flores et radices

A Commonplace Blog

The medieval word "florilegium" comes from "flores," flowers, and "legere," which means both "to gather" and "to read." Florilegia gathered short extracts from longer works in a handy format for use in writing and preaching. In later centuries, readers often kept "commonplace books," recording ideas and passages as they read. This is a commonplace blog—a highly personalized account of what happened to catch my fancy—but I'm keeping the older name, because I love the image of quotations and citations as a bouquet of flowers.

The English word "radical" comes from the Latin "radix," or root. We often think of the radical as brand-new, a rupture in history, rejecting all that has come before. I believe, in contrast, that the best way forward is usually back, returning to the first origins and natures of things and recovering wisdom refined by long tradition. As a Christian scholar, I'm seeking ways of thinking and living that are radical in both senses—extremely countercultural and deeply faithful to the roots of reality.


Time and again over the years I have seen idealistic young scholars-in-training say, “Oh, I don’t really believe all that stuff they try to inculcate you with in grad school; I’ll just learn the language and use it until I get my PhD, and then I’ll be free to be myself.” But then “until I get my PhD” becomes “until I get a job”; and then “until I get tenure”; and then “until I get promoted to full professor.” Sooner or later — and often sooner — the face becomes indistinguishable from the mask. And this kind of gradual transformation of personal sensibility happens in a thousand different ways, in a thousand different cultural locations.

So a key question arises: If you need people who are sufficiently skilled in negotiating the liberal order to work effectively within it, but also committed to its transformation, and who can sustain that difficult balance over decades, you have to figure out how to form such people. And it is just this that the churches of the West — all the churches of the West — have neglected to do, have neglected even to attempt. With the (in retrospect quite obvious) result: the accelerating collapse of participation in church life.

What is required, in the face of a general culture that through its command of every communications medium catechizes so effectively, is the construction of a powerful counter-catechesis.

Alan Jacobs, https://blog.ayjay.org/dare-to-make-a-daniel/


  • I don't have anything smart to say here. This is THE problem, my job is to help solve it (specifically in the academic context), and my experience in graduate school has given me only a terrifying sense of the strength of secular formation, not good ideas about how to construct counter-catechesis. CCS sometimes feels like not much more than a hope that if we gather Christian academics together, they can encourage and advise each other and maybe generate some strategies for academic counter-catechesis for us to implement.

  • My experience in graduate school did allow me to learn something real about the effectiveness and insidiousness of disciplinary formation, but even that knowledge seems useless because I can't convey it. Every time I talk with a young person considering graduate school or in the early years of graduate school, I try to warn that person: "The present-day university runs on the exploitation of labor through an affective structure of cruel optimism. It will teach you that there is only one way to live the good life and that all other outcomes are failures in order to manipulate you for its own ends." "In graduate school, you will find your values, norms, and goals changing against your will and without your conscious awareness, even if you are warned about this danger and intend to resist it." "Graduate school systematically generates and exacerbates mental illness." "Academic success is an idol that will eat you alive." I feel like Cassandra raving; they can understand what I'm saying, but it doesn't seem real to them. All those who go into the gambling hall think they will be the lucky ones who beat the house and profit from a system designed to exploit them. All those who go to graduate school think that they are the smart ones (why not? they've always been the smart ones before) who can work the system for their own ends without being transformed by it.

  • This problem really drives home the inadequacy of critique. Even the most clear-sighted, accurate, and explanatorily powerful critique of an oppressive system will not change the system or give participants power to effectively resist it from within. Critique is at most a diagnosis that prompts us to act: to leave the corrupt system (secede, abstain) in search of alternative institutions, or to engage in radical reform and active resistance through practices and institutions of counter-formation. If critique is perceived as useful and worthy in its own right, it can be detrimental to its cause. Just as social media pseudo-actions like liking a tweet or changing a profile picture may sap the will for in-person activism, critique allows people to believe that they are doing important work through a form of intellectual engagement that is relatively easy and free of risk, compared to making new culture or advancing constructive proposals that others will critique in turn.

"(Unlicensed extension of someone's thought is another name for "literary tradition.")"

Philip Christman, https://philipchristman.substack.com/p/the-tourist-volume-147?s=r

"Lollai, lollai, litil child"

The version on the right is lightly modernized, retaining at least slant rhyme, with an eye towards singability. The choral settings on YouTube are lovely but not suitable for actually singing to children, so I'm working on my own tune.

Lollai, lollai, litil child, whi wepistou so sore?

Nedis mostou wepe, hit was iyarkid the yore

Euer to lib in sorow, and sich and mourne euere,

As thin eldren did er this while hi aliues wore.

Lollai, lollai, litil child, child lolai, lullow.

Into vncuth world incommen so ertow.

Bestis and thos foules, the fisses in the flode,

And euch schef aliues imakid of bone and blode,

Whan hi commith to the world hi doth ham silf sum gode;

Al bot the wrech brol that is of Adamis blode.

Lollai, lollai, litil child, to kar ertou bemette;

Thou nost noght this worldis wild before the is isette.

Child, if betidith that thou ssalt thriue and the,

Thench thou were ifostred vp thi moder kne.

Euer hab mund in thi hert of thos thinges thre:

Whan thou commist, what thou art and what ssal com of the.

Lollai, lollai, litil child, child lollai, lollai,

With sorow thou com into this world, with sorow ssalt wend awai.

Ne tristou to this world, hit is thi ful vo.

The rich he makith pouer, the pore rich also;

Hit turneth wo to wel and ek wel to wo.

Ne trist no man to this world, whil hit turnith so.

Lollai, lollai, litil child, thi fote is in the whele.

Thou nost whoder turne to wo other wele.

Child, thou ert a pilgrim in wikidnis ibor,

Thou wandrest in this fals world, thou loke the bifor.

Deth ssal com with a blast vte of a well dim horre

Adamis kin dun to cast, him silf hath ido befor.

Lollai, lollai, litil child, so wo the worth Adam

In the lond of paradis, throgh wikidnes of Satan.

Child, thou nert a pilgrim bot an vncuthe gist,

Thi dawes beth itold, thi iurneis beth icast;

Whoder thou salt wend north or est,

Deth the sal betide with bitter bale in brest.

Lollai, lollai, litil child, this wo Adam the wroght,

Whan he of the appil ete and Eue hit him betacht.

Lollai, lollai, little child, why weepest thou so sore?

Needest must thou weep, it was fated thee yore

Ever to live in sorrow, and sigh and mourn ever,

As thine elders did ere this while they living were.

Lollai, lollai, little child, child lolai, lullow.

Into an uncouth world icommen so art thou.

Beasts and wild birds, the fishes in the flood,

And each thing alive maked of bone and blood,

When they come into the world they do themselves some good;

All but the poor wretch that is of Adam's blood.

Lollai, lollai, little child, to care art thou bemette;

Thou knowst not this world's wild before thee is ysette.

Child, if it should be that thou shalt thrive and the,

Think thou were yfostered upon thy mother's knee.

Ever have mind in thy heart of those things three:

Whence thou comest, what thou art and what shall come of thee.

Lollai, lollai, little child, child lullay, lullay,

With sorrow camst into this world, with sorrow shalt wend away.

Ne trust thou to this world, it is thy full woe.

The rich he maketh poor, the poor rich also;

It turneth woe to wele and also wele to woe.

Ne trust no man to this world, while it turneth so.

Lollai, lollai, little child, thy foot is in the wheel.

Thou knowst not if it turn to woe or to wele.

Child, thou art a pilgrim in wickedness ybore,

Thou wandrest in this false world, thou look thee before.

Death shall come with blast out of a well dim horre

Adam's kin down to cast, as he hath done before.

Lollai, lollai, little child, so wrought the woe Adam

In the land of paradise, through wicked Satan.

Child, thou art a pilgrim and an uncouth guest,

Thy days to come ytold, thy journeys been ycast;

Wherever thou shalt wend, whether north or east,

Death thee shall betide with bitter bale in breast.

Lollai, lollai, little child, this woe Adam thee wroght,

When he of the apple ate and Eve it him betaught.

A Warning to Academics

"But I aspire to teach others," you say. Yours is not to teach but to weep. If, however, you desire to be the learned teacher, hear what you shall do. The inexpensiveness of your dress and the simplicity expressed in your countenance, the innocence of your life and the holiness of your behavior ought to teach men. You teach better by fleeing the world than by following after it. But perhaps you persist, saying, "Well, what then? If I want to, may I not learn, at least?" I have told you above: "Study, but do not be preoccupied with it." Study can be a practice for you; it is not your objective.

Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon 5.8; found in Jerome Taylor, Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), p. 131.

The Role of the Teacher in Tradition

The reader was assigned the task of interpreting the text, but also had to discover, in and through his or her reading of those texts, that they in turn interpret the reader. What the reader, as thus interpreted by the texts, has to learn about him or herself is that it is only the self as transformed through and by the reading of the texts which will be capable of reading the texts aright. So the reader, like any learner within a craft tradition, encounters apparent paradox at the outset, a Christian version of the paradox of Plato's Meno: it seems that only by learning what the texts have to teach can he or she come to read those texts aright, but also that only by reading them aright can he or she learn what the texts have to teach.

The person in this predicament requires two things: a teacher and an obedient trust that what the teacher, interpreting the text, declares to be good reasons for transforming oneself into a different kind of person—and thus a different kind of reader—will turn out to be genuinely good reasons in the light afforded by that understanding of the texts which becomes available only to the transformed self. The intending reader has to have inculcated into him or herself certain attitudes and dispositions, certain virtues, before he or she can know why these are to be accounted virtues. So a prerational reordering of the self has to occur before the reader can have an adequate standard by which to judge what is a good reason and what is not. And this reordering requires obedient trust, not only in the authority of this particular teacher, but in that of the whole tradition of interpretative commentary into which that teacher had had earlier him or herself to be initiated through his or her reordering and conversion.

Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry (1994), 82–3.


  • This summarizes so excellently the project we’re engaged in at the Center for Christianity and Scholarship. It is only scratching the surface to instruct students in certain Christian doctrines, or certain Christian responses to or conclusions about current events. What we want is to help students become certain kinds of people, and not only people who have internalized a body of knowledge about Christian doctrine, practice, and history, or who habitually refer questions about secular domains of life to scripture, the creeds, and the fathers, mothers, and doctors of the church, but people who have virtues like clarity, intellectual generosity and hospitality, and uncompromising love of truth, who are disposed to like and respect some things and dislike others on an aesthetic, in addition to rational, level.

  • What this passage highlights for me is the essential role of the teacher. As a teacher, you can deliver information that you just learned yourself the night before, but you can’t inculcate virtues that you do not yourself possess. When CCS recruits faculty to teach and mentor students, we’re placing so much trust in them—we want students to “catch” a Christian way of thinking from them, but young people may “catch” whatever strains of thinking and feeling their role models display, good or bad.

  • It’s also profoundly humbling for me as a teacher. Can I honestly put myself forward as someone who has been reordered, converted, disciplined by scripture and Christian tradition? To some extent yes; and yet I have also been reordered, converted, disciplined by the academic discipline of English and the institutions of elite academia, with their characteristic blindnesses and idolatries. Will I pass on to students a humble, receptive willingness to learn from the saints of ages past, or a nervous, self-conscious cleverness that always has something to say in seminar?

  • And here I fall back on the Great Books framing of the author as teacher, professor as mere facilitator. If old books of proven worth are front and center in the classroom, then the student has available as role models not just some nerd who happened to score a teaching gig, but some of the best that has ever been though and said; she can watch not just the process of me reading Augustine, but Augustine’s process of reading scripture. The flesh-and-blood teachers still need to be there, showing students that the tradition is not a dead object of study but a present project—but it is not our strength or our wisdom that will uphold it.

Critical Traditioning

“It is easy enough to discard one ideology and replace it with another one, a new idea-system devoid of any history. But what distinguishes a tradition from an ideology is just this sense of history. A tradition earns its authority through long rumination on the past. A living tradition is a potentially courageous form of shared consciousness, because a tradition, in contrast to an ideology, preserves (in some form) our mistakes, our atrocities, as well as our insights and moral victories. Moreover, with its habit of retention, a tradition preserves side by side the disagreements that are still unresolved in the present. So the price that must be paid by those who are (from a biblical perspective) privileged to live within a tradition, is accepting a high degree of inherent tension.”

Ellen F. Davis, “Critical Traditioning: Seeking an Inner Biblical Hermeneutic,” Anglican theological review 82, no. 4 (2000): 733-751. https://www-proquest-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/openview/6d0447b88236c0386a85ca5c5179d1b2/1/advanced


  • Of course, it is not easy to invent a new-idea system devoid of any history—in fact, it is impossible. “Radical” revolutionary movements often unknowingly reenact the past, or are, on closer examination, offshoots or heresies of older traditions that have been only superficially secularized (e.g. Marxism or “critical social justice” in relation to Christianity). It is easy to make the claim of a blank slate, fresh start, but impossible to escape genealogy.

  • The necessity of remembering a record of wrongs in order to move forward reminds me of Yes, We Have Noticed the Skulls.

  • Davis emphasizes disagreement, and it is very much a part of living within a tradition. But the different things to be held side by side need not only be unresolved disagreements or contradictions, but paradoxes in which both things are true and important, productive tensions between contrasting emphases that correct and supplement each other. Think e.g. the glory of man in the image of God and the depravity of man in the fall, the supreme oneness of God and the relationality of the Trinity, salvation by grace alone through faith and good works prepared for us to walk in. (GKC says it best—see *Orthodoxy*, chapter 6.)