Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Book that Made me a Pagan

We interrupt the Belle Epoque to bring news of a serendipitous rediscovery, dredged out of the bookcase in Mrs. Buce's office (she functions, inter alia, as the curator of the Aristotle franchise). The item I offer is the book that converted me to paganism. That would be Pagan Virtue, which I must have acquired and, by the look of the underlining, avidly devoured just after it was published in 1990.  It's by one John Casey, Cambridge scholar, otherwise unknown to me until a bit of Googling just a few minutes ago.

By "Pagan," I mean not the sacrifice of virgins or the dancing-around of Maypoles: rather the more earthly matter of fleshing out what one might call "the Pauline virtues" (Faith, Hope, Charity) with what one can surely call "the Aritostelean:" Courage, Temperance, Prudence (okay, Practical Wisdom) and Justice. 

I suppose it is a finger exercise among philosophy students to recognize that the two traditions in their natural state have very little to do with each other.  And  to demonstrate also how Aristotle would have looked on  (for example) the whole apparatus of Christian innocence with stark incomprehension.  I was and had not been a philosophy student, except in the most incidental way.  In my law school days I did take one course in jurisprudence from a Jesuit priest at Georgetown (on a temporary sojourn in Washington).  I suppose he could have introduced us to the disparity in, say, his discussion of Aquinas. Maybe I skipped that night.  Maybe I just didn't get it.  Maybe he just didn't get it. Whatever: the matter was left for a later day

I probably I ran across Casey just after I'd diverted myself on an over-the-pole plane trip with a copy of Aristotle's Ethics  by J. M. Urmson--still the most helpful item on the (rather short) list of introductions to the ethics that I've imbibed.  I'd also read and enjoyed both Martha Nussbaum's (sprawling) Fragility of Goodness and Alisdair MacIntyre's (eccentric) After Virtue, both of which Gray mentions in his acknowledgments.  So I take it I was primed for what is, I would have to concede, a somewhat more modest product: succinct, but yet learned and still provocative. Gray makes it his job, in short, to render the Aristotelean set interesting and plausible,  to an audience who had grown up with the narrower template.

That was me, for sure.  I have to confess that I can't remember a time when I identified myself as "Christian" in any but the most conventional, check-the-box kind of way.  This is so despite countless years of Sunday School where I had quite a good time and one glorious summer at church camp where I very nearly succeeded in losing my virginity.  It wasn't that I had any active aversion to the faith of my fathers.  I just couldn't figure any way to weave it into the fabric of my life.  Neither, so it appeared (let us be clear about it), did anybody else of my acquaintance.  virtually all of them, if they identified as "Christian" at all, seemed to do so only in the most mechanical and perfunctory way.  So I was ready to deal with people who tried to address the problems of living in the world in a grittier and more nuanced context.

Except for the forlorn left-behind on Mrs. Buce's bookshelf, Casey's Virtue seem to have sunk like a stone into that swamp of anonymity that swallows up about 97 percent of all academic books, even those from the best of universities or the best of publishers.  This is probably no great loss.  I thought it a very good book but you couldn't say a great one, "Excellent layman's guide," says the blurb on the jacket whig is probably about right, I being the layman.  But among the limitless mountain of trash, there are actually quite a few pretty-good books, so I'm sure others have filled Casey's space. 

Casey for his part (thank you, Dr. Google) seems to have had a curious career.  I take it he has done some of that high-end journalism that you've always seen more of in England than in the US.   His main claim to fame seems to be that he is some sort of intellectual godfather to the sometimes bad boy of English social thought, Roger Scruton.  Just lately Casey has come out with what seems to be his only other major book-length project: something about heaven and hell, sufficiently far off my spectrum that I think I'll give it a bye.  Instead (if I can do it without crowding out Proust), I might just go back and give the old one another go.  I see that its current Amazon rank is 1,874,780.  Who knows, perhaps I can kick it up to 1,874,779.


Lise said...


Lise said...


The New York Crank said...

" I mean not the sacrifice of virgins or the dancing-around of Maypoles: rather the more earthly matter of fleshing out what one might call "the Pauline virtues" (Faith, Hope, Charity) ..."

Damn! I was hoping for Virgins dancing around a Maypole.

Very crankily yours,
The New York Crank