Blurred Underlines

There is a certain logic in the movement to eliminate the printed word in favor of the electronic one.  People spend good money to buy a printed, bound, and glued collection of pulp which, in the vast majority of cases, loses its value as soon as one starts to use it.  And we are all very much aware of the fact that previously read books are one of those categories of household effects which people tend to get rid of when they move.

Not me.

When I moved back to the U.S. from London over a decade ago, I was confronted with the fact that I had bought so many books during the couple of years I lived in the UK, and that there was no conceivable way in which I could possibly take all of these volumes with me on the plane.  I ended up leaving quite a number of them behind temporarily, and it took some dear friends with a spacious attic in Swiss Cottage, and two subsequent trips back with an empty suitcase, to bring them all home.  I know, in retrospect I probably should have shipped them, but then again I would have been more anxious about their safety crossing the Atlantic, but whenever I visit any city I find myself coming home heavily laden with more books to read, so this is not something new.

Last evening I was going through “No Man Is An Island”, a book by Thomas Merton which I had bought many years ago at the Notre Dame bookstore, and which had gone with me to London and back.  As with many of the books I purchased during that time in my life, it has quite a bit of underlining.  For those of you who have not been to law school, you cannot appreciate how much you must underline and make notes in the margins of your books as a first-year law student just to keep up with your nightly reading assignments of 200-300 pages, any of which you might be called upon to explain in class the next day.  You overcome the sense of wanton destruction rather quickly under such circumstances, even if you are, like I was, the sort of person who was always loath to write in a clean, printed book.

What I found particularly interesting, not having cracked open this particular volume of Merton in quite a number of years, was seeing what I had underlined when I was younger. The lined sections were either key elements of Merton’s arguments, or passages which spoke to me in a particularly personal way at the time I originally read them.  Looking back and seeing myself in what I had chosen to underline taught me just as much as re-visiting the content of the book itself did.  In fact, had I not underlined it in blurry, smudgy ballpoint many years ago, reopening that volume would probably have made less of an impact.  I was able to see who I was as a younger man, pushing my way through graduate school, rather overly-educated, naive, and not having much of a clue, and compared him to the older man, now long-since finished with formal education and considerably less naive, but oftentimes still not having much of a clue.

While there are a number of books which one ought not to write in – first editions, folios, exhibition catalogues, and so on – it does fall to me then to endorse the  habit of making handwritten notations on books at least in some cases, particularly where you do in fact stand a decent chance of going back to revisit a particular volume later in life.  That does not mean every work of fiction or non-fiction which comes through your hands needs to have your own personal gloss put on the margins.  Moreover if you are still in Catholic school when you read this, do not show Sister Mary Library my blog post and tell her that I told you it was okay to write in your textbooks – you have to return those books at the end of the school year, remember, and the last thing I need right now are angry phone calls from vicars of diocesan education .

Yet I would ask you to consider that even with the technology to make notes on your Kindle or other reader device, typing is still is not the same as drawing those lines yourself around words that strike you as meaningful, in much the same way that receiving an email, however heartening the details, is never quite the same as receiving a handwritten card or letter, however brief.  Even in our supposedly technologically enlightened age, that piece of paper is still just a tiny bit more special than something which arrives electronically.  Indeed, perhaps its comparative rarity nowadays makes it even more special, just like finding some old lines in an old book.


“Portrait of a Man Reading” by Parmigianino (c. 1530)
York Art Gallery, England

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Thanks for Reading!

As regular readers know my piece on the Rule of St. Benedict and its influence on the roots of Western democracy was selected for Freshly Pressed by WordPress, who have hosted this blog for the past two years.  This is the third time I have been honored by the editors of WordPress with this recognition, as an appreciation of my writing, and it never ceases to amaze me that people like what I am trying to do over here at the Blog of the Courtier.  I thank them very much indeed for their encouragement as I continue to share news and concepts with all of you.

And this gives me the opportunity to say thank you to both my new and regular readers in a very particular way, for the 5th anniversary of this particular blog is coming up in a couple of weeks.  In tomorrow morning’s blog post, I will have details on this year’s Blog of the Courtier birthday contest, and how you can participate.  I am grateful that so many of you stick around to think about and discuss Western culture with me, and explore some of the ideas and ideals which built our civilization.

So stay tuned, and check back tomorrow morning around 10:00 am Eastern, to see how you might win yourself a thank-you prize from yours truly!


“Portrait of a Man Reading” by Franciabigio (1514)
National Gallery, London

On Serving Your Audience

Last evening I made what I considered to be a rather witty, pithy comment on social media, which I will not repeat here, and which caused some distress on the left and misinterpretation on the right.  Unfortunately trying to explain the subtleties of language to an audience which did not grasp it was ultimately futile, yet in the end the fault was mine.  For when you have an audience in the first place, it is paradoxically not a position of leadership, but rather one of servitude which you occupy.

While I cannot claim to be any great wordsmith, I will admit that I do have a general facility for language, which has not only served me well professionally and personally, but which also draws me to others who have a similar affection for the joy of language.  That being said, it is important to realize that words are meant to be tools, not means of tawdry manipulation.  Even if you are the one doing the writing or the speaking, as a pundit, or politician, or academic, your audience deserves better than platitudes and pandering, and has the right to your respect.

Unfortunately we are all too well-aware at present of how easy it is to be anointed a lord of public opinion, whether one deserves the title or not.  And here we have yet another opportunity to look into some of the ideas of Castiglione, the patron of this blog, rather than the self-centered and grasping Machiavelli, who seems to have the upper hand these days, with regard to how the public is treated.  Machiavelli may have argued in his “Discourses” that public discussion was a better way of achieving results than relying on the wisdom of princes, but in “The Prince”, he was always more than happy to look down on an audience as being little more than ignorant sheep, to be used for his own personal gain.

In advising how a leader ought to address the public, Machiavelli counseled that he ought to appear “merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.”  If he does this, Machiavelli argued, “he will be praised by everybody, because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.”  No doubt we can all think of contemporary social, political, and opinion leaders to whom this description might be very readily applied.

In complete contrast, Castiglione recognizes that it is in one’s own genuine good behavior toward himself and toward others that the leader gains esteem.  He despises the kind of unctuous, all-things-to-all-people behavior advocated by Machiavelli, and rather neatly points to how such behavior ultimately leads to things like moral relativism.  “And they cite a certain authority out of their own head, which says ‘si non caste, tamen caute’ [if not chastely, then at least cautiously], and with this they think to cure every great evil, and with good arguments to persuade anyone who is not wary that all sin, however grave it might be, is easily pardoned of God, provided it remain secret and does not give rise to bad example.”

Castiglione criticizes professional sophists (such as Machiavelli) who “from over-loquacity sometimes go beyond bounds and become silly and pointless, because they do not consider the kind of person with whom they are speaking, the place where they are, the occasion, or the soberness and modesty which they ought above all things to maintain.”  Rather than follow their example, Castiglione counsels that a leader not only concern himself with big issues that tend to attract the most attention, but to have the personal humility and sense of service to realize that he ought to be more concerned with helping others than himself:

I would have him take care to heed not only the matters already mentioned, but those which are much smaller, and as far as possible to understand all details affecting his people, nor ever so believe or trust any one of his ministers as to confide to that one alone the bridle and control of his government.  For there is no man who is very apt for all things, and much greater harm arises from the credulity of lords than from their incredulity…

Of course, probably very few of us are going to end up serving in high positions of public office, heading major corporations, or as weekly columnists/commentators in major media outlets.  Yet all of us will find ourselves in situations where others are looking to us for our opinions and guidance.  We need to respect those who are seeking our views, enough to realize what a privilege and a responsibility it is to be sought out in this way.

As Castiglione clearly understood, it is not through the cheap manipulation of human emotions that we build a better society or prove our worth as individuals.  Rather it is in the way which we use such opportunities to encourage others to be and to do better, for the sake of what is good and right, rather than encouraging our audiences to act purely out of selfishness.  Would that more of us would take this advice to heart, on a regular basis, in the choices that we make, in what we write and say, and in how we interact with those who need our assistance.


Detail of “The Speech of Alfonso d’Avalos” by Titian (c. 1540)
The Prado, Madrid