Richard Dreyfuss to Susannah Black

July 2, 2015

All right, we’ll talk about theology. Since it suits you, and since it satisfies a years’-long anticipation of finally having this conversation, exploring my faith and yours– as long as we don’t get caught up so much in this that we overlook the smell of fire (and brimstone) that might force us to cut this discussion off for another, relatively safe day. You wrote:

Jefferson had a Greek word in his head when he wrote this: he knew his Aristotle, and he knew that “men everywhere, without exception, pursue happiness:” –eudaemonia, which means wellbeing, the whole and well-lived life of a virtuous man, who does good out of a good heart, does right for right reasons in the right way, and who is–crucially– capable both of citizenship and of the deep friendship which was at the root of citizenship in the Classical world. Such a man was a lover of wisdom– a philosopher– and he was pious.

You speak of a man, a city and God. I can work with that. The man, as you describe him, as you present the definition of eudaemonia, the well lived life of a virtuous man, is one who can express his virtues both in his private and public lives. That’s a handy picture of me and I expect you to a different extent; I am a man of known vices which I have discarded (except the sin of pride, perhaps) and felt virtues, and am both privately and publicly compelled.

The man you speak of lives in a City which is an attempt at a perfect realization of God’s invention’s invention, a way that real humans can eventually live expressing a just God’s wisdom, live as a human people sharing in essential virtues and customs but with separate traditions, positions that differ in their answers to these cosmic questions, but are all of equal depth…am I getting this right?

The allusion to City, to marriage and romantic love, are spot on, because this is the vocabulary of lived lives, not the perfection of Heaven insisted on by many who seek to pound into a specifically shaped hole all the varieties of man’s thoughts and beliefs.

City implies, to me, close contact among people; implies learned patience, the appreciation of others’ delightfulness, the attainment of a more mature, well-lived ability to be the parents we are often taught to be and fail to be; implies thinking things through and not sticking to wrong answers; implies being bigger than our temper tantrums… A City is not village, which you refer to as if in some sense it a valid choice when it is in reality yesterday’s picture of a Golden Age, sighed for as Jerusalem was sighed for in the Exile, but reachable by present day humanity only by and for bloody and ungenerous means and ends.

(Are we still friends?)

I think what I love about your mind is that you’ve had a spiritual revelatory experience and seek to find harmony for it within your reason, without bumps and without hammering at irregular bulges of thought. And so do I.

A man lives in a City, brought there at some point on a journey of maturity that contains the awareness of the spiritual and the human. Are we there yet? No. Can we get there in the time frame allowed us? That’s the question.

There was a movie made in the 70‘s about the Battle of Isandlwana, which was a disaster for the British against the Zulu. In the film there’s a by-the-rules quartermaster who insists on doling out rifles and ammunition according to a set pace, which is totally appropriate for training purposes but laughably inadequate to the momentum and tension of a battle, and he and the soldiers he is so carefully equipping are slaughtered.

I suppose it would have been nice for the quartermaster to have better trained soldiers, or still more, for him to have lifted his head and seen that the moment demanded an uptempo change in his behavior, but alas…

It seems to me that thinking about God’s desire for our perfection sometimes disregards the understanding that a wise God certainly feels that getting there is a journey of a trillion steps, thousands of opinions. Where are we all on that journey? Are we wise enough to know or feel how young we are, how new to us is the behavior is that imitates God’s perfection, how we must try to forgive ourselves our trespasses, in the belief that one day we will actually be able to stop trespassing, a hope that, I think, will take a million years or more to realize? Still, will not a patient God be more than happy to supply us with that time?

Aren’t we, Suze, in some way at a beginning, at the start of a long childhood that graduates into a bootcamp for Godhood, as is implied in so many sages’ thoughts when they speak of oneness with God? Isn’t it true that our path is strewn with apparently wise choices revealed as horrible mistakes, with hubris resembling rightness so well that we can’t distinguish between them until it ends in catastrophe?

And isn’t it, to bring it home a bit, progress to understand the realistic need for a house that will stand up to the winds of feelings that certainly have the shape of Faith but are demonic, so that we can continue to shape ourselves under the safety that sturdy house affords the seeking man among the sturdy houses of the Beautiful City?

Richard Dreyfuss to Susannah Black

July 5, 2015

If you haven’t, please read David Brooks’ piece about a ‘post Christian’ world; actually that’s an unfair tag. It’s in today’s Times. I would love to suggest to him that his proposal of a new paradigm lacks the obvious necessary ingredient of the strengthening of the secular house that protects us all; take a look.

Richard Dreyfuss to Susannah Black

July 5, 2015

I forgot to mention I’ve bought Chesterton…Where do I start?

Richard Dreyfuss to Susannah Black

July 6, 2015

Ron Rosenbaum is going to do an article partly about the civics initiative for Smithsonian. May I show him the correspondence as it stands? I’m meeting with him next Tuesday.

Susannah Black to Richard Dreyfuss

July 6, 2015

Of course! I don’t know him all that well– though I want to know him better– but I think he shares our interests & general nerdiness.

See you tomorrow at 21 for Dad’s book thing?



P.S. 1632 arrived in the mail today. Am very excited to start it.

Richard Dreyfuss to Susannah Black

July 7

The first book is geo-politics, and may too silly for you if you don’t like sci-fi, but the Grantville Gazettes that follow are all about normal people of faith, musicians, tavern keepers et al, adjusting to a new world….


Susannah Black to Richard Dreyfuss

July 7, 2015

  1. I love sci fi. And I started it last night & read more this morning & l love it.
  1. Oh and if Ron has any idea about what to do with this exchange, let me know…
  1. Your big response above I need more time to think about, but I read the David Brooks:

The thing is, he writes that we– we Christians or culture warriors or whatever– should: “[c]onsider putting aside, in the current climate, the culture war oriented around the sexual revolution,” and that we should focus on other problems: “We live,” he says,

in a society plagued by formlessness and radical flux, in which bonds, social structures and commitments are strained and frayed. Millions of kids live in stressed and fluid living arrangements. Many communities have suffered a loss of social capital. Many young people grow up in a sexual and social environment rendered barbaric because there are no common norms. Many adults hunger for meaning and goodness, but lack a spiritual vocabulary to think things through. Social conservatives could be the people who help reweave the sinews of society.

To which my only response is bafflement. “Well, YES, that’s what the big deal about the family is, that’s why we’re so hung up on sex,” is kind of what I want to say. It’s as though he’d said “All you right-wingers should stop harping on the dangers of Salafi jihadism and focus on solving the problem of terrorism.”

He mentions Robert P. George– and I can only second and third Brooks’ recommendation of George. I don’t completely agree with him on all points, but he is thoughtful and represents a version of the central tradition of Western philosophy– if you don’t understand the kinds of things George teaches, then if you read Locke or Lincoln it’s as though you’re coming in in the middle of a conversation that you are trying to make sense of without hearing the earlier parts.

George’s version of this tradition is slightly different than the medieval version, but it may– I’m not sure yet– actually be better. For a beginning with him, maybe listen to this speech he gave at a conference at Union University a couple of years ago… He covers the relationship between reason and revelation; what people of faith can share in the public sphere with those who don’t believe; what we can hope for from politics; what we mean by secularism and what the proper relationship is between the “religious” and “secular” dimensions of life.

Again, I don’t agree with him on every point– and I know I don’t understand what all the implications of his positions are, where they’re distinct from the classical versions of natural law teaching, although I’m thinking them through– but he is well worth any time you give him.

  1. Chesterton: Start with Orthodoxy, actually. I envy you the pleasure of reading it for the first time!
  1. Did you say in your email to Ron that you were getting tickets to Hamilton? You have to tell me how it is.
  1. Do Emily & Seth know boy or girl yet? Are they telling?

See you tonight!



Susannah Black to Richard Dreyfuss

July 7, 2015

This just happened: My friend Claire came by where I’m sitting in this coffeehouse– I see her almost every day. She’s 87 and spent her 16th, 17th and 18th birthdays in Auschwitz, which she survived because she was educated & the Gestapo needed clerks, so she worked in the office preparing fake death certificates for political prisoners (they didn’t bother doing fake death certificates for Jews, but for political prisoners they did.)

Then after she was released, she was able to get back to her village in Slovakia because she was blonde & didn’t look Jewish so she managed to pass among the retreating German soldiers, and she managed to dodge the Communists who apparently everyone was trying to avoid getting liberated by. She has some amazing stories.

Anyway, she passed by where I was sitting with my computer and said “Work, today, or pleasure?”

“Work,” I said, virtuously.

“But,” she said, placing her finger on the copy of 1632, “This is not work.” She GOT me. She looked at the cover carefully and said, “It’s about war?”

“It’s science fiction. Takes place in seventeenth century Germany, but there’s time travel.”

“I know this is science fiction. But there must be a basis in fact? The author has studied?”

“Yes, I think it’s quite well researched…”

“Seventeenth century. Maybe that was still the good Germany then,” she said. She loves the Germans, she has told me before: “if it weren’t for those Godforsaken Nazis.” The ones she really can’t forgive are the Slovaks, who turned her family over.

“This country,” she says to me: “I am grateful every day because I walk out and there are people of all colors and types and nobody wants to kill anybody. This is a great happiness to me.” But she also thinks that Americans have no common sense. She has, as of this morning, become a great grandmother for the second time, and her granddaughter and the baby’s father aren’t married. “They don’t believe in marriage,” she tells me. “Have you ever heard of such a thing?   It is crazy. This would never happen in Europe.”

I repeated the phrase she taught me last week: “Der liebe Gott hat einen großen Tiergarten:” “The dear Lord has a great big zoo.” Meaning, this is one crazy world. “Yes,” she said. “You see I have these phrases from my grandmother. She never went to University, but she was a Cohen.”

Wisdom from the priests for today, I guess…


Susannah Black received her BA from Amherst College and her MA from Boston University. Her work has been published in First Things, The Distributist Review, Front Porch Republic, Ethika Politika, and elsewhere; she is a founding editor of Solidarity Hall.  She blogs at and tweets at @suzania. A native Manhattanite, she is now living in Queens.

Richard Dreyfuss was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1947 and began his acting career at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center when he was eight years old. He began doing features in roles of size in the early 1970s in films such as American Graffiti, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Jaws. He won the Oscar in 1978 for his performance in The Goodbye Girl. He has been acting in American theatre, television and film for over 45 years. In his personal life, Dreyfuss has undertaken a nation-wide enterprise to encourage, revive, and enhance the teaching of civics in American schools. He has become a spokesperson on the issue of media informing policy, legislation, and public opinion, speaking and writing to promote privacy rights, freedom of speech, democracy, and individual accountability.


Image: Good Administration, Elihu Vedder, 1895. Library of Congress/Jefferson Building