Where are the Watchmen? (Day 2)

I attended the Eighth Day Symposium, an Orthodox-inspired but broadly somewhat ecumenical gathering, Friday and Saturday. The Symposium title was “Where Are the Watchmen?,” based on a September 2016 Harpers essay by Alan Jacobs.

Some highlights of Saturday (Friday’s highlights are here). Sit back. It’s long — but very rewarding. I’ll highlight the links to my personal favorites, but your mileage may vary.

Kudos to the Cogi app for letting me capture highlights verbatim for my own benefit as well as for my readers. As yesterday, some of the expressions are a little goofy reduced directly to print — but that’s my experience of what happens to speech when transcribed. The written word is subtly different than the spoken word, and the written word, from intelligent and articulate people, can at times seem a bit tongue-tied. I have amended a few words where the speaker clearly misspoke.

I, finally, should mention that Martin Cothran, ubiquitous in these highlights, will be difficult to find in print. He is primarily a Classical Educator, and his book titles are mostly those texts and teachers guides of his company Memoria Press.

  1. Dianoia and the Nous
  2. Even Dylan couldn’t do it
  3. Holiness outside the limelight
  4. Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die
  5. The trouble with consequentialism
  6. Science is the only path to truth?
  7. Rationality versus direct apprehension
  8. “Culture” in the Museum
  9. The Victorian Experiment — and Nietzsche’s contempt
  10. The flight from God
  11. Bigger than Copernicus
  12. Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham, Dr. Phil
  13. The treason of the clerks
  14. Faith alone
  15. The good of hypocrisy
  16. Lindesfarne Option
  17. Losing our moral vocabulary
  18. Conservatives abandoning culture
  19. “Conservative Ideology”
  20. Why the Halfling?
  21. Play like the guys Clapton plays like
  22. How will we know if democracy fails?
  23. Technology is the Ring of Power


Dianoia is a very analytical “heady” process. Dianoia often is a mask for pursuing self-interest.

Drinking into the nous is more passive and in the heart. We westerners are inclined to value dianoia more highly, but Mary, singing the Magnificat, says “He has scattered the proud in the dianoia of their hearts.”

Here, I’ve been paraphrasing Frederica Matthewes-Green.

Frederica, if you have listened to her podcasts or NPR commentaries a decade-plus ago, tends to speak to the heart, and tends not to have lots of vivid sound bites. But she was the keynote speaker, and had much influence with stories themes that spoke to the heart. She also quoted at length from her own article at Christianity Today, Loving the Storm-Drenched (not a title she gave it).

Any paucity of direct quotes probably reflects her noetic (of the nous) focus, which feels like attempts to verbalize or evoke something ineffable. Do not discount it.


Nobody is cooler than Bob Dylan. And yet, when it seemed that he underwent conversion to Evangelical Christianity in the 1970s, and he made three albums of Christian songs, that was seen as just an embarrassment. And he stopped being explicitly Christian in his work and began doing different sorts of songs, all his fans kind of went “Whew!” and they just don’t talk about those three albums. It’s like this terrible false step he took.

Even Dylan was not able to make Christianity cool. It can’t be done. So we don’t stand a chance.

(Frederica Matthewes-Green)


If you’re not in the spotlight, you can be tempted to think that your personal behavior really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you live a holy life or not. All that matters is those conversations in the corridors of power.

And you see the problem there. We don’t get off the hook that easily. We’re called to be living holy lives wherever we live, no matter how visible we are.

(Frederica Matthewes-Green) Increasingly, I’ve been reflecting that just as industry can have externalities like water and air pollution, or the ravaged landscapes that strip mining have left (and as coal dies, will never be remediated by the companies that raped the land), so too even the most “private,” none-of-your-damn-business vices have externalities that are difficult to measure.


Everybody wants to be transformed but nobody wants to change …

The deflating thing to realize is that even if we do this — even if we are greatly transformed by Jesus Christ — the ways that He’s going to change us are not going to be ways that the world admires. Christ will make us more generous, more kind, more modest, more forgiving. Think about that and then think about the heroes in Hollywood movies today — movies and videogames. Those kinds of virtues don’t make sense in that context. You just look like a patsy.

(Frederica Matthewes-Green)


During this last election I was in conflict with a few of my friends. I think there are a lot of benefits, relative to the alternative, that come from the election of Donald Trump, but I wrote a piece “Why I’m Not Voting for Donald Trump.” One of the reasons, I said, is the argument I’m getting from my conservative friends is that “if we vote for Donald Trump, then he will appoint good Supreme Court justices.” Now there’s probably some truth to that, but I’m still stuck in the era of “character matters” that we were all talking about. Is this the guy you really want as your poster boy? That was the consequentialist argument I threw back at them. But I refuse to accept definitively the conclusions of consequentialist reasoning, because I don’t have control of the consequences. I can only do the right thing.

(Martin Cothran)


Does the statement “Science is the only path to truth” meet its own criterion?

(Martin Cothran)


We think [beauty] is relative because we can’t articulate the rational criteria for it …

The problem with beauty is that the aesthetic perception is the thing that brings us closest to the angels. Aquinas has this explanation of angels, who he says are not rational.

“Not rational? Surely they’re rational!” He says “No, they’re not rational. They’re intelligent but not rational.” Because what is rationality? Rationality has to go through steps. You go from premises to conclusions.

Angels don’t have to do that. They apprehend truth directly.

(Martin Cothran)


We have committed the word “culture” to the museum, to be put on display with the other things that are extinct or the survival of which has been put into question. We talk about culture because we no longer have it. The reason we no longer have a culture is because a culture is inherently common — it’s commonly held. It requires shared values and shared values require shared religion. This is why T.S. Eliot in his essay “The Idea of a Christian Society” said that religion and culture are two sides of the same coin.

(Martin Cothran)


People think of the Victorians as just being prudes, and covering the piano legs.

But Gertrude Himmelfarb has done a really good job explaining what the Victorians were all about. They were fast abandoning their religious beliefs. But unlike much of the European continental countries, it (sic – presumably Britain or England) tried to preserve Christian morality. And as Himmelfarb points out, that was the great Victorian Experiment. Obviously it was an experiment that failed.

But they tried to do that, and in trying to have their morality without their religion, their morality became their religion …

But the exemplar of opposite approach to this was Friedrich Nietzsche. While Himmelfarb admires the Victorians for trying to do what they did — trying to kind of brazen through … keeping their morality without its foundation, Nietzsche despises the Victorians for not taking their new beliefs about religion to their logical conclusion.

Nietzsche was impatient with amount of time it was taking for the shadows [of the gods] to abate in England. It was happening more rapidly in places like France, England much later.

And this process of secularization — this increasing nihilism, which is this idea that there is no meaning and purpose in the world — has taking the longest time in America … We defied the rule of developed countries for a long time in how religious our population has been …

At some recent point, probably not determinable, American reached our December 1910 [a date assigned by one analyst as marking a change human character in England]. Our culture has caught up with our lack of faith. The loss of religious influence and the decline in morality is not just palpable but pronounced … There has been a greater change in just the last five or ten years than there were in the fifty before that.

This is particularly the case in issues involving marriage and sex, always the first aspects of conventional morality to suffer from secularization.

We still [January 14, 2017] have a President who was elected from a party whose convention a little over four years ago featured the advocacy of same-sex marriage, a position the mere mention of which would have been politically poisonous four years before. That’s how fast this happened.

(Martin Cothran)


The culture is no longer on our side.

Max Picard in his book The Flight from God … makes a very interesting point at the very beginning of the book. He says:

In every age, man has been in flight from God. What distinguishes this age is this: Once, faith was the universal and prior to the individual. There was an objective world of faith while the flight was only accomplished subjectively within the individual man. It came into being by the individual man separating himself from the world of faith by an active decision. A man who wanted to flee had first to make his own flight.

The opposite is true today. The objective and external world of faith is no more. It is faith that has to be remade, moment by moment, in the individual’s active decision. That is to say, through the individual’s cutting himself off from the world of flight. For today is is no longer faith which exists as an objective world but rather the flight. For every situation to which a man comes is from the beginning only in the form of flight.

It may well be that that through an act of decision each situation in the flight can be transformed into the corresponding situation of faith. But this is hard, and even if one individual should tear himself away from world of flight into the world of faith, he succeeds only for himself, the individual. The world of flight exists independently of his action. The flight is always there and is as much taken for granted as the air we breathe. So much taken for granted that there seems never to have been anything other than flight.

Flight was in the beginning and the beginning was the flight.

(Martin Cothran)


We live in the wake of something even more drastic than the Copernican shift. With  Copernicus’ move to heliocentrism, there was still a center, only the center was no longer the earth but the sun. The culture in which we now are has no center at all.

(Martin Cothran)


Celebrity psychologists are popular. Dr. Phil now occupies the cultural place once inhabited by Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham. Just once I would love to see some crotchety old priest, called on TV after some shooting or something and asked “Why did this happen?”, say “Sin!” Can we not say that?

(Martin Cothran)


Julien Benda called this “the treason of the clerks”: the intellectual class abandoning the traditional conceptions of the good, the true and the beautiful, of which they had traditionally been champions. Both high culture and folk culture have been replaced by pop culture.

(Martin Cothran)


Faith alone does not enable a person to make up his mind … Just as patriotism is not enough to win a war, so faith is not enough to win the war with oneself. One needs strategies and tactics, all the generalship of war ….

In other words, it’s hard to be moral without a whole network of outside support. Just ask anyone who’s sent his son or daughter off to the secular college, or for that matter, many ostensibly Christian colleges.

(Martin Cothran, quoting Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shadows on the Hudson)


We should not be afraid of the charge of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is like pain in the body. It doesn’t feel very good, but it’s a good thing. It’s tempting to and say … that the culture of faith that we once had was simply creative hypocrisy and we don’t need hypocrisy. But I think we should think long and hard about that.

We need to ask ourselves whether a culture with hypocrisy is better or worse than its replacement. Hypocrisy has been the universally acknowledged sin only because there was always a standard one could uphold while he violated it. But now we’re entering a world where particularly on matters of sexual morality hypocrisy is no longer even possible because there are no shared values about which we can be hypocritical.

(Martin Cothran)


There’s been a lot of debate about what the Benedict Option involved. Is it just isolation? Is that still possible?

I wrote Rod [Dreher] because it seemed like he was having a hard time explaining exactly what the Benedict Option was. So here’s what I proposed.

“Rod, you need to consider the Lindesfarne Option.” … Because what he needs is a better metaphor …

The island of Lindesfarne off the English coast is the center of the evangelization of England. It’s an island, but a tidal island. When the tide comes in, it’s isolated. The other half of the day when the tide goes out, it’s connected to the mainland.

We do need some isolation. It’s a flipping back and forth of isolation and engagement.

(Martin Cothran)


Moral language has been replaced by economic language in public debate. Everything has to have an economic impact. We’ve lost our moral vocabulary and that’s why we’re losing. Our leaders don’t want to take the time to understand. Political leaders don’t want to have to spend time thinking about this. So when the time comes, they let the proponents of socially conservative bills advocate for them in committee. They don’t know how to do it. And then are at a loss to defend them on the floor. (Matin Cothran with credit to David Brooks).

That has been my experience as the likes of Cummins Engine, Eli Lilly and the Chamber of Commerce have rushed in to squelch culturally conservative steps like Indiana’s RFRA. But even back thirty years on the abortion issue, few legislators, even if they voted right, could demonstrate verbally that they really “got it.”

And that’s why we now get ham-handed laws like “if you want an abortion, you have to read some anti-abortion tracts, view an ultrasound, and then simultaneously pat your head and rub your tummy while reciting the Gettysburg Address — 48 hours before they ‘do the procedure.'”


On conservatism: National Review no longer has a significant cultural piece — book and movie reviews, for instance. (The Panel)


The expression “conservative ideology” makes me cringe. Because ideology is politics made into a religion. And this is what has basically happened in our culture, and even some conservatives do it. I mention Sean Hannity as a typical example of this …

We don’t need to be doing that. We need to understand what our theological commitments in the public square are, but if we just make this into a political religion like the other side, we’re doing the same thing.

Because what we have in this country is liberal Sharia law. The ideologues on the other side do this. They do the same thing — have the same problem — as Islam. Islam doesn’t have a distinction between politics and religion and government. It’s the same thing.

That’s what the liberals in this country are doing. They’re conflating the two. And that’s why they get so upset when they don’t win. Because this, to them, is ultimate. The only heaven that’s gonna happen is here …

We can’t do the same thing on the other side and be true to who we should be.

(Martin Cothran, on the panel at the end)


“Why the halfling?” And Gandalf responds this way:

I don’t know. Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But this is not what I’ve found. I find it is in the small, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? I don’t know. Perhaps because I am afraid and he gives me courage.

(Audience member to the panel)


In my world, there’s a lot of admiration for the Founding Fathers. And so what we do is we read about them. But we don’t read what they read.

I was listening to an interview with Eric Clapton and he was asked what advice he had for people who wanted to play like him. And he said “Well they shouldn’t try to play like me. They should try to play like the guys I play like.”

Go to the source. I’m involved in the Classical Education movement and that’s what the point of that is …

They’re being exposed to the good, the true and the beautiful, and you don’t have to teach them politics. Just teach them the truth and they’ll figure the rest out.

(Martin Cothran on the panel)


If the American Democratic experiment fails, how would we know? (Frederica Matthewes-Green)

If you’re a conservative, you have to go through the democratic process … They don’t have to do that. They get a friendly judge.

Look at the “rational basis test.” The rational basis test in law now is basically liberal reasons count and conservative reasons don’t. Tradition, custom, religion and morality are no longer considered a rational basis …

So one of the ways I think we can declare that the experiment is failing is that they’re violating what we all agreed to two-hundred-and-some years ago. It’s cheating.

(Martin Cothran)


The tool becomes the tyrant. (Nod to Neil Postman) In my opinion, technology is the Ring of Power. And the debate that goes on, I think, within and outside the Lord of the Rings … Do you use that for good? There are costs to that. And they may be prohibitive.

(Martin Cothran)

* * * * *

“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.