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Two Cheers for Curmudgeons

I first learned the word curmudgeon from Keith Yandel, my philosophy adviser at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. He may have been referring to Kant, although I have heard he was, at times, a funny (if not fun-loving) philosopher. The Oxford On-line Dictionary defines curmudgeon as:

A bad-tempered or surly person.

This captures the impatient, fussy, and even outraged tone of curmudgeonhood, but is constricted and unfair. A curmudgeon is not merely someone in a bad mood (although I have been in a bad mood since entering first grade). Thus, I offer this definition:

One undaunted by fashion and unwilling to accede to acedia or to coddle the complacent and who fears not being acerbic or humorous in so doing.

Being a philosopher and curmudgeon (my old blog was named, The Constructive Curmudgeon), I come to praise curmudgeons as well as to be curmudgeonly concerning curmudgeons.

My first cheer is that curmudgeons are not cowed by popular culture or received nostrums. They abhor “homo up-to-datum” (Daniel Borstein) and seek to shine unfashionable light on those blinded by digital darkness—even if it hurts their unfocused eyes. As Simone Weil wrote, “To be relevant, one must speak of eternal things.” Thus, “One undaunted by fashion and unwilling to accede to acedia or to coddle the complacent and who fears not being acerbic or humorous in so doing” (to quote myself), will, if needed, critique what is taken for granted today, such as PowerPoint, Wikipedia, Google, bad religion, and (always) television. At best, and rarely, a curmudgeon may be a prophet of sorts, speaking truth to power, prestige, and popular delusions. The canonical prophet, Amos, was in a divinely-inspired bad mood when he said this.

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!” (Amos 4:1).

And he goes on. High society fashion meant nothing to the caustic Amos.

Perhaps a curmudgeon, at her best, is a prophet without the prophetic mantle of revealed religion. I take Neil Postman—especially in Amusing Ourselves to Death—to have been to have been curmudgeonly prophetic in his secular analysis of the cultural implications of a world wired for instant information. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) was Christian social critic—and much more. He could be stern, but never bellicose. Perhaps he was a bit of a curmudgeon in his weariness with worldliness in the church and godlessness in the culture. He was prophetic, to be sure.

A second cheer wells up in my throat: curmudgeons are morally courageous in their critiques of commonplaces. Sticklers for grammar (prescriptivists), for instance, are pilloried as linguistic prigs and snobs and as reactionaries and rebels against the present and future by nearly-anything-goes descriptivists. Opponents abound, and may be uncivil. Grammarians are unbowed and perhaps even empowered by such jabs.

I may be stretching the definition too far, but Lynn Truss is a good-natured and funny curmudgeon concerning commas, semicolons, colons, and all things of punctuation. While reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves (notice the ambiguity caused by the omission of the Oxford comma), you learn much, laugh a lot, and want to imitate her way of being a stickler. She is a constructive curmudgeon.

More seriously, a curmudgeon may take on moral and cultural matters in order to unmask ethical pretense and posturing. There is none better than Os Guinness. Haddon Robinson, writing in Christianity Today, once called Guinness “a professional curmudgeon.” At the time, I was offended by this, since it seemed to label Guinness as a bit of a cultural and theological fussbudget. That, Os Guinness is not. While he does not bear fools gladly, he is kind if insistent, offering critique and constructive insights from a deeply biblical perspective. He is our greatest living Evangelical social critic and a man of deep conviction, talent, and courage.

The cheers stop at two. Some curmudgeons (including myself) need to hear a critique and a reprimand. While reading Robert Hartwell Fiske (d. 2016), who had penchant for rude titles, such as The Dimwit’s Dictionary, I discover both a sharp sense of grammar and style and a mean spirit. In Silence, Language, and Society: A Guide to Style, Meaning, Grace, and Compassion, Fiske shows little compassion on those he criticizes (or savages). He is frequently caustic and always unforgiving. He knows his enemies (all descriptivists and especially Merriam-Webster dictionaries, which are descriptivist) but does not try to make them his friends. As the Apostle Paul wrote (in the best of style), “love rejoices in the truth.” It cannot rejoice in falsehood or even in mediocrity of spirit in all its implications. But Paul begins his love definition in 1 Corinthians 13 by writing, “Love is patient and kind. It is not arrogant or boastful.” Curmudgeons can be patient and kind, even in their surliness, but only if that surliness (vis-à-vis Amos, John the Baptist, and Jesus) is sanctified in virtue.

Therefore, to all the curmudgeons who are undaunted by fashion, morally courageous, and critical without being cruel, I must shout out three cheers. But most of us get only two (at best). May God have mercy on all curmudgeons.

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