12 Great Literary Beginnings

Can you recognize them?


1. “Call me Ishmael.”


2. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”


3. “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians, hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished since that time when first there stood in division of conflict Atreus’ son the lord of all men and brilliant Achilleus.”


4. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”


5. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”


6. “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”



7. “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I think my liver is diseased.”


8. “It was in Warwick Castle that I came across the curious stranger whom I am going to talk about.”


9. “Great are you, O Lord, and worthy to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is limitless. And man, who is a part of your creation, desires to praise you, man who bears within himself his mortality, who bears within himself testimony to his sin and testimony that you resist the proud. Yet man, this part of your creation, desires to praise you. You arouse him to find joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

10. “In the middle of the journey of life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.”


11. “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”



12. “Who’s there?”


Why Thomas More?

I am a day late, but to the internet world: happy feast day of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher! I haven’t posted in ages, but I thought the celebration of this blog’s patron would be a good time to come back.

My friends and I drank and feasted mightily last night in memory of this merry man, and the amount of texts, emails, and Facebook posts I received in honor of the feast was touching. I attribute this sudden widespread knowledge of my love for him to my wedding a month ago. A good family friend painted this incredible copy of Holbein’s Thomas More as a gift for us, and its display at the reception caused a lot of people to ask a lot of questions about who the medieval guy was and why he was hanging out next to all the ribbons and pots and pans and gift cards to Bed, Bath & Beyond.

At a certain point during the reception, my cousin Andrew approached and informed me that he had been explaining to people all night why I loved Thomas More. “What did you say?” I asked him, suddenly aware that I wasn’t quite sure how I myself would have answered. “I told them that you admire him for his rational defense of the Catholic Church when it was under attack in Tudor England. And he wrote Utopia.” That sounded pretty good. “How did you know that?” “It’s wikipedia level knowledge.” Staring into the weeds of More scholarship in the past few months of dissertation research can make me lose sight of big picture points, like “why do you love this guy so much?” I thanked Andrew for reminding me.

I think that’s a great summary not only of why I love him, but of why he’s so important these days. G.K. Chesterton famously said that if More was important in his day and age, he wasn’t half so important as he would be in 100 years. We’re coming close to that mark, and I think these crazy times are proving G.K. to be correct. And not simply because there is a crisis of belief nowadays, though this is true. More’s “rational defense” goes beyond Tudor England, and beyond Catholic doctrine; More gives a rational defense of the harmony between faith and reason, which is ultimately a defense of reason itself, which cannot exist without faith of some kind. All knowledge involves some amount of belief, and More takes this truth and hammers it home to its logical conclusion: that the human longing for truth, philosophy, beauty, and peace are fulfilled in Christ alone, Christ in His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

I think I fell in love with More because he was just a normal guy who did an awesome job being himself. As a person who never felt called to religious life myself, More inspired me by his faithful living out of the lay vocation. He was a professional and a family man, and I always knew I’d be a married woman one day and I knew I’d do some kind of work. At the beginning of Utopia More writes a letter to Peter Giles about how difficult it was to find time to write in the midst of the busy duties of his life as a lawyer, father, and husband. I was always struck by the passage where he describes the progress of his day in detail, and how, after a busy day outside the house, he would go out of his way make time to attend to the servants, his children, and his wife as important items of business, since these duties are necessary “unless a man wants to be a stranger in his own home.” I don’t think he’s being crass in talking about spending time with his family like it’s a job. More’s careful diligence in these domestic matters is a virtue in its own right. I think we’d have happier families if we imitated that example.

More gave me hope that a person could live radical holiness and integrity without performing marvelous feats or withdrawing from the world. Holiness does not necessarily mean everyone will battle the devil or enter a cloister. More defended the active life as having a status of its own when the Church was coming out of a time that emphasized contemplation as the highest path to perfection. I loved More because he showed me that normal life infused with supernatural motives was an equally viable path to holiness. I loved More because he had a developed concept of the diversity in people’s temperaments, and how different personalities had different talents, virtues, and gifts to offer the Church. There are as many vocations as there are people. There are also many vices to battle. We each have our own, but More is always confidently reminding us that the manly struggle against these faults is the way to heaven. Do you think we’re going to get to heaven on featherbeds? He’d ask his kids. No: you have to work. You have to labor and struggle to win the prize. But there is always hope of victory because God is a “very tender loving father” who is always ready to assist.

There’s a lot that could be said about his delivery of these ideas, and his rhetoric is its own branch of study. His works read with the down-to-earth affability and accessibility of a middle-English C.S. Lewis, and somehow he could make a profound point about the need for good posture in prayer by using ridiculous images of men picking their noses and cleaning out their fingernails in church. He was famous for his humor, and Shakespeare dramatizes this nicely by having the More in his play crack jokes with his head on the block – and this scene is based on truth. What a guy he must have been to have had the fortitude to make wise cracks in the minutes before his death. This could only have been the fruit of years and years and years of deliberate cultivation of that kind of cheery disposition. He seems to have been pretty sanguine by nature, but I wouldn’t bet for a minute that he didn’t have to make a solid effort to maintain that natural buoyancy in troublesome times. None of his jobs were ever easy. Lots of prayer, and a habit of relying on God always – as my dissertation adviser told me in one of my own discouraged moments.

I think I love More most of all, though, because he’s a faithful friend. He spoke often of friendship, and if you spend enough time with him he’ll teach you the art of being a good friend. He’s certainly taught me a lot, and also done a lot for me: he was always my go-to guy in my times of discerning what to major in, whether to go to grad school, whether to go on to a PhD, who to marry, what to write my dissertation on. He’s never failed when I’ve asked him to put in a word for me with the Big Guy, and he seems to insert himself into my life in all the most important moments. Thanks to the generosity of friends, I brought some pebbles from his cell in the Tower of London up to the altar with me when I said my wedding vows. He really wanted to be there in some way, maybe to remind me that love and marriage (as I am finding out) is a kind of death to yourself, but the reward is amazing.

Here’s to you, More. May you teach us something of your faith, fortitude, humor, devotion, creativity, integrity, learning, audacity, kindness, realism, generosity, and cunning in these days when these virtues are so necessary.

10 Founding Quotes on Religious Freedom

After Gary Johnson called religious liberty a “black hole” last week, I’m just going to put this here:

1. “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” – George Mason, Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776

2. “No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship, or religious sentiments.” – The Northwest Ordinance, 1787

3. “[T]o suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own.” – Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, 1786

4. “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society.” – James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, 1785

5. “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” – The Northwest Ordinance, 1787

6. “We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, shall not be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, not shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” – Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, 1786

7. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” – 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, 1789

8. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.” – George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796

9. “[T]he legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.” – Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, 1802

10. “Conscience is the most sacred of all property; other property depending in part on positive law, the exercise of that, being a natural and unalienable right. To guard a man’s house as his castle, to pay public and enforce private debts with the most exact faith, can give no title to invade a man’s conscience which is more sacred than his castle, or to withhold from it that debt of protection, for which the public faith is pledged, by the very nature and original conditions of the social pact.” – James Madison, On Property, 1792

A Scholar, a Saint, and a Nihilist Discuss Suffering

… and they all say the same thing: that suffering draws out all of the best qualities in human persons.

We live in a culture that rejects suffering, and our politics are driven by self-victimization; whoever touts their injuries and makes a compelling case that they have gone through some hardship or oppression is entitled to a special status, often at the expense of others in society. Science and psychology are devoted to the elimination of all discomfort, all shame, all difficulty, anything that may pose a challenge to a comfortable, self-satisfied lifestyle. We love our wounds and we are like children who wish to show off our scrapes to whoever will notice.

At such a strange time in history, I thought it would be interesting to take note of what these three men said at different times about the trials and pains of life.

1. The most familiar:
“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

In 1940 C.S. Lewis penned his famous response to “the problem of pain,” the challenge to God’s existence which argued that the presence of suffering and hardship in the world ruled out the possibility of a loving, providential God. In Lewis’ explanation, pain is a testament to God’s mercy insofar as it works as a wakeup call to come back to Him which is impossible to ignore. For Lewis there was no escape from suffering in life, but there could be healing in the realization that pain is a mysterious gift from a loving Father who challenges us to become the best that we can be.

2. The most shocking:
“The discipline of suffering, of great suffering–do you not know that it is this discipline alone which has created every elevation of mankind hitherto? That tension of the soul in misfortune which cultivates its strength, its terror at the sight of great destruction, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpreting, exploiting misfortune, and whatever of depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cunning and greatness has been bestowed upon it–has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?”

In 1886, 80 years before Lewis grappled with the growing secularization in the modern world, Friedrich Nietzsche anticipated the havoc in the human soul that would follow from the “death of God.” Contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche was not a militant atheist who rejoiced that “God is dead;” although he was not himself a believer, for Nietzsche the death of God was a great misfortune for mankind, whom he understood to have inherent spiritual longings by nature. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche explains that religion is necessary to human flourishing since it causes men and women to strive for greatness; part of that striving includes the acceptance of pain and suffering as a means by which one grows in strength. For Nietzsche suffering was the ultimate educator with the power to lead mankind toward beauty and nobility. Nietzsche realized that no great civilization was built by a people attached to comfort and unwilling to suffer.

3. The most beautiful:

“Such is God’s kindness that even when we are negligent and slumbering on the pillow of our sins, He disturbs us from time to time, shakes us, strikes us, and does His best to wake us up by means of tribulations. But still, even though He thus proves Himself to be most loving even in His anger, most of us in our gross human stupidity misinterpret His action and imagine that such a great benefit is an injury, whereas actually (if we have any sense) we should feel bound to pray frequently and fervently that whenever we wander away from Him He may use blows to drive us back to the right way, even though we are unwilling and struggle against Him.”

In 1535 Sir Thomas More joked his way up the executioner’s block when he was sentenced to death for refusing to speak in favor of Henry VIII’s divorce against his conscience. His famed good humor followed him to the most difficult and frightening moment of his life. Written just weeks before his death, this remark about suffering from The Sadness of Christ sounds similar to Lewis’ argument that pain is the way that God calls to us; More delves deep into the human psychology of pain when he explains that humans imagine suffering to be injurious when in reality, as Nietzsche and Lewis realized, suffering can work for the good of humanity. In this passage, suffering has the power to rouse a drowsy soul from its sleepy, unreflective state, immersed in destructive or lazy habits. It is a reminder of the presence of God that keeps a soul on course and prevents it from drifting aimlessly. In More’s estimation, suffering is a privilege that we ought not only to welcome, but to pray for.

One of the greatest marvels of human persons is our ability to bear and even thrive under difficult circumstances, the ability to live well when things around us are not going well. Strength is interior – it does not depend upon the perfect alignment of social, political, material or other circumstances. What these three men each realized is that when these external circumstances fall into disarray and one feels attacked on all sides, it presents an opportunity for the strongest and noblest interior qualities to emerge.

And just as an added bonus:

There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain.”

– Aeschylus, Oresteia, 458 B.C.

Why It’s Good to Scribble in Your Books

My brother was horrified when I first showed him my copy of Leo Strauss’ On Tyranny. Half of it was highlighted in a host of colors, and there was a wide selection of pencil scribblings, black underlinings, red circles, and blue stars. I can’t deny it; the book doesn’t look as clean and pretty as it once did. But it’s obviously very well loved, and the marks attest to the hours and hours of time I’ve spent with it, giving it the devoted attention it deserves (and demands…being Leo Strauss). I had a professor tell me once that I shouldn’t write in my books because he had starved himself in graduate school, skipping meals to scrounge up the money to replace the books he had scribbled to death in his undergrad. Dr. N, I would like to respectfully disagree. You should have made that McDonald’s run.

Another professor told me that reading should be like taking your books out on a date, lavishing them with attention, having a conversation with them. To mark up your books is to have a conversation. You will never remember the things people say if you don’t listen attentively and respond, and you will never remember the things you read if you don’t listen attentively and respond. Writing in your books is a way to do this. I’ve found that it’s much easier to remember the passages that I’ve underlined, because when I underline something I make it my own. There’s a study that shows that the activity of writing with a pen helps with memory and cognitive ability. Beyond the practicality of making it easier to find on the page when you return to it, the process of selection recognizes the importance of that particular passage and ingrains it into your memory. Perhaps the different types of marks you make on the page of a book are like the various responses you can give when listening to someone. An underline is like a nod; an asterisk might be like a smile; a circle or a check mark could mean emphatic agreement. These are the types of gestures you make when you listen to someone speak; why not respond to written words the same way?

Of all the ways to give attention to your books I think marginal notations are the most important. When you respond to the text with your own thoughts on each side of the paragraph, you know you are listening well and absorbing what the book has to tell you, and you have something to say back. The book is inspiring you with new thoughts, ideas and questions of your own, which is exactly what it’s meant to do. If you’re writing in the margins, you are probably paying much closer attention to the text than if you were letting your eyes gloss over the page without effort. As a plus, it’s interesting to return to a well-scribbled book years later and see how your thoughts have grown and matured.

Is the final sullied product ugly in the eyes of strangers? Probably. But you have made that book your own, and you may find a proportional relationship between the degree of scribbling you’ve done in the book and the love you’ve developed for it.

February: A Thought

“One can in fact consider human intelligence in three distinct and often successive states. Man believes firmly because he adopts without going deeply. He doubts when objections are presented. Often he comes to resolve all his doubts, and then he begins to believe again. This time he no longer seizes the truth haphazardly and in the shadows, but he sees it face to face and advances directly into its light.”

– Alexis de Tocqueville

In Defense of Frustrating Professors

“Then someone had used the phrase ‘the Socratic method.’ What was that? It was apparently a way of giving your friend his head in an argument and progging him into a pit by cunning questions.”

– Winston Churchill

I had a bad case of senioritis and I was in no mood to put up with that impish smile and those sparkly eyes as he declared enigmatically, “there is no such thing as ‘Catholic Political Thought’.”

Then why on earth am I in this class? I thought. I had skipped a test and tried to drop it several times, but my stubborn advisor wouldn’t let me. He thought it was good for me to stay in this seemingly pointless class. He was right, as usual.

The man who taught my Catholic Political Thought class was one of the most frustrating professors I ever had. Class often felt chaotic and disorganized, and it was hard to see a consistent narrative. Why is he still talking about love and suffering? What does this have to do with politics? Ok, I get that morality and the human experience are important, but tell me what Augustine thinks. But he was also one of the most gentle and humble men I ever met, and it’s also possible that I learned more from him than I learned in any of my other, more organized and efficient professors. The very un-academic phrases he often repeated are the ones that stayed with me and still have bearing on a whole variety of real-life situations I’ve faced, as well as on my academic pursuits.

It’s easy to enjoy straightforward classes because you get to feel like you’re in control. Taking notes is a breeze, and at the end of the semester you wind up with a series of bolded points with clear definitions; all you have to do is commit them to memory and you’re good.

And then there are the ones that force you to think by putting you through painful and confusing processes. None of my political philosophy teachers in college ever answered a question, in the strict sense. Instead, they started to muse and would go on sometimes for five minutes at a time. There was never a simple solution, and there always seemed to be many…many…annoyingly many sides to the issue. This used to drive me nuts. Students hate roundabout answers. When we ask a question, we want a straightforward definition we can write quickly and fit easily into a neat outline in our notes. In this age of bulleted buzzfeed lists and 250-word tweets, we don’t have the patience for rambling old men who make us feel confused and lost in problems, and who make us feel like we are not in control.

But in graduate school I’ve come to realize that, in retrospect, these frustrating classes are the ones that have taught me something more than a list of definitions; they are the ones that taught me how to reason and think for myself. The patterns of thought I learned in those classes have remained with me. My frustration at their refusal to answer my questions straightforwardly forced me to continue to ponder the issues outside of class until I really did see that there were, in fact, many sides to the issue and many steps to the answer. A good professor teaches you to understand the value of each step. There are answers, but sometimes they are complicated; “reason” is the ability to find your way through the maze of complications in a problem and arrive at a resolution, all the better for having made your way through it slowly, one step at a time.

Slow, rambling answers are highly underrated by us young people. But their value lies in the fact that they force us to listen carefully for the answer, and show us how everything is connected in a whole. Learning in terms of bulleted lists and bolded definitions creates a temptation to see the world as a series of clear and straightforward divisions when, oftentimes, that is not the case. A list cannot teach you to think for yourself. Practicing patience can.

We all want answers, and we want them as quickly as possible. Even the best students. That hunger for knowledge makes it feel frustrating when we aren’t given the answers we crave right away. But the professors who take the time to work through problems slowly (and who withhold parts of the answer on purpose, forcing you to find them for yourself) are the ones who teach us to have the patience it takes to become a true lover of learning.

Why patience? Because patience is the ability to take what is front of you (be it a text, a situation, or a person), see it, and value it for exactly what it is, even if it’s initially difficult to understand. Patience opens you up to receive what is being offered to you in the moment, even if you don’t immediately recognize the benefit it can bring you. Patience is the ability to allow it to remain with you as an experience or a thought that changes you and your habits of mind. This is learning.

This is not to say that straightforward, clear, organized professors don’t have anything meaningful to teach you. On the contrary. Learning is a matter of taking each professor as he is, for his own person, and having the patience to receive what he has to offer as a unique individual with his own methods and years of experience. If you are a truly dedicated student, this won’t be difficult. The ability to learn can be exercised in any circumstance if you truly desire to know.