Category Archives: Republic of Letters

YOUNG PEOPLE ARE DYING TO BE NEEDED

Recently, in a discussion about the military, a friend of mine recalled receiving a letter when he was 18 asking him whether he would like to join the military in Belgium. This Canadian friend of mine had a Belgian grandfather, but had never visited the country. “After I received the letter from Belgium, it did make me wonder why I never received such a letter from Canada,” he reflected.

What made my friend briefly consider joining an army in a country he never visited that speaks a language he doesn’t know?

Read the rest, here.

Defining The Republic: From the Declaration to the Northwest Ordinance

In this lecture, I define a republic in two ways. First as a mixed government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, comparing it to the human person (mind, soul, stomach). Thus, the republic is always flawed and always in a life cycle of birth, middle age, and death. Second by its elements: virtue, property (as the right to moral ownership), a well-armed citizenry, and decentralized decision making. I also focus on Articles 1-3, 6 of the Northwest Ordinance, and I talk about Hillsdale’s connection (with historian Ransom Dunn’s creation of the Republican Party in 1854—inspired by Article Six of the Northwest Ordinance) to all of this.

Henri de Lubac’s Criticism of Indirect Power – The Regensburg Forum

In my previous post, I discussed theologians who offered interpretations of the doctrine of the two swords before the Second Vatican Council. While some hierocrats believed that the pope’s two swords made him lord of the world, Vitoria, Bellarmine, and Suarez argued that popes had indirect power in temporal matters. Papal power was only indirect because temporal rulers were “supreme in their own order.” These theologians also believed that temporal rulers derived their authority from the political community, not from the pope. Nonetheless, for spiritual ends, the pope could use temporal authority, even to the point of deposing rulers in certain circumstances. (I mentioned the deposing power in the section on Suarez. Perhaps I could have mentioned it a few more times as a way of clarifying the extent of this “indirect power” in the thought of Vitoria, Bellarmine, and Suarez, even though I was focused on what they said about the “two swords.”)

While some seventeenth-century contemporaries of Bellarmine and Suarez and modern scholars see the controversy between the hierocratic position and this idea of “indirect power” as a distinction without a difference, Bellarmine faced opposition from some in the Roman Curia for his idea. So, the debate certainly mattered at that time.

We should not ignore this seventeenth-century debate. While my previous post indicated that the “two swords” doctrine was interpreted in different ways long before Vatican II, we should not forget that twentieth-century challenges to the temporal power of the papacy (whether direct or indirect) saw Bellarmine (and not the hierocrats) as the major challenge. My goal here is not to oppose (or defend) Bellarmine, nor is it to endorse (or challenge) the twentieth-century arguments that follow. I hope that these passages might be of interest and useful for future discussion.
— Read on regensburgforum.com/2018/02/02/henri-de-lubacs-criticism-of-indirect-power/

Roosevelt’s Folly: Robert Nisbet’s Second World War ~ The Imaginative Conservative

World War II—especially the European theatre—intrigued Robert A. Nisbet (1913-1996) throughout his life. A staff sergeant in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War, 1943-1945, he desired to understand the Cold War and how it had come about. After writing an article for a conservative academic journal, Modern Age, in 1986, on the friendship of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, he decided to write a book exploring the topic. The result, Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship, offered a penetrating examination of a dark period in world history. For Nisbet, America went from isolationist to accommodationist almost entirely because of Roosevelt’s wrong-headedness and misunderstanding. Though he never accuses Roosevelt of homosexual feelings for Stalin, he does accuse him of treating the Soviet dictator as a lover and himself, at times, as the spurned lover. Certainly, from the beginning of their friendship, Roosevelt could not see Stalin as anything other than an ally, an anti-imperialist and proto-democrat.
— Read on theimaginativeconservative.org/2021/01/roosevelt-folly-robert-nisbet-second-world-war-bradley-birzer.html

My Freewrite and Me

[This piece first appeared four years ago. I love my Freewrite (and the Traveler) even more than I did then.]

As far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer.  Professionally. 

Much of this desire came from my mom (an extremely well-read and gifted person, now age 80), but it also came from several different authors who inspired me.  Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien.  These three moved me beyond–ironically–mere words. 

It wasn’t until I read some political and social criticism in 9th grade, however, that I realized that as much as I liked writing fiction, I absolutely loved writing non-fiction.  As early as fifth grade, I had actually begged my teacher to let me write a research paper.  I don’t remember a year of my life after that (up to my current age, 49) during which I didn’t write a research paper or papers or the equivalent.  Weird, I know.

I forced myself to learn typing on my maternal grandfather’s typewriter sometime in the eighth grade.  Then, when in high school, I took typing.  Weirdly enough, this might have been the single most important class I took prior to college!  Almost immediately after learning how to type on manual and electric typewriters, I learned how to type on my Commodore 64 and, then, in 1984, on my Mac.

A month or so ago–after agonizing over the price–I decided to take the plunge and order the Astrohaus FREEWRITE.

I had read all the reviews I could find on the internet, and, while generally positive, a few were downright hostile and mocking.  According to one review, I might actually be a “hipster” for purchasing the FREEWRITE.  If a hipster can have 7 kids, go to Sunday Mass, obsess over progressive rock, and have grey hair, then I’m a hipster.

For those of you who have yet to see a picture of the FREEWRITE, it is a thing of intense beauty.  From its weight to its feel to its lines to its keyboard to its screen to its off/on switch, this is simply a piece of humane and perfectly crafted technology.

The great German-Italian philosopher and man of letters, Romano Guardini, argued that technology could always be judged by one question and one standard.  Does the technology make us more or make us less human?

After using the FREEWRITE for a month, I can state that it makes us more human and grandly so.  I actually look forward to using it.  Not only does it feel great, but I can type much faster on it than I can with my Mac keyboard and, even my specialized DAS KEYBOARD.

For those of you who have yet to see it, the FREEWRITE is only a keyboard and screen.  It has internet capabilities, but only to send things to the cloud, not to receive them.  Thus, it’s 100% distraction free.  The company calls it a “smart typewriter,” and this seems to me more than good marketing.  It seems quite accurate.  There’s no Facebook, no twitter, no anger, no hatred, no politics, no trolls, and no spewing of the spleen–just a human (in this case, the 49-year old variety), a keyboard, and a screen.

Imagination, fly, be free!

I only have one complaint with my FREEWRITE, and it’s a minor complaint.  When I hit the space bar, there’s a strange echo and reverb as if a spring is about to give.  Should this actually happen in the realm beyond the realm of sound, I assume that Astrohaus will fix it.  The keyboard itself isn’t quiet, but the space key has its own unique and weird sound, quite different from the other keys.  Overall, though, I love the keyboard–its feel as well as its sound.  It’s not quiet, but it is satisfying. 

Very satisfying.

I realize that for many writers out there, the ca. $500 price tag will serve as a preventative.  Let me assure you, though, given the quality of the FREEWRITE as well as the distraction-free aspects of it, it’s more than worth the price.  Far more than worth it.  I was able to recoup my costs in just a few weeks of blog submissions.  Granted, I could’ve spent that money in other ways, but I can’t think of any other ways that would’ve increased both my creativity and my (much) freer imagination than the FREEWRITE.

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