• May 28th, 2015The Age of Shakespeare’s Heroinesby Joseph Pearce

    I’ve received a good and interesting question about the age of Shakespeare’s heroines and its significance. The question is below; my response follows:

    If I recall, you felt that Juliet’s extreme youth in Romeo and Juliet (just under 14) was one way of Shakespeare implicitly criticizing their romance. (Makes sense to me!)  But I was recently reading (listening to, actually) The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, where Miranda and Perdita are, respectively, around 15 and 16, which isn’t that much better.  Does the fact that the latter two plays are not tragedies make a difference, do you think?

    My response:

    The first thing I would say is that the difference between thirteen and fifteen or sixteen is seismic in significance, far greater than the passage of two or three years would suggest. A thirteen-year-old is a child approaching adolescence; a fifteen or sixteen-year-old is an adolescent approaching adulthood.

    The second thing is to consider what Shakespeare does with these characters. Miranda is wide-eyed with innocence and wonder, almost like the unfallen Eve, whose purity is protected by her father in the manner in which he tests Ferdinand’s own virtue as a means of ensuring that he is worthy of his daughter’s hand in marriage. This includes the carrying of logs, symbolic of the taking up of the cross (of marriage), a sacrifice that Ferdinand embraces with willing obedience - in stark contrast to the anarchic disobedience of Romeo. Prospero’s faith in the chastity and purity of Miranda and Ferdinand is rewarded when he finds them in flagrante delicto - playing chess! It is hard to imagine anything further from fornication symbolically than a game of chess, a fact which inspired Eliot to use it as an ironic image in “The Waste Land” in a clear intertextual reference to The Tempest.

    Perdita in The Winter’s Tale is also depicted as being chaste, as is her betrothed, and, as you say, she is sixteen-years-old, significantly older than Juliet.

  • May 27th, 2015Catholic Exchange Interview Podcastby Joseph Pearce

    I was recently interviewed by Michael Lichens for the Catholic Exchange website. We covered everything from my own conversion story to Tolkien and Chesterton. Here’s the link:


  • May 26th, 2015Farewell Britannia: Are We Seeing the End of the United Kingdom?by Joseph Pearce

    This and many other questions raised by the recent British election are discussed in my latest article for the Imaginative Conservative:


  • May 24th, 2015When Shakespeare fought Stalinby Brendan D. King

    I have previously written and published an account of Boris Pasternak’s heroic decision to translate the works of William Shakespeare—a writer whom Joseph Stalin despised as “decadent”—into Russian during the Great Purge of the 1930’s. Since the publication of this article, however, a new piece of the puzzle has been brought to my attention.

    Early in 1948, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union decided to retaliate for Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech by ordering twenty of the USSR’s leading poets to compose verse on the theme “Down with the Warmongers! For a Lasting Peace and People’s Democracy!” Among them was Boris Pasternak, a poet every bit as admired in the West as in the Motherland.

    All twenty poets were to read their verse at the Moscow Polytechnic Museum, which possessed what was then the largest auditorium in the city. As Pasternak was to be reading, the whole auditorium was packed with an audience that squatted in the aisles and spilled outside. Among those present was British diplomat Max Hayward, from whom the following account derives.

    As the meeting opened, twenty poets trooped out on to the stage and took their seats facing the audience. Novelist Boris Gorbatov, who was to preside over the meeting, took his seat at a nearby table with a small bell before him. To the palpable disappointment of the audience, Pasternak’s chair remained empty.

    The first poet to read stepped up to the microphone and began to recite a poem which overtly demonized the Capitalist “Warmongers”, the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and, of course, Winston Churchill.

    As the first poet was almost finished with his reading, the audience burst into applause as Pasternak entered the stage from the wings. After motioning for the audience to calm down, Pasternak at last took his seat.

    As the other poets read their verse with visible discomfort, the audience squirmed while awaiting for Pasternak to be summoned to the microphone. When Gorbatov at last called his name, the audience went wild with applause, shouts, and cheers. When the audience finally managed to calm down, Pasternak announced, “Unfortunately, I have no poems on the theme of the evening, but I will read you some things I wrote before the war.” Again the audience erupted into cheers and applause. Meanwhile, Gorbatov’s bald head was suddenly drenched with sweat.

    Visibly enjoying his dangerous victory, Pasternak began to recite poems well known to the audience, followed each time by thunderous applause. At last, someone called out a request for Pasternak to read his translation of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66.

    As Pasternak began to oblige, a terrified Gorbatov began ringing his bell frantically, trying to call an intermission. At last he succeeded. Even so, the evening had been destroyed from the Party’s perspective.

    According to Max Hayward, anyone other than Pasternak would have been arrested and potentially shot for staging such a “political provocation”. But Stalin’s orders to “Leave this cloud-dweller in peace”, still held good. Pasternak not only outlived the dictator, but also continued to write his novel “Doctor Zhivago”, which he smuggled to Italy for publication and for which the world outside Russia now remembers him.

    Anyone who has read Hayward’s account of that poetry reading, however may be forgiven for wondering why a Shakespeare Sonnet was considered so subversive. The answer lies in its contents, which are a ringing indictment of the hypocrisy of all police states, and how they wilfullly degrade morality, culture, and the arts.

    “Sonnet 66.”

    By William Shakespeare.

    “Tir’d with all these, for restful death I cry,—

    As, to behold desert a beggar born,

    And needy nothing trimmed in jollity,

    And purest faith unhappily forsworn,

    And gilded honor shamefully misplac’d,

    And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,

    And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,

    And strength by limping sway disabled,

    And art made tongue-tied by authority,

    And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill,

    And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,

    And captive good attending captain ill:

    Tir’d with all these, from these I would be gone,

    Save that to die, I leave my love alone.”

  • May 23rd, 2015Strange Familiarity or Familiar Strangeness?by Dena Hunt

    It’s a matter of language, Pentecost is. People who’ve heard gibberish—in whatever context, maybe on a first trip abroad, where you land in a foreign country and everyone is speaking a language you don’t understand. You feel lost, even a little frightened, and you just hope you encounter somebody who speaks English. You do find an English-speaker, of course, and the experience passes, but for a moment there, or maybe as long as ten minutes or more, you felt like a helpless child. And then you hear your “native tongue,” and the moment passes, a forgotten unpleasantness. If this has happened to you, maybe more than once, then the experience of strangeness is familiar to you; it’s a familiar strangeness.

    Pentecost is the opposite of that. It’s a strange familiarity. You know yourself to be part of the world around you, the same shape and texture as everyone else, the same hue and volume and tone. You are part of this place, bonded to it; it is “home.” Pentecost is a language that visits you—briefly, very briefly, for only a nanosecond, maybe—but in that space and time, you hear it and recognize it. Perhaps you hear it in music, in a morning breeze, a single line of poetry or perhaps in silence. Whatever the context, it is always unexpected, uncontrolled, uncontrived—by you. It is strangely familiar; you know it better than you know anything in the world. In fact, it’s how you know that this is not your “home.” And all your bonds here are changed to fragile ribbons of mere affection. It is a moment when you really are home, the place where your native tongue is spoken.

  • May 21st, 2015A Healthy Trinity: Johnson on McGrath on Lewisby Joseph Pearce

    Paul Johnson is worthy of much respect; Alister McGrath warrants even more respect; and C. S. Lewis demands more respect than Johnson and McGrath put together. This being so, a book review by Paul Johnson of a book by Alister McGrath on C. S. Lewis simply has to be worth reading:


  • May 21st, 2015A Parable: In a Pickleby Kevin O'Brien

    I tried to lecture the Dirt Eater. "It's a disgusting habit," I said. "Eating dirt - which has no nutritional value, and some of the dirt you eat - straight from the manure pile! No wonder so many of you Dirt Eaters are malnourished and pick up various intestinal infections."

    "People who eat what you call real food get sick, too," the Dirt Eater responded. "You may die from eating a mushroom, but I will never die from eating the dirt around it."

    "But eating dirt is unhealthy! Dirt contains no calories, no nutrition," I countered.

    "I notice you're munching on a pickle," the Dirt Eater responded. "Pickles and cucumbers have no nutritional value. Zero. Why, then, is it wrong for me to eat dirt and right for you to eat a pickle?"

    "Salt!" I shouted, losing my temper. "Pickles are salty! Salt of the earth!"

    "Dust of the earth," he shot back, "mud and dirt. You Christians are no longer salt of the earth. You've lost your savor. You are fit only to be thrown out upon the ground, or the manure pile - and eaten by us Dirt Eaters. Mmm! Manure! Tasty!"

    I flinched.

    "Who are you to judge?!" he shot back. He picked up a wad of mud and shoved it in his face, chewing, swallowing, belching.

    How was I to answer him? After all, I like cucumbers on my salad.


    2 Macabees 15:1-5

    When Nicanor heard that Judas and his men were in the region of Samaria, he made plans to attack them with complete safety on the day of rest. And when the Jews who were compelled to follow him said, “Do not destroy so savagely and barbarously, but show respect for the day which he who sees all things has honored and hallowed above other days,” the thrice-accursed wretch asked if there were a sovereign in heaven who had commanded the keeping of the sabbath day. And when they declared, “It is the living Lord himself, the Sovereign in heaven, who ordered us to observe the seventh day,” he replied, “And I am a sovereign also, on earth, and I command you to take up arms and finish the king’s business.”


    The reading from 2 Maccabees is an example of Univocity. At least I think it is, as I'm trying to figure out what Univoicty means. The mistake Nicanor makes is in thinking that he is on the same standing with God, that he differs from God in degree but not in kind. "God is a sovereign, and I am a sovereign too. Therefore, I can act like God." Eric Voegelin calls this type of thinking Gnostic, seeing the God of all things as another object in the same category of all objects about you. There is a nominalist tinge to this, the implication that all things are separate and on equal footing, there are no transcendent realities, no varying degrees of substance, no hierarchy other than mere power.

    But here's the question that Nicanor would answer wrongly, and that almost every Catholic - including the Devout ones - would answer wrongly.

    In the example from Maccabees, the Jews urge Nicanor not to attack on the Sabbath. "Why?" he asks.

    "Because God made the Sabbath holy, and God rules us," they reply.

    "I am a ruler and I rule you. Therefore I can unmake the holiness of the Sabbath in the same way that God made it," Nicanor answers.

    The Jews know this is a blasphemous answer, but they are apparently at a loss to articulate why.

    So here's the obvious question.

    Did God make the Sabbath holy as an arbitrary rule, a rule religious people are bound to follow but that irreligious people are free to flout?

    Or is there something in the nature of reality itself, something in the very design of nature, something in our bodies and in our souls and in the world around us that expresses the Sabbath Mystery? For that matter, what is the Sabbath Mystery? The book of Hebrews in the New Testament is a fairly long attempt to answer that question. But Hebrews does not address the underlying question, "Is the Sabbath built into reality? Or is it imposed upon reality?"

    In other words, "Is the Sabbath an organic expression of the deepest part of our natures and our destinies? Or is it a whim forced upon us by a God who wills that stores not sell liquor one day a week?"


    For that matter, why is eating a cucumber (pickled or not) accepted by society and eating dirt, mud and human feces shunned by society? Why are we neutral to one and disgusted by the other? Is this mere cultural conditioning? In both cases there is no nutritional value. If you can eat the cucumber that grows in the earth, why can you not eat the earth in which it grows?

    And when a gay rights activist says, "If sex must make babies, then why is it right for an infertile couple to have sex but wrong for two gay men to have sex? In neither case can babies be made, but you Catholics condemn the one and condone the other," even Devout Catholics hesitate to reply. We might rush to the Catholic Answers web site, to help unpack the Rules - and Catholic Answers, for all the good they do, sometimes plays into this mindset: answer the question by explaining the Rules. But if there is a God, can we not make and unmake rules in the same way He can - at a whim?

    Nicanor would answer this question one way. Jews and Christians would answer the question another. In fact, Muslims and Calvinists would tend to answer Nicanor's way and Catholics and Jews who know their Faith would tend to answer another.

    For Nicanor, for Muslims and for many Protestants (and, sadly, for many confused Catholics), God is Univocal with Man, there is no Degree built into nature, words represent only disparate things and not the intellectually and spiritual perceived realities that underlie and unite them, and God differs from Man only insofar as He has a bigger stick. Muslims and Calvinists respect that stick and in humility obey God. Nicanor and his secularist friends do not respect that stick and so they see no need to obey God. In fact, Nicanor and his ilk (i.e., pretty much everybody in the world) simply use their own big sticks the way God uses His, smashing and remaking the world as they see fit.


    This problem, then, is this. Even Devout Catholics having lost their savor, having become salt without taste, indistinguishable from the rest of society, their Masses lame and uninspiring, their teaching confused and defensive, their ability to evangelize cut off at the ankles.

    And this problem comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of reality, and therefore a fundamental misunderstanding of God.

  • May 19th, 2015My Graduation Address at Aquinas Collegeby Joseph Pearce

    I was honoured to be invited to give this year's graduation address at Aquinas College in Nashville. The full address, a little over fifteen minutes in length, can be heard here:


  • May 19th, 2015Beginning the Beguine with Socratesby Daniel J. Heisey

    In Plato’s Apology, Socrates says that in his search for wisdom he consulted poets.  If today someone were on a Socratic quest for wisdom, seeking out poets might not be on that person’s list.  For the average person these days, poetry tends to mean something syrupy inside a greeting card, hardly to be taken seriously when asking how to live a good life.  As for abstruse modern poems, the kind with complex ambiguity that clamors for attention and acclaim, they fall short as well.

    A poet works within a long literary tradition, but the poet’s allusions and metaphors must be instantly, even instinctively, understood by the reader.  A poem needing scholarly footnotes has lost its immediacy, as well as its intelligibility.  That an ancient poem could need such critical apparatus is easily accepted; that a new poem would be made deliberately obscure and in need of academic commentary is easily annoying.

    For Socrates and his Greek-speaking contemporaries in the fourth century B. C., poetry meant a disciplined, metrical use of language in order to convey deep truths about what it means to be human.  While conveying those truths, the poems were expected to entertain and engage an audience.  So, what Socrates had in mind were the epic poems of Homer and the plays and lyrics of other ancient Greeks, works then known to everyone.

    As part of popular culture, those poems were meant to be read or recited aloud, sometimes at drinking parties, and most of them were meant to be sung or chanted.  In any culture, song is easier to recall than prose, and ancient peoples had vast stores of music and poetry beating through their memories.  The same fact holds true for humans today, as our imagined latter-day Socrates would find out.

    In our day, although there are recordings on compact disc of talented actors reading poems by, for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot, the equivalent popular poetic literature is known more for who performed those poems than who wrote them.  Thus the equivalent would be the ballads sung by the likes of Jo Stafford and Vera Lynn, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin.  It is a living tradition, kept alive by singers such as Harry Connick, Jr., and Tony DeSare, and groups like the Manhattan Transfer and OC Times.

    In his pursuit of wisdom, a modern Socrates would listen to the lyric poems composed (if not recorded) a few generations ago.  He may well lend an ear also to more recent fare, but distinguishing every word of such lyrics is not always easy or edifying.  Here it is worth recalling Charlton Heston standing up in 1992 at a shareholders meeting of Time Warner and reading out the words of a particularly controversial rap song.  When the chairman of the meeting cut him off and told him that such vulgar and violent language was inappropriate, Heston asked, “Then why are we selling it?”

    In any case, it will not be surprising if in a few decades a history of the twentieth century’s English-language poetry will spend more time on the lyric verse of Cole Porter than on the dream songs of John Berryman.  Johnny Mercer and Irving Berlin will likely get more notice than Allen Ginsberg.  If this speculation turns out to be correct, consider some lines of what such a literary historian would chronicle and what our hypothetical new Socrates would hear:

    “I’m with you once more/Under the stars,/And down by the shore/An orchestra’s playing,/And even the palms/Seem to be swaying,/When they begin the beguine.”  In those lines anyone can see at once the scene of two lovers and the waves and the music.  Mentally entering into that image will open up a lot of truth about romance, if not love.

    “Somewhere, beyond the sea,/She’s there watching for me./If I could fly like birds on high,/Then straight to her arms/I’d go sailing.”  Separation and longing, flying birds and sailing ships:  here are themes and images accessible to all.  Even the most land-locked of us can appreciate such maritime evocations.  Socratic interrogation of these word pictures would echo the question found in the lyrics of one Dame Vera Lynn’s big hits:  “Was that a dream or was it true?”

    “Fly the ocean in a silver plane,/See the jungle when it’s wet with rain./Just remember, till you’re home again,/You belong to me.”  Here again we find the theme of lovers who are apart and wish they were re-united.  Also, we encounter anew the images of travel and the tropics, all suffused with amorous desire for fidelity and being together.

    In Chapter 5 of The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton wrote that a poet “worships the peak of a particular mountain, not the abstract idea of altitude.”  As Socrates understood, poets must evoke elemental desires of the human heart.  From the first time man gaped at what Homer called “rosy-fingered dawn,” poets have evoked those desires and conjured images from within the audience, appealing to basic realities we all can know, from beneath the palms and under the moon to beyond the sea.

    True, most of us might not know what a beguine is or how to begin one, but everyone can grasp what it means for it to bring back the sound of music so tender, a tune making lovers remember.  Whereas a rapper might repeat vivid phrases about violating girls or killing cops, an old-style crooner assures his beloved, “I’d sacrifice anything, come what might,/For the sake of having you near.”  Given those two diverging outlooks, the implications for the development of society could not be more stark, something worth reflecting upon during this centennial year of Frank Sinatra’s birth.

    The men who wrote the lines of what has been called the Great American Songbook are the abiding poets of our culture, and the men and women who have recorded them are our troubadours.  Snobbery may lead some people to deplore those songs as cheap and the singers as merely popular, but that same attitude forgets that Socrates sought truth in popular poems.  While Sammy Cahn was not Sophocles, long after Ezra Pound’s cantos have been forgotten, people will still turn to these lyrics and these interpretations to articulate the hope that their waiting lover stands on golden sands, and still beg for the love that was once a fire to remain an ember.

    Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

  • May 18th, 2015Distributism is Alive and Wellby Joseph Pearce

    I'm delighted to see that my old friend, Father Fessio, is at the vanguard of a successful distributist endeavor in his native California. Inspired by Catholic Social Teaching and the distributist ideas of Chesterton and Belloc, Father Fessio's initiative is bearing great fruit. Read more here:


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