Monthly Archives: July 2018

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The “New” Morality

Morality has always been a problem, for each generation that has inherited it has, of course, had problems with what it inherited. Why does one have to say, “Pardon?” or “Pardon me, ma’am?” instead of just “What?” when one cannot quite hear what an older person has said?

It could quickly be objected that such a slender matter is one of decorum not morality. That may be so, but I would argue that these are not unrelated ideas. One gets one sense of decorousness (derived from the Latin decus, meaning “honor” or “dignity”) from one’s upbringing, and that is the same place whence one acquires one’s sense of morality. The word morality is, in fact, derived from the plural of the Latin word, mos, meaning “habit”; the Romans referred to a person’s character as mores, one’s “habits.” The character of a person was, therefore, reflected by the collection of his habits. Such morality for the Romans was never entirely free-standing: it was often called the mos maiorum, “the way of the ancestors.” As such, it was implicitly linked to the notion of “looking back” (the Latin respicere), from which we get the English word “respect,” which means treating those who have come before respectfully, not simply because they have given birth to you, but because they have given you your sense of decorum, have helped to shape your habits, and have handed down to you a precious moral code; and that is why you should respect them. I could end this piece right here by simply saying, “Go and think about that.”

But I want to add one more thing, of an anecdotal nature. A friend of mine was being upbraided by his own twenty-something year old child recently. The child had, wittingly or unwittingly, subscribed to the “new” morality. That morality is not inherited but is entirely derived from the individual, or the collection of a mass of individuals’ thoughts. This mass is largely sustained by social media. It is often referred to as political correctness, but that is only one limb of this monster. The new morality is founded upon the principle that the individual is the autonomous central arbiter of all questions. This can only be true, of course, if morality is shifting, nebulous, entirely a matter of grey areas. The individual determines what is right or wrong for him or her. Add to this, that the individual’s generation has its own set of values that is the collective sum of that generation’s thought, again, largely perpetuated by social media. There is no shame in this new morality, but there is “shaming,” which is what used to be called “humiliating” or “excoriating.”

For this new morality, the word character is hardly ever used and its adjectival form, “moral,” is used even less. Why? Because to do so would be to admit that there is a true standard beyond the individual’s determination of what is “right for me.” The new morality is, of course, not morality at all; It is not handed down from the ancestors; it more than touts—indeed it requires—the primacy of the individual over society; it is necessarily irreligious, though it can be “spiritual” (the preferred word). It does not acknowledge societal constraints. It often plays the victim and cannot accept being challenged. Why? The answer should be obvious: it is shallow. But, as it has no shame, it takes no umbrage at such a moniker.

So my friend’s adult child could upbraid him because my friend phrased something in such a way that the child didn’t approve of. The child told my friend that his opinion of a certain moral issue was wrong, and by implication not in keeping with the standards of the current age. And that’s where we are, in the midst of a “new” morality, shallow and devoid of shame, clear direction and, saddest of all, character. It is indecorous, disrespectful, unwittingly nihilistic and, for the most part unwittingly, embraces death. It leads to despair and chaos. Who will deliver us from the body of this death? I seem to recall the last verse of the seventh chapter of a very old epistle, written to Romans, that suggests an answer.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Dedicated Teacher

I have written before, quite a few blogs ago I think, about what a difference in someone’s life a teacher can make. I spoke of the great educators Lou Pengi, Zinieda Sprowles, my teachers in New Hope, Pennsylvania, or, at the college level, Philip Lockhart, Leon Fitts and Robert Sider of Dickinson College. I might, too, have spoken of my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hendrickson, or even my kind and gentle elementary school choir teacher, Mr. Schaeffer.

Yet, fond as I shall ever be of them, I don’t want to speak about my own teachers here; rather, I want to speak about a conversation that I had with my friend, the philologist, whose conferences, if you read this blog regularly, you already know I sometimes crash as a fifth-wheel pseudo-philologist, as a poetaster is to a poet. That self-same philologist is in fact also a teacher (actually a professor) but as he is my contemporary and friend, I have, of course, never taken a class with him. That said, he and I often consult about his courses, for he is, I would say, a dedicated teacher. He is also a dedicated educator. He spends a lot of time educating his students, whether in or out of the classroom. Yet he is also a teacher, and as such he and I, as I was saying, converse about the material for the class, the author he might be reading and, especially this time of year, about the content of his syllabus.

Recently the question of educational motivation came up: how can he motivate his less-than-excited students to grasp not only the content of his course but, more particularly, their entire education? He explained it this way: he is more concerned about the student understanding why in fact he or she has come to college at all than the details of Ciceronian rhetoric—though he is concerned with that, especially these days when students seem to come to university so ill-prepared rhetorically and historically.

Thus it was that we sat on his porch, enjoying a glass of wine and conversing about whether it would be a good idea to mention something in the syllabus—an aspirational statement beyond the normal “Goal of the Course” but filed under that heading on the syllabus—or whether it is better to let that emerge on its own during the course. He has, in the past, always chosen the latter option. He doesn’t believe in what he calls “over-leading” the student (which he insists is akin to “leading the witness” in a court of law). He wants the students’ love of learning to emerge organically, naturally. But this time I tried to convince him: “Put in something aspirational, just to get them thinking of your unstated goal right off the bat.”

We debated a long time. I suggested he insert something like, “The goal of this course is to master Ciceronian style and understand better the context of the speech (for he is reading a Ciceronian speech with the class in Latin) and also to better understand what a real education means, for enlarges upon the importance of the education of Caelius [the person focused on in Cicero’s speech] as a vital component of his defense.” Of course, he immediately corrected the split infinitive which I had put in only to distract him, for I knew he would fixate on the grammar rather than what I was proposing.

As things are, however, I am not sure what he will do. I hope he puts in some kind of aspirational statement, for it would be a terrible thing, I think, to go to college just to get a job and not an education. Isn’t education, after all, what one goes off to the university to get? I think that it is an employment agency, after all, that one actually goes to when seeking a job: “the goal of this agency is to get you a job.” Yes, that fits. “The goal of this course is to prevent you from being a driveling know-nothing.” Yes, that’s what he needs to add. I think I’ve got it now.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Food

The one thing that everyone is interested in these days is food. I have been traveling, and I had dinner in Rome with two friends who even took pictures of their food before they dug in—two admittedly quite beautiful bowls of pasta. Before I was in Rome, I had been quite a bit further  north, in the Czech Republic for the first time.

When I came back from my travels, I was recently, as I am invariably, asked, “So, you went to Prague—how was the food?” Indeed, in both Prague and Rome the food was quite nice. Like the Italians, the Czechs pride themselves on food and, to an even greater extent, on beer. The food was quite good there—Germanic in terms of flavor, but more delicate—and the beer was quite good, too, though the lovely Czechs who took me out to dinner were disappointed on my behalf. I think they were muttering something about it not being the right temperature, but I am not sure whether they meant too cold or too warm. I imagine the latter, as the beer wasn’t very cold.

I was, of course, in Prague to meet up with my friend, the philologist, who was there to study a rare manuscript housed in the National Library. Inasmuch as I had been in Europe over a week before he arrived and had thus adjusted to European time, when I met up with him there he, having just arrived, was quite jet-lagged, and thus had a hard time working in the library for many long hours, even though he had traveled quite far to study that particular manuscript. But what has that to do with food?

It has this in common: odd as it may sound, he has a genuine hunger for manuscripts, perhaps more avid even than the friends whom I met in Rome have for food. His hunger stems in part from his strange penchant for finding not-yet-considered things scribbled between the lines or on the edges of the pages. These are known as glosses or marginalia, respectively. What I envy is not so much his job—it sounds, after all, a bit tedious, doesn’t it?—but it is the passion, the hunger that he has for his work, work that to the rest of us might seem quite boring.

But some people don’t like cooking, either, and I would argue those folks are missing out on quite a lot of fun in the kitchen, which brings us back to food. For cooking can indeed be very rewarding and, of course, produce a palpably enjoyable result. But whether you’re cooking or studying or writing or driving cattle, I think the key thing is the hunger, the inspired desire for the task at hand, not just the eventual collection of the paycheck but the excitement, even the passion that goes into producing it, that really counts.

Now you might say, what if I have a job that doesn’t whet my appetite constantly? Well, I think the best thing to do is to discover something about it that you really do enjoy. You might have to spend some time thinking about how to find that passion, but probably it can be found. No job is perfect—even my friend will admit as much about his manuscripts—but finding the passion in your work might mean finding passion in your life or your marriage or your family as whole. And that is a spiritual exercise as much as it is anything else.

houskový knedlík

Well then, what about food? As I said, the food in Prague was quite nice. I had some tasty soup (kulajda) for lunch and a tastier dumpling dinner (houskový knedlík). All this talk of food is making me hungry now, so I shall sign off with a simple Chinese proverb that may remind us to seek contentment in even a less than passion-laden situation: “Coarse rice for food, water to drink, and the bended arm for a pillow: happiness may be enjoyed even in these.”[1]

[1] Dictum of Confucius, as quoted in James F. Clarke, Ten Great Religions: An Essay in Comparative Theology (New York, 1888): 48.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Why Old People Like Strange Things

I think I have figured out why old people like strange things. In part, of course, I am discovering this because I am getting older. But I think the chief reason that I have discovered this is because I have been rereading the Acts of the Apostles, a book of the Bible that few people read at all these days.

The chief reason for that is, I believe, because few people read any of the Bible at all. They are content to recognize it as “the good book” (when in fact for Protestants, at least, it is comprised of sixty-six separate books), instructions and guidance from on high, from “the Man upstairs,” or the like. That metaphorical description of God is, of course, less than dignified, even unbecoming. And at any rate fits with a no reading of but “general respect for Holy Writ.”

But old people, perhaps because they are themselves getting closer to the “top floor” (if I may indulge the societal predilection for undignified religious metaphors), would seem to be more inclined to read the Bible. Now most do it through something called a devotional book, which means some author has preselected bits and pieces of the Scriptures and then explained them. But some old people (and some young people, too, of course) prefer to read the Bible the way country musicians normally purport to drink whiskey—straight up.  And if they do that, then they eventually read, often for the first time, the book of Acts.

Which brings by back to why old people like strange things. For the book of Acts is not normally one’s favorite book of the Bible. It is action-packed, geographically challenging—one really needs a map to read it—and religiously complex (e.g. Acts 21:21 ff.). But old people really like this book anyway. Why? I think I figured it out. It is because the Church described in that book is so very unlike any church they have ever attended. The Church of the book of Acts is active, vibrant, exciting, spiritual, robust, bold, faithful. The church that the old people are members of tends to be just the opposite of these things. In fact, they have sat in their pews and from time to time wondered why people still come to church, when the liturgy is all that there is, and Holy Communion, of course, the latter of which in and of itself, they rationalize, justifies the fairly limited attendance. But then they get gloomy and wonder, when they see a young couple or, worse yet, a young family, whether that family’s child, when it grows up, will actually come to this church or attend any church. And then they think of their own children and wonder if they ever go to church any more, for they don’t ask their kids too much about that, as they are all grown up and it’s true: they have to make their own decisions. At least they come with them to church on the holidays. “Sally’s kids won’t even do that much,” they mutter to themselves before they head off to the after-church cake and coffee.

But when they read Acts, those old people really get excited. Their imaginations run wild, in fact, for they imagine a time when the Church was vibrant, was engaged in society, had meaning and was connected to something bigger, Someone much bigger. Not the “big guy in the sky” or the “man upstairs,” but to God himself.  And they ponder whether it could ever be so again. And that’s why they like the book of Acts. And so do I, and I know that it can be so and actually is in some churches.

Now that does not explain why old people like bad coffee—for they do, it’s a well-documented fact—or why they get unduly excited about a slice of apple pie, of which I am still not a fan, which means I must not be that old yet. Or why they love babies inordinately and feel encouraged when they see one—I am not there yet either, for I still think the world is in a tough spot and I do not become instantly optimistic by seeing or even holding a baby. Or why elderly men have such a penchant for t-shirts. I don’t think I know a single elderly gentleman who doesn’t wear a t-shirt or, for that matter, carry a handkerchief.

But they all love the book of Acts. And you don’t have to be old to read it. But if you’re not a Bible reader, I would advise you to read it only after you have first read a gospel (like Luke), for otherwise you might not understand what all the old folks are so excited about. But they are excited, and they are, strangely enough, inspired by nothing less than the very book of Acts.