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Showing posts from February, 2016

Defending the Middle Ages: We've Been Doing It Wrong

We medievalists all know the drill. Somebody in public life says something disparaging about the Middle Ages and we all leap in to insist that either a) Europe in the Middle Ages was actually much more advanced/enlightened/sophisticated than the off-hand comment about people believing the world was flat suggests, or b) yes, absolutely, they're right, medieval Christians were murderous thugs, barbarians of the first order who knew nothing of tolerance or diversity and probably ate babies for breakfast whenever they could get them. Neither answer ever changes the public conversation one iota because everybody knows that whatever Charles Homer Haskins might try to insist about the real Renaissance happening in the twelfth century, there is no getting round the Albigensian Crusade and the massacres of the Jews in the Rhineland (the former called by the pope, the latter resisted by all the bishops and other leaders of the Church). The more those of us who study the intellectual, instit…

Between the Baskets, Mary and Me

One of my new friends, Paul, who is himself a convert to Catholicism, has been asking me whether I have ever been drawn to convert, given my devotion to the Virgin Mary. Presbyterians, after all, are not particularly famous for their devotion to the Virgin Mary, and even the Episcopalians with whom I now worship have proven amazingly resistant to my pleas that we pay more attention in our liturgy to the Mother of God. Wouldn't I be happier in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox church where Mary is given her appropriate due?

You would think, and I often have wondered why Mary chose me, someone who has never even come close to being a Catholic, as her particular servant. Wondered, that is, until this past summer when I realized that I actually was, in spirit, a Presbyterian, and suddenly her great wisdom in choosing me became clear. (I am not trying to be boastful here, she did choose me and will not let me go, even when I have tried to define my academic work in other ways so as not to…

Even Adam Smith Didn't Think It Was Possible to Work All the Time

The liberal reward of labour, as it encourages the propagation, so it increases the industry of the common people. The wages of labour are the encouragement of industry, which, like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives. A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the labourer, and the comfortable hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days perhaps in ease and plenty, animates him to exert that strength to the utmost. Where wages are high, accordingly, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious, than where they are low; in England, for example, than in Scotland; in the neighbourhood of great towns, than in remote country places. Some workmen, indeed, when they can earn in four days what will maintain them through the week, will be idle the other three. This, however, is by no means the case with the greater part. Workmen, on the contrary, when they are liberally paid by the piece, are ve…

Check Your (Rhetorical) Weapons

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Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some notice of those who say, that the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion.Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent.But this, though an important consideration in a practical point of view, merges in a more fundamental objection.Undoubtedly the manner of asserting an opinion, even though it be a true one, may be very objectionable, and may justly incur severe censure.But the principal offences of the kind are such as it is m…

That Old Time Religion

I have not, until very recently, tended to identify as Presbyterian. Christian, yes, but not Presbyterian. Sure, I was baptized in the Presbyterian church--in fact, this one--and some of the strongest really good memories that I have from growing up are of the youth group at Springfield Presbyterian Church in Louisville (ah, slow dancing with him at the Valentine's Day dance...he never knew...). But being Presbyterian rather than simply Christian? I could take it or leave it--and leave it, I pretty much did.

When I was in graduate school in New York City, I attended services at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, rather than Emmanuel Presbyterian Church around the corner (I didn't even know it was there, I had to look it up just now. Maybe it wasn't there--they have some things on their site about a tenth anniversary?). I was a medievalist after all, and I had been studying for several years in England. Episcopal, Anglican, it was all the same to me--and much, …

Founding Freedoms Four-Square

Those who tend to look at our current political culture from my side of the fence (safely segregated in academia in little pens, somewhat more free-range out there in think-tank land) often talk about the need to return to the ideals of our Founding Fathers as a way out of our nation's contemporary woes. "If only," they remark wistfully, "we could recover the commitment to liberty that our Founding Fathers shared. Then, we could make this country great again."

David Hackett Fischer must be tearing his hair out. Because, you see, as Fischer has shown over and over again, there never was a time at which all Americans shared the same conception of liberty, not even in the colonial period when they were all "English." Okay, even then they weren't all "English," some of them thought of themselves as "not-English" or "Scots." But that is precisely Hackett's point: the four major British folkways brought with them not onl…