in Burke’s day, tradition is less likely to be a good guide to present policy. Democracy, like tradition, is also a method of getting the views of many minds. While still imperfect, an extended voting franchise works better in our day than it would have in his. A larger number of people are better educated and have a larger stake in society, both in protecting their property and human capital.

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“The Big Bang Theory” Meets Its Maker

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“The Big Bang Theory” is a highly popular tv sitcom focusing on the love and social lives of young Caltech scientists and their glowingly attractive next-door neighbor, part-time actress and Cheesecake Factory waitress Penny. Now nearing the end of its sixth season, the show would appear to garner its popularity from its depiction of the resolute nerdiness of its brilliant theoretical physicist and engineer characters and their helplessness before the earthy Penny. Their personal lives are shallow at best, obsessed with comic book heroes and Star Trek characters.[i]

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Reason, Revelation, and Laïcité Positive

In the public debates over religion, politics, and morality, isn’t there some rational standard that we all can agree on? Surely there must be a set of common foundations and core first principles from which we can reason together. This is by no means a new question, of course. For viciousness of rhetoric and physical treatment of other human beings, few ages rival the early modern period. In the midst of that age’s battles, Hugo Grotius, the Dutch humanist whose writings have greatly contributed to international law, sought to determine and argue for the core principles of Christianity on which all parties could agree.

The topic was not an abstract one for Grotius. He wrote from the castle in which he was imprisoned by Dutch Calvinists, who opposed his allegiance to a party that sought toleration for dissenters from strict Calvinism.

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