“That Which is Not Seen” (Part II)

This short essay finishes my present reflections on the role of the family in the realm of political economy. For Part I of this duo, inspired by Bastiat’s famous essay by the title, “Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas,” I invite you to begin here. Otherwise, read on, dear reader!


I have been blessed with incredible professors who give me interesting things to read (if you think this might be you… yes, it’s you). I am also blessed with this thing called the Internet, which provides an unimaginably huge garden of information through which I can discover more interesting things to read. The following thoughts are largely based upon a few of these readings: North’s work on institutions, Hayek’s writings on knowledge, Dr. Morse’s book Love and Economics (thank you, Acton), and a healthy dash of Josef Pieper, Adam Smith, and C.S. Lewis (surprising, I’m sure).

Permit me to begin with a speedy lesson on institutional economics.

We go about our daily business within the framework of our society’s formal and informal institutions. One side is labeled formal, since it is embodied primarily in our rule of law. The complimentary side of institutions are called informal, and they refer to the cultural, religious, and societal norms that also shape our behaviors. These both can be thought of as the “rules of the game,” and one of the many things that they provide is the incentive structure for our actions. For example, you may be more willing to invest in experimentation and invention if you know that your idea can be protected by patent law, which enables you to reap the rewards from your successful risk-taking.

Who plays this game? You and I, to be sure, and mainly through the organizations we are a part of (think civil society). These organizations are the political (parties and councils), economic (firms and unions), and educational (schools and training) bodies that were founded in order to fulfill specific purposes within our community.

North (1993) writes, “It is the admixture of formal rules, informal norms, and enforcement characteristics that shapes economic performance” (VII). Taking enforcement as given, is there a relationship between these formal rules and informal norms? North and many others (notably going back to Smith) acknowledge this fact: Formal institutions are underpinned by the informal institutions of a society. There is much accumulated evidence (see here and here) to show that these two must fit together, otherwise the desired rule of law (one that unleashes economic prosperity) will not “stick.” In the spirit of this casual stream of consciousness, it might be fun to consider everyday examples:

  • Just because it was legal for me to watch PG-13 movies at the age of 13 did not, in fact, mean that my mother’s rules were the same, and I had to abide by her rules or suffer dreadful consequences. (And now my bookishness is beginning to make sense…)
  •  Although it would be legal to host a business meeting in a tree-house, it simply isn’t done. (A terribly inconvenient truth.)
  • There are many “forbidden fruits” in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that are still legally and socially acceptable in our society. Nevertheless, myriads of religious individuals continue to submit to the restrictions placed by their beliefs.

If informal institutions are truly the underlying determinant of formal institutions, upon which rests the fate of economic prosperity, then it becomes important that some of us specialize in shifting our gaze toward the informal institutions of culture and religion. Religious belief and cultural norms are often accepted as givens in economic analysis, but today I propose that this is no longer a valid or necessary assumption.

Enter, family.

Just as the rule of law is the embodiment of our formal institutions, the family is the manifestation of our informal institutions since religious and cultural beliefs are passed down within the sacred space of the home. To wander this small kingdom is to indeed wade into rich and deep waters, so I just want to focus on one thing that the family–above all–safeguards throughout generations: human dignity.

In this, there is no substitute for the role of the family. Organizations and institutions can treat a human being with dignity, and of course the best ones do, but they cannot possibly nourish human beings with the deep knowledge of their inherent dignity, moment to moment, like our family members do. Love and Economics contains a passage in which Morse reminds us of this hidden teaching, glimpsing into the rich love of the mother for her little one:

“People do things they do not fully understand, acting upon knowledge they truly possess but cannot fully express… [The mother] might tell you she folded laundry and did dishes. But she probably will not remember that she rewarded every little noise her baby made, by smiling at the baby, or imitating the baby’s sound, or having an imaginary conversation with him. Far more is going on between a normal mother and child than we would ever imagine…” (17).

If you are familiar with Hayek at all, the first sentence may have reminded you of his “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” His main idea there, loosely paralleling the religious doctrine of human dignity, is that every single human being possesses an unique, irreplaceable knowledge of our world, equipping each to identify the best choice in surrounding situations better than anyone else. Above all, the knowledge and perspective that each of us stewards–mental models as North refers to them–have been extraordinarily shaped by our family. The understanding of our dignity or worth, and consequently that of others, can only be fully instilled by a mother and father who take it upon themselves to live out the greatness of their dignity as husband and wife and mother and father each day. And we know that dignity is the basis of institutions that support economic freedom and prosperity.

What might this mean in our current situation, when the decline of the family is hard, cold fact? In his foreword to Leisure the Basis of Culture, Fr. James Schall pulls us in with a striking sentence: “When a culture is in the process of denying its own roots, it becomes most important to know what these roots are.” This is my next task.

Morse travels back to the pioneers of political economy and posits that Adam Smith, and the subsequent family tree of classical liberal thinkers, held the rational assumption of close familial relationships when describing the workings of the free market with terms like “the invisible hand” and “spontaneous order.” Such close quarters with our kin inevitably grows mutual sympathy, the term Adam Smith uses in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to describe the way that we learn to test our perceptions against the imagined or real praise or blame of others, thus cultivating our moral sentiments. The strength and prosperity of the market operating under formal institutions was rooted in this shaping of virtue.

I invite you to read “The American Family Today” at Pew Research (or just look around) to see that tightly-knit families are no longer a safe assumption in the United States. The covenantal bonds of family are rapidly dissolving all around us.

Before proceeding, however, far be it from me to claim that families will ever be perfect. For, far be it from imperfect humans to bind ourselves perfectly in covenant. Fortunately love doesn’t need perfect. It just needs patience, kindness, and all the rest. Though imperfect, the family is the single institution within which human beings are freely bound together for the purpose of love. It is the only place in the world where “do this” equates almost directly to “this is truly in your best interest.”

If families are no longer in place to perform their fundamental role in shaping moral sentiments and religious and cultural beliefs, what will happen to our formal institutions? (Or better yet: What is happening?) Speaking from her experiences as an adoptive parent, Dr. Morse points out that we are seeing a growing number of children who have never learned of their inherent dignity (and that of others), whether parental neglect, over-spoiling, or attachment disorder is to blame. My good friend C.S. Lewis vividly paints this picture better than any other:

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We taught at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst” (The Abolition of Man).

If we are left only to operate under our formal institutions, we are saying that there is no prior reality, in fact, we are shifting our identity from mother and father to worker and citizen. The agora can either serve as a strong force for building community or a vulgar replacement for it; without dignity, all the power lies in the “rules of the game.”

We inherently ache to covenant ourselves to one another because it will fulfill us, and in no small way, remind us that we are more than our production and consumption capabilities. Depending on our covenants, our contracts will either make or break us.

But, materialism only robs us of our joy if we give it permission, and a healthy family is the best counterbalance to the world of labor, scarce resources, and efficiency. As Chesterton reminds us:

“Of all modern notions, the worst is this: that domesticity is dull. Inside the home, they say, is dead decorum and routine; outside is adventure and variety. But the truth is that the home is the only place of liberty, the only spot on earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim. The home is not the one tame place in a world of adventure; it is the one wild place in a world of rules and set tasks.”

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“For We Can Only Wonder”

“Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.” –Denise Levertov

Over the years, I’ve heard various private and public voices argue that our culture–the millennial generation in particular–suffers from a need for instant gratification, constant entertainment, and a steady dose of thrills (see here and here and talk to your parents). There is clearly some truth to this, but perhaps there is something more. This hunger may be the blessed antidote for something that frightens me much more: numb minds, lukewarm hearts and the general stagnation brought about by a sleepless society (in almost all senses of the word).

It reveals some important information about ourselves, that we were made to be fully alive every single moment with arms stretched open to receive both the palm branches and lashes of life.

But how do we reconcile this taste for drama with the slushy grey snow and monotonous lectures that surround us most days? I’ve found an answer in the idea embodied by the word open— having open eyes and open ears. Although this will be published later, I’m presently typing this reflection on my personal magical rectangle, as I literally soar through the clouds themselves with a group of friends and many strangers. The experience of flying is almost too easy— only the most self-absorbed minds are not open enough to grasp the thrill and wonder in such an experience.  

Take my pending trip to the grocery store. I will soon drive my warm, fast car to a massive complex (my beloved Trader Joe’s), that is owned and operated by mysterious, unseen faces. There, I will play the fun game of stretching my college budget through bright aisles of exotic bananas, organic and fresh heads of lettuce, and past perfectly-proportioned boxes of Coconut Pancake Mix. Perhaps I will even collect a jasmine candle from Indonesia or a Dutch pink tulip plant— of which I am still always surprised to wake up and find this vividly living thing on my window sill!

And I haven’t even mentioned the glory in every detail of human friendship… I recently enjoyed dim sum with a beautiful old friend, whose fantastical entrance into my life was a generous compliment about my (infrequently) curled hair while we waited in line for lunch. What if I had run out of time to curl my hair that day! What if I had never attended that event, or that party, or made an offhand comment about that mediocre book! Somehow, these beautifully unfolding stories are ever more evident in the presence of this stunning peach sunset, and this momentous music, and the lingering memory of love letters that make up my environment. That is the function of beauty in art forms: the opening of the eyes and ears. They gently shake us awake to see the unfolding stories of which we play a part. Only with open eyes can I fully affirm the truth written by my old friend C.S. Lewis,

“But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances. A secret master of ceremonies has been at work…”

So, hold on to that hunger for excitement, the urge to explore with reckless abandon, and the ache for a good story. It’s making you more childlike.


Perhaps this fascination with the daily details makes me sound like someone in love. Truth is, I am. The joy in being open lies in the fact that it is is a form of the vulnerability known by the lover’s heart. Peter Kreeft has explained it far better than I in this essay:

“We can see the same principle at work on every level: gravity and electromagnetism on the inorganic level; a plant’s attraction to the sun and to water and nutrients in the soil on the plant level; instinct on the animal level; and love on the human level. And within the human sphere there is also a hierarchy beginning with the sexual desire (eros) and affection (storge) that we share with the animals up to the friendship (philia) and charity (agape) that we share with the angels. The universe is a hierarchy of love. This is not a myth. This is the splendid and glorious truth. Look! How can you miss it? It’s all around us…

When Jesus threw open his arms on the cross, he said, in effect: ‘See? That’s how much I love you.’ “

The Paradox of Freedom

I’ve been personally wrestling with the proper conceptualization of freedom for some time now (don’t worry…I have friends and a job too), ever since becoming uncomfortably aware that I enjoy a much greater degree of freedom (freedom from, as I’ll explain) than many of my friends around the world. Three recent experiences have spurred this present public-journal entry: attending World Youth Day in Poland on pilgrimage, reading Pope John Paul II’s inspired book, Love and Responsibility, and spending these last two weekends listening-in on meaningful conversations about “Markets & Morality” and “Economics & the Pursuit of Happiness” at respective conferences. May you enjoy the haphazard thoughts to follow 🙂


There is a short tale that I was once told, regarding a certain historic encounter:

Years ago, when Pope John Paul II landed in the United States for his visit, President Reagan greeted him with a hearty, “Welcome to the land of the free!” The Pope then smiled and spoke with his usual wise and glimmering eyes, “Free, yes. But free for what?”

For what? Herein lies the paradox of this self-evident right which we rightly hold so dear, precious almost as life itself. Here, I think, is why we from the land of the free are surprised when we meet those who do not have as much explicit freedom in their lives and yet mysteriously still radiate dignity, strength, and even happiness. Here is why, although we currently enjoy greater freedom than ever before in the history of humanity, we still suffer at the hands of things like the paradox of choice.

Our understanding of freedom–as a broader nation but primarily in our intimate lives–is not whole.

The protection of freedom that we are blessed by cannot be the telos, end in and of itself, since it only can protect our pursuit of happiness, not guarantee it. This is necessary on a state level, but I think that we forgot the other half of the equation. We commit to protect one anothers’ freedom through our governments, so that we can then come home and freely choose to sacrifice that very freedom in our work, school, and play. In other words, I don’t think we experience the fullness of freedom until we use our freedom from unjust restriction as freedom for an end that is true, good, and beautiful. Paradoxically, echoing the secret of Mother Teresa, I’ve found the greatest happiness and freedom in giving it up to fulfill my responsibilities as a daughter, sister, and friend. Given our abundance of choices, we must be even more careful that our daily movements are taking us closer to the person we want to become and not further.

We must remember that freedom from is always completed by freedom for.

Freedom From

In the framework of the state, we encounter freedom as freedom from. From the outset, I want to be clear that I am in no way disparaging the freedom that we enjoy in the United States. In fact, I want to echo the words in an excellent article by our very own Nebraskan Senator Sasse, as he clearly articulates what freedom looks like in the political and economic lens:

The American Founders saw that denying people their freedom is fundamentally wrong because it doesn’t comport with the dignity of people who are created in the image of God. People have been endowed with certain inalienable rights. God gives us those rights; government does not.

Government is merely a tool. It provides a framework for ordered liberty so that free people can live fully flowering lives.

Freedom For

In the sacred space of the home and heart, freedom is perfected as the freedom for. What makes freedom so immensely precious is our power to relinquish our personal freedom in the service of a greater good. We sense this instinctively, for example, when we are moved to deep admiration for those who give up their comfortable lives to fight for our country, or even as we see married couples sacrifice their individual independence for the good of their family. I have found, that through a passage in Love and Responsibility, St. John Paul the Great clarifies this mysterious and paradoxical relationship:

Freedom exists for the sake of love. If freedom is not used, is not

taken advantage of by love, it becomes a negative thing and

gives human beings a feeling of emptiness and unfulfillment.

Love commits freedom and imbues it with that to which

the will is naturally attracted — goodness. (p. 135)

Which is Greater?

Who’s to say? I certainly have not seen enough depth and breadth of life to even pretend a wise response, but I can relay the wisdom of a man who was challenged to live out his philosophy, rather than comfortably preach it in a lecture hall his entire life. That man is Viktor Frankl, and the repository of his insight is found in his book  Man’s Search for Meaning. Through his experience in the concentration camps, Frankl made the courageous challenge to his fellow prisoners and now to his future generations of readers (a challenge which he lived up to):

We who lived, in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Though our freedom from may be taken away by others, our freedom for can never be completely extinguished. Freedom for, since it is not only the crown of freedom from but in fact can exist independently, is the greater, the fuller, the more perfecting. And to bring it full circle, lest we forgot it all too quickly (I know I do), the wisdom of St. John Paul II the Great:

 Man longs for love more than for freedom — freedom is the

means and love the end. (p. 136)

Love is the end? Just think about this one. In both our frivolous and fundamental pursuits of happiness, when are you the truly happiest? When you focus on doing what you want every day, or when you focus on loving others and letting them love you?* For me, the answer is self-evident.

 

*Even apart from religious understanding– everything that the social sciences can measure points to this fact as well. I’d highly suggest a follow-up video about the longest study on human happiness.

Sehnsucht in the Library of Congress

Deep calleth unto deep. –Psalm 42:7

It is no accident that lofty thoughts blossom forth in beautiful places.

But the really interesting thing is that man’s monuments and God’s landscapes do not push inspiration from the outside-in; rather, they engender a planted seed. Something already in us resounds and responds in harmony. An easy example is the clarity that emerges from our muddled minds when we find ourselves in the presence of a thundering waterfall, opulent temple, star-speckled sky, or keeping quiet vigil as the baby sleeps on our chest. In forgetting ourselves through contemplation, we feel as if we have returned to ourselves. There is a mystery in that.

It is for this reason that I’ve found myself studying in the Library of Congress lately (…also did I mention that they have a fantastic gift shop?). The magnificent trappings of the exterior and interior are undeniably conducive to good work. While reading (this and listening to this) in the company of new-friend and very-new-friend, I took a pause to look up and noticed eight named figures, History, Commerce, Religion, Science, Law, Poetry, Philosophy, and Art, encircling the dome.

Above each was an inscription:


IMG_2064History: One God, one law, one element, and one far-off divine event, to which the whole creation moves. —Tennyson

Commerce: We taste the prices of Arabia, yet never feel the scorching sun which brings them forth. —Anon

Religion: What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? —Micah 6:8

Science: The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. –Psalm 19:1

Law: Of law there can be no less acknowledged that her voice is the harmony of the world. —Hooker

Poetry: Hither, as to their fountain, other stars repairing, in their golden urns draw light. —Milton

Philosophy: The inquiry, the knowledge, and belief of truth is the sovereign good of human nature. –Bacon

Art: As one lamp lights another, not grows less, so nobleness enkindleth nobleness. —Lowell


How marvelous that a cluster of words, written down by a human being long ago, still calls out to us with power. No person enters the channels of time without leaving an impact, but it’s clear that a select few have been gifted with the most eloquent (or frankly boisterous) voices around our large family dinner table. Though the intellectual in me is sorely tempted to add my cluttered commentary to each phrase, I instead want to focus on the small, silent whisper threaded throughout each of them: There is something greater to come.

So the takeaway from this little rumination? Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that this is all there is. There’s a reason you feel more at home in beautiful places than anywhere else.

You were made for something more.

Adam Smith on Loveliness

Scottish philosopher Adam Smith is well-known and well-loved for founding the study of political economy with of his famous work, The Wealth of Nations. However, he had in fact authored another book before it that is foundational to that foundation. It’s called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and I would argue that it’s currently a more important read– especially as the culture of developed countries slumps towards moral relativism. Blatant evidence of the divorce of economics from its moral moorings is found in “the Adam Smith problem,” which encapsulates how economists (and experts alike) find it hard to understand that the same individual who wrote about becoming a good person and the origins of morality in a community was also fervently curious about the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. For a man of his time, and a moral philosopher at that, the real question is how did he get so many things right about economics? The key is that he approached human behavior with an integral view of the human person. He understood the totality of visible and invisible incentives for our actions. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he writes in the second chapter:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely, or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise.

This is the crux of the intersection of economics and morality. Applied economics is a tool by which we achieve ends, and it is true that we do not necessarily need to judge those ends as worthy or unworthy of achievement when the models are used to determine whether they are achievable. From this it has been said that economics is an amoral science. Questions can clearly be formatted: Should Whole Foods make 300 more salads or 100 more cupcakes to increase profit? Should our family invest in real estate or bonds to save for our child’s college education? Should the federal government cut the income tax rate to raise revenue and increase growth?

But the interesting thing is that tool shapes not only outcomes but the craftsman himself.

With each fresh economic decision, we are also changed (the littlest bit) into someone either more lovely or more dreadful. The outcomes and outside standards of our life will determine whether we are praised, loved, and admired by our fellow man or not– but it is the inner, deep life and moment-to-moment orientation of our being that determines whether we are lovely to the core.

Thus, I would argue that economics is not merely amoral because the invisible moral reality underpinning our visible economic reality cannot be divorced from one another. The man who gives money at church is the same man who decides to pay private school tuition, is the same man who pays taxes and votes for officials. Later while describing vanity, Smith touches upon the problem that arises when they are. In contrast to doing things because they are inherently praiseworthy, oftentimes we act only for the praise and esteem of our fellow humans. The reality of “good choice” vs. “bad choice” are replaced with “makes-me-look-good choice” vs. “makes-me-look-bad choice.” Smith writes:

They look upon themselves, not in that light in which, they know, they ought to appear to their companions, but in that in which they believe their companions actually look upon them.

In the United States, this extensive phenomenon has been labeled with the highly technical term “keeping up with the Joneses” and can be observed in every neighborhood, office building, and church. If you ask around (college kids do that kind of thing) that kind of life seems to be unfulfilling and just plain boring after awhile.

The good news is that many people, from professors to Popes, are writing about this essential relationship between morality and economics again. In “Rethinking Morality,” Professor McRorie discusses a few key texts to highlight the strengthening link between morality and behavioral economics. EconTalk and Intelligence Squared (podcasts I just gleefully stumbled upon) wrestles with these topics in refreshingly open discourse. And of course, there seems to be no subject on which the light of St. Pope John Paul II the Great has not shone:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being”, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments (Centesimus Annus).

Back to Adam Smith– a real trap of free market cultures seems to be the ability to look praiseworthy without becoming praiseworthy. And here’s the real rub: there will be choices that will not gain us love, praise, and admiration by our fellow human beings. In fact, truly praiseworthy choices may even earn us hatred, blame, and suffering.

We must choose them anyway.

Alain de Botton on “The Art of Travel”

The first time I laid eyes upon The Art of TravelI immediately knew that I would adore it. Not only did its giver have an impeccable track record for book gifts, but travel, art, and beauty, all explained through the eyes of a witty English philosopher?* How much better could it get? If we could eat books, this would be my first course.

And now, precisely a year later, I have reopened the pages (to be welcomed by a small shower of Domincan sand) to once again meet the text for use in a short speech assignment. I’ve come to the sad realization that rarely do friends take my fervent book recommendations into serious consideration (God bless them when they do), and so the speech is a fun way to share my favorite portions. The chapters chosen were “On Curiosity,” “On the Country and the City,” and “On the Sublime.” Although my real presentation includes a notes-sheet packed with delicious verses, for simplicity’s sake I’ve included just one per chapter here, along with my Prezi:

I. On Curiosity

“Curiosity might be pictured as being made up of chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, form a central hub composed of a few blunt, large questions. In childhood we ask, ‘Why is there good and evil?’ ‘How does nature work?’ ‘Why am I me?’ If circumstances and temperament allow, we then build on these questions during adulthood, our curiosity encompassing more and more of the world until at some point we may reach that elusive stage where we are bored by nothing. The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones. We end up wondering about flies on the sides of mountains or about a particular fresco on the wall of a sixteenth-century palace.” (pg. 116)

II. On the Country and the City

“Of what moment is that when compared with what I trust is their destiny, to console the afflicted, to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier, to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think and feel, and therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous; this is their office, which I trust they will faithfully perform long after we (that is, all that is mortal of us) are mouldered in our graves” –Wordsworth in a letter to Lady Beaumont after his poetry was initially described as “namby-pamby” and “a piece of babyish absurdity”

III. On the Sublime

“‘Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me’…When divine wisdom eludes human understanding, the righteous, made aware of their limitations by the spectacle of sublime nature, must continue to trust in God’s plans for the universe” (pg. 171)

Surely there is nothing more enthusing than the prospect of traveling, not only to new places but with such playfully enlightened eyes.


 

*If you need any more reason to read the text, consider that there is a portion entitled “The Exoticism of Shitting Donkeys.”

Cyprian Norwid on Beauty

Beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up    –Cyprian Norwid (Polish poet)

A girl–even a girl who cares very much about economics and school choice–can only read and summarize working papers for so long until she has to take a break for something beautiful.  Something less useful. I came across this quote in a letter from Pope John Paul II, discovered through my brother’s recent blog post, and it struck a chord. Perhaps because he goes on to discuss a remarkable Greek word, kalokagathía which signifies the incarnation of goodness in the form of beauty, or because my cottage endured a glorious bout of spring cleaning this morning, I am quite sure that beauty is the one thing that we all desperately need more of. Especially in ourselves.

But what does it mean that beauty excites us for work? Beautiful things tend to resonate with us, and when we allow ourselves to be allured, they can draw us from where we are to where we ought to be. The power of beauty is that it resonates, but just not enough. We have to change if we want to feel at peace in the presence of a beautiful artwork, musical composition, or personality.  I felt this just a moment ago during my pre-class morning procession to the coffeeshop, over the well-worn cobblestones, past spring’s sweet-smelling trees, and under the light blue and light coral sky.

Beauty will humble us, then work exalts us. I am drawing completely from my personal experience here– the best feeling that I know arrives when I rest my head on my pillow after a full day of fruitful work. Whether it’s a long, refreshing run, a completed paper, or painted canvas for a birthday gift, we humans love looking over our shoulder and seeing progress. Work was made for us. Sure, it’s terribly frustrating, and the space between where I am and where I want to be seems insurmountable at least once a day (especially during those hours right before lunch), but beauty comes in and reminds us of the reward.

“You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace.”

Beauty, truth, and goodness return us back to our right selves. They grant not only practical clarity, but pure excitement as well. It is precisely this reason why we should all care very much about surrounding ourselves with beautiful things and beautiful people, in our home, at work, and at play. It turns out that bare, useful things aren’t quite useful enough to complete the work we seek to complete.

And still the real crux of the matter has yet to be mentioned. At the end of the day, Peter Kreeft had it right in his lecture on the Sea when he spoke that we don’t want to possess beauty, but instead what we find we really want is to be entirely possessed by it. Just as the sea engulfs us as we rush into the waves, so we want to be engulfed by Beauty.


For further reading:

Asceticism: The Alternative to “Hope and Change”

Walt Whitman on Miracles

Oh God beyond all praising, we worship you today!

As I sleepily sit in a white rental minivan with my dad at the helm, zooming through the streets of Paradise Valley back to the airport, nothing seems short of a miracle. A mere three days of family Easter vacation in this desert oasis have reminded me that first things come first, and a first thing is to grab the person closest to you and give them a hug.

For me, the second thing is to share the wonderful things that strike me in the things that I read. I love poetry because it attunes our minds to the melody of the everyday. It sings from the order of leathery airplane seat rows, juxtaposed to the reckless glory of dawn unable to be held back by a thin airplane pane, the extra squeeze in a brother’s hug before we depart to our respective terminals towards our respective homes, and the unexpectedly cheery grin of the flight attendant as he dispenses breakfast cookies, lemon waters, coffees, and the occasional cocktail (oh what a mystery at 6am.) As Alain de Botton declares in The Art of Travel (a jolly brilliant book on which I frequently bubble over with mirth by quoting passages to my poor traveling companions):

Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships, or trains. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places (pg. 54.)

And believe me, with the mind of an economics major, I mean to grasp and share this point in all its practicality. We know we’ve found the truth when it changes something. It begins to make all things new. So what do these mini-miracles mean for the way we go about our everyday lives? It’s pretty simple: our concrete reactions. Life sweeps us up in a new dance each morning (I’m pretty sure this is the reason that music, rhythms, and poems resonate so soundly with us.) A real gem for your Easter morning:
Miracles
By: Walt Whitman

Why, who makes much of a miracle?

As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,

Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,

Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,

Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,

Or stand under trees in the woods,

Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,

Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,

Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,

Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,

Or animals feeding in the fields,

Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,

Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,

Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;

These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,

The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

 

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,

Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,

Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,

Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

 

To me the sea is a continual miracle,

The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the ships with men in them,

What stranger miracles are there?

Walker & Sasse: Fathers for the Founding Fathers

If you are interested in models for the kind of political leadership that our Founding Fathers had in mind, look to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Nebraskan Senator Ben Sasse. These two continue to earn my deep respect as they have done great things for the states I call home and now are speaking up to hold our nation to the high standard for which we were founded.

And needless to say, their movement is coming just in time.

Both Walker and Sasse defend the free market and traditional values that are the bedrock of our great American society, though my particular admiration is sparked by how they do so. If you have ever cared to know what’s at stake when endless debates about politics seem to pollute the public square, I highly suggest this succinct speech by Senator Sasse about family. 

The rhetoric and actions of Governor Walker are courageous and straightforward, demonstrated as he stood firm about making Wisconsin a right-to-work state. The reality that such virtues demand respect was evidenced as he emerged victorious from the recall election by a greater margin than his original win. Secondly, he has the mind of a principled business leader as he balanced the budget, by lowering taxes, reducing regulation, and cut funding to Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin. And last, if this quote from his speech as he dropped out of the GOP race doesn’t embody the ideal of a servant leader, I’m not sure what does: 

“The Bible is full of stories about people called to be leaders… I believe I am being called to lead to help clear the field in this race.” 

My esteem of Senator Sasse arises because he has the well-rounded attributes of a great historian and communicator. Knowledge of history is indispensable for understanding why our founding principles are worthy of conservation in the first place (and I’m tempted to believe that there is a correlation between the quality of our public school history classes and the slipping sense of civic duty.) His scholarliness is evident in his speeches through easy references to Tocqueville’s notion of voluntary association, Burke’s conservative principles, Madison’s view on limited government, and even Aristotle on friendship, though his real wisdom is the way he presents these timeless truths with compassion and humor.

An argument may be valid, but it must also be understood to be great.

And last, exhibiting the difference between meaningful quotes and soundbites, Sasse has articulated the meaning of America in the best way I’ve yet heard:

“Limited government is not an end in itself. Limited government is a way to constrain the things that could displace those institutions and those transmission opportunities that define what is fully meaningful in human life.”

Pope JPII on Economics

It is not wrong to to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life that is presumed to be better when it is directed toward ‘having’ rather than toward ‘being’, and which wants to have more not in order to be more, but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness, and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings, and investments. —Centesimus Annus