On time passing

September 1, 2009

Today is the first day of the Byzantine year 7518 (see the post Happy New Year). It is the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, a day that the current Patriarch of Constantinople has seen fit to consecrate as the Day for the Protection of the Environment. It also marks the seventieth anniversary of the start of World War II, and the second anniversary of the founding of this blog. I’d like to reflect briefly on some of these things, on the passing of time, and on the state of this blog and my other work.

When I was a child, I viewed the events of the 1930’s and 40’s as ancient history. They had occurred a quarter of a century before I was born. That seemed to me the distant past, a bygone era when cars had running boards and events unfolded in flickering, black-and-white newsreels. Now that I am fifty years old, a quarter of a century seems like a short blip in time, a nothing. The Great Depression, the rise of Nazism in Germany and of Stalinism in Russia, the Second World War, the beginnings of the Cold War, all occurred in a brief period comparable to the time from Reagan’s presidency to the present. Human memory is short, and plays tricks with perspective.

Hardly a day goes by when I do not read one or more of the Psalms. I do this so habitually that I tend to think of them simply as contemporary prayers, applicable to my own current situation. Yet, if one accepts the ascription of most of the Psalms to the historical person, King David, these writings are older than Homer, older than the oldest surviving literature in a Western, Indo-European language. All of Greek literature is, relatively speaking, new, as the Greeks themselves were aware (see Plato’s Timaeus 22b Ὦ Σόλων, Σόλων, Ἕλληνες ἀεὶ παῖδές ἐστε, γέρων δὲ Ἕλλην οὐκ ἔστιν). The Greeks learned their alphabet from a man named Cadmus, the founder of the city of Thebes; the name is a Semitic one; kedem in Hebrew means both “East” and “old.” Cadmus was the old man from the East.

I once came across a very strange book with the title Hebrew is Greek (see reviews of it on amazon.com). The author, Joseph Yahuda, presents the thesis that Hebrew is a variant of the Greek language (not, curiously, the other way around). My knowledge of Hebrew is not good, but I know enough to feel certain that the thesis is basically preposterous. Nevertheless, the author finds enough linguistic parallels to convince me that there were cultural contacts at a very early, pre-literary stage. A couple of the parallels that seem most persuasive: ἀγάπη and ahava, according to Yahuda, are cognate (both terms for “love”), and so are tsedekah, and δίκη/δικαιοσύνη (the DIK root, meaning “justice,” is common). When I was teaching in Albania, I was surprised to learn that the Albanian word for ship, anije, is the same as the Hebrew word אניה (öneey-yah, Jonah 1: 3, 4, 5, etc.) — probably a relic from the early days when the only ships the Illyrians came in contact with belonged to Phoenician traders.

A possibility suggests itself. The Philistines could have been Pelasgians, a people who were widely spread in the Eastern Mediterranean before the arrival of the Greeks; the names are sufficiently similar to warrant considering this possibility. If there are deeply rooted linguistic parallels between the Greek and Hebrew languages, the Pelasgians/Philistines could have been a mediating agent of this.

None of this is perhaps very important. Yet it helps give me a sense of perspective on current events. Two years, or twenty five years, or seventy years, is not a long time in historical terms, much less so in geological ones. Human life is very brief. But, by the same token, much can change in a very short time.

I confess that some days I find it hard to concentrate on John Bekkos and events of the thirteenth century; some days, I would rather concentrate upon things that are unfolding before my own eyes. I would like to say that I have a great confidence in the future of humanity, but, if I were to say that, I would be misrepresenting my own sentiments. I would like very much to think that the future is bright; but I do not actually or habitually think this. The visible prospects for the continuance of the human race on earth are, at best, obscure. It is no longer something one can simply take for granted, as a natural fact.

Why do I say that? Some reasons:

  1. I take global warming, and the substantial contribution to it by human activity, to be sufficiently well-established to deserve to be called facts. What is not yet clear is how far it will be allowed to progress; but anything beyond a rise of 4º C in global temperature, it is said, would be utterly catastrophic and perhaps irreversible, and such a scenario is well within the bounds of possibility.
  2. The possibility that we are at or near a peak in global oil production also appears very real. While this does not spell an end to human civilization as such, it does portend possibly catastrophic economic consequences, as a global economy predicated upon perpetual growth in production comes up against the natural limitations of the earth’s resources. As was seen two years ago before the recession hit, the price of oil affects the price and availability of everything else — in particular, food, but also all oil-based products, which nowadays means pretty much everything since plastics are so ubiquitous. The idea that there will be a single energy source that will replace oil is the sort of assumption made by people who are unacquainted with the constraints of physical reality; after not much more than a century, a resource that took hundreds of millions of years to come into being, and that is the life-blood of the modern global economy, has been largely used up. Just as American oil production peaked in the early 1970’s, so, inevitably, the production of oil in countries like Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, will also peak, probably in the not-too-distant future. And after that, who knows what kind of competition will take place over the remaining supplies?
  3. There is still the possibility of a nuclear war; in some ways, this possibility seems more imminent now given the nuclear ambitions of countries like Iran and North Korea. There is also the possibility that a nuclear weapon, or some similarly heinous weapon, could be made use of by a non-state organization like Al-Qaida.

There are other worries I have, but these are probably sufficient for showing that apprehensions about the long-term prospects of, at least, the current political order of things, if not of humanity itself, are rational.

What about the rationality of hope?

Hope is a Christian virtue, and, as it is founded in the ultimate reality, God himself, it cannot be false. But one must not confuse hope with rash confidence. As a Christian, I have hope that God will save me, in spite of my many sins, because of the blood of Christ; but if I conclude from this that I have no changes to make in my life to conform it to the will of God, then I delude myself, and my hope is found to be, not hope in God, but a rash, unfounded confidence in my own innate invincibility. So, similarly, when Christians claim to have a firm hope that God will see humanity through the hard times ahead, but then do nothing to address the present challenges they face, but instead pretend that things are fine and are going to remain just fine and that nothing in their lives needs to change, such Christians act irresponsibly; they show, not true Christian hope, but a rash confidence, what St. Paul calls a “confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3-4).

Of course, it is no part of Christian doctrine that the world should last eternally. But, as we are stewards of it, we have a duty to preserve it; we have no right to think that, in hastening its demise, we are doing God’s will.

I suppose that what I am advocating here is an end to the divisions between liberals and conservatives on some fundamental issues. Both sides should be able to acknowledge that abortion is a moral evil, and that irresponsible sexual practice corrupts both personal life and families and whole societies. So also, both sides should be able to acknowledge that the proper stewardship of the earth’s resources is a moral imperative, given the current human situation. It is a life issue. It is wrong to think that the one is a conservative issue and the other a liberal one: both are basic to the common good and to any long-term continuance of civil society. Indeed, any social platform or political agenda that does not look to the common good is inherently immoral and, for that reason, unchristian. If Christians cannot agree on such things, if we bicker and accuse each other, we are simply wasting our time, and might as well eat, drink, and be merry with the pagans, for we are no better than them.

The possession of a blog is a great temptation to being foolish, a kind of permanent soap-box onto which to climb and give speeches before an invisible public. It is all the more foolish when the speech-giver is unemployed and has nothing to show for himself. After two years of writing this blog, all I can say is that the work on John Bekkos continues. Perhaps I shall find useful things to say about him in the months ahead.

A trip to Ohio

August 26, 2009

I returned this past weekend from a trip to Cleveland, Ohio, where I had gone to look into a teaching position at a place called the Lyceum School. It was perhaps not the best time of year to go there; classes are not in session, and I was unable to talk with any of the current teachers. But I spent many hours talking with the new headmaster, Luke Macik, whom I know from the Transfiguration College project, and for whom I have a deep respect; he is a very good man, the father of nine children, and I must think that the school has been placed in good hands. Luke and I agreed that I should come back there later in the year, when there are more people around; he suggested that I give a lecture there this fall on the subject of the Filioque debate.

I took fairly good records of expenditures on this trip. I traveled a total of 976 miles, spent $134.27 on gas and tolls, $7 on parking, $70.42 on food, and $37.53 on books; with other miscellaneous expenses, the total for the whole trip came to $300.98. The exact breakdown of expenses is as follows:

17.viii.09  gas, NJ: 337.5m/12.483g [86341m]           $      31.20
            gas, PA: 317.2m/11.492g [86658m]                  31.02
            toll, PA                                            .75
            toll, Ohio                                         1.25
            supper, Cleveland                                 11.00
18.viii.09  breakfast                                          3.50
            dinner                                            17.06
19.viii.09  tea, soup, 30¢ tip                                 5.25
            admission to Cleveland Botanical Garden            7.00
            2 used books                                       2.08
            book                                              13.95
            parking                                            6.00
            Ohio map book                                     21.50
            dinner                                            19.00
20.viii.09  breakfast, bread, tip                              5.75
            lunch, with tip                                    4.00
            gas, Cleveland Heights: 138.1m/6.791g [86796m]    17.38
            admission, Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage         7.00
            postcards, poster                                  5.39
            highway tolls (approximate)                        8.25
            parking, Pittsburgh, PA                            1.00
21.viii.09  AA batteries (for camera)                          4.23
            tea (Somerset, PA)                                 1.69
            juice, pretzels (Plainfield, PA)                   3.17
            toll, PA Turnpike, Harrisburg                     13.75
            loose tea, Bird-in-Hand, PA                        4.25
            jam, Bird-in-Hand                                  3.99
            salami (present for Eddie)                        12.90
            shoo-fly pie (present for Eddie)                   7.00

            mileage on return home  [87317m]
            total miles traveled       976
            total expenditures                               300.98

Note that, in calculating the costs of food, I do not include the $19.90 spent on a salami and a shoo-fly pie, purchased for my brother for his 60th birthday; nor the $8.24 spent on loose tea and jam, since these things were not consumed in the course of the trip, but were purchased for future use. I would, thus, not burden the American taxpayer by reporting these things to the government as business expenses; nor would I do so for the postcards etc. purchased at the Maltz Museum, nor for most of the books purchased on the trip, although I might do so for the Ohio map.

I would also call the readers’ attention to the exorbitant toll on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (Route 76) from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg. If you plan to drive through Pennsylvania, use Route 80 if at all possible.

I had hoped to spend some time in Lancaster County on my way back; but, because I had gotten little sleep the night before and was tired, I chose to take a nap while stopped at the travelers’ plaza in Plainfield, Pennsylvania; for this reason, although the traffic was not bad, I did not arrive at Bird-in-Hand, PA until late in the afternoon, and had little time to do anything but a bit of grocery shopping.

If I were to advise people where to go when visiting the United States of America, I would certainly tell them that, alongside cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., they ought to visit the Amish country. The Amish are Anabaptists; that is, they do not accept infant baptism, but consider baptism to be properly a choice to be made when a person has attained the age of reason, and they consider baptisms not so made to be invalid. As to how the Amish arrived at their peculiar attitude towards technology, so that, in strict observance, they reject the automobile, although they are willing to travel by train and, indeed, on any long-distance train ride through the northern and central parts of the country one is likely to encounter an Amish family, keeping close together and speaking English more as a second language than as a first one — of all this I am ignorant. Nor is it entirely clear to me how the Amish differentiate themselves from the Mennonites. There is a translation of the complete works of Menno Simons in my home town’s public library, but I confess that I have not read it closely. I did, on the other hand, years ago, read a work by Johann Denck on the subject of the love of God, translated in the Library of Christian Classics volume titled Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, and found it impressive. I don’t at present have that work at hand, but it seemed to me at the time that much of what Denck was saying about the goodness of God and about the necessity for faith to be expressed in active works was in agreement with what I believed, as an Orthodox Christian.

It is likely that, if I made a close inventory of the things the Amish believe, I would find things to disagree with (e.g., the invalidity of infant baptism; also, I have no clear idea what they teach on the person of Christ and on the Trinity). But I think it is worth acknowledging that the Amish have got some things profoundly right. Undoubtedly sin is a universal human condition, and Amish families and souls must have their internal problems and stresses, as do any families and souls; and perhaps these problems and stresses are compounded by having to live, in the eyes of the rest of the population, as a kind of living tourist attraction. Yet the Amish way of life, with its emphasis on faith and community and working the land, is, I think, both beautiful and reasonable. I can think of no group of people who are in a better position to face some of the looming crises of the twenty-first century, in particular the end of cheap oil and the consequential end of cheap food, than are the Amish. They are a people from whom the rest of us ought to be learning, and they are part of what keeps the United States from descending completely into the abyss of commercialism and amnesia of God.

As a fiftieth-birthday present, I was given a gift card, with which I recently purchased a small computer at Best Buy; yesterday, after much anxious experimentation, I finally got it to work booting Windows Vista on one partition and Ubuntu Linux on another; if I can get Linux to connect to the internet, that will be my preferred operating system. Tonight there is a meeting of the New Jersey Linux Users Group in Hackensack; I plan to go to it, and to see if someone there can help me to set up a wireless connection and a dialup modem. This is, in any case, my first post to the blog from the new machine.

Shopping incident

November 28, 2008

At the bookstore where I work, I spoke with a customer this afternoon as she was purchasing a book. She asked if there had been any incidents in the mall adjoining the bookstore; I told her I didn’t know of any. Then she mentioned that, this morning, a man was trampled to death at a store in New York City, as a huge, frenzied crowd rushed to buy high-definition TVs.

Black Friday” indeed.

St. Basil the Economist

October 25, 2008

At this time of general economic anxiety, I thought it might contribute, in some small way, to the common good if I were to publish, here on this blog, a revision of a translation that I made many years ago when I was a graduate student in patristics at the Catholic University of America, and which, some years later, appeared in print in an obscure journal titled The First Hour (published by Bp. Seraphim of Sendai, who these days writes a blog). The translation is of St. Basil the Great’s Ὁμιλία πρὸς τοὺς πλουτούντας, his Sermon to the Rich; because of its length, I have given it a page by itself. It stands, along with the sermon On the saying from the Gospel of Luke, “I will pull down my barns, and build greater ones,” and the Sermon delivered at a time of famine and drought, as a major testament to St. Basil’s views on social justice and relations between rich and poor, his “economics.” My guess is that some readers might find these economic views fairly shocking, and his prescriptions incoherent. If St. Basil were to maintain, in a contemporary American context, that “however much you exceed in wealth, so much so do you fall short in love,” as he does in this sermon (§1), he would doubtless be accused of socialism. It is very possible that he would be charged with threatening economic prosperity, because he advocates wealth redistribution and gives insufficient scope to wealth creation. Indeed, the sermon naturally raises such questions; that is why I thought it would be worth reprinting it at this time.

Basil was an aristocrat, whose family occupied a very high position in Cappadocian society. Although he gave away his wealth upon becoming a monk, it appears that he retained some usufruct of the family inheritance; for instance, the monastery at Annesi in Pontus which he founded in the late 350s was apparently built on the family estate, or rather, took over some old buildings and put them to new use; St. Gregory the Theologian, who stayed with St. Basil at this monastery for some time, jokingly said that the two of them would have hardly survived there if they had not been providentially supplied with food packages from Basil’s mother, who lived across the river (Gregory, Letter 5). At the time Basil gave this sermon To the Rich, in the late 360s, he was a priest at Caesarea, in charge of an ambitious social welfare operation, a “hospital” or home for the indigent, popularly called the “New City.” He must, up to this point, have retained some property, because, during the economic crisis of that time, he gave away what was left of it to the poor. (Cf. W. K. Lowther Clarke, St Basil the Great: A Study in Monasticism [Cambridge 1913], p. 57: “The outstanding event during this period was the great famine of 368, of which Basil gives an account in his homily On the Famine and Drought. He did all in his power both by example and precept to relieve the distress; he sold his own possessions and bought provisions with the proceeds, and also made eloquent and successful appeals to the rich citizens to follow his lead.”)

A sign of St. Basil’s aristocratic temper might be seen, in this sermon, in his attitude towards the “nouveaux riches” (ὀψιπλούτοι, νεόπλουτοι, §§4-5), the yuppies of fourth-century Cappadocian society, to whom he refers on a number of occasions. To date, I have not done a study of late Roman economic history, to know more particularly who these ὀψιπλούτοι were, or what economic conditions might have led to their appearance. As opposed to the native aristocracy, they were obsessed with increasing their net worth, and their lives, at least in Basil’s description, centered upon a continuous vain round of conspicuous consumption. This consumption obviously produced a great deal of economic activity — St. Basil gives long enumerations of the various types of workers these self-made men employed, and of the various products they themselves and their wives consumed. Nevertheless, this economic activity did not, in Basil’s view, justify the poverty that existed for a considerable portion of the population. Rather than seeing this economic activity as a process of wealth creation, lifting up all boats in a rising tide, St. Basil tends to see it as symptomatic of sin, evidence of a morally sick society in which a few consolidate power over the many, thrusting all competitors into indigency, subservience and despair. “Nothing withstands the force of wealth: all things succumb to its tyranny, all things cringe before its dominion” (§5).

Perhaps St. Basil is wrong about this. He has not read Adam Smith or Milton Friedman; he knows, it may be, as little about monetary circulation as he knows about the circulation of the blood. Both are, arguably, modern discoveries. Yet he has, without doubt, read his Bible. His sermon is an exposition of the text of the Gospel of St. Matthew in which Jesus tells the rich young man to sell what he has, give to the poor, and come and follow him (Mt 19:21). It is pretty clear that St. Basil takes this word of Jesus, not as advice, but as a commandment, and not as directed exclusively to that one young man in his particular situation, but to everyone. Wealth creation, as such, has little meaning or importance to Basil, either as an individual or as a societal goal. The goal is salvation. If wealth is given to a man, its only proper use is as a means to salvation. For St. Basil, that means using wealth in obedience to the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

I very much doubt that St. Basil was a socialist, in the modern sense of the term. He was in no sense a dialectical materialist; he probably would have seen both Marxists and radical free marketeers as equally godless in their presuppositions. Whatever Basil’s indignation over the oppression of the poor, there is no evidence that he advocated that they should violently overthrow the rich, or take property not their own. That would have continued the cycle of sin; it would have served the devil’s purposes, not God’s. But there is certainly a question as to how St. Basil would have understood application of the commandment of love in a democratic society in which a people jointly make decisions about their common good.

Black Friday

November 27, 2007

The shopping hordes attack the malls
with plastic cards in hand,
a modern rite of capital
which nothing may withstand.
As proof of our depravity
what more is there to say?
Now Christmas in America
begins on a black day.

Ney on the dollar

November 7, 2007

Bill Ney, at his blog The New Combat, has a posting today on China and the dollar, which I recommend.