Blogging Orthodoxy 3: Of Ethics and Elves

Blogging Orthodoxy continues with the next chapter :

Chapter 4: “The Ethics of Elfland”

If isolated from the rest of the book,“The Ethics of Elfland” is the chapter of Orthodoxy I wish more people would read. The chapter contains a revelry  that’s hard to express and even harder to imagine from a book titled Orthodoxy. I’d like to think that no one can read the chapter without coming away moved by Chesterton’s awe of ordinary things. It is probably unlikely, in the modern age, that anyone will find awe in a book; but getting a sense of wonderment is the only reason anyone ever started reading books in the first place. It is not surprising then that Chesterton begins his exploration of wonder with the first books everyone first read: fairy tales.legolas

To Chesterton the good life is one is lived like it were a fairy tale; as if all encounters were wondrous and all decisions were heroic. Fairy-tales are wonderous not simply because they contain strange things, but because, in them, we are reminded of what it is like to experience the world for the first time. In a fairy-tale anything can happen and there is both mystery and discovery. In fairy tale, while there may be stark dangers and hard odds nothing is ever hopeless. If life were like a fairy-tale it would not simply contain miracles, it would be miraculous.

When discussing Orthodoxy, skeptics frequently take issue with Chesterton’s belief in miracles. Chesterton’s much more interesting attitude towards the miraculous is rarely mentioned. It would be far more germane if it were. The attitude towards miracles (not their existence) is what truly separates the religious from the irreligious. Both atheists and theists agree that highly improbably extraordinary events occur. The religious person just sees the special event as entirely apart from the natural order while the atheist sees the event necessarily subsumed by it.

But Gilbert would like both parties to go one step further. The problem is not that the theist regards improbable events as sacred or that the atheist regards improbable events as ordinary. The problem is that  neither consider ordinary events to be sacred. Modern people have convinced themselves, that because an event repeats, it cannot be special and therefore is lifeless. But why should we imagine that ordinary things are dead just because we have seen them frequently? We associate repetition with death and old age, but the association may derive from the tiredness and old age in ourselves.

A child never tires of repetition. A­s Chesterton points out, when a child sees something he likes, he will want it repeated, shouting “Do it Again!” until his parents are exhausted. God, like a child,  may also never tire of repetition. What if the mundaneness we associate with ordinary life is simply our inability to appreciate the vitality of an ever youthful God? As Chesterton says: 

 It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Could the key to exaltation be so simple? Might we, with one decision, see things through God’s perspective and forever wash-away the drabness and drudgery of ordinary life?

I do not believe spiritual breakthroughs can be reached by reading philosophy, but what followed the group’s reading of “The Ethics of Elfland” seemed to come close. For a moment, all ethics became clear. Every moral action was profound and every personal obligation heroic. In the eyes of God no action could ever be boring. Monogamy was no longer challenging but a challenge to defy the stifling human urge to regard the familiar as mundane. Duty was no longer arduous but a defiant rebellion against the entropy of time. The words “Do it again” were quoted again and again throughout the night and the group finally broke with a feeling of comradely rare for philosophy discussion groups .

The next Sunday, I was unsurprised to hear our patron use Chesterton’s words in his Sunday homily about Christ’s teachings to become like children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I found it quite insightful. But, like most homilies, it fell on the tired ears of parishioners hearing yet another exhortation to be pious at 8 am in the morning. Even the members of the book group appeared much less affected than during the previous night’s discussion. Some things that seem revolutionary over books and beer never appear quite as real in the light of day. This certainly made me wonder if anyone could live as Chesterton describes, feeling constantly as though ordinary people and objects in the universe were special and romantic. Certainly Chesterton wasn’t the first to preach about the joy that can be found in every-day life. This is a common enough trope from any new age Guru. 


But there is more to Orthodoxy than mere romanticism. Almost lost in Chesterton’s paen to the wonder of ordinary life is his assertion that ordinary miracles must be sacrificed for. The ordinary can be just as valuable as the extraordinary. But nothing will seem valuable unless we are grateful for it. The modern world is replete with spiritualists telling us to be happy about existence. Absent are spiritual leaders telling us to fast, pray, and feel thankful for existence. But we cannot glory without sacrifice. There is no way to make the ordinary part of the romantic fabric of our beings without first sacrificing our egos on the altar of everyday life.

It’s apropos that this blogpost falls on Thanksgiving, the only holiday still firmly moored to it’s roots secular piety. It’s no accident that, second only to Christmas, this holiday occupies a very special place in most people’s hearts. When we feel thankful we cease to take our lives for granted and begin again to see the universe as a wonderful and exciting place. It is only by being thankful that we become like children and feel young again.  




Movie about a healthy algorithm for matching kidney transplants

A visiting professor at my University passed along this video about data-science based algorithms used to match Kidney donors. An interesting documentary if one has 20 minutes

Healthy Algorithms

This is a fun movie. Nice motion graphics, and camera work. The sound design is good too, although I found the jazz in the background distracting. And I love this research area. I think some colleagues at CMU were starting to work on it right when I was leaving grad school. I’ll share it on healthy algorithms went I have some time to post things.


From: Sommer Gentry
Sent: Monday, November 11, 2013 12:25 PM
To: abie
Subject: a movie link for Healthy Algorithms?

Dear Abraham,

I hope this email finds you well. I am enjoying your blog!

I am writing to let you know about a short documentary that features me and my husband and a nice mathematical modeling problem for helping people get kidney transplants. Its moving principle is to sell operations research to a lay audience by explaining the kidney exchange problem in great detail. It…

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O’Connor’s Late Influence

Second only to Tupac Shakur, Flannery O’Connor has had a long posthumous career. Since the author’s death from Lupus in 1965,  numerous additional works have been released to the public (starting with her best short story : “Everything that Rises Must Converge”). Being a huge O’Connor fan, I admit having a penchant for impulsively buying each new obscure manuscript released by her grasping publishers (still trying to make good on a franchise discontinued 48 years ago). I even bought the collection of comics Flannery drew for her college papers (unsurprisingly, not the most revelatory publication). Now there is a new series of prayer journals taken from early in the author’s life. The Atlantic has the profile:flannery

 Beneath the surface, as recorded on the 47 and a half handwritten pages to which we now have access (A Prayer Journal includes a facsimile), she was refining her vocation with the muscularity and spiritual ferocity of a young saint-in-waiting. The first page or pages of the notebook have been lost, and it begins—how poetic is this?—mid-sentence, with “effort at artistry.”


“To maintain any thread in the novel,” she muses in one of the journal’s rare moments of literary theory, “there must be a view of the world behind it & the most important single item under this view of world is conception of love—divine, natural, & perverted.”

Sounds amazing. I read through Flannery O’Connor’s letters a few years back. There is humor even in her minor observations about life. My personal favorite was her attempt to justify her own poor spelling by saying “I am an innocent speller” (I’ll remember that the next time a submit a paper). I’m sure there are more quotes like this in the new collection. So I guess it will be another transfer from me to Flannery’s estate, I hope she has some deserving descendent who stands to benefit from all my contributions.

Remember, Remember…..


Remember Me?


Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot! 

It’s funny what fragments historical recollection get carried from one generation to the next. Even for a plot celebrated in song and dedicated to remembrance, almost nothing can realistically be recalled about the events of Guy Fawkes Day.

Guy Fawkes always had suffered from a certain amount of historical amnesia. What initially was a xenophobic holiday dedicated to nationalistic chest-thumping and anti-Catholic recriminations became, by the19th century, a patriotic festival dedicated to chestnut roasting and fireworks.

Still, with the advent of Alan Moore’s landmark comic book V for Vendetta (and subsequent movie) , Guy Fawke’s posthumous-career has taken a stranger turn as a progressive protest icon. Popularized first as the face of the left-wing hacker group Anonymous, the infamous Guy Fawkes plastic mask become a staple of occupy wall street and other quasi-revolutionary groupsFawkesProtest

I am not the first person to point out the utter silliness of secular socialists using the face of a fanatical Catholic to symbolize anarchy. However, I might be alone in hoping that the image of Fawkes may one day be reclaimed by the crazy trad-Catholic convert community to which the historical Guy Fawkes belonged. What would happen if hundreds of members of say The March for Life, donned white face masks and black cloaks in place of skirts and sweater vests? Most likely, the press would collectively cough up a lung and every member of the house democratic caucus would be hiding under their desks. It would be bad for our country, disastrous for our public discourse. But it would be very funny, and more importantly, it would  at least a little more historically accurate:

But as long as we are remembering the Catholic crazies this Guy Fawkes Day, let’s not forget how bad their anti-Catholic rivals were just half a century later: In fairness to the English, Cromwell did tell them that if they liked their Christmas dinner they could keep it.

H/T Mark Shea for the video

Sunday Link: Empiricism in the Cave

I just came across a good rendition of Plato’s analogy of the cave using, get this, claymation. Take a watch below:

I used to have a former-Christian (agnostic) friend, who, after leaving Christianity felt this analogy by Plato contained more truth than any parable in the Bible. Though I am not prepared to go that far, there is something very deep in this story that the modern world seems close to forgetting.

While one should always be careful about drawing modern lessons from ancient allegories. I can’t help but think that Plato meant to deliver a very biting blow to empiricism. When one builds a model of the universe based on collecting existing evidence there is a tendency to believe that this model is the Universe. Perhaps the statistician Box put it best of all :

Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.

Blogging Orthodoxy 2 : The Stalemate of the Philosophic Zax

Back to blogging Orthodoxy. This time the third chapter entitled “The Suicide of Thought”. There is a new eagerness towards the material. A lot of the initial skepticism towards the style of early 20th century apologetics has worn off and people are more engaged. I notice  that we are now a slightly smaller group. Perhaps there is a selection effect in play.

Chapter 3 : “The Suicide of Thought”

Orthodoxy’s third chapter is Chesterton’s grand broadside against “modern” philosophy. Being written more than a hundred years ago, it would seem that this chapter should need a fair amount of historical update. The odd thing is, with  the exception of the names associated with various authors, Gilbert’s critique still holds. Has so little changed in a hundred years?

While the previous chapter focused on the problem’s with scientific determinism and its confinement of thought, in the third chapter Chesterton focuses his attack on pragmatism and its confinement of action. Pragmatism is modernism’s panacea for the fatalism inspired by materialism. With the loss of belief in a personal God and the adoption of a universal skepticism, what can inspire impassioned action? The Modernist sees practicality itself as a sort of escape from what would otherwise be a philosophy with no moral core; simply do your best for the common good and one can be moral. But pragmatism can mean many things to many people.


Pragmatism only has meaning relative to a value. Being minimalists as heart, the moderns were very fond of taking their favorite virtue and enthroning it as the standard for all human activity. In ancient-times philosophers described ethics as a balance, in the 19th century philosophers were fascinated by thinking of ethics as a singularity. Chesterton describes two of the most common forms of the pathology: the very humanitarian philosophy of Tolstoy which enthroned mercy as the primary human objective, and the very anti-humanitarian philosophy of Nietzsche who focused entirely on will. Each of theses two great thinkers of the 19th-century proposed a solution to the ethics-seeking skeptic: take a preferred ethical value, enthrone it as the ideal, and then pursue it pragmatically. But can ethical principles isolated from their source really lead to dynamic action?leo-tolstoy

Chesterton says no, but for reasons totally apart from what one might expect. The modernist philosophers are not consumed by fundamentalism, but frozen in indecision. The followers of Tolstoy are so dedicated to the idea of peace and withdrawal that they cannot engage with anything in the real world. Similarly followers of Nietzsche are frozen by an inability to call any particular action willful. All actions are derived from will, therefore the bravery of all actions seems equally magnificent and equally boring. In isolation, each philosophy becomes meaningless and so both thinkers remain sitting where they began contemplating the rightness of their favorite virtue but unable to move, even in their professed pragmatism.

In our reading group, what little skepticism remained towards Gilbert’s worldview faded by the end of this chapter. Although the attack on Tolstoy and Nietzsche (which I considered the highlight) didn’t hold much power for the group at large, Chesterton’s inspired call to practical action seemed enthralling. I think there is a general sentiment among most Christians (and especially most Catholics), that the modern world is frozen in apathy, indecision, and mental confusion. There is a general sentiment that the modern world, as it is, needs to be roused and unsettled. Society moves fast, but, like Alice’s Red queen, it never seems to go anywhere.joanArc

Here, Joan of Arc (which Chesterton introduces to contrast the modern thinkers) provided our group with a singular answer to modernity’s stasis. A saint like Joan, in the service of a personal God, did not have the problem of the philosopher enthralled to one single ideal. She could become the peasant and later become the warrior. She could become the general, and then later the martyr. There is an image of decision and bravery in Joan of Arc that simply cannot be glimpsed in the modernist philosophies because a nuanced and complex bravery cannot be exist in the absence of a personal God.

When reading through the chapter for the first time, the description of Tolstoy and Nietzsche meeting and then collapsing due to mental exhaustion conjured an image from my childhood. The image was that of Dr. Seus’s North-going Zax and South-going Zax: two creatures so obsessed with a particular idea of motion that they were effectively doomed to remain stationary forevermore. Though the Zax’s dilemma was due to meeting an adversary (and not indecision in the abstract), the fundamental point of the story was identical to Chesterton’s case in “The Suicide of Thought”. Only through the appreciation of different virtues can any progress in a single virtue be made.

This may be the reason why the ancient masters (who believed in a balance of different ethical principles) led to a flowering of thought; whereas the moderns are locked perpetually in that old 19th-century dilemma. It takes a belief in a multitude of different values to make progress. Of course, the very belief in this “golden mean” led Plato and Aristotle to a belief in God. The moderns, to reject God, rejected the mean in favor of a single supreme virtue. Once the core principle was rejected, however, no further progress could be made. The philosophical Zax stood stationary and the world passed them by.


It is, perhaps, the repetition of the mistake that allows Chesterton’s work to be fresh one hundred years after its initial publication. The North-going Zax of Nietzschism and the South-going Zax of Tolstoyism are still facing each other without progress or discernable change. Considering the nature of the stalemate, Chesterton’s biting critique may as well be etched in stone; in a hundred more years they will sill be there. Joan of Arc, on the other hand, has better places to be