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Category: Virtue

It is commonplace in Christian circles, whether Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant, to appeal in public discourse to the inviolable good of human dignity.

Today at Ethika Politika, I seek to answer the question, “What does human dignity look like in real life?” It is fine to talk about it in the abstract, but what does it look like on the job or as a parent?

I write,

Real, flesh-and-blood human persons do not evoke our respect as naturally as an abstract treatise on human dignity might imply. I am reminded of one Peanuts comic in which Linus shouts, “I love mankind … it’s people I can’t stand!” People, as a general rule, all tend toward some form of nerdery, some weird little obsession — such as sports, video games, philosophy, music, or literature — or at least some personal (usually minor) neurosis, like an aversion to a certain smell or fear of spiders or always having to have the last word.

And, frankly, Linus is right, even if he overstates his case. It is a common if not essential feature of personhood that any given person, with enough exposure, will grow annoying to our unsanctified hearts.

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screen_shot_20150330_at_12.32.27_pm.png.CROP.rtstory-large.32.27_pmFormer Oklahoma University student Levi Pettit and his friends did a terrible thing. The frustration and anger at the very racist chant about the lynching of African Americans by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity is understandable and justified. However, in light of Levi Pettit’s act of public repentance, our response reveals how we understand a key aspect of Easter. Those who painfully forgive Pettit demonstrate a central pillar of the Passion of Christ whereas those who refuse to forgive Pettit inadvertently render the death and resurrection of Christ meaningless.

Torraine Walker’s op-ed at Huffington Post is a great example of an anti-Easter response to Pettit. Walker says that he is not buying Pettit’s apology. “Why are people of color expected to automatically forgive a racist who hasn’t proven themselves changed? These apologies always feel so fake and inauthentic.” Walker says that Pettit’s response is an example of a “Racial Apology Ritual” because it was manufactured and fake. Walker concludes,
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This is a bit second-hand (a source drawing from another source), but I still think the following tidbit on the modern history of clergy and scientific and technological development and discovery in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile is notable:

Knowledge formation, even when theoretical, takes time, some boredom, and the freedom that comes from having another occupation, therefore allowing one to escape the journalistic-style pressure of modern publish-and-perish [sic, probably intentionally] academia to produce cosmetic knowledge, much like the counterfeit watches one buys in Chinatown in New York City, the type that you know is counterfeit although it looks like the real thing. There were two main sources of technical knowledge and innovation  in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the hobbyist and the English rector….

An extraordinary proportion of work came out of the rector, the English parish priest with no worries, erudition, a large or at least comfortable house, domestic help, a reliable supply of tea and scones with clotted cream, and an abundance of free time. And, of course, optionality [i.e. freedom from intellectual strictures and the ability to change one’s mind based on new discoveries]. The enlightened amateur, that is. The Reverends Thomas Bayes (as in Bayesian probability) and Thomas [Robert] Malthus (Malthusian overpopulation) are the most famous. But there are many more surprises cataloged in Bill Bryson’s Home, in which the author found ten times more vicars and clergymen leaving recorded traces for posterity than scientists, physicists, economists, and even inventors. In addition to the previous two giants, I randomly list contributions by country clergymen: Rev. Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom, contributing to the Industrial Revolution; Rev. Jack Russel bred the terrier; Rev. William Buckland was the first authority on dinosaurs; Rev. William Greenwell the foremost authority on spiders; Rev. George Garrett invented the submarine; Rev. Gilbert White was the most esteemed naturalist of his day; Rev. M. J. Berkeley was the top expert on fungi; Rev. John Michell helped discover Uranus; and many more. Note that … the list of visible contribution by hobbyists and doers is most certainly shorter than the real one, as some academic might have appropriated the innovation by his predecessor.

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Fr. Matthew Baker

Alexis de Tocqueville, observing the young United States in the 1830s, wrote, “Wherever, at the head of a new undertaking, you see in France the government, and in England, a great lord, count on seeing in the United States, an association.” In the midst of recent tragedy — the untimely death of Fr. Matthew Baker, a Greek Orthodox priest killed in a car accident this past Sunday evening, leaving behind his wife and six children — it is a source of hope to see that this American associational persistence is still alive in the present.

Without hesitation, friends of Fr. Matthew set up a page at the crowd funding site gofundme, and they have already raised a tremendous sum to support Presvytera Katherine and the children.

The loss of Fr. Matthew has been felt far beyond Orthodox Christian circles and close friends. Americans across the country, utilizing modern technology for this good work, have come together across confessional lines to help a family they have never personally known.

As for myself, I had only just begun to know Fr. Matthew. I regret that is all I can say. We both were contributors to Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and belong to a Facebook group related to our writing there. I had just spoken with him (via Facebook) the previous night, not even 24 hours before his death. (more…)

lincoln-inaugural-addressThe end of the Civil War was five days away when Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. Yet in his speech, delivered 150 years ago today, Lincoln did not gloat about the impending victory, choosing instead to use the occasion to bring both sides of the conflict together.

As Matthew S. Holland says, the speech reminds us that we must resist the poisonous temptation to see those with whom we disagree as bitter enemies even as we vigorously defend the moral truths that ought to guide our public life:

By the time of his Second Inaugural, Lincoln’s belief in a great human sameness took on an even deeper and theological dimension. Over many years, Lincoln’s early Enlightenment-inspired skepticism and rationalism increasingly gave room to a biblical, if non-denominational, religiosity as intense as any occupant the White House has ever had. By his extensive reading of scripture and long reflection, Lincoln came to conclude that God was both in control of human affairs and ultimately inscrutable by mere mortals. The view that all human beings were plagued with self-interested partialities and limited cognitive horizons produced in Lincoln a generosity toward even his most implacable foes. This also explains why, in such a short speech, and in a context that so lent itself to a Manichean narrative of good versus evil and us versus them, Lincoln employed sixteen references (“all,” “both,” “neither”) that cast the North and the South in almost exactly the same light.

In making his argument argument for mercy and humility, Lincoln’s speech was steeped in biblical language. He was not the first President to consider the place of providence in the life of the nation, notes Daniel Dreisbach, but his speech was “a more nuanced and searching reflection on the role of providence in the affairs of nations.”
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?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Over the past 60+ years, Israel has emerged as an economic powerhouse despite all odds. With only 7.1 million people, no natural resources, and surrounded by enemies and constant threats, it has somehow managed to attract nearly $2 billion in venture capital. It produces more start-up companies than large countries like Japan, India, Korea, and the United Kingdom, and has more companies on the NASDAQ than any country other the United States. Given its range of challenges, how can this be?

In their book, Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, Dan Senor and Saul Singer set out to explore the question. Indeed, as countries across the world struggle to develop the human, cultural, and institutional capital necessary for a thriving economy, Israeli society appears to cultivate these features with ease.

What might the rest of us learn from such an example? “The West needs innovation,” the authors write. “Israel’s got it. Understanding where this entrepreneurial energy comes from, where it’s going, how to sustain it, and how other countries can learn from the quintessential start-up nation is a critical task for our times.”

The lessons are many, and throughout their book, Senor and Singer outline a host of competing theories and hypotheses. But of all the potential drivers, I was struck most by the role the nation’s military plays in cultivating Israeli culture and bolstering its unique ethos of innovation and entrepreneurship. As peace and prosperity have largely prevailed throughout much of the West (compared to most of human history), what “built-in” lessons of human existence might now need more of our attention? (more…)

By the end of January, most of us have given up on our New Year’s resolutions. These are goals we enthusiastically set during the silent nights of self-reflection that Christmas affords us. We contemplate our Savior’s magnificent and humble life in contrast with our own feeble and self-seeking, sinful existence. We intensely desire personal renewal to become holier and nobler persons; yet, alas, we lack the will to actualize our true human potential.

Many blame the failure to commit on laziness or some other insuperable vice; others point to the natural distraction a busy life has on our focus once we are caught up in the flurry of school and work again. While true for the most part, such excuses are symptomatic of a deeper mea culpa based on a lack of anthropological clarity of what human beings are meant to be.

Created for Greatness: The Power of Magnanimity (Scepter, 2014) by the French-Russian author Alexandre Havard provides a remedy to this intellectual and spiritual gap. It is one of the most valuable contemporary philosophical books to help us understand just why abandoning virtuous achievement is a serious anthropological mistake, leading to general discontent and even despair.

Havard’s short book—just 96 pages—is essentially the sequel to his acclaimed, multi-language publication Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for Personal Excellence (Scepter, 2007). In it the Moscow-based executive leadership coach dedicates five chapters, replete with practical and spiritual wisdom, to the virtue of magnanimity — what he calls the “jet fuel…, the propulsive virtue par excellence” of human achievement…

Read the rest of book review on Catholic World Report

Also, download Alexandre Havard’s audio lecture “Virtuous Leadership: The Power of Magnanimity” which he gave at Acton’s Rome office.