Category Archives: Republic of Letters

The Gray Eminence of Christopher Dawson

To put it simply (and perhaps a bit “simplistically”—but I prefer to think of it as putting it “with fervor”), Christopher Dawson was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, certainly one of its greatest men of letters, and perhaps one of the most respected Catholic scholars in the English speaking world.  I’ve have had the opportunity and privilege to argue this elsewhere, including here at the majestic The Imaginative Conservative.  I would even go so far as to claim that Dawson was THE historian of the past 100 years.

Without going deeply into Dawson’s thought—or any aspect of it—in this post, it is worthwhile cataloguing how many of his contemporaries claimed him important and his scholarship and ideas for their own.  This means, consequently, that while most Americans—Catholic or otherwise—no longer remember Christopher Dawson, they do often remember affectionately those he profoundly (one might even state indelibly) influenced.  The list includes well known personalities such as T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. 

In the world of humane learning and scholarship in the twentieth century, Dawson was a sort of John Coltrane.  Just as few non musicians listen to Coltrane, but EVERY serious musician does, the same was essentially true of Dawson.  And, yet, as with Coltrane, Dawson did enjoy long periods of widespread popularity and support in his own lifetime.

“For Dawson is more like a movement than a man,” his publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote of him in 1938. “His influence with the non-Catholic world is of a kind that no modern Catholic has yet had, both for the great number of fields in which it is felt and for the intellectual quality of those who feel it.”[1]  As evidence, Sheed could cite much.  By the early 1930s, while Dawson was still in his early 40s,  American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on his thought, tying him to the larger Catholic literary movement of the day.[2]  In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.”[3]  Six years later, the Jesuit journal, The Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.”[4]  In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote, Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.”[5]  In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”[6]

Maisie Ward, the famous biographer and co-founder of the Sheed and Ward publishing house, admitted to Dawson in 1961, “You were, as I said on Sunday, truly the spear-head of our publishing venture.”[7]  Ward put it into greater context in her autobiography, Unfinished Business.  “Looking back at the beginnings of such intellectual life as I have had, I feel indebted to three men of genius: Browning, Newman, and Chesterton,” she admitted.  “But in my middle age, while we owed much as publishers to many men and women, foreign and English, the most powerful influence on the thinking of both myself and my husband was certainly Christopher Dawson.”[8]  Even among the clergy, none held the reputation that Dawson did by the 1950s.  Again, as Ward noted rather bluntly in a letter to Dawson, “There is no question in my mind that no priest exists at the moment whose name carries anything like the weight in or outside the church that yours does.”[9]  This is an impressive claim, especially when one recalls the intellect and influence of a Martin D’Arcy, a John Courtney Murray, or a J. Fulton Sheen, all eminent priests.

Neo-Thomist historian and philosopher Etienne Gilson also acknowledged his profound admiration for Dawson in a 1950 letter to Frank Sheed.  Gilson especially appreciated Dawson’s Making of Europe (1932) and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950).[10]  The latter “provided me with what I had needed during forty years without being able to find it anywhere: an intelligent and reliable background for a history of mediaeval philosophy,” Gilson admitted.  “Had I been fortunate in having such a book before writing my [Spirit of the Middle Ages,] my own work would have been other and better than it is.”[11]  High praise, indeed.

American Trappist Monk and author Thomas Merton claimed to have found his purpose in life while reading Dawson’s 1952 book, Understanding Europe.  “Whether or not [Dawson] came too late, who can say?” Merton worried.  “In any case I have a clear obligation to participate, as long as I can, and to the extent of my abilities, in every effort to help a spiritual and cultural renewal of our time.  This is the task  that has been given me, and hitherto I have not been clear about it, in all its aspects and dimensions.”[12]

As Eliot’s best biographer, Russell Kirk, wrote, “Of social thinkers in his own time, none influenced Eliot more than Dawson.”[13]  For three decades, Eliot was quite taken with Dawson’s views, and it would be difficult if not impossible to find a scholar who influenced Eliot more.  In the early 1930s, Eliot told an American audience that Dawson was the foremost thinker of his generation in England.[14]  He explicitly acknowledged his debt to Dawson in the introductions to his two most politically- and culturally-oriented books, The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.[15]  One can also find Dawson’s influence in two of Eliot’s most important writings of the moral imagination, “Murder in the Cathedral” and “The Four Quartets.”[16]  Eliot continued to acknowledge a debt to Dawson after World War II.  In a speech to the London Conservative Union in 1955, Eliot told his fellow conservatives that they should understand conservatism as Dawson does, not as political, but as ante-political and anti-ideological.  Only then, Eliot argued, could English conservatives truly and effectively shape society.[17]

One cannot imagine C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man without Dawson’s scholarship in his 1929 book, Progress and Religion.  The same is true of J.R.R. Tolkien’s best academic essay, “On Fairie-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews in 1939.  While the essay in its thought is purely Tolkienian, the English philologist and fantasist relies on the scholarship of Dawson very openly.  All three knew each other well, and Tolkien and Dawson even attended the same parish in Oxford.

There are so many lessons to be learned from all of this.  First, we should never take the influence of Christopher Dawson for granted.  Second, it should also give each person hope.  We should, of course, do our best in whatever we do.  What others do with it is beyond our will, but we put it out there, nonetheless, and we hope.  Dawson’s story—at least this aspect of it—makes us realize that we can play a vital role in the times, even if our own individual ego has not been soothed.


[1] F.J. Sheed, “Christopher Dawson,” The Sign (June 1938), 661.

[2] Arnold Sparr, To Promote, Defend, and Redeem: The Catholic Literary Revival and the Cultural Transformation of American Catholicism, 1920-1960 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 24, 103

[3] T. Lawrason Riggs, “A Voice of Power,” Commonweal (August 4, 1933), 330.

[4] Thomas Corbishly, “Our Present Discontents,” The Month 173 (1939): 440.

[5] Waldemar Gurian, “Dawson’s Leitmotif,” Commonweal (June 3, 1949).

[6] Kenelm Foster, O.P., “Mr Dawson and Chistendom,” Blackfriars 31 (1950): 423.

[7] Maisie Ward, New York, to Dawson, Harvard, 1961, in the Christopher H. Dawson Collection, Box 11, Folder 25, “Frank Sheed 1960,” Department of Special Collections, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota (hereafter UST/CDC)

[8] Maisie Ward, Unfinished Business (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 117.

[9] Maisie Sheed, London, to Dawson, October 1953, Box 11, Folder 18, “Frank Sheed 1953” in UST/CDC.

[10] Sheed to Dawson, 1936, in Box 11 (Sheed and Ward Papers), Folder 2, “Frank Sheed, 1936”, in UST/CDC.

[11] Etienne Gilson to Frank Sheed, 22 August 1950, in Box 11, Folder 16 “Frank Sheed 1950”, in UST/CDC.

[12] Thomas Merton, journal entry for August 22, 1961, Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Year, ed. by Victor A. Kramer (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 155.  See also Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image Books, 1966), 55, 194-94; and Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo, eds., The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 190.

[13] Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1988), 300.  On Dawson’s influence on Eliot, see also Bernard Wall, “Giant Individualists and Orthodoxy,” Twentieth Century (January 1954): 59.

[14] Christina Scott, A Historian and His World, 210.

[15] The two have been republished together as T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (San Diego, Calif.: Harvest, 1967).

[16] Kirk, Eliot and His Age, 231-2, 299-300; and Joseph Schwartz, “The Theology of History in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,” Logos 2 (Winter 1999): 34.

[17] T.S. Eliot, “The Literature of Politics,” Time and Tide (23 April 1955), 524.

I Want My MTV Mixtape

I don’t think I’m alone in finding music in the streaming era frustrating. As a musician, even though it is easier and less expensive than ever to make your music available, it very difficult to get your music heard. When I was growing up, if you made it on to MTV – you made it. If you made it onto mixtapes, you were at least cool. I’ve resolved to make an extra effort to look for other artists making high quality music and help to bring them some attention. I learned about the first three bands on Time Hinely’s Dagger Zine.

Also, consider this a mix tape from a friend. A short mix tape because who has 60 or 90 minutes anymore? If you like it, there will be more.

Swansea Sound – Corporate Indie Band If Swansea Sound reminds you of something you heard on college radio in the late 80s or early 90s, you are correct. It could have very well been one of Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey’s early bands Talulah Gosh or Heavenly.

The Bats – Beneath The Visor From New Zealand, they have been around since 1982. (Hey Mark, Don’t these guys remind you of The Vulgar Boatmen? Yes. I can’t help myself.)

Louis Philippe & The Night Mail – Living On Borrowed Time Just check out the walking bass line. (I’ve listened to this song five times in a row writing this post.)

To the Music World Unknown – The Mixus Brothers A band from Pittsburgh that is much, much artier than it may appear on the surface, as this video shows.

The Deep Roots – Over Our Heads Rather than shameless self-promotion, I’d like to consider this as a credibility check. It also fits with the theme.

Mark Sullivan is the guitarist in The Deep Roots

WHAT CARE FOR THE ELDERLY REALLY COSTS US

In Henri Nouwen’s book Aging: The Fulfillment of Life, he tells this anecdote:

Not too long ago a thirty-two-year-old, good-looking, intelligent man, full of desire to live a creative life, was asked: “Jim, what are your plans for the future?” And when he answered: I want to work with the elderly and I am reading and studying to make myself ready for that task,” they looked at him with amazement and puzzlement. Someone said, “But Jim, don’t you have anything else to do?” Another suggested, “Why don’t you work with the young? You’ll really be great with them.” Another excused him more or less, saying: “Well, I guess you have a problem which prevents you from pursuing your own career.” Reflecting on these responses, Jim said: “Some people make me feel as if I have become interested in a lost cause, but I wonder if my interest and concern do not touch off in others a fear they are not ready to confront, the fear of becoming an old stranger themselves.”

Commenting on this, Nouwen expounds, “Thus care for the elderly means, first of all, to make ourselves available to the experience of becoming old.” And, in another place he asks, “How can we be fully present to the elderly when we are hiding from our own aging? How can we listen to their pains when their stories open wounds in us that we are trying to cover up?”

This, Nouwen diagnoses, is the true cost to caring for the elderly – that we embrace the vulnerability of our own aging selves.

Are we prepared to dispense with “the illusion that life is a property to be defended and not a gift to be shared”?

Care for the elderly, insists Nouwen, does not only consist in practical acts of service that, in fact, “are often offered in order to keep distance rather than to allow closeness.” Instead, caring costs us our entire aging selves.

“Only as we enter into solidarity with the aging and speak out of common experience, can we help others to discover the freedom of old age,” says Nouwen.

Only by awakening to the realization that we are all aging can we begin to shift our culture from one of segregation to one of solidarity.

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Ray Bradbury’s Last Interview by Sam Weller

A review of Sam Weller, ed., Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, December 2014), xii + 93 pp.

One of the hardest things I’ve had to assess in my professional life as a historian and a biographer is just how much to take seriously in a person’s life.  I consider, pass, and render judgments on a moment-by-moment basis!  Judge not, lest you be judged.  Oh boy.  I’m in trouble. I must always ask, how much do I credit something said on day X vs. day Y?  I can assure you, it’s not easy.  One of the many things I love about biographers such as Joseph Pearce and Steve Hayward and David McCulloch is that they take chances.  The biographer is not a mere antiquarian, but an observer who has to place his own being within the soul, eyes, and brain of his subject.  It was very difficult with Kirk.  He had a great fondness for self-proclaimed individualists such as Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson, but he despised individualism as an ideology.  How does one take all of this in?  And, Kirk was much more skeptical in his younger years of government than in his later years?  As a biographer and scholar, do I claim the later attitude destroys the younger?  Surely, there must be a continuity rather than a breach?

And, then, sometimes, we can only go on what evidence we have.  We barely know person A, but she left a diary that covered three months of her life in 1778.  Do we extrapolate a life from three months of intimate revelations?  Sometimes, it is all we can do, and we have to make the best of it.

With Ray Bradbury, the problem is not too little information, but too much.  And, not just “too much,” but an avalanche, a tidal wave, a flood, an F5 tornado just having passed through the feed lot. . . well, you get the idea.  And, yet, with Bradbury, more is never enough.  Amazing that God just makes a few of those in His image so endlessly fascinating.  Bradbury is one of those.  What was God thinking when he made Ray?  The man just overflowed with creativity, life, imagination, and everything else that matters in our whirligig of existence.

Melville House, a publisher on the move, has recently published a series of “Last Interviews” with great authors.  Thus far, the series includes Kurt Vonnegut, Jacques Derrida, Hannah Arendt, and a few others.  Sam Weller, who spent that last dozen years with Bradbury, put together this book.  Weller, it should be noted, does incredible work, and he does not take the trust that Bradbury showed in him lightly.  At the very end of his life, Bradbury admitted that Weller probably understood him better than he, himself, did.  And, very touchingly, during their very last meeting, Bradbury admitted that he considered Weller the son he’d never had.

I don’t want to give too much away, but here are a few tidbits from the book to give you a sense of its beauty and why you should own a copy and treasure it.

The secret of life:

The secret of life is being in love.  By being in love, you predict yourself.  Whatever you want is whatever you get.  You don’t predict things.  You make them.  You’ve gotta bee a Zen Buddhist like me.  Don’t think about things.  Just do them.  Don’t predict them.  Just make them (4).

On comic strips and books:

Because I’ve been collecting comic strips all of my life.  I have all of Prince Valiant put away.  I have thirty years of Prince Valiant Sunday illustrations put away.  I have all of Buck Rogers put away, too.  I put those away starting when I was nineteen years old.  So my background in becoming a writer was falling in love with comic strips. (8)

On the moment:

Every single moment.  Every single moment of my life has been incredible.  I’ve loved it.  I’ve savored it.  It was beautiful.  Because I’ve remained a boy.  The man you see here tonight is not a man, he’s a twelve-year-old boy, and this boy is till having fun.  And I will remain a boy forever. (10)

On science fiction vs. fantasy

I had a hell of a lot of fun writing [Fahrenheit 451].  It just came with its own spirit.  But now that it’s everywhere, I’m so happy that so many people love it.  I love that book too.  Remember this—I am not a science fiction writer.  All of my books are fantasy writings.  All my books are fantasies.  But the one book that I’ve written that pure science fiction is Fahrenheit 451.  So I’m glad that I wrote it, and I’m glad that you feel that way about it, too (20).

Let me also state—especially in this world of intangibles and ebooks and other bizarrenesses—this is a beautiful book.  A nice cardboardish cover with fine paper, Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview is a joy to hold.  It’s also delightfully short.  I mean this in the best way.  It’s the kind of book you can spend a later afternoon and evening enjoying.  Frankly, serious publishers need to offer such diversity in length and topic more often.  There are nights that demand serious reading and full immersion.  Other nights call out for a sprinkling and thoughts of goodness but not of life-or-death import.  Bradbury was a truly wise man, a gifted artist, and Weller captures and conveys that Bradbury that we all want to know and love perfectly. 

Ray Bradbury was a national treasure—indeed a treasure of western civilization—and Weller’s work on and with the great author is a Godsend.  There is not a page, let alone a paragraph, in which Bradbury does not share a thought worthy of reflection and meditation.

Like Russell Kirk, Bradbury despised modern technology and especially automobiles.  Unlike Kirk, however, Bradbury got to pilot the Mars rover from the Jet Propulsion Laboratories.  “So while he hasn’t driven on the 405 Freeway, he’s driven across the sand dunes of Mars—and they actually gave him a little Mars driver’s license” (19).

How fitting.

Decorum and the Conservative Soul

[This piece is originally from 2015]

While my memories might verge on the edge of fuzzy nostalgia from time to time, I remember quite clearly what the women and men of the 1970s did in small-town neighborhoods.  In those years, I absolutely loved reading (and researching and writing—though, this would be another post), but I also loved running, biking, and exploring.  I could be. . . rather. . . well. . . hyper.  When I got too hyper and misbehaved, neighbors (usually women, as the men were at work) corrected me.  I don’t ever remember being spanked by a neighbor, but I certainly remember receiving stern “talking to”s.  The worst, of course, came if the neighbor decided to call my mom and let me know that I’d misbehaved.  If it went that far, I’d embarrassed not just myself but my entire family.

Regardless, in the 1970s, it was not just the right but the actual duty of the neighbor to discipline when necessary.  I certainly never questioned this, though I did sometimes fear it.

I also remember eating at a good but not excellent restaurant in my hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas, when I was in fourth or fifth grade.  A man at another table cussed.  When he did, heads turned, but everyone let is slide, presuming it was a one-time outburst.  When he continued to offer foul language at full volume, however, the other men in the restaurant became agitated, formed a small group, and approached the offender, letting him know in no uncertain terms that he had crossed a line and needed to cease such behavior.  My memory is that he needed no more persuasion after the others approached him.  Most likely, the men who approached the offender didn’t know each other, but they had a common purpose once he disrupted the atmosphere.  They knew it, and so did everyone else in the restaurant. 

Why these autobiographical stories?  Because, in 2015, I’m lucky if I can get out of a Wal-Mart without overhearing another shopper dropping the f-bomb, usually at her or his own kids.  What happened between 1975 and 2015?  A lot, apparently.  But, it’s not just Wal-Mart.  It’s in nearly every airport (once distinguished by some class—in dress as well as language), in nearly every shop, and certainly at every gas station.  But, if course, such horrific language is not just in person to person to communication.  TV shows—at least the science fiction ones I like—use sh*t without even the pretense of restraint, and podcasts about culture drop the f-bomb without any semblance of discrimination.

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The room in which you die

One thing I found interesting while travelling throughout Europe was the various occasions on which I would behold the room in which a notable person had died or, at least, a reproduction of it.

Nowadays, it is so common for people to die in hospitals but just imagine if you died in your own room and then it became a tourist attraction for centuries to come…

Read more.

Can Conservatism and LIbertarianism still Fuse?

When the forces of American progressivism emerged in the 1880s and 1890s, those who would one day be labeled as conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians found themselves quite ill-prepared for the intellectual and political onslaught.  Perhaps the best analyst at the time progressivism emerged, somewhat surprisingly, was E.L. Godkin, the venerable founder of THE NATION.

It was the rights of man which engaged the attention of the political thinkers of the eighteenth century.  The world had suffered so much misery from the results of dynastic ambitions and jealousies, the masses of mankind were everywhere so burdened by the exactions of the superior classes, as to bring about a universal revulsion against the principle of authority.  Government, it was plainly seen, had become the vehicles of oppression; and the methods by which it could be subordinated to the needs of individual development, and could be made to foster liberty rather than to suppress it, were the favorite study of the most enlightened philosophers.  In opposition to the theory of divine right, whether of kings or demagogues, the doctrine of natural rights was set up.  Humanity was exalted above human institutions, man was held superior to the State, and universal brotherhood supplanted the ideals of national power and glory. [Godkin, “The Eclipse of Liberalism,” NATION (August 9, 1900).]

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Godkin lamented that most Americans found the Declaration of Independence an embarrassment, and the restraints of the Constitution antiquated.  “We hear no more of natural rights, but of inferior races,” he feared.  The great Anglo-Welsh historian, Christopher Dawson, had made a similar point, but it far more poetically jarring terms.  “When the century began, Jefferson was president of the United States, and George III was still King of England.  When it ended Lenin already was planning the Russian Revolution.”

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A few Thoughts (not my Own) on Yesterday, where we are now, and where we’re going

The first hour or so of this podcast by Jesse Kelly is an excellent listen. It chronicles events that led up to the American Revolution and puts them in the context of our own times. Most striking is how well he demonstrates the British were out of touch and underestimated the anger of the colonists and ties that to the present bubble of our DC political class. If we are not at the boiling point yet (the title of this episode) we are awfully close, and our political class is doubling down on stupid.

Elsewhere … when you’ve got Tom Woods on your side

Yesterday reminded us that the United States is divided beyond repair.

Joe Biden has said all along that he’ll “unite” America. This is the usual b.s. boilerplate.

How does he plan to “unite” people of radically different and incompatible worldviews?

Of course, there is no serious intention to “unite” anyone. Only a fool believes these platitudes. Like all modern presidents, Biden intends to punish his foes and reward his allies.

I see two groups: one, full of ideological imperialists, wants to impose its vision of the world on everyone, destroying the careers and reputations of anyone who resists. They hold what Thomas Sowell likes to call “the vision of the anointed.”

The other group, which is plenty divided, prefers not to be lectured to, demonized, or ruined.

Everyone once took for granted that the goal was to seize the federal apparatus and impose their own vision on the country.

How about just abandoning this crazy, inhumane task?

Why not admit that the differences are irreconcilable, and simply go our separate ways?

Is this not obviously the most humane solution?

Or is there some expectation that somehow, down the road, we’ll all be reconciled?

How?

To the contrary, it’s only going to get worse.

No doubt the idea of peaceful separation will be dismissed by our betters as “extremist,” but forcing irreconcilable parties to keep waging low-intensity civil war against each other is what is actually extremist.

Radical decentralization and secession, on the other hand, are the obvious and necessary solution.

How do we know they’re the sensible solution? Because no one is allowed to discuss them.

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“Who are we, really, as Americans?”

Law enforcement officers scuffle with supporters of President Donald Trump attempting to breach security barriers at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Jan. 6, 2021, during a protest against Congress certifying the 2020 presidential election. (CNS photo/Jim Urquhart, Reuters)

That’s the question I take up in my new editorial at Catholic World Report:

Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), made the following remark as part of a longer statement about the violence in the United States Capitol: “I join people of good will in condemning the violence today at the United States Capitol. This is not who we are as Americans.”

With all due respect: who are we, really, as Americans?

Are we the Americans who demonstrate peacefully against injustices, real or perceived? Or the Americans who riot and vandalize cities such as Portland, Oregon—just 90 minutes up the road from where I live—for weeks and months on end?

Are we the Americans who tire of technocrats and experts issuing constant decrees about “pauses” and “freezes”? Or the Americans who shame and attack those who think such measures (and the virtue-signaling religion of perpetual mask wearers) should be questioned with facts and reason?

Are we the Americans who think Donald J. Trump is the savior of America, the last great hope for Christianity and freedom? Or are we the Americans who think Trump is the new Hitler and a racist demon whose tweets and hair should be condemned to everlasting (but clean-burning) fires?

Or are we the Americans who think both sides are short-circuiting zombies who cannot see the forest of reality for the trees of ideology?

Read the entire editorial at CWR.

OUR HYPOCRISY IN NOT TALKING ABOUT DEATH

A friend of mine shared this evocative quotation with me spoken by the protagonist in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward:

“Come on, tell us, what are you most afraid of in the world now? Of dying! What are you most afraid of talking about? Of death! And what do we call that? Hypocrisy!”

It may take reading those lines over a few of times in order to be startled by them.

At first glance, there seems to be no contradiction between being terribly afraid of something AND not talking about it.

But then there is an indictment, a rebuke – this is “Hypocrisy!”

Why?

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