Tag Archives: character

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: “Life without Art” or “The Good Stuff”

The motto of the University of Pennsylvania is a simple but profound quote from the Roman poet Horace: leges sine moribus, vanae. It means, “laws without character (i.e. character formed by moral values) are empty.”  It is not simply because it is in Latin, though, that it is far superior to, say, Pepperdine’s which is, I think, meant to inspire potential donors: “Freely ye received, freely give.”

But Adelphi University has, perhaps, a motto even better than either of these: vita sine litteris mors est. The quote comes from Seneca’s Moral Epistles, and it is a strong statement about the power of the arts, for it means, “life without literature is death.”  And we should never take reading or literature for granted.

Try to imagine life without art.  You might, if you’re as bad at drawing as I am, at first think, “Good!  I hated Mrs. Tenbau’s art class in the fifth grade. She made us make lumps of plaster of Paris, paint it bright orange, and then she just harped on and on about “texture.”  Ye gads, even to me as a fifth grader, she appeared to be quite daft.

Kiss of Judas, detail from Scrovegni Chapel

 

Detail from Cappella Palatina

Fine, but what about no art. No prints in the bathroom, no paintings on the wall, no printed engravings of former presidents on our paper currency. No grandchildren’s drawing on grandparents’ refrigerators.  No visits to museums, ever.  No sculpture. No Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, no Palatine Chapel in Palermo, no Sistine Chapel in Rome. It’s kind of ridiculous to think about it, of course, but if you do, even for a moment, it is quite terrifying.

 

Which is why one should go to college to study art, and literature, and languages; the goal is not to get a job but to get an education. A diploma indicates that you have been graduated and thus educated, not that you have a job. And, by the way, not having a job is not terrifying, or if it is, such terror is almost always merely short-lived. In this country, one will most likely get another one. But life without literature, well, as Adelphi University’s college seal reminds us, it’s flat out death. And life without art—more death. And life without the capacity to communicate through language—more death. Goethe once said, “He who doesn’t know a foreign language doesn’t know his own.” True that, and with it more death, and gloom and doom.

On a more upbeat note, well, there is art, and there is literature, and languages other than English do exists, and you can even learn old languages like Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. And that’s a good thing, because Seneca bundles a powerful sentiment into just a few Latin words, and so does Horace. And that’s good stuff.

Here’s to the good stuff.

 

 

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Dreams

For reasons I do not know, I am often asked about dreams. I have no idea why anyone would think that I would have an opinion, let alone knowledge regarding dreams. Unlike my mother and (rather more rarely) my grandmother, I do not read tea leaves, nor do I speculate about the stock market, nor do I play the lottery or even prognosticate successfully about politics—until three days before the 2016 election I thought Hillary Clinton would win, and, prior to that, I did not think President Obama would be re-elected (though I did think he would be elected the first time). In other words, I am far from an oracle. Yet time and again people ask me what dreams mean, and I have begun to wonder what it is about me that makes people think I would have any peculiar insight on that topic.

Yet, despite my lack of specific knowledge about dreams, perhaps I can address the subject in general terms. While I can’t comment on dream interpretation per se, I can say that dreams are important. When I say this, I don’t mean having dreams at night is important, though it might be for all I know. But having a dream—the way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., did, for example—that is very important.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Why? It casts a personal or, in the case of Dr. King, a collective vision. It is both inspirational and aspirational. Following in the wake of Dr. King, we can dream of an America in which “people will not be judged by the color of their skin,” as he once said, “but by the content of their character.” Dr. King, I believe, was speaking about the merit that their character affords them, that each person would have the chance to receive fairly what he or she earned and not be held back for reasons of racial prejudice. And I think that most of us, or at least I hope that most of us, would agree with that.

But there are other kinds of dreams that cast less lofty visions. For example, you might dream of going to the Bahamas or Hawaii or on an Alaskan cruise. You might dream of your kids going to college or even getting some sort of graduate degree, being well educated and well cultured. Perhaps you hope, too, that they might have a better job than you do, have a happier life. You might dream that they would have less financial challenges than you have had to undergo, have less hardships, have more free time. And it’s okay, as far as I can tell, to dream about such things.

But be careful. For so many of those hardships, challenges, and difficult times were the very things that shaped you, hopefully, for the better. They did if you let them. For life, in that way, is like God. Either you’ll spend your whole life fighting with God (or at least the idea of God) or you’ll slowly (or perhaps suddenly) give in to both, realizing that if He’s just a crutch, like everybody says, then you, too, are in need of that Crutch. For fighting with God ends the day you realize that you’re broken. Only blind pride can keep you back from realizing that.

And life’s not dissimilar. When you stop fighting with the challenges of life—maybe that’s what St. Paul finally understood about life that is given to God instead of given to mere religion when he heard a Voice admonishing him not to “kick against the goads”—and embrace them and even be grateful for them, that’s the first step toward your own dream, not so much of visiting Hawaii as of living life well, even embarking on a greater dream like that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For his dream calls on all those who have ears to hear to put aside their prejudice, itself engendered by blind pride, and walk with him toward a better America and a better world.

But there’s one more thing I would add to my interpretation of dreams. You must remember old dreams to have new ones. You must remember Dr. King’s dream if you are to have your own. You must remember your parents’ and grandparents’ aspirations, hopes, and, yes, dreams for you if you are to have them for yourself or your own children and grandchildren. I think that is summarized in the Bible pretty well when the Prophet Joel says, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28). May you do the same, and may it be a dream that is both personal and collective, inspirational and aspirational.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: How to Build a Library

Well, this title may be a bit misleading—but I do intend to suggest how to build a library below. But I need to back up a bit, to suggest first why to build a library. Now when I say “build” I don’t mean physically to build a building or anything like that. Rather, I mean to build a library collection. And when I say why, I don’t propose that one size fits all. Some folks are not readers—and that’s okay, it’s not sinful not to be a reader. So if you’re married to one, that’s alright, too. You needn’t file for divorce because your husband or wife happens to prefer watching Game of Thrones to reading Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, which I have not yet read myself, but I want to.

But you obviously are a reader, for you are reading this. Chances are, therefore, you read books, too. And if you do, you should probably think about building a library. Why? Because outside of character, books are the best legacy you can leave to your children, if you happen to have them. Books inform character. Yes, I just wrote that. Books inform character, and they tell you something about someone’s character. This is pretty obvious if you look at, say, someone’s movie collection. If they have lots of “spicy” titles, even X-rated titles, well, then, I don’t think I have to explain that to you. If they have classic films in their collection, that says something else again. Likewise books—we are what we eat and we are even more what we read, for food shapes the body but books the mind. So be careful of what you put in your mouth and what changes into the cells that make up your body—for bad food makes bad cells, and bad cells are called cancer. But good food and good books—you can do the math.

Building that library, putting good books in your library, will tell your children someday a lot about you, for they will inherit your books. And remember, while you’re off in the kitchen cooking, your dinner guest is sitting in your sitting room doing what? Well, I always find myself looking at peoples’ bookshelves. Why? I’m curious about what they’re like to read, of course. Aren’t you? Don’t you? Aren’t you curious? (Now that sound’s familiar, for it’s the theme of this website and the Curious Autobiography, a book you really should read. Not that I’m trying to make you feel guilty for not having read it by now, especially if it is already in your library. But maybe, then again, I am.

Well, so that’s why to build a library, one rich in good books. But now, how? Well, that’s a bit easier. Amazon Prime? Yes, that works. But better, of course, to go to a bookstore and peruse. Now that bookstores like Barnes and Noble often have coffee bars attached, how can that not be a good idea? And there’s nothing better than smelling a fresh book. Nothing better. Not even smelling delicious coffee. But books and coffee do go together quite well.

Finally, where will you keep all the books? Well, you’ll see from the pictures of my own library here in this blog that there are all kinds of nice storage places, from the tool room to the garage-converted-into-a-library. So, go for it! Read? Yes. Buy? Yes, or at least borrow from your local lending library. And, whatever you do, unless you give a book away, don’t ever get rid of your books. Build yourself a wonderful library, instead, book by book. Tolle, lege! “Pick it up and read it!”