Category: Life Together

Friendship and freedom

March 7th, 2016 — 10:36am

Some relationships in life we are “stuck with.” One can’t very readily change one’s blood kin, and until fairly recently one couldn’t break the bond of marriage for light and transient causes.

Historically, “being stuck” has widely been considered a good thing. It sets the stage for loyalty and faithfulness. One shouldn’t abandon one’s parents or siblings or children without extraordinarily good reasons. One shouldn’t cheat on one’s spouse. One should be loyal to family (by blood or marriage) through thick and thin. Cheats and traitors are nasty people; neglect and abandonment are vices.

There are/were advantages to having the back door sealed in certain relations. If your kids do stuff you don’t approve of, the proper first move is not to throw them into the street and disinherit them. They are yours, and you have to work with them. The same holds true for parents, siblings, and (again, till recently) a spouse. Filial or covenanted bonds hold a relationship in place – secure it, we might say – so people are forced, often against their feelings, to sort out their issues and do the hard work of loving.

At the other end of the spectrum of human relations stands the totally “non-stuck” variety. One is not bound by blood or contract to strangers. There are no ties here beyond that of mere human to mere human; there is no circle to which both the stranger and I belong, beyond that of humanity in general. Whatever one does for the stranger, one does voluntarily, not because of a particular preexisting and inviolable tie. This doesn’t mean relating with a stranger lacks moral entailment: there is great virtue in going good to someone to whom I owe, strictly speaking, nothing. Still, to “neglect” a total stranger is almost a contradiction in terms, for the simple reason that there’s no particular arrangement to be neglected. One should treat strangers as fellow human beings, with kindness and respect (especially where one finds them in need), but it would be hard to argue that one owes them something more.

Between these two poles – family at one end, strangers at the other – lies another sort of relation. In this sort, one is not exactly “stuck with” the other; but neither is one free of all obligations beyond merely treating the other as a fellow member of the human race. There is a real “circle” to which both I and the other belong, though it’s not secured by blood or contract or covenant (at least as modernly conceived). Here we find ourselves in the strange sphere of human friendship.

Friendship is voluntary, but anyone who’s ever experienced the bonds of deep friendship would affirm that rupturing them could never be a matter of mere choice: “Today I’ve decided not to be your friend.” To experience neglect or abandonment, or worse still betrayal, at the hands of a friend is crushing. Even to feel the cooling of a once-vibrant friendship is, in most cases, to feel that one or both of you has not behaved well – there is what feels like a moral summons not simply to walk away and wash your hands, but to seek reconciliation and amend your treatment of each other.

Oddly enough, great friendships work off the capital of great trust, and they do so without obvious warrant, such as blood or covenant might supply. This extraordinarily fragile relation, which cannot rely on the instincts of blood or stipulations of covenanted loyalty (though, as Wesley Hill and others have pointed out, it was not always thus), seems to work best when two friends demand little of each other because they assume so much. What is assumed is a fundamental wanting of each other, a desire for and delight in each other. Could anything be more subject to whim and the winds of change?

It’s not quite so simple, of course. The catalyst for friendship is always (at the risk of overstatement) something shared in common. Some sort of physical proximity – of shared place – is how it generally starts. It’s hard to become friends with someone with whom one has no contact. (The virtual world has dramatically altered our conception of place, but that’s for another time.) In the shared place, something mutually catches the eye – some shared experience or interest. Suddenly two people see each other, see themselves in each other, experience a kinship of loves, and from that day on they are friends. The bond that forms can carry over great distances, and seems immune even to the ravages of time. It’s not unusual for two friends to “reconnect” after months and years apart, and it’s as if they were never parted at all.

Here, then, is the rub: is friendship secure? Does it rest on anything more substantial than feelings, or the caprice of human choice? If you don’t like your spouse anymore, (at least on a “traditional” view of things) you should learn the discipline of faithfulness. If you don’t like your parents or your children anymore, that doesn’t mean you can just pretend they never existed. You have to work at the relationship, because there’s more to it than your feelings and choices. You belong to these people; that’s your blessing and burden to bear. Can anything comparable be said of friendships?

The question matters if for no other reason than that the bulk of our human relations are not those of blood and marriage, but rather varying degrees of friendship. Most of our neighbors are not kin, but a great many of these neighbors are far more to us than strangers. What do we owe them? What may we rightly desire and expect of them, and they of us?

There’s an odd symbiosis in friendship between trust and commitment. One must trust one’s friends, or else one may easily start applying pressure that actually erodes the friendship. No one enjoys a friendship where reassurances are constantly demanded, or in which proof of the friendship is made to lie in this or that performance. Friendship is not, and cannot be, transactional. With that said, a friendship in which commitment is lacking can go only so far and so deep. If one gets the sense that one is merely useful to a “friend” for a time, but there’s no real prospect of a rich and lasting bond, that’s not a relationship to which one can or should give too much of one’s heart. A friend loveth at all times – that’s what makes him or her a true friend. Friends are faithful. Friends stick by each other. Friends aren’t going anywhere, even when things get emotionally rocky. To be clear, friends are committed to each other as persons, not simply to a mutual activity or place or interest; so if the activity stops, or the place is no longer shared, or the common interest wanes for one or the other, this should create no anxiety about the durability of the friendship (assuming it is a real friendship). If you love a friend for who he or she is, that isn’t going to change because one of you moves away, or you don’t do exactly the same things together or share exactly the same interests anymore. Still (to turn the coin over once more), true friends don’t simply put their feelings for each other in the bank and stop all concrete investing in their relationship. By whatever means are available, and in proper proportion to their other callings and relations, they will seek each other out; they will affirm and give themselves to each other, not because they have to but because they deeply want to. And it’s this feeling of being wanted, as the wanting finds expression in tangible, meaningful ways, that makes friendship so enriching, so satisfying, so comforting amid the many uncertainties of life.

Because they are “freer” than family relations, friendships don’t hold up well under the burden of demands. A demanding friend is, candidly, a pain in the ass. Even too strong a sense of desire from a friend can begin to be worrisome, if not suffocating. Trust must grease the gears of a good friendship, allowing both parties to relax and work out their relationship without feeling that either is saving the other from drowning. On the other hand, however, trust in friendship too often proves to be misplaced in a world where we have more options, more mobility, and more “networks” (not to be confused with communities) that ever in the history of our species. Professed friends turn out to be flighty, non-committal, uninterested (the fashionable term is “too busy”), and unwilling to invest in ways that draw out the heart and provide opportunities for deep knowing and rich sharing of life. One would do well in modern times to be wary of assuming too much in friendships; faithful commitment and whole-souled investment are hardly relational hallmarks of our time.

It seems to me that friends who care deeply about each other might occasionally discuss together their respective views of the state of the friendship. Does each feel secure? Does each trust the other? Is there anything that either desires of the other that might reasonable be offered and received? Is there room for growth into new activities, new interests, or new levels of communication? Is either feeling pressured by the other? Is there a way to introduce healthy “space” without a decline in trust or affection? Good friends should be able to speak of these things openly, and without fear. If such a conversation is out of the question, that in itself says something about the quality of the friendship.

Jesus had friends, and to His most intimate friends He opened the deepest joys and loves of His soul, around a common table (e.g., John 13:15). It’s not to be missed that His friends failed Him badly, or that He afterward sought them out when their hearts felt the breach, and restored the bonds of their fellowship. We have much to learn in following Him. There is no friendship without vulnerability, and it is not in demanding love from one’s friends but in faithfully loving them that the durability of friendship is to be found. How many of us need to look long and hard at the way we have treated our friends, and ponder whether we have failed Christ Himself in failing to care for the least of these?

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A welling-up of the authentic self?

October 29th, 2015 — 3:42pm

According to the prevailing notion, to be free means to be free to satisfy one’s preferences. Preferences themselves are beyond rational scrutiny; they express the authentic core of a self whose freedom is realized when there are no encumbrances to its preference-satisfying behavior. Reason is in the service of this freedom, in a purely instrumental way; it is a person’s capacity to calculate the best means to satisfy his ends. About the ends themselves we are to maintain a principled silence, out of respect for the autonomy of the individual. To do otherwise would be to risk lapsing into paternalism. Thus does liberal agnosticism about the human good line up with the market ideal of “choice.” We invoke the latter as a content-free meta-good that bathes every actual choice made in the softly egalitarian, flattering light of autonomy.

This mutually reinforcing set of posits about freedom and rationality provides the basic framework for the discipline of economics, and for “liberal theory” in departments of political science. It is all wonderfully consistent, even beautiful.

But in surveying contemporary life, it is hard not to notice that this catechism doesn’t describe our situation very well. Especially the bit about our preferences expressing a welling-up of the authentic self. Those preferences have become the object of social engineering, conducted not by government bureaucrats but by mind-bogglingly wealthy corporations armed with big data. To continue to insist that preferences express the sovereign self and are for that reason sacred—unavailable for rational scrutiny— is to put one’s head in the sand. The resolutely individualistic understanding of freedom and rationality we have inherited from the liberal tradition disarms the critical faculties we need most in order to grapple with the large-scale societal pressures we now face.

(Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction)

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What is an argument?

February 17th, 2015 — 5:04am

What is an argument? In an argument, you offend ME by crossing my will. I respond by confessing your offenses to you. At the same time, I explain to you how all my failings are really your fault. If only you were different, I wouldn’t be the way I am. You do the same to me, confessing my sins to me and excusing your own. Nowhere in the heat of conflict does anyone confess his own sins, except as a way to buy time for a counterattack: “Yeah, I was wrong to do that, but . . . .” The log remains firmly planted in the eye (Matthew 7:1–5) as each party plays lawgiver and judge. “But there is one Lawgiver and Judge, He who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you that you judge your neighbor?” Here we see that at the heart of interpersonal conflict, a far more profound conflict rages: the presumptuous sinner stands at odds with the one true God. (David Powlison, “Getting to the Heart of Conflict”)

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Thinking of her

September 30th, 2014 — 4:10pm

In A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis offers this remarkable – and in the context of his loss, excruciating – insight into the gift of otherness in marriage (it can be extended to other relationships as well):

I must think more about H. and less about myself.

Yes, that sounds very well. But there’s a snag. I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts – real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman. Founded on fact, no doubt. I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t). But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own? The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real. Is all that work to be undone? Is what I shall still call H. to sink back horribly into being not much more than one of my old bachelor pipe-dreams? Oh my dear, my dear, come back for one moment and drive that miserable phantom away. Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed to crawl back – to be sucked back – into it?

(A Grief Observed, pp. 18–19)

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A longer way round

August 24th, 2014 — 7:45am

And now, before I end, I am going to venture on a guess as to how this section [on social morality and societal implementation of the “Golden Rule”] has affected any who have read it. My guess is that there are some Leftist people among them who are very angry that it has not gone further in that direction, and some people of an opposite sort who are angry because they think it has gone much too far. If so, that brings us right up against the real snag in all this drawing up of blueprints for a Christian society. Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party. We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or – a Judge. I am just the same. There are bits in this section that I wanted to leave out. And that is why nothing whatever is going to come of such talks unless we go a much longer way round. A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it: and we are not going to want it until we become fully Christian. I may repeat “Do as you would be done by” till I am black in the face, but I cannot really carry it out till I love my neighbour as myself: and I cannot learn to love my neighbour as myself till I learn to love God: and I cannot learn to love God except by learning to obey Him. And so, as I warned you, we are driven on to something more inward – driven on from social matters to religious matters. For the longest way round is the shortest way home. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 82–83)

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Shadow Eucharist

May 2nd, 2014 — 10:34am

In reading books, my heart is sometimes grabbed by an image that evokes an immediate and enduring sense of desire, and that gives form to the object of the desire, offering a concrete picture of what I’m longing for. I experienced this while reading the following passage in Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom:

Families and friendships can be powerful incubators of desire for [God’s] kingdom. When Christians engage in the practices of hospitality and Sabbath keeping, singing and forgiveness, simplicity and fasting, they are engaging in a way of life that is formative and constitutive of Christian discipleship. These “practices beyond Sunday” are further opportunities to rehearse a way of life, to practice (for) the kingdom. For example, for several years now, my wife and I have gathered once a week with our best friends for a ritual we describe as “Wednesday Night Wine” (even if we sometimes have to push it to a Tuesday or a Thursday). After their little ones are in bed (our teenagers are left to fend for themselves), we make our way over to their place with a different bottle of wine each week, enjoyed with some cheese, crackers, and usually a little (Swiss) chocolate. We keep a journal of the wines, noting our tasting comments, rating them (rank amateurs that we are), and in the journal we also keep a little record of our topics of conversation, what’s been happening with our kids, and significant events in the past week. We commiserate with one another about the burdens of parenting and share the joys of the same. We’ve mourned together, been frustrated together, worked through tensions with each other, confided in one another. When we were going through struggles “at church,” in our community of gathered worship, this Wednesday night table was a refreshing and welcome “table in the wilderness.” It has been nothing short of a shadow Eucharist, a veritable extension of the Lord’s Supper. (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 212)

The image of Smith’s “shadow Eucharist” has haunted me in the years since I first read those lines. I want to sit at a table like that, with friends like that, and experience that kind of sharing hearts and lives. I want it so much it hurts.

Therein lies the problem. It’s a little hard to explain, but I’ll try.

Nothing is more foundational to communion among human beings than commitment and desire. Desire without commitment lacks faithfulness. Commitment without desire lacks fervency, heart, warmth. Faithfulness and fervency are essential to friendly communion. If my friends sense that I’m not committed to them and/or have no real desire for them (by “real desire” I mean desire that manifests itself in some tangible way, rather than remaining a mere professed feeling), there is no basis for them to continue to regard me as their friend.

To put this a bit more simply, if I want to have friends, I need to want to have friends. I need to want these particular friends, which means I must want to relate with them the way true friends relate – with deep mutual commitment and desire.

But this desire for friendship – this desire for commitment and desire – is extremely similar (in fact, it seems at first almost identical) to what may be the greatest poison to human relationships: neediness. We’ve probably all experienced being wanted by someone in ways that make us feel uncomfortable, used, trapped, exploited, etc. The mere fact that someone attaches himself to me (committedly!) and really wants to be friends with me doesn’t mean we’re well on our way to authentic friendship. To the contrary, such neediness evokes loathing, the more so as it becomes increasingly demanding.

A troubling question, then, in seasons of loneliness and longing for friends and fellowship, is whether one’s desire for a friend is of the pure sort – that necessary ingredient of all true communion – or whether it is the poisonous variety that eats the vitals out of any relationship it infects. Do I really desire these people in a way that will fill and enrich and honor them, or do I merely desire them to fill some void in myself? Speaking personally, I have hesitated again and again at the threshold of initiating some form of friendly communion, agonizing over how I will respond if the other party doesn’t reciprocate my desire. Of course I want my friends to respond, and they need to feel that in some way, or I am not being a true friend; but if I desire their response the wrong way, or they feel a wrong sense of desire from me, the thing is doomed.

Take, for example, Smith’s “shadow Eucharist.” For this scene to work, it must be the right people at the table. It must be people I trust, whom I sincerely enjoy, and who sincerely enjoy me. It is also the case, however, that true love can’t be too choosy or exclusive, or it ends up being toxically possessive.

If the “shadow Eucharist” is to be deeply satisfying, everyone at the table must want to be there – the experience must be something mutually desired – but the desire must not be needy (“I just couldn’t get through my weeks without this”), or it will eventually become suffocating, pressured, just one more thing we all have to do to keep everyone happy.

Likewise, such an event (weekly or otherwise) must be something planned, structured, and committed to. If we start to cancel on a regular basis, the sweet comfort and reliability of the ritual disappears. It goes without saying that it can be participated in only by those who are rooted together in community, who are not just passing through. With all of that said, such commitment can’t be demanded; an involuntary commitment, made only to satisfy an insistent manager, will not sustain fellowship.

I’m not sure the solution to this problem is simply to say, “Well, if it happens organically [i.e., accidentally], it happens.” That strikes me as a surrender of desire, and with it of the foundation for friendship. Friendships do occasionally just “happen”; more usually (and arguably in every case, at some point in the friendship), they are cultivated. I’ve even begun to wonder if the best friendships involve some sort of oath, some sort of formalized covenanting. David and Jonathan come to mind.

I do think one clear way forward is for Christian communities to regard this as a matter of ongoing conversation. We need to study friendship, fellowship, communion, and learn how to enact it well. We need to think through “shadow Eucharists,” the commitment such fellowship requires, the rootedness and stability it requires, the fervent desire it requires; and we need to set the table for each other and reach toward each other, inviting a reciprocal embrace. It will be the case that, again and again, our desire will go unanswered and unfulfilled. The true test of our love, however, is whether we will continue to spread the feast and invite others to it, in hopes that in so doing our eyes will be opened, and we will know that our Lord Himself has broken bread with us, and our hearts have burned together in His presence.

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Coherent community

April 27th, 2014 — 9:05pm

A coherent community . . . is . . . the means of unifying and making politically effective our now disparate efforts to save the good things: The members of a community cohere on the basis of their recognized need for one another, a need that is in many ways practical but never utilitarian. The members of a coherent community, moreover, keep the good things they have because of a recognized need for them, a need sufficiently practical but never utilitarian.

If it is to cohere, a community cannot agree to the loss of any of its members, or the disemployment of any of its members, as an acceptable cost of an economic program. If it is to cohere, a community must remember its history and its obligations; it is therefore irreconcilably opposed to ‘mobility’ as a social norm. Persons, places, and things have a practical value, but they are not reducible to such value; they are not interchangeable. That is why we outlawed slavery. That is why a house for sale is not a home. (Wendell Berry, “The Purpose of a Coherent Community,” in The Way of Ignorance: And Other Essays)

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Congenital preference

March 25th, 2014 — 4:13am

If I am sure of anything I am sure that [Christ’s] teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. (C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves)

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The “I” factor

February 12th, 2014 — 1:24pm

In the Christian circles I’ve been a part of, it’s conventional wisdom that one ought to focus on others more than oneself. Other-focus is a big part of love, and therefore it’s a big part of growing in holiness.

Strange as it may sound, I’ve started to question the validity of this accepted wisdom. To be sure, if we were all more like Jesus, it would be great advice: focus on others. But the fact is that most of us aren’t all that much like Jesus, and apart from the perfect love that shaped His every action, focusing on other people can actually be a bad thing. In fact, I would argue that most of us in our human relations should focus on ourselves a lot more than we do. There’s an I-focus (an I-factor, if you will) without which focusing on others can damage them in horrible ways. Far from being too self-focused, I wonder if we’re not self-focused enough. Let me hurry to explain.

The human heart has an incurable desire to play god over other people; we flatter ourselves (insanely) that things would be much better if people would just do what we want. We don’t think of ourselves as this prideful, but we are. The proof is right there every time two people face off in a conflict. Most of the energy of each party is spent focusing on the other. Each renders all sorts of judgment on what the other has done, thought, felt, and intended; second person pronouns fly like arrows (“you did X”; “you thought Y”; “how could you have intended Z?”). Each person zeroes in on how the other person needs to change, and exerts as much pressure as possible to that end. Neither adopts the posture of a learner with respect to the other. Neither wants to talk about the fact that he or she has taken offense; both are stubbornly focused on how the other person has given offense.

Let’s picture it concretely. (We’ll use marriage, since most of the ugliest fights on earth happen in marriages.) Jack and Jill are man and wife. They’ve been married for ten years, long enough to carry the scars that inevitably come when you’re joined to another sinner till death do you part. They’ve had a fight recently and are trying to talk about it. It’s not going well. Why?

For one thing, Jack doesn’t really listen when Jill talks about her hurts. He’s immediately angry and defensive, because she’s being inaccurate, unfair, and unreasonable. In his head, he sizes up her hurts and judges them, and then (ironically) he feels judged! This messes up his emotional equilibrium and calls forth evasive measures and/or aggressive countermeasures.

Jill pretty much reciprocates when Jack starts talking about his hurts. Soon neither can talk about any hurts without starting a shouting match, so both parties retreat and fume. End of round one.

Cue round two. Jill again starts talking about her hurts, this time with feeling.

Jill has a way of talking about her hurts that drips judgment. She doesn’t really talk about what’s going on in her heart and head; she talks about what Jack has done, thought, felt, and intended. If he tries to explain, she doesn’t want to hear it. She’s not looking for a way to extend grace to him; she’s looking for a way to make him hurt as much as she does; and if he doesn’t hurt, this messes up her emotional equilibrium and calls forth evasive measures and/or aggressive countermeasures. You already know how Jack responds to such measures. End of round two.

The problem in this marriage isn’t the hurts. Hurts are no big deal, actually. They can be quickly resolved if hearts are right. The problem is that Jack and Jill can’t talk constructively about their respective hurts, the reason being . . . they’re not nearly self-focused enough.

If Jack had a better grip on the fact that God is sovereign and Jack isn’t, he would be able to listen to Jill’s hurts knowing that God, not Jill, is his Judge; this would enable him to listen to her without insecurity and reaction (his self-understanding would regulate his responses to her). He would also know that Jill’s Healer is God, not Jack; and freed from the burden of needing to fix Jill, he could simply care for her. He would also realize that, not being God, he really has very little idea what’s going on inside of Jill, and since Jill is the only one who can tell him, he’d do well to shut up and really listen before he tries to respond. In short, if Jack were more self-aware and less delusional, he would be a better listener and a better husband.

Likewise with Jill: if she had a better grip on the sovereignty of God, she would know that she can’t read Jack’s heart, mind, or motives; and she would spend more time explaining what she has thought and felt rather than judging what he has done, thought, felt, and intended. She would be a better communicator and a better wife.

A passage from Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve (pp. 62–63) speaks to all of this:

Members of chronically anxious families will be quick to interrupt one another, if not to jump in and complete one another’s sentences, and they are constantly taking and making things “personal.” Communication is marked more by diagnostic or labeling “you” positions rather than by self-defining “I” statements. Rather than saying, “This is what I believe,” “Here is how I perceive it,” “This is what I will do,” family members stay focused on the other: “You’re just like your mother.” “You’re a control freak.” “You’re insensitive, unfeeling, irrational, missing the point, or just don’t get it.” The family is thus easily “heated up” as feelings are confused with opinions. Those inclined to become hysterical and those inclined to be passive-aggressive will both find their tendencies promoted.

That’s the trouble with us, and it’s exactly how we’re not like Jesus. We don’t stay focused on our own hearts and actions (the only person God has told me to control, after all, is myself); we think we know what’s going on in other people’s hearts, and we really want to (and insanely think we can) control other people’s actions. Jesus wasn’t controlling in the way He related with people, and He was God; He really did know what was going on inside of them! What’s missing in our relational breakdowns is precisely the biblical “I-factor”: a clear understanding of what we are and what we’re not; and a resolute focus on doing our duty of love before God while trusting Him to take care of everything else.

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Philanthropic sentiment

January 19th, 2014 — 6:35pm

Almost every intellectual claims to have the welfare of humanity, and particularly the welfare of the poor, at heart: but since no mass murder takes place without its perpetrators alleging that they are acting for the good of mankind, philanthropic sentiment can plainly take a multiplicity of forms. (Theodore Dalrymple, “How – and How Not – to Love Mankind,” in Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, p. 77)

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