All posts by Daniel J. Heisey

Nicolas Diat’s A Time to Die

With reluctance a monk opens this new book, a sleek, slim paperback having the appearance of appealing to the sepia-toned spirituality of people who see monks and nuns as living Hummels.  “In this desolate world,” writes Nicolas Diat, a French journalist, “I had the idea to take the path of the great monasteries in order to discover what the monks might have to teach us about death.”  Fortunately, despite eye-rolling sentences that might come from French 101 (“The streets are calm and wise.”), Diat’s study, A Time to Die:  Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life, starkly considers the reality of death in eight modern French monasteries.

This English translation of Un temps pour mourir appears the same summer that saw a French court of law determine that medical doctors in Reims could remove food and water from Vincent Lambert, a forty-two year-old married quadriplegic.  In the utilitarian logic of socialism, he served no useful function to the state and was using valuable resources.  It took doctors nine days to kill Vincent Lambert, who was informed of the court’s decision and wept.  One would call such sanitized barbarity medieval, were it not an insult to the Middle Ages.

With French monks, the situation is reversed.  Monks are open to passing away into the next life, while doctors want to try their best to prolong this life.  “Shouldn’t a ninety year-old brother,” asked one Benedictine abbot, “who suffers from terrible pneumonia return to God?”  He added, “I can hardly oppose a medical decision,” but for him the problem is “the moment we call emergency services or the ambulance, we lose control over the patient.”

Along with control over the patient and benignly letting a sick old man slip away, abbots must count the cost of medical care.  “How should I react,” asked that same Benedictine abbot, “when a ninety year-old monk asks for a hearing aid?”  He explained, to some ears echoing Judas, “this investment of three thousand euros could help twenty people in an African village.”  The cloister and the world seem not too far apart when Malthusian bookkeeping determines whether a ninety-something monk gets his hearing back or whether a forty-something quadriplegic gets a death sentence.

Augustinian, Benedictine, Carthusian, Cistercian:  Diat recounts stories of deaths in these monasteries, deaths of monks old and young, deaths long and lingering, deaths sudden or by the monk’s own hand.  Stories of those deaths necessarily include the effect on those left behind.  Monks seek God in community, they do not seek community in itself; otherwise, they would simply join an Elks club or hang out nightly in a sports bar.  Still, especially in small monastic communities such as Diat visited, one death can have reverberations wide and deep.

In a larger monastic community the ripples soon diminish.  Sometimes lay people attending a monastic funeral observe that the monks rarely cry.  Oftentimes in a large monastery it is because the deceased was essentially a stranger.  It would be like going to the funeral of an elderly long-term neighbor; for a man with whom one occasionally exchanged greetings, only dangerous emotional fragility would make one weep.

Mention of emotional instability recalls Diat’s most significant chapter, “The Shadow of the Black Mountain.”  In his Holy Rule, Saint Benedict refers to a monastery’s “variety of characters,” and he tells the monks to bear with one another’s mental and physical limitations.  An American monk, exasperated with millennials, jokes about wanting to make a recruiting poster saying, “Are you:  Autistic?  Bipolar?  Recovering from substance abuse?  Sexually repressed?  If you answered Yes to any or all of the above, you may have what it takes to discern a monastic vocation!  Special consideration will be given to men between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-four who balance zero life experience with overwhelming self-confidence.”

That monk’s drollery aside, Diat asks an astute question:  “Where is God in the life of monks suffering from a psychological illness?”  For example, self-absorption usually goes hand in hand with insanity, and sometimes there is a monk with an immature need for attention, often taking the form of hypochondria.  Of course, with a man craving attention at every turn, one must engage in tough love and ignore him, starving his bratty beast.

However, the bleak shadows Diat reports are more ominous.  Here Diat means mental illness along a broad spectrum, including Alzheimer’s disease and crippling depression.  As troubling as it can be to see a monk over time become ever more fogged, more disturbing is the monk for whom all he used to believe has gone blank.  He seems to have lost sight of the Carthusian pattern Diat describes:  “A beginning full of enthusiasm, a middle of difficult and contrasted experiences, then a peace that announces eternity.”  For him, God seems long absent and prayer seems like talking into starless space.

A barren life, one some men can muddle through, but for others, the ringing emptiness and soul-draining drudgery of going through the motions becomes too much.  Diat sketches the case of one such monk, who left painful notes tersely saying he could no longer go on.  His abbot especially remains haunted by that trauma.

A contemporary atheist might declare that such an end comes when gullible fools are duped by a fairy tale.  A secular materialist would tell Diat and his monks that death is simply the end, merely bringing molecular decomposition.  For an unbeliever, any talk of life after death is metaphorical, a literary motif about collective memory pathetically misunderstood by the simple and literal-minded.

What makes believers skeptical of such skepticism is what they have seen of others, like Diat’s monks, at the end.  Skeptics must account for perfectly lucid people who see with clarity that they are about to step through something—a portal, a gate, a door—into William Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country.”  Skeptics must further account for the amazing serenity with which those people accept the imminent prospect of that new step.

Here a recent scene from an American monastery may supplement Diat’s worthy little volume.  A nurse’s aide was wheeling a lay brother in his nineties to his infirmary room.  The old brother was often silent, a man of very few words, and he suddenly said, “Well, I’m goin’.”

“Yep,” said the aide, “you’re going to your room.”

“No,” he corrected her, “I’m goin’.”

He then slumped over and died.

Philip Marlowe and Nero Wolfe


Sixty years after the death of Raymond Chandler, and eighty years after the publication of his first novel, we mark the first anniversary of a brilliant achievement, The Annotated Big Sleep.  In 1939, Chandler (1888-1959) published The Big Sleep, introducing a fictional Los Angeles private investigator, Philip Marlowe, and in 2018, Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto produced an edition with Chandler’s text on the left-hand pages and their explanatory notes on the right-hand pages.  Also illustrating this volume are maps, photographs, and excerpts from other stories by Chandler.

Unlike a biblical commentary, where obvious passages can get lengthy deciphering and obscure lines get passed over, The Annotated Big Sleep tackles it all.  It is amusing that some readers, apparently, will need to have defined for them slang such as “swell’ and “jalopy,” or standard words such as “bookplate” and “davenport.”  Most captivating is information about firearms and newspapers, about bygone fashions and obsolete automobiles, as well as the vanished landscape of 1930’s Los Angeles.

Moreover, our annotators identify in The Big Sleep allusions to Arthurian legend.  In The Big Sleep and subsequent novels, Marlowe casts himself as a latter-day knight errant, with his own code of chivalrous integrity, righting wrongs and rescuing damsels in distress, even if the distress is of the damsel’s own making.  In The High Window (1942), a medical doctor admiringly calls Marlowe “the shop-soiled Galahad.”  Marlowe is unmarried, and in The Big Sleep, set in 1938, he is thirty-three.  With Marlowe, Chandler tapped into an archetype in Western literature, the solitary young hero, embodying virtue and virility.

Early in the novel Marlowe meets his new client, General Guy Sternwood.  Marlowe arrives in a blue suit, and as narrator, he says, “I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober.”  A note explains that phrase as an Army expression meaning “ready for inspection.”  Much of Sternwood’s military career would have been in the late 1800s, when American soldiers wore blue uniforms.

The general is around eighty, and declining health has him soaking up the tropical heat and humidity inside a greenhouse on his vast estate.  Surrounding him is a veritable jungle of orchids, and our annotators provide a note about early twentieth-century orchid collecting and orchids as “symbols of wealth and decadence.”  What Hill, Jackson, and Rizzuto seem to miss is Chandler’s Baroque critique of one of his great contemporaries in crime fiction.

In 1934, Rex Stout published Fer-de-Lance, the first of seventy-four tales featuring a fictional private detective, Nero Wolfe.  Wolfe is a native of Montenegro, in his fifties, and a wealthy eccentric:  an arrogant misogynist gourmet, he lives in a nineteenth-century brownstone townhouse in New York City; on its roof are greenhouses for his 10,000 orchids.  Wolfe almost never leaves his house on business, his investigating being done by a trusty young assistant, Archie Goodwin.  Goodwin reports his findings to Wolfe, who then mulls them over and thus identifies the guilty party.

Sternwood hiring Marlowe parallels Wolfe sending Goodwin out to gather evidence and question witnesses or suspects.  Nevertheless, Sternwood is the inverse of Wolfe:  Whereas Wolfe weighs in at 300 pounds, Sternwood is thin and frail as a mummy.  A retired Army officer, Sternwood could take on his blackmailer himself, if only age and health permitted; Wolfe, once a spy for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, chooses to stay home and eat and read and tend his orchids.

Wolfe, Goodwin, and Marlowe are in a long tradition of bachelor detectives, and nosy neighbors and literary critics spend valuable time speculating about any bachelor’s sexuality.  Probably for that reason, Stout made a point of depicting Goodwin as a ladies’ man.  Dutifully The Annotated Big Sleep addresses recurring musings and guesses about Marlowe’s sexuality, maybe unrequited bisexuality, while touching lightly on the general’s mention of his own “gaudy life,” one he indulged in before marrying at age fifty-four.

In a line that could merely be an opening gambit in an awkward interview, but one that reads all too much like part of a secret password, Sternwood asks Marlowe, “Do you like orchids?”  When Marlowe answers, “Not particularly,” Sternwood obliquely agrees and condemns his myriad expensive flowers.  “They are nasty things,” Sternwood replies, adding, “Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men.  And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”

Prostitutes do not feature in The Big Sleep, unless one counts a homicidal rent boy, but in Fer-de-Lance, Wolfe refers to them.  In Chapter 17, Goodwin, impetuous in his arrested adolescence, decides against going to a movie, and Wolfe declares, “Then try a harlot’s den.”  In the entire Wolfe series, it appears to be the only hint at Wolfe possibly having an illicit sexual outlet, while the simmering sensuality of the tropics always looms above him on his rooftop.

People of Victorian or Edwardian sensibilities would have regarded orchids not only as exotic, but often as obscene.  One variety in particular, Cypripedium, sometimes called slipper orchids, can raise eyebrows, their lurid pink and purple “slipper” resembling, shall we say, “the flesh of men.”  Cypripedia occur in Stout’s novels Black Orchids (1942) and Murder by the Book (1951), and an even more noticeably male anatomical subspecies, Paphiopedilum, occurs in Some Buried Caesar (1939).

Of course, sometimes an orchid is just an orchid, and Stout’s stories are rattling fun, the resourceful Goodwin sauntering forth into the big wicked city, while Wolfe presides over the mayhem like a wise, if irascible, hermit.  Chandler, though, was no fan, writing to a friend in April, 1949, not “to lump me in . . . with the smooth and shallow operators like [Ngaio] Marsh and [Rex] Stout and [Agatha] Christie.”  In June, 1957, he wrote to another correspondent that “I count myself far above” Erle Stanley Gardner and Rex Stout.  In The Big Sleep, with any tropical plant possible for Sternwood’s greenhouse, Chandler is all but saying, “Here is how you launch a mystery story, a knight’s quest, from a bower of orchids.”

Chandler’s writings show his detailed fascination with the fragility of polite society, the thin veneer of respectability covering tawdriness and corruption.  His novels are notorious for convoluted plots and complex characters, and in 1995, his works joined the prestigious Library of America, acknowledging his place in the pantheon of American literature.  Like a guidebook to a national monument, further affirming that reputation is The Annotated Big Sleep.

Newman and Benedictines

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) challenged the Utilitarian trend of his day, insisting that there was more to human life than what facts and logic could determine.  As Russell Kirk summed up Newman in The Conservative Mind (1986), “This sensitive and subtle man lived in an age . . . in which Caesar claimed the things that are God’s; and so Newman spent his life in arguments and struggles abhorrent to his contemplative nature.”

Around the same time another quiet Englishman, Charles Darwin, was mulling over evidence from the natural world for change over time, Newman was considering how elements in the spiritual realm change over time.  Newman wrote at length about the development of Christian doctrine, how through the centuries Christian teaching grows organically.  As James Hitchcock said of Newman in his History of the Catholic Church (2012), “Part of his achievement was to reconcile historical consciousness with faith.”  By historical consciousness Hitchcock meant “the awareness that everything changes over time.”

While Newman composed sublime lyric poems, notably “Praise to the holiest in the height,” his prose works often carried ponderous titles such as An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent and Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and he proposed esoteric vocabulary, like “the Illative Sense,” a head-scratcher for the uninitiated, who would be forgiven for thinking it has something to do with ileitis.  In short, students of philosophy gravitate towards Newman’s writings, although for an historian, Newman ranks with Aristotle as one of the greatest bores ever to put pen to paper.  Nevertheless, long after any of us are dust, people will still be reading Aristotle and Newman.

Two of Newman’s shorter works that continue to invite reflection are essays on Benedictine monastic life.  Those essays, “The Mission of the Benedictine Order” and “The Benedictine Centuries,” first appeared in The Atlantis in December, 1858, and January, 1859, respectively, and they remain in print in various formats.  For Newman, the Benedictines stood as symbolic of the first thousand years of the Church.  Readers of Newman’s two essays on the Benedictines will find no hint that as Newman wrote, the Benedictines were re-establishing themselves in England, France, and Germany, and that they were founding monasteries in Australia and the United States.

According to Newman’s perspective on monastic history, monks by definition seek out seclusion, silence, and solitude.  Whether in the fourth century in the Egyptian desert or in the eleventh century in forested valleys of Western Europe, Newman believed the natural habitat for monks was in isolated locations, near which sometimes grew up cities.  “The lonely Benedictine,” declared Newman in “The Benedictine Centuries,” “rose from his knees, and found himself a city.”

Newman’s model of monastic remoteness from what today we call the rat race comes most clearly into focus in his appreciation of the monks of Beaulieu Abbey.  (Pronounced Bewley.)  Founded in 1203 by King John in rural Hampshire, Beaulieu was a Cistercian monastery honoring the Virgin Mary, and it lasted until 1538, when an Act of Parliament under King Henry VIII dissolved it.

To Newman’s way of thinking, those Cistercians of Beaulieu, following the Rule of Saint Benedict, “were not dreamy sentimentalists, to fall in love with melancholy winds and purling rills, and waterfalls and nodding groves; but their poetry was the poetry of hard work and hard fare, unselfish hearts and charitable hands.”

Another dimension to what for Newman was monasticism’s poetical character was educational or literary work.  Although Newman acknowledged an extensive catalogue of Benedictine authors, from Bede in the eighth century to Jean Mabillon in the seventeenth, Newman admired that “there was nothing of original research, nothing of brilliant or imposing result,” because therefore “there would be nothing to dissipate, elate, or absorb the mind” and thereby “to violate the simplicity and tranquility proper to the monastic state.”  With such comments it is unclear whether Newman saw that he was confirming a Protestant and Enlightenment prejudice that Catholicism is inherently anti-intellectual, rewarding rote memorization of answers in catechisms and lines from Aquinas.

Just as in these essays Newman never gave any indication that in his day Benedictine monasticism was undergoing a revival, he overlooked an important feature of Benedictine monastic life.  Newman’s love of places like Beaulieu, tucked away in the woods, made him ignore places like Westminster Abbey, looming large in a major city.

Newman knew about Benedictine monasteries established in cities, but like Bartleby the scrivener, he preferred not to.  In today’s terminology, they did not fit his narrative.  In Discourse VI of The Idea of a University (1853), Newman observed that “the study of history is said to enlarge and enlighten the mind,” and he noted that studying history gives the mind “a power of judging of passing events, and of all events, and a conscious superiority over them, which before it did not possess.”

In the end, Newman’s essays on Benedictines reveal more about Newman than they do about monks.  “When he wrote about monks,” explained Owen Chadwick, “he wrote about them with an idealised happiness which was not always very historical, but which spoke volumes about his idea of life.”  Newman’s “conscious superiority” over events, what James Hitchcock called Newman’s “historical consciousness,” had a flaw that kept Newman from appreciating how Benedictines have changed over time.

It was an odd bug in Newman’s mental system, since he could see contemporary changes in philosophical currents, not least being Utilitarianism.  As much as, say, Pope Gregory VII’s eleventh century, the nineteenth century was a Benedictine century, with new congregations (associations) of Benedictine monasteries, such as Solesmes, Beuron, and American Cassinese.  What is more, during the first twenty-two years of Newman’s life, the Pope, Pius VII, was a Benedictine monk who had been imprisoned by Napoleon but emerged with his inner peace intact and with renewed respect, even reverence, from around the world.

Newman weighed bucolic monasticism against industrial metropolises and found the latter wanting.  In his vision of what made several centuries Benedictine, there was room for only one style of monastic life, and it imagined monks as farmers and themselves as rather bovine.  It is a sad fact that each congregation of monasteries, sometimes each monastery, preens itself as the gold standard of monasticism.  In Newman’s mind, that standard existed around the time that Arthurian legends were new, but, as any honest Benedictine will say, Newman’s monastic standard was as real as Camelot.

Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture

In December, 1948, at Pennsylvania’s Saint Vincent College, Erwin Panofsky delivered the second annual Wimmer Lecture.  Founded in the first half of the nineteenth century, the college was run by Benedictine monks, and the lecture series honored the memory of the founder abbot of Saint Vincent, Boniface Wimmer.

As he addressed students and monks and others, Panofsky’s topic, combining the architectural and philosophical fields, was “Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.”  As Norman F. Cantor put it in Inventing the Middle Ages (1991), Panofsky had the Midas touch that turned straw into gold.  Cantor cited as an example what was to him “an obscure American Catholic college” asking Panofsky to lecture on Gothic architecture, and the resulting book going through ten printings in a decade.

Erwin Panofsky was born in 1892 in Hanover, Germany, and died in 1968 in Princeton, New Jersey.  He was the same age as J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), but while Tolkien was mired in the trenches of the First World War, Panofsky had earned his doctorate from Freiburg.  In 1915 Panofsky published his first book; the following year, he was married.  While Tolkien was teaching at Oxford and writing The Hobbit, Panofsky, an assimilated Jew, had to disrupt his own academic career and flee National Socialist Germany for the United States.

That evening in December of 1948 the more perceptive members of his audience knew that Panofsky’s Wimmer Lecture on Gothic architecture and Scholasticism filled a niche in the field of medieval studies.  Like many great ideas, it is a wonder no one thought of it before.  And yet, what Panofsky revealed in that lecture was how a cathedral such as Notre Dame or Chartres was like a book by Saint Thomas Aquinas or Blessed John Duns Scotus.

Panofsky simply said by way of preface that it was but “another diffident attempt at correlating Gothic architecture and Scholasticism,” and one that “is bound to be looked upon with suspicion by both historians of art and historians of philosophy.”  The hard to please Norman Cantor said that this “fragile jewel . . . is a beautiful piece of speculative interpretation.”

Characteristically, Panofsky drew upon his encyclopedic knowledge of Western art and philosophy and saw parallels.  He saw that the medieval Schoolmen knew that reason could not prove religious doctrine, but reason could make it manifest by shedding clear light upon it.  Panofsky understood that the Scholastic mind “insisted upon a gratuitous clarification of function through form,” and equally it “insisted upon a gratuitous clarification of thought through language.”

Function and thought, form and language:  Panofsky summed up what he called a Scholastic mental habit given to manifestatio, clarification.  “A man imbued with the Scholastic habit [of mind],” he said, “would look upon the mode of architectural presentation, just as he looked upon the mode of literary presentation, from the point of view of manifestatio.”  All the elements of a Gothic cathedral or a Scholastic argument were carefully articulated and clearly went together to form a reasoned whole.

As did Catholic theologians, Catholic architects of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries sought clarity of function through form.  Just as the intellect functioned to study and contemplate God, so a church functioned to worship God through the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  The Catholic faith teaches that Christ, while being fully divine, was also “of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting,” to use the words of the Athanasian Creed.

What follows from the Christian creed is the importance in Catholic culture not only of the intellect, but also of tangible material, whether bread and wine or stone and glass.  Panofsky’s insight was that through proportion and distinction of parts, a Gothic cathedral was as solid and precise in its service of Catholic doctrine as was the treatise of a Scholastic theologian.

Like his Catholic contemporary, Tolkien, Panofsky was captivated by the Christian civilization that emerged from the Roman Empire.  In his Histories, Tacitus had written that in Judaea under Tiberius, all was quiet (sub Tiberio quies), and yet any astute observer today can see that there developed, like a minor theme in music that recurs until it reaches crescendo, the literature and liturgy of the Catholic Church.

For Tolkien and Panofsky, medieval culture was vivid and complex.  Craftsmen created formulae for stained glass never again equaled, and scholars in then new universities debated questions of universal reality.  It was a world appreciating intricate patterns and rich colors, whether in illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, or jewelry.  Alongside those achievements of art and intellect roared the violence of war and the cruelty of nasty people.  In short, it was an era like our own, because human nature never changes.

While Tolkien used his love of the Early Middle Ages to create his own Middle Earth, Panofsky studied the art and architecture of the High Middle Ages and related it to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and the poetry of Dante Alighieri.  Their various writings show that these twentieth-century students of medieval culture, one from Germany, the other from England by way of South Africa, felt an affinity for what has survived within Western civilization because they came of age when so much of that civilization was cracking apart under hammers and sickles.

As the tide of the twentieth century recedes, the books left on what William Shakespeare called in Sonnet 60 “the pebbled shore” are worth our while.  Within that span of a hundred years more books were published than ever before, yet few will survive time’s erosion of public memory.  Works once declared instant classics are forgotten.  Nevertheless, as Joseph Pearce noted twenty years ago, much to the chagrin of the intelligentsia there stands Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, still around after almost seventy years.  Also among the books surviving from the last century is Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.

People long to enter into a realm that takes them beyond this world.  For that reason they will continue to follow Bilbo and Frodo deep into Middle Earth, a journey like that of pacing contemplatively through a labyrinth in the floor of a medieval cathedral, or following the logic of a Scholastic argument.  As their guides through these mazes of prose and stone, they will return again and again to Tolkien and Panofsky.


(A much longer version of this essay appeared in the August, 2015, issue of American Theological Inquiry.)

Man and Beast and Marlin Perkins

“But now,” declared Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, “we have to prove the connection between the man and the beast.”  Holmes referred, of course, to connecting a hound and a man, but his statement also sums up a general human fascination with finding mythical beings.  In particular, humans have a yearning to find long-lost humans, or what they hope are humans, and so they go on quests for creatures such as Bigfoot or Yeti.

In Book 16 of the City of God, Saint Augustine drew upon Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and more recent anecdotes to relate reports of various human curiosities.  Augustine noted pygmies and hermaphrodites and also what used to be called Siamese twins.  Augustine’s point was that however unusual, they are human and therefore possess souls.

All the anomalies considered by Augustine lived in distant provinces or in lands outside the Roman Empire.  With calm detachment, humans always accept the bizarre as being beyond the horizon.  Meanwhile, they soon lose patience with the oddball living next door.

In 1959, having climbed to the top of Mount Everest six years earlier, New Zealand’s national hero, Sir Edmund Hillary, decided to return to the Himalayas and look for the legendary Yeti, also called the Abominable Snowman.  As he assembled his expeditionary crew, Hillary needed a zoologist who could brave the trek into the mountains.  Then he remembered an American zookeeper who had built up his zoo by traveling to sub-Saharan Africa for animals.

And so Hillary sought out Marlin Perkins, director of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.  Perkins had expanded the zoo, gaining national attention and appearing on the cover of the 7 July, 1947, issue of Time magazine.  From 1950 to 1957 he was on Chicago television hosting Zoo Parade.  Before making his mark in Chicago, Perkins had served as director of the zoo in Buffalo, New York, where he added a reptile house.

Born in 1905 in Carthage, Missouri, to a local judge and his wife, Perkins loved the outdoors.  Whether as a boy at Missouri’s Wentworth Military Academy or later, Perkins collected reptiles, especially snakes.  He dropped out of the University of Missouri, saying he saw no sense in getting a degree in a subject one loved only to take a job in an office somewhere.  With some biology and Latin under his belt, he went to work at the St. Louis Zoo, trimming hedges and sweeping sidewalks.

Thin and dapper, whether in a dark suit and tie or khakis and a pith helmet, Perkins had prematurely white hair cut short and parted on the right, as well as a pencil mustache like that of a 1930s film star such as Don Ameche or Clark Gable.  From 1963 to 1985, he became known across the country and then around the world through an award-winning half-hour television show, Wild Kingdom, sponsored by a Midwestern insurance company, Mutual of Omaha.  Each week Perkins narrated footage of him in exotic locations documenting equally exotic animals.

Perkins had an easily imitable voice often described as “reedy,” and comedians such as Johnny Carson delighted in perpetuating a myth that Perkins avoided danger, sending his able assistant, Jim Fowler, into harm’s way instead.  “While Jim castrates the wildebeest,” a Perkins imitator would say, “I’ll watch from the jeep.”

In fact, Perkins was no stranger to risk.  As a young man he went into Louisiana swamps to catch snakes.  In middle age he suffered a near-fatal rattlesnake bite, and later, a broken nose and broken ribs from being knocked aside by an elephant.  A crack shot, the only time Perkins used a gun was to shoot a tranquilizer into an animal so he and his team could tag and study it.  Long before those encounters, in April, 1923, he set the tone for his life of intrepid daring when he and an older brother decided to return home to Missouri from a year working odd jobs in California by buying a 1912 Harley-Davidson motorcycle with sidecar and driving it across the Rockies.

When Hillary recruited Perkins, it was summer, and they were walking briskly down a street in Chicago.  Hillary’s plan intrigued Perkins, but Perkins wondered if his age, 55 by the time they set out, would be an obstacle.  Hillary, age 40, tall and square-jawed and personifying “rugged,” observed that Perkins was having no trouble keeping pace with him.

After the expedition, Perkins wrote up his findings for the 1962 Year Book of The World Book Encyclopedia, and in his memoirs, My Wild Kingdom (1982), he included a chapter about searching for Yeti.  World Book’s publishers had underwritten Hillary’s expedition, and the 1962 Year Book included a five-part report compiled by members of the team.  Perkins’ section of the report described their work in autumn, 1960, in Nepal, where Sherpas, their local guides, showed them hairy scalps and large paw prints in the snow, both phenomena attributed to Yeti.

What Perkins found was that the tracks were fox prints enlarged by melting from the sun, and the bristly hairs on alleged scalps were part of the hide of the Tibetan blue bear.  “And the Abominable Snowman?” Perkins asked in conclusion.  “We now are convinced he is a myth,” but as such “he probably will live on among the Sherpas as the legendary figure he has been for centuries.”

Thirty-seven years after Perkins’ adventure, at the eastern end of the Himalayan range, another American explorer heard local accounts of Yeti.  Recalling his time in Putao, in what once was Burma, Alan Rabinowitz wrote in Beyond the Last Village, “One old man told of a hunter who had been attacked by a yeti . . . that ‘rushed down the hillside with fangs bared and hands raised to attack him’.”  It is a scary story, but vague enough to be describing a missing-link Wild Man or simply a bear rearing up and having none of some human blundering into its territory.

In the early fifth century, Augustine wrote about the innate human curiosity for strange creatures in strange lands, and four centuries earlier, Pliny the Elder provided a similar catalogue in his Natural History.  A comparably keen student of human and other nature, Marlin Perkins mused in My Wild Kingdom, “I can fully understand the thinking of those who believe there is still a yeti up there waiting to be discovered.”

Bilbo’s Spoons and American Pickers

In the last chapter of The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien described Bilbo Baggins returning home to the Shire after an absence of more than a year, only to find he had arrived in time to see his possessions being sold at auction because he had been presumed dead.  Bilbo buys back most of his property, but one exception is his set of silver spoons.  Nevertheless, he soon settles back into his familiar routine of churchwarden pipes and two breakfasts.  All the same, he would have liked to have had back those old silver spoons.

In a spiritual context, Bilbo would be told to detach himself from his worldly goods, and in a secular setting, he would be cautioned against hoarding.  While some people pride themselves on an annual purge of all the stuff they think they no longer need, others are aware that the future is uncertain.  More often than not, someone will jettison something that has not been used for months or years, and not too long afterwards is when it will be needed.  True, some can go to extremes, such as the man who is said to have had a shoe box labelled, “Pieces of string too short to use.”

Useless bits of string can safely be thrown away without harming human dignity, what Psalm 8 teaches about man being made a little lower than the angels.  Yet, man was also made to live above the level of a beast of burden.  Beginning around the eighteenth century the West has had a reverence for utility, so that family, friends, neighbors, and even the state consider themselves competent to decide and decree what another person needs.  In a stark utilitarian society, humans would be told they need nothing more than 2000 calories per day, a futon in a boxy apartment building, and the satisfaction of toiling productively for the collective.  Workhorse, here is your stall and your feedbag.

When telling a collector of silver spoons, for example, that he really doesn’t need them and should let go of them, what gets forgotten, paradoxically, is the role of memory.  Bilbo and other hobbits had a keen sense of the past and of the importance of things for connecting the generations.  After all, Tolkien noted Bilbo lending his suit of chain mail to a museum, and it seems too often overlooked that hobbits sustained a museum.

Hobbits can remind humans that it is a seemingly impractical collection of spoons that really makes a house a home.  Those spoons might be reminders of vacations taken, or they may call to mind deceased family members who had enjoyed them in ages past.  Those spoons are all about life itself.

Humans who champion this sentimental and commemorative importance of old stuff are Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, hosts of a popular television show, American Pickers.  Since 2010 their show has chronicled their travels searching for what they call “rusty gold,” well-aged and often everyday items found off the beaten path.  For them, looking for antiquated oddities to buy and resell is about more than making a living.  It is about parents, grandparents, and children.

In a book related to their television series, American Pickers Guide to Picking, Wolfe and Fritz conclude by noting how their television show has opened up new worlds to parents and children.  Parents write to Wolfe and Fritz saying that their children have been exploring the grandparents’ attics and sheds for mundane artifacts.  The children learn that, “the real thrill of picking is in the discovery of new ideas and in the connections they make with the people in their family and communities.”

In a companion book, Kid Pickers, Wolfe, as a husband and father, encourages children to find out about family and regional heritage.  He advises them to scrounge around not only at home, but also at yard sales and thrift stores.  From there, they should visit local historical societies and cemeteries to locate long lost relatives.  “Picking,” he concludes, “is all about connecting to the person you are and the people in your life.”

In his own book, How to Pick Vintage Motorcycles, Fritz observed how one generation influences the next.  He explained how his parents instilled in him a strong work ethic, so that his desire for “things like motorcycles, guns, and fishing poles” meant that he had to work and save, leading him to shovel snow in the winter and mow lawns in the summer.  Before long he developed a sixth sense for finding old oil cans and other apparent junk.

In their crisscrossing of the country, Wolfe and Fritz keep an eye out for all manner of usually knocked-about rarities, from metal Lionel train sets to enameled Exide battery signs, from Excelsior motorcycles to silver spoons made by a colonial craftsman.  Along the way they meet an equal number of eccentric characters, such as Ronald Heist, a reclusive salvager in western Pennsylvania who is known as Mole Man.  His nickname derives from his sprawling underground structure, dug out by hand himself, where he keeps a vast collection of tin signs and light fixtures, coffee cans and bathroom plungers.  As the Pickers put it, “very weird, but in a totally cool way.”

And so the two adventurous American Pickers have met someone like Bilbo Baggins in a hole in the ground, “not a nasty, dirty, wet hole,” but a painted warren of rooms and tunnels.  Wolfe and Fritz grew up together near Davenport, Iowa, but they acknowledge in their Guide to Picking that “Pennsylvania is better suited to our particular needs.”  There they find treasure troves in small towns and on family farms, most of the towns and many of the barns being easily a century older than their Midwestern or Western counterparts.

Just as Bilbo, at age fifty setting out on his first-ever adventure, faced peril from trolls and dragons, so too have the Pickers faced danger, some inhospitable property owners having been ready to unleash snarling dogs on them.  It is an attitude going back millennia:  Inside the front door of a house in Pompeii is a mosaic of a dog with a chain and a red collar; even now, it is a resonating image, the caption, Cave Canem, not needing much Latin to translate:  Beware of Dog.  Human nature never changes, and people cherish their stuff and the memories that it holds.

Buster Keaton’s Scenic Realism

In 1925 silent film star Buster Keaton, his wife, and their two sons moved into a new house just off Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, California.  Dubbed the Italian Villa, it sat on three and a half acres, and for Keaton’s wife, glamorous Natalie Talmadge, it was an ideal setting for lavish Hollywood parties.  For Keaton himself, it was the perfect location for an outdoor model railroad.

Railroads were part and parcel of Keaton’s life.  Born Joseph Frank Keaton in 1895 to parents who toured the vaudeville circuit, he grew up catching trains from one town to another.  Keaton’s father, Joe, was a hard-drinking Irish-American who drilled the boy in pratfalls that earned him the nickname Buster, but by 1917 the younger Keaton had enough and moved to California, where he appeared in some slapstick comedy films starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

Troop trains then became part of Keaton’s experience.  After the United States entered the First World War, Keaton was drafted into the Army, being assigned to the Signal Corps and learning map reading and Morse Code.  In the summer of 1918, he was sent to France, his unit being kept in reserve and never seeing combat.  Along with rain, mud, and monotony, his biggest difficulties were a uniform too big for his sinewy 5’5″ frame and then an ear infection that permanently damaged his hearing.

In 1919, back home from the war, Keaton resumed making movies with Arbuckle.  Before long, Keaton had his own production company, and he developed a persona whereby when he was in public or being filmed, he never smiled, earning him another nickname, the Great Stone Face.

Keaton’s silent films featured him as an earnest if hapless young man stymied by modern technology as he sought the respect of various father figures and above all, sought the affection of a young lady he hoped to marry.  As S. T. Karnick wrote in The Weekly Standard (13 March, 2000), Keaton’s films “support conventional morality against Jazz Age libertinism.”  A recurring theme in his films is Keaton’s character looking for a judge or clergyman in order to marry the girl Keaton has been courting.

Another recurring theme is trains.  Throughout his life, Keaton said that if he had received more formal education, he would not have become an actor and director but a civil engineer.  His silent films show a creative mind attracted to challenges posed by physics, architecture, and machines, especially trains, both model and real.  From One Week (1920) to Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), trains appeared in most of Keaton’s films, and Hard Luck (1921) involved a street car.  Our Hospitality (1923) replicated a Stephenson locomotive from the 1830s, and in The Blacksmith (1922), Keaton used model trains.  Two more examples will suffice.

In The Electric House (1922) Keaton sets up a Standard gauge model train to convey food from the kitchen to the dining room table.  Being a comedy, the arrangement goes not exactly as planned.  With Keaton, the use of model trains became a case of life imitating art:  Whether at the Italian Villa or at a bungalow he owned later in life, Keaton used his model trains to serve food to his guests.

A year after setting up a garden railroad at his Italian Villa, where real trees and flowers and rocks served as scenery, Keaton made one of his most ambitious films.  Based on an actual incident in the American Civil War, The General (released in February, 1927) stars Keaton as a railroad engineer.  Instead of using a model train for various scenes, Keaton used a steam locomotive that was part of a functioning narrow gauge logging railroad near Cottage Grove, Oregon.

One way to look at The General and its realistic setting is Keaton toying with the ultimate outdoor train layout.  Although there is no record of Keaton deliberately crashing his own model trains, in The General he indulged in what seems to be a primordial male instinct:  Boys and their toys, they want to wreck their trains.  The climactic train chase and then wreck in The General has become a classic scene in film history.

Nearly every Keaton silent film included a chase scene, and Keaton did almost all his own stunts.  In The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton (1999), Robert Knopf put his finger on Keaton’s art:  “His preference for long shots, long takes, and vast realistic landscapes grounds his chases in strict classical realism,” and yet “the progressively larger and larger number of people, objects, and animals in the chases exceeds any reasonable expectations” and thus becomes like a dream, but “a dream made solid and palpable through Keaton’s meticulous realism.”

While the country plunged into the Great Depression, Keaton’s 1930s were a time of personal depression.  In 1928 he signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, giving them artistic control over his future films; in 1932 his marriage broke up.  Frustrated and humiliated, he took to drink.

By the late 1930s, after a second unfortunate marriage, he was in a stable if stagnant period.  Now sober, he had his other hobbies of fishing and duck hunting, playing bridge and reading murder mysteries, and he worked as a gag writer for the Marx Brothers.  However, those masters of zany verbal comedy had little need for the insights of a man noted for silent physical comedy.  “That used to get my goat,” Keaton later admitted.

In 1940 he married a young MGM dancer, Eleanor Norris.  She was 21, he was 44, but they had clicked right away, staying together until his death in 1966.  In 1955 they moved to Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley, where the anti-communist but otherwise apolitical Keaton served two terms as honorary mayor.  The Keatons bought a modest bungalow, what he called his ranch, and there Keaton built another outdoor model railroad.

Roger Carp, writing in the May, 2003, issue of Classic Toy Trains, recounted Keaton’s fascination with model trains.  In particular, Carp wrote about Keaton’s outdoor layout at the house in Woodland Hills.  There Keaton enjoyed an S gauge American Flyer 4-6-0 326 Hudson  steam engine looping around ready-built Plasticville structures.

Less common among model railroaders than HO or O gauge, S gauge uses a scale where 3/16 of an inch, or nearly 5 millimeters, equals one foot.  Carp described Keaton’s model train running from the garage to the barbecue area and back again, while his grandchildren and family friends delighted in seeing the train arriving at the picnic table, flat cars carrying hot dogs and gondolas bearing condiments.  As Keaton recalled in his memoir, My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1960), his acre and a quarter ranch had “a miniature railroad that carries peanuts, soda pop, sandwiches, and popcorn to guests.”

According to a documentary, Buster Keaton:  A Hard Act to Follow (1987), another use he had for his model train was more personal.  For much of his life Keaton had been a three or four pack a day cigarette smoker.  In his late sixties he decided to quit smoking, so he would light a cigarette, put it on his train, send the train on its route, and when it returned to him, he would take a puff on the cigarette, put it back on the train, and send it on another round.

In his last years, Keaton suffered from insomnia.  When not playing with his trains, he was playing bridge with Eleanor or was up all hours playing solitaire.  Eleanor Keaton later said that when he died, he had his Rosary in one pocket and a deck of cards in the other.  A few years after he died, she donated his trains to a local children’s hospital.

Father Patrick Peyton’s Family Theater

Born 110 years ago today, Father Patrick Peyton, C. S. C., (1909-1992) went from a small farm in County Mayo, Ireland, to New York and Hollywood and world-wide recognition as “The Rosary Priest.”  Through vast outdoor rallies, as well as radio, film, and television, Peyton promoted the practice of family prayer, especially urging Catholic families to pray the Rosary together every day.  In 2001, the Vatican approved Peyton’s cause for canonization, and in 2017, Pope Francis declared him Venerable.

One aspect of Peyton’s ministry that bears highlighting is one he never expected.  His original idea was a weekly national radio program on the Mutual network; the program would be about the Rosary.  Executives at Mutual rejected the proposal, saying it was too sectarian.  However, they had no objection to a weekly national program with a broader appeal.

Baffled by what seemed to be God closing a door while opening a window, Peyton nevertheless agreed.  Mutual generously donated the air time, but Peyton had to pay all production costs himself.  Moreover, Mutual insisted upon each episode having the highest quality and that each week’s show would feature a famous Hollywood star.

Thus began a nearly ten-year run of Family Theater.  From February, 1947, to July, 1956, it aired as a half-hour radio anthology series, consistently maintaining superior production values and featuring major Hollywood stars.  The show’s 482 episodes are available commercially and on line, and their wholesome, if at times now seemingly corny, nature make them ideal for parents homeschooling their children and looking for a way to engage the kids’ imaginations.

The first episode, “Flight from Home,” set the standard, with a heart-warming drama about a young couple starting out with every dream and opportunity, only to have to learn how to face adversity with faith.  The host was James Stewart, a practicing Presbyterian, and Peyton wrote in his autobiography, All for Her (1967), that “I was particularly happy to have” Stewart as host, “for it was a proclamation to Mutual that I was going to live up to my undertaking to make the program non-sectarian.”  Music for that debut performance was by a well-known radio personality, Meredith Willson, who in 1957 earned lasting fame with his Broadway play, later a popular film, The Music Man.

As did other radio anthology series of the time, such as Escape or Suspense, Family Theater explored a variety of genres.  Most episodes were dramas written just for the series, such as “Last Run,” first broadcast in June, 1953, and telling the story about a railroad conductor’s last run before retirement.  Other episodes drew upon the lives of famous authors, such as “Once on a Golden Afternoon,” about Lewis Carroll thinking up the story that became Alice in Wonderland.  Science fiction and comedy were also on the bill, respective examples being “UFO” and “The Golden Touch.”  In the latter, Jack Benny played upon his persona as a miser and portrayed King Midas.  History also had a place, and “The Bid Was Four Hearts” related the heroic sacrifice of four United States military chaplains during the Second World War.

Although the host of each program spoke of the importance of prayer, the shows themselves were rarely overtly religious.  Two exceptions are worth noting.  “Curtain Call for Genesius,” starring Tyrone Power, told the story of a fourth-century Christian martyr who became the patron saint of actors.  “The Passion and Death of Christ,” epically reverential, starred Ethel Barrymore; she not only narrated the drama, she spoke the words of Christ, so that in a daring directorial move, Jesus was portrayed by a lady.

For Peyton, producing a weekly radio series posed numerous challenges outside his education and experience.  In All for Her, he said that he began by simply cold calling Hollywood stars, hoping to sell them on the idea of appearing on Family Theater.  As Richard Gribble put it in “The Rosary Priest,” in the March, 2018, issue of Columbia magazine, “At first, he knew virtually no one of significance, but famous personalities, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, soon became captivated by Father Peyton’s charm and total dedication to Mary and family prayer.”  Actors appearing on Family Theater donated their time and talent to the show.

From the start, anybody who was anybody in Hollywood back then wanted to be part of Family Theater.  Many of them were Catholic, such as Fred Allen, Jack Webb, and Loretta Young, while many others were not.  As John Dunning wrote in One the Air (1998), “It can safely be said that no series offered more Hollywood personalities in the same span of time:  Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Shirley Temple, Jack Benny, Robert Mitchum—the list, after a while, becomes meaningless.”

Another angle that was new to Peyton was how to market a national radio series.

Advertising executives at the Madison Avenue firm of Young and Rubicam donated their services to create publicity for Family Theater.  Their premise, Peyton wrote, was “if you were going to sell family prayer on radio, you had to use the techniques which had proved successful in this medium for selling soap and automobiles.”  In particular, Al Scalpone, a young copywriter at the firm, came up with three lines to sum up the show.

Each week the host of Family Theater introduced the show and used these three catch phrases:  “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of;” “A world at prayer is a world at peace;” “The family that prays together stays together.”  The first statement came from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, Idylls of the King (1885), echoing William Shakespeare’s Hamlet telling Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  As officials at Mutual required, it was a thoroughly non-sectarian sentiment; even Marcus Aurelius or Confucius could have concurred.

The other two lines were coined by Scalpone.  They can become topics for discussion, since skeptics could say that prayer does not necessarily lead to peace.  As Abraham Lincoln pointed out in his Second Inaugural Address (1865), each side in the American Civil War turned to God in prayer:  “Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”

A skeptic’s doubts about polished slogans aside, homeschoolers and others can find entertainment and inspiration in Father Patrick Peyton’s unexpected apostolate that was Family Theater.

Let Us Now Praise the Saint

In The Honorary Consul (1973), Graham Greene has one of his characters observe, “There were no detective stories in the age of faith. . . . God used to be the only detective when people believed in Him.  He was law.  He was order.  He was good. . . . It was He who pursued the wicked man for punishment and discovered all.”  That deficiency of detective stories in medieval times has been corrected by the likes of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael and Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew.

Since the faith of that so-called Age of Faith survives into our day, there have been fictional twentieth-century detectives who were not only men of faith, but also men of the cloth.  Among the most famous are G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling.  From its invention in the early nineteenth century by Edgar Allan Poe, detective fiction has attracted millions of steadfast adherents, and in the twentieth century there appeared a fictional detective who combined a moral compass with a roguish streak.

In 1928 Leslie Charteris (1907-1993) created Simon Templar, also known as the Saint.  Templar was instantly and intensely popular, featuring in dozens of short stories and novels and also in comic books, radio dramas, theatrical films, and television series.  The books were out of print but have been revived, thanks to the diligent effort of Ian Dickerson.  Just as the books are again in print, some of the movies, radio programs, and television shows are available on-line and commercially.

Templar became known as “the Robin Hood of modern crime.”  A master of disguise and a deft jewel thief, he turned to righting wrongs by developing a skill for, as Charteris put it, “swindling the swindler.”  The stories take Templar from London to New York, Rome to Palm Springs, and show him again and again outwitting the bad guys, dubbed by him “the ungodly.”  Charteris thus adapted the old adage about setting a thief to catch a thief.

Charteris set forth Templar’s creed perhaps most concisely in the story “The Man Who Was Clever,” collected in Enter the Saint (1930):  “We Saints are normally souls of peace and goodwill towards men.  But we don’t like crooks, blood-suckers, traders in vice and damnation, and other verminous excrescences of that type. . . . We are not bothered about the letter of the Law, we act exactly as we please, we inflict what punishments we think suitable, and no one is going to escape us.”

Theologians might question some of Templar’s morality, but in the story “The Blind Spot,” in the collection The Brighter Buccaneer (1933), Charteris noted that everyone has a weakness, an Achilles heel.  “The professor of theology,” he mused, “knows the Saint Saga as well as the Epistle to the Ephesians.”  True it is that, at least in English-speaking lands, theologians and the clergy seem to have a soft spot for detective fiction.  For instance, the Anglican priests and seminarians in P. D. James’ crime novel Death in Holy Orders (2001) are described as being addicted to crime fiction.

As addictions go, it barely rates.  Some years ago, Father Benedict Groeschel told an audience at Cambridge, “It’s only an addiction if it’s life-threatening.”  Probably few cars have been wrecked and fewer marriages ruined by someone hooked on whodunits.  In any case, Simon Templar’s adventures won’t cause cancer or ravage the liver.

More so than in other crime fiction, the exploits of Charteris’ hero (or anti-hero) ripple with humor.  Not surprisingly, an early admirer was P. G. Wodehouse.  Templar could well have been Bertie Wooster’s more energetic (and more clever) kid brother.  At a crucial point in The Saint Plays with Fire (1938), Templar is in Paddington station racing against the clock, and Charteris gives one of the funniest and most accurate descriptions of a man in a hurry trying to get information from a railway official, the sort of oblivious drudge plodding through his daily routine and who couldn’t give a succinct answer to save his life.

The Saint’s sense of fun and fair play can get him into unexpected trouble.  In The Saint’s Getaway (1932), Templar is on holiday in Austria, and he and his friend Monty Hayward see a man on a bridge being set upon by some tough-looking characters.  Without further ado, Templar and Hayward rescue the man by chucking the toughs into the river.

Only later do the rescuers realize that by their impulsive chivalry they had got hold of the wrong end of the stick:  the rescued man was one of the ungodly; the toughs were plainclothes policemen trying to arrest him.  The result is one long chase scene, and the suspense is not whether Templar will get out of that mess, but how he will manage it.

Charteris dropped out of Cambridge in order to write, and hitting upon the winning formula of the Saint was on par with Arthur Conan Doyle dreaming up Sherlock Holmes or, later, Ian Fleming making up James Bond.  It makes sense, then, that Holmes and Bond are the only comparable franchises to the Saint.  It may be for that reason Roger Moore was cast to play Bond after portraying Templar.  Regarding Templar’s perennial appeal, Moore said in 2013, “The world needs a Saint.”

While Charteris’ sense of justice drives each of his stories, his political antennae sometimes quiver in mistaken directions.  In the 1930s Templar (and thus Charteris) believed that talk of re-armament merely masked the greed of warmongers and profiteers, but looking back, we must recall that such conventional wisdom, held by the most respectable people, found contradiction by the lone voice in the wilderness that was Winston Churchill.

Nevertheless, one turns to the stories of the Saint for the same reason one turns to the tales of Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, not to mention Father Brown or Brother Cadfael.  Life is short, and one ought to read something interesting.  A slog through the bleak pages of the ponderous Karamazov clan, for example, constitutes a rarefied form of fun.

Instead, if one needs a change of pace from the everyday treadmill, escape can come from the Saint’s escapades.  Some of them may seem dated, but as Charteris said of Saint Overboard (1936), “I think it still stands up as a rattling good adventure, and that should be enough for anybody’s money.”

Making Deductions for Depravity

With renewed debate over who should fill a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court, a letter to the editor in an east coast newspaper stands out.  Written by a Wall Street lawyer who was also an Army officer, it makes some excellent points.

First, he reminds us what role judges play in a free society.  Unlike the executive and legislative branches of government, he writes, the judiciary is “always the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution,” because whereas the executive “holds the sword of the community” and the legislature “commands the purse” and also “prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated,” judges exercise no such power.  As he puts it, the judiciary has “neither force nor will, but merely judgment.”

That tripartite division of government is at least as old as Saint Thomas Aquinas.  In his Summa theologiae, I-II, 105, 1, c, Aquinas wrote that “the best polity” is one which is “formed by a good mixture of kingship, in the sense that one person is the chief, and aristocracy, in the sense that many men rule according to virtue, and democracy, . . . in the sense that leaders can be elected from among the populace, and further, that the choice of the ruler belongs to the people.”

As he often did, Aquinas drew upon Aristotle, in this case the Politics.  From ancient Greek philosophy Aquinas learned that the soul also has three parts, intellect, will, desire, corresponding to kingship, aristocracy, democracy.  Guiding those parts of the soul, as it does a well-ordered government, is virtue.

Although ancient philosophers knew that the human interior is askew, they could not explain exactly why humanity was less perfect than it had been during a distant Golden Age.  Aquinas and our battle-hardened Wall Street lawyer share the Judaeo-Christian belief that human nature is flawed from a first Fall, an Original Sin.

When our Wall Street letter writer argues that judges must serve for life, lest they be swayed by passing political fancies as they frequently seek re-election or re-appointment, he also notes that “to avoid an arbitrary discretion in the courts, it is indispensable that they should be bound down by strict rules and precedents which serve to define and point out their duty in every particular case that comes before them.”

Probably with memories of his own days studying law, he writes that from “the variety of controversies which grow out of the folly and wickedness of mankind . . . the records of those precedents must unavoidably swell to a very considerable bulk and must demand long and laborious study to acquire a competent knowledge of them.”

That special knowledge, he writes, limits the number of people cut out to serve in the judiciary.  “Hence it is,” he concludes, “that there can be but few men in the society who will have sufficient skill in the laws to qualify them for the stations of judges,” and “making the proper deductions for the ordinary depravity of human nature, the number must still be smaller of those who unite the requisite integrity with the requisite knowledge.”

If one is wondering who writes this way any more in a letter to a newspaper, the cat must be let out of the bag:  The author was Alexander Hamilton, and the letter was Number 78 of The Federalist Papers, first published in 1788.  He was then around thirty-two, and it amusing to consider that by even twice that age none of us will have written anything as useful or enduring.

Ancient, medieval, and eighteenth-century theorists put emphasis on virtue because it is so scarce.  Like gold panned from gravel, it needs to be worked into shape.  Discipline in virtue takes several forms; for Christians like Aquinas and Hamilton, virtue has seven components:  first, from antiquity, prudence, temperance, justice, and courage; then from Christianity, faith, hope, and charity.

For Hamilton, any kind of knowledge combining with integrity rarely occurred in the same person.  Son of an unwed mother, teenage immigrant from one British colony to another (Nevis to New York), survivor of combat military and political, he had seen a lot of bad behavior.  While he did not use that “ordinary depravity of human nature” as an excuse to wallow in self-pity or stay remote from virtue, he was aware of his own failings and knew that not everyone was like his hero, George Washington.

Certainly within the three branches of government, Washingtons would be few and far between.  A search for a good judge, for example, must make “the proper deductions” for standard human depravity, and yet find someone who will be bound by legal precedent and thus be “least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution.”

Along with James Madison and John Jay, Hamilton wrote The Federalist to persuade people to vote for the new Constitution.  Under the name Publius, they wrote to encourage their fellow Federalists and to engage Anti-Federalists, people skeptical of the proposed Constitution.  Those skeptics foresaw a time when judges became “dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution,” when legislators prescribed rules to curtail the rights and compel the duties of citizens, when the executive wielded its sword against the community.  Why support a new Constitution, asked skeptics in 1788, if human depravity could metamorphose the new government into an enemy of the people?

Skeptics especially feared a national standing army, but Hamilton, in Federalist 29, assured them that the people would have nothing to fear were governmental force and will to break free from the restraints of virtue.  “That army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people,” wrote Hamilton, “while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens.  This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.”

As Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen observed in A Patriot’s History of the United States (2004), “The Federalists . . . brilliantly sidestepped the question of state-versus-federal sovereignty by arguing that the Constitution made the people sovereign, not the state or federal government.”  Popular sovereignty, Hamilton promised, survives when free people bear arms.