Merry Christmas!



Merry Christmas!


I hope you will enjoy the haunting beauty of “The Coventry Carol,” performed here by the Welsh Rhos Orpheus Male Voice Choir.



Beware the Self-Anointed Saint!


Beware the self-anointed saint, be he a global icon (such as Dr. Albert Schweitzer or Dr. Tom Dooley) acclaimed and venerated for his charitable works or a relatively unknown local figure who “lives to serve others.”

Whenever I hear of accolades heaped upon a so-called exemplar of “public service,” what I always want to know is this: how does he treat his family and the people close to him?

Although a public figure’s private behavior is usually obscured from public view, it is the private acts that define the person’s character.

Some of history’s most prominent public benefactors – Theodore Roosevelt leaps to mind – have been driven by personal demons to make grandiose compensatory public gestures at the expense of those to whom they owe primary responsibility.  The brilliant German novelist Hermann Hesse (1877 – 1962) illuminated this phenomenon in his Treatise on the Steppenwolf, a groundbreaking essay in which he asserted that some men with genius-level intelligence feel socially isolated and compelled or obliged, as “natural superiors,” to work for the improvement of society.

If a person generally regarded as a walking saint is unkind to his wife or neglects his children, his public “good deeds,” such as they may be, not only pale into insignificance but also, by contrast with his private failings, become grotesque parodies of true goodness.

One notable recent example of the self-anointed saint was an American physician who, having already donated his right kidney, sought publically to donate his left.

So far as I know, his family’s understandable outrage ultimately prevented him from sacrificing their well-being as well as his life.  (Reductio ad absurdum.)

As I mentioned in my recent essay ‘“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility,’ contemporary Western culture assigns charity toward strangers greater importance than it accords the proper treatment of one’s own family.  One can see this in the relatively new community-service requirements high school students must satisfy in order to qualify for honor societies.  Such requirements penalize good students who have family obligations – whether for the care of relatives or for contributions to work in a family farm or business – and explicitly reward students who neglect their families in favor of strangers.

I think it would be better to give young people a timeless, empowering, and socially constructive message: take care of yourself and your family first.

Charity begins at home.


Quotes for Today

“But how shall we expect charity towards others, when we are uncharitable to ourselves?” – Sir Thomas Browne, 1642

“No matter how fast you run, you can never run away from yourself!” – Aldo Vanucci (Peter Sellers) in After the Fox (screenwriters: Neil Simon and Cesare Zavattini)



This is the fourth in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes.  My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’  The second was “Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility.‘ The third was “Reflections on Apology, Forgiveness, and Clarity of Thought.”

Reflections on Apology, Forgiveness, and Clarity of Thought

TROTPS The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

Raise your hand if you will join with family to celebrate a holiday sometime this month.

If only all such gatherings could be harmonious!

In consideration of the fact that even in this season of hope and light old and new grievances are likely to touch the lives of many of us, I would like to say a few words about two phenomena whose manifestations in popular culture have become unmoored in recent decades from their classical meanings: apology and forgiveness.



Since I cannot claim to be an expert in either etymology or semantics, I would like to base my definition of “apology” upon common sense.

I think an apology ought to be a genuine and heartfelt statement of remorse for a specific action expressed directly by the individual offending party to the injured party.

The following are not apologies.

“I’m sorry if you were offended.”

This is not a statement of remorse for one’s behavior.  It is at best a statement of regret about the injured party’s sensitivity.

“I’m sorry if you were hurt by anything I did.” 

This is too general to be an expression of genuine remorse for a specific bad act.

Also, an apology ought to begin with “I’m sorry that…” – which is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing – rather than, “I’m sorry if…” – which is a dodge.

“I’m sorry that you see things that way.”

This is at best a backhanded swipe at the injured party’s point of view.

“I’m sorry for that bad thing that somebody else did.”

Person A cannot apologize for the actions of Person B, because Person A is not responsible for Person B’s decisions.

Such a perversion of apology, the likes of which politicians are known to indulge in from time to time, is a meretricious act of self-aggrandizement and hubris.

Person A can express regret – along the lines of, “It’s too bad that Person B did that bad thing.”  One can legitimately apologize, though, for only those acts for which one is personally responsible.

“We’re sorry for this bad stuff that the group of us did.”

I do not believe in collective responsibility or collective guilt.  Each individual – even each individual in a large body of wrongdoers such as Nazi Germany – bears responsibility for only his or her own acts (or failures to act).


Ideally, an apology is conducted person to person – face to face, by phone, or via written word – in a form such as this.

“I am sorry that I did X.  It was wrong, and I regret having done it.”

An expression of contrition cannot undo the wrong, but it is a necessary step toward remediation.



What is forgiveness?  I see it as the clearing of a debt.

To me, “I forgive you,” means, “I release you from any obligation to make further restitution to me for your wrongdoing, and I commit the memory of that wrongdoing to the archives of history, where after sufficient time has passed it will probably be forgotten.”

Note my use of the phrase, “further restitution.”  It makes no sense to me to forgive someone who has never expressed remorse for wrongdoing and never attempted to make amends.

As I see it, forgiveness requires that the offender acknowledge wrongdoing, express contrition, and make restitution.  Only after completion of these three steps is forgiveness healthy, or even practically possible.

“Wait!” you might say, “What if an apology isn’t forthcoming?  What if apology and restitution are impossible?  Do you contend that in such a case the injured party should nurture his or her grievances in perpetuity, effectively prolonging and exacerbating the injury, rather than issuing forgiveness unbidden?”

Definitely not.

I would never suggest that an injured party do anything to compound his or her injury.

I am very much in favor of letting go of grievances – i.e., refusing to allocate to grievances space in one’s psyche.

But one cannot forgive someone who has not acknowledged wrongdoing or asked to be forgiven.  To do so would indeed compound one’s suffering, because of the implicit lie.

Contemporary Western culture tends to pervert the concept of apology and to pressure the aggrieved individual to “forgive” in the absence of legitimate apology and restitution.  It seems to me that recent semantic changes serve to deprive individuals of personal responsibility and autonomy.

Life is so much easier – and much more fun – when things make sense.


Quote for Today

A vocabulary of truth and simplicity will be of service throughout your life. – Winston Churchill


This is the third in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes.  My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’  The second was, ‘“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility.



Musical Offerings for the Yuletide Season

IMG_0023 For me, a principal joy of the Christmas season is its emphasis upon beauty – exquisite decorations and lights, gastronomic delicacies, enticing aromas, the holidays’ uplifting message of hope, and an abundance of ethereally beautiful music. Today I would like to recommend for you some of my holiday musical favorites in a variety of genres.  (Each recommendation is an anthology.  Most likely, the collections’ constituents are available individually as MP3s.)

Medieval, Renaissance, and Tudor Music

The plainchant of Medieval Christmas music and the polyphonic cascades of the Renaissance can serve as transcendently peaceful backdrops for even the most hectic hours of the holiday season.  This oldest of Christmas music offers an inspiring testament to the power of the Christmas story.  Sublimely beautiful melodies date from a time when life was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Christus Natus Est (Chant for Advent and Christmas), Monks of Abbey of Liguge One of several Latin chant recordings created specifically for Christmas, this anthology does a masterful job of setting the tone for the season. Christmas Music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe, The Sixteen If you buy only one collection of Medieval and Renaissance Christmas music, this offering from the The Sixteen might be your best bet.  It features flawless performances of English and continental European pieces dating from the 14th to 18th centuries.  Here is a live recording of one of the tracks, O Magnum Mysterium.

  Weihnachten, A German Christmas, Seattle Pro Musica There was a 13-month back order delay when this disc was initially released, and the product was worth the wait.  The CD features a mix of German and Latin carols recorded in the acoustical near perfection of an St. James Cathedral in Seattle. The Best of the Christmas Tradition, English Medieval Christmas Carols, The New York Pro Musica Antiqua This outstanding and timeless collection of Medieval carols, recorded in 1956, is unusual in that it features a countertenor – and a world-class countertenor at that.  The effect is mesmerizing. Puer Natus Est, Tudor Music for Advent & Christmas, Stile Antico From a highly talented British a cappella ensemble comes a collection of 16th century carols which includes this Ave Maria.
  Agnus Dei – Music of Inner Harmony This collection includes compositions from the 16th through the 19th centuries, as well as one breathtaking arrangement by early 20th-century composer Samuel Barber, performed by a choir of boys and men in the chapel of Oxford’s New College (thusly named since the college was founded in 1379). Here is the choir’s performance of Lux Aeterna, based on a melody by Edward Elgar.
  I strongly recommend the following long and spectacularly beautiful track, Miserere me, Deus.  In a remarkable feat of musical discipline, the choir maintains its pitch while performing a cappella for more than 13 minutes.

English Carols

England has a long tradition of Christmas carols arranged for either choirs of boys and men or (more recently) mixed choirs of men and women.  Many of the most virtuosic performers in this genre are affiliated with the college chapels at Cambridge University.  Here are some of my favorites. Carols from Trinity, The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge This collection of 56 tracks features skillful musical arrangements and outstanding performances of classic favorites, including many popular in the U.S.  If you were to buy only one collection of English carols, I would recommend this one. Here is A Great and Mighty Wonder, more familarly known as Es Ist Ein Ros’ Entsprungen, one of the innovative arrangements included in the Trinity College collection (albeit performed by their friendly rivals at King’s College).

  Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity, The Cambridge Singers This collection includes the rare Adam Lay y Bounden, which is not only a beautiful carol but also a delightful elucidation of Medieval logic, to wit: “It’s a good thing that Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, because if he hadn’t sinned, there would have been no need for Our Lady Mary.”  Here is Adam Lay y Bounden, performed again by the King’s College choir.
  Christmas Carols from King’s College, Cambridge Late in the afternoon on every Christmas Eve, King’s College in Cambridge broadcasts from its spectacular chapel a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.  Listening to the Festival live on the radio during a late breakfast is a Christmas Eve tradition at my house. This CD offers many of the Festival’s most popular carols recorded by the chapel choir. An especially magical aspect of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols takes place in its first moments.  The show opens with a processional to Once in Royal David’s City, which begins with a solo boy soprano.  Every year the choir director tells three or four boys to be ready to sing the solo.  At the very last second, the director points to one boy.  The chosen boy stands and in the silence of the chapel begins to sing. Here is the Festival’s opening from 2013.

German Carols

The world’s most famous boy choristers, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, have produced several Christmas albums. The Little Drummer Boy, Christmas Favorites by the World Renowned Vienna Boys’ Choir This collection includes some English-language favorites interspersed among German classics. Christmas in Vienna, Vienna Boys’ Choir All of the carols in this collection are in German.  Here the boys sing Still, Still, Still.

Welsh Carols

Music, and specifically singing, has traditionally played a central role in Welsh civic culture.  Many towns in Wales have men’s choirs that perform in both English and Welsh. A Welsh men’s choir produces a uniquely beautiful and deep sound. A Welsh Male Voice Choir Christmas This two-disc collection offers many traditional English and American favorites in English as well as several carols in Welsh. Here is the Llanelli Male Choir singing O Holy Night.  (Listen especially for the basses!)

    Carols and Christmas Songs, Bryn Terfel The best-known Welsh opera singer is the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.  This is his Christmas collection.

Traditional American Songs and Carols

Rocky Mountain Christmas, John Denver In the 1970s, the late John Denver released this wonderful collection, which was one of my family’s favorites when I was growing up.  It includes American classics such as The Christmas Song and Silver Bells and several less-well-known carols, such as Christmas for Cowboys.

  White Christmas, Bing Crosby Although Bing Crosby never knew the benefits of digital technology, his recordings of Christmas carols are engaging, sentimental fun.  His rendition of White Christmas is the best-selling record of all time.

Other Treats

The Nutcracker Tchaikovsky‘s atmospheric score for his most famous ballet, The Nutcracker, enhances any Christmas music collection.   This recording by the London Symphony is especially good. Christmas Album, The Canadian Brass Traditional Christmas carols…clever, upbeat arrangements…virtuosic performances by a brass quintet…Look no further than this collection for excellent holiday party music.

Quote for Today

Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life. – Ludwig van Beethoven

“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility


My favorite aspect of the Thanksgiving holiday is its celebration of gratitude.  In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

Gratitude is a natural and positive human emotion.  Expression of gratitude promotes health, happiness, and social harmony.

Of late, and especially since the release of the 2000 film Pay it Forward, the idea of “paying it forward” – repayment of a debt to a third party rather than to one’s true creditor – has taken hold in popular culture.

I would like to argue that “paying it forward” is an illogical and immoral misdirection of gratitude that shortchanges both creditor and debtor.  Here is a story to illustrate that point.


Jane and Stephanie are longtime friends.  They have stood up in each other’s weddings.  They share confidences.  They socialize frequently, and over the past several years they and their families have enjoyed celebrating holidays together.

Jane’s father’s health suddenly fails.  His illness requires Jane to fly on short notice across the country and to be away from home for three weeks.  During Jane’s absence, Stephanie hosts Jane’s two children for four overnights and ferries them to and from two midday dental appointments.  Stephanie and her husband drive first Jane and later Jane’s husband and children to the airport for transcontinental flights.  Throughout the ordeal, Stephanie makes herself available to speak to her friend by phone at any time day or night.  Jane calls Stephanie for support at least once a day during her absence.

After three weeks, Jane and her family return home and resume a normal routine.  Because of the support from Stephanie, Jane has navigated her family’s crisis smoothly.

A week passes.  Stephanie sees Jane from a distance on occasion – at the grocery store, at the bank – but Jane does not call.  Stephanie attributes Jane’s silence to grief.

A second week passes.  Jane calls to invite Stephanie out for lunch.  Stephanie accepts.

As they linger over coffee, Stephanie finally speaks her mind. “I’m puzzled, Jane, and frankly a little hurt.  You haven’t said a word to me about all I did for you and your children when you were with your dad.”

Jane stares back in surprise. “I paid it forward, Steph.  I’ve been running errands for my friend Amber, who’s recovering from surgery.  I figured that would balance the books.”


Why did Jane not express gratitude to Stephanie for her friendship and support at a difficult time?

(One might similarly ask why Stephanie was surprised.  How could Stephanie have been Jane’s close friend for years without having recognized Jane’s ingratitude?  By way of answer, I will observe that the human capacity for self-delusion is considerable.)

The social compact under whose terms all of us operate, consciously or otherwise, is based upon enlightened self-interest and an implicit expectation of reasonable recompense for our efforts.  Stephanie’s shock and disappointment at Jane’s failure to acknowledge her kindness and at Jane’s having resorted instead to “paying it forward” is completely understandable.

“Paying it forward” has been hailed as a virtue by some arbiters of popular culture, as though charity to strangers lies on a higher moral plane than the proper treatment of friends and family.  In effect, the “pay it forward” movement is a cynical attempt on the part of contemporary social engineers to circumvent the natural and appropriate expression of gratitude.

One might ask why.

The only way to truly balance the books between a debtor and a creditor is for the debtor to acknowledge the debt and repay it.  For a debt of gratitude, the appropriate response – and indeed the only response that feels right to both debtor and creditor – is a direct expression of thanks.

“Paying it forward” by doing good deeds for others is no repayment at all.


Quote for Today

There is no such thing as gratitude unexpressed.  If it is unexpressed, it is plain, old-fashioned ingratitude.  – Robert Brault


This is the second in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes.  My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’

Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak


‘Tis the season for giving!

‘Tis also the season for the omnipresence of a phrase which has become one of my linguistic pet peeves: “giving back.”

Not long ago, conversational English accurately characterized a charitable act as “giving.”  Increasingly in recent years, we have been told by the self-appointed monitors of public discourse that such manifestations of generosity are not “giving,” after all, but “giving back.”  Though only four letters separate “giving” from “giving back,” there is a vast moral difference between the two terms.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb infinitive to give as to freely transfer the possession of something to someone. defines to give back as to return something, as to its owner; to restore.

To describe a charitable act as “giving back” is to imply that the giver must initially have taken or received something.  Thus, supplanting the word “giving” with the phrase “giving back” is a seditious linguistic conceit that transmogrifies a generous act of charity into an obligatory act of recompense, simultaneously robbing the individual of his freedom of choice and stripping the charitable act its inherent nobility.

We all know of powerful figures, always politically well-connected, who amass fortunes by acquiring property of others through extortion, cronyism, or other extra-legal activity.  Probably everyone reading this post can summon up the names of a handful of such “takers.”  It is important to note, though, that very few of us fall into that infamous category.

Some might point out everyone in a community benefits from its social overhead capital, e.g., streets, sanitation systems, public transportation, and public utilities, and therefore owes society something in return.  However, since everyone in a community contributes to the upkeep of those facilities, I would contend that average citizens are not net “takers.”

Most people build wealth over lifetimes of work and investment.  To characterize the charitable activities of productive members of society as “giving back” is to suggest that a hard-working citizen must overcome an innate social debt akin to a secular Original Sin.  One might profitably muse upon the motivations behind this semantic adulteration of a time-honored concept.

I hereby propose that there be an informal grace period for December of 2014 wherein every act of charity, every freely-offered donation, every kind gesture, and every expression of generosity is tacitly accorded its traditional and appropriate honor as an act of GIVING.

Quote for Today

“I am not in the giving vein to-day.” – The King to his hapless and ultimately doomed creditor, the Duke of Buckingham, in a scenario in which “giving back” was manifestly called for!  (William Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act IV, Scene II)