CovidDiary Day 12 (Weds 1st April 2020)

A purse inscribed with the words, “Remember the Poore” (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: Feast and Fast Exhibition; Photo: Simeon Burke)

Reading the news about football clubs who are placing non-playing staff on furlough, I can’t help but reflect on the moral state of our contemporary economy. I am left feeling pretty depressed.

I’m depressed at the absolute prioritisation of profit over people. As Julian Knight (MP) has put it, “This exposes the crazy economics in English football and the moral vacuum at its centre…It sticks in the throat”.

We have made the acquisition of capital itself a virtue. At the same time, we appear to have abandoned those true virtues of philanthropy, generosity and helping one’s fellow man.

But I’m also saddened that it took a crisis such as the current one to reveal this order of things to me. I confess to an uncaring apathy. I don’t think it’s self-flagellatory to say that I am partly implicated in this mess as I have enjoyed and followed these clubs for many years.

I want to be clear that I am not against the acquisition of wealth per se. I also think that any salary that is offered to non-playing staff should be done so voluntarily. I could partly sympathise with Corbyn’s harsh words towards the billionaires in election season last year. While I am slightly wary of actions taken by the state on this front, I do wonder if our taxation system is working as it should, particularly as many avoid taxes through off-shore accounts and the like.

Nor am I, at this point, willing to say we should scrap capitalism altogether. It’s the best system that we have, which is not to say it is a perfect one. As one commentator humorously relayed today, “Coronavirustide is ‘capitalism’s Lent'”. Indeed, capitalism needs serious re-thinking and serious chastening through virtues like generosity and philanthropy.

Tom Holland discusses Basil the Great and his brother Gregory of Nyssa in his chapter on Charity (Image Credit: The Times).

The history of Christianity has much to teach us here. I am reminded of Tom Holland’s wonderful chapter on Charity in his book Dominion. Holland argues that with Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, we find examples of individuals who embodied charity. As Holland explains, the virtue of generosity they took up was established on a realistic anthropology:

Do not despise these people in their abjection; do not think they merit no respect…Reflect on who they are, and you will understand their dignity; they have taken upon them the person of the Saviour. For he, the compassionate, has given them his own person.

Gregory, On the Love of the Poor 1

God’s love for the poor and outcast, created just as much in his image as you or I, demands a similar ethic of love and generosity. For Gregory and Basil, this worked itself out, as Holland demonstrates, in opposition to the slavetrade. For Martin of Tours, it led to a life of poverty and associating with the lepers and lowly. For other Christians, it involved rescuing the most defenceless of all—unwanted children (often girls) exposed to the elements and left to die.

There are countless chapters of Christian philanthropy throughout the centuries (one of my favourites is the Earl of Shaftesbury). Uniting most, or all of these chapters, though, is the conviction of the inherent dignity of every human person, whether wealthy football player or casual catering staff. As the words emblazoned on the 17th century purse in the photo above remind us (echoing Paul’s own to the Galatians), “remember the poore”.

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Returning to the subject at hand, I understand that billionaires often make their billions through a bright and novel idea that changes society. At the same time, there is nothing “bright” about doing so when one’s workers are on zero-hour contracts.

Thankfully, there are some very generous billionaires out there. I think of Bill Gates who, with other billionaires, plans to give all of his wealth away. In the context of sport, I am also gladdened when I hear that Juventus’s team and manager have chosen to freeze their wages for four months and Barcelona players have taken a 70% pay cut so that staff receive pay.

Amidst the greed of the “normal” status quo, then, are these some of the shoots emerging in this strange Spring of Change?

What I’m Reading—March 2020

What’s on my desk/bedside table, book-wise
  1. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (Translated by Constance Garnett; Heinemann, 1914)
  2. Flannery O’Connor, Complete Stories (Faber and Faber, 2009)
  3. Andrew Byers, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (IVP, 2011)
  4. James Mumford, Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes (Bloomsbury, 2020)
  5. Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown: 2019).

I’m still working my way through most of the books from December’s list (this includes Dominion which I recently had signed by the author at the Cambridge Union, where he was delivering a speech in favour of Sparta over Athens. He apologised for signing the book in red pen, but what could be more appropriate for a book on the cross-shaped mind of the West?). I did manage to finish a couple of books though. Among these was JKA Smith’s On the Road With Augustine which, among many things, serves as a thought-provoking, moving and inspiring primer to the Christian life for the interested, cynical and sceptical.

I’m not yet disciplined enough to only buy and starting reading a book after I’ve finished another. On the plus side, I’m happy with my resolution to adopt more fiction into my literary diet. My selections on this count have, admittedly, been on the darker side. I recently completed Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and have now selected two masterpieces which are highly appropriate for the Lenten season—O’Connor’s collection of short stories and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I was introduced to O’Connor through an episode of the Onscript podcast in Lent last year with Michael Bruner. Immediately attracted by what Bruner describes as O’Connor’s fascination with the piercing beauty and unyielding grotesqueness of human existence, I picked up a copy of the shockingly brilliant A Good Man Is Hard to Find before selecting her volume of short stories.

In the world of non-fiction, I’ve been enjoying the bridge-building nature of Mumford’s Vexed so far which speaks to some of my Red Tory/Blue Labour instincts. On the theological side of things, I can’t wait to make some time for Byers’ Faith Without Illusions, not least because he speaks about hopeful realism in a way that resonates with my desires when starting this blog (more on that here and hopefully more anon). His take on disillusionment in the opening chapter reminds of Jonathan Merrit’s wonderful piece on the Gift of Disillusionment, which directly inspired my Palm Sunday sermon last year. I’m finding Byers’ book a generous, orthodox and thoughtful read so far and a healing balm for the cynicism (read: “contemptuous distrust”) which I find so easy entangles.

Reading List—December 2019

Here’s a select sample of books I’m reading at the moment.

  1. James KA Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Brazos, 2019)
  2. Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019)
  3. Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (Bloomsbury, 2019)
  4. Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing the Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019)
  5. Roger Scruton, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet (Atlantic, 2012)
  6. Roger Scruton, Conservatism: An Introduction to the Great Tradition (All Points, 2018)

No. 6 (Scruton’s Conservatism) appears because Conservatism is the first Western political philosophy I will be reviewing in my Western Political Philosophy 101 series.

On that note, I’m currently looking for recommendations for the other political philosophies I will be reviewing (Socialism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Post-Liberalism). If you have any recommendations, please leave them below in a comment. Thank you.