Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Its Time Is the For-Ever

The Communion of Saints
by George Boole

When the light of day declineth,
And the fields in shadow lie,
And the dewy Hesper shineth
Fairest in the western sky,
Visions in the twilight rise,
Night unseals the spirit's eyes.

Then the dead, in thought arriving,
From the far-off regions bright,
Seem to aid our earnest striving
For the holy and the right;
Even they who sailed before
O'er this ocean to that shore.

Yes, the dead of all the nations
Who, in patient hope and sure,
Laboured in their generations
For the Lovely and the Pure;
Heavenly sympathizing yield
To their followers in the field.

Seeker after Truth's deep fountain,
Delver in the soul's deep mine,
Toiler up the rugged mountain
To the upper Light Divine,
Think, beyond the stars there be
Who have toiled and wrought like thee.

Good is even as its Giver,
As the Universal light,
And its time is the For-Ever,
And its space the Infinite;
As a linkèd chain of gold
All the world it shall enfold.

Also found in Mary Everest Boole's Symbolical Methods of Study. A very Siris-relevant poem, too, since Siris is named after the "linkèd chain of gold".

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

'The Bandwagon of My Own Uncertainty'

The poet Taylor Mali questions the habitual question-tone in his poem, "Totally like whatever, you know?":

The Mencius, Book III

Book III.A (Teng Wen Gong I)

The focus of Book III is on affairs along the border between Qi and Chu, particularly the realm of Teng, and understanding something about this little kingdom is valuable for understanding the philosophical arguments of this section of the Mengzi. The ruler of Teng who is of importance is Duke Wen; we met him in Book I (I.B.13-15), where he already gives some of the background.

Teng was immediately to the east and north of Song, which is why it's easy for Duke Wen (before he has ascended to become Duke Wen) to get advice from Master Meng residing in Song. It was also just south of Lu, of which it was often a vassal, and (if I am not mistaken amidst all the many border changes in this period) the also-tiny state of Zou, which was also often a vassal state of Lu and was where Mencius himself was born. It was located where the current city of Tengzhou, once its capital, is located; in fact, the entire ancient kingdom would easily fit within the jurisdiction of the modern city. Duke Wen inherited what is perhaps the single most unfortunate situation in the period: a tiny kingdom with a tiny population surrounded on almost all sides by more powerful neighbors, and, in particular, right at the border of political and military influence between two especially aggressive opposing kingdoms, Qi and Chu. In Book I.B, Duke Wen asks Mencius whether he should throw his lot in with Qi or Chu, and Mencius concedes the near-impossibility of finding an adequate answer to that particular question. Teng, then, provides some of the hardest questions of the day for political philosophy and statesmanship. Another significant fact about Teng is that it was the birthplace of the philosopher Mozi; it is thus unsurprising that we find a bit of interaction between Mencius and Mohist philosophers here.

III.A opens with a succession of episodes with regard to Duke Wen: his meeting with Mencius prior to ascending the throne, his consultation with Mencius on his father's funeral arrangement and the success he achieved in following Mencius's advice, and then a discussion of how a king should handle the economics of his kingdom. To be constant, the people need means of support, so working to make sure that they have it is a major and immediate priority. One of the policies that Master Meng discusses is the ching-field system. This is sometimes translated as 'well-field', because ching means 'well', but the system has nothing to do with wells. The reason it is called the ching-field system is due not to the meaning of the word ching, but to the fact that the Chinese character for it is two strokes crossed by two strokes -- in other words, it looks very similar to our hash, #. The ching-field system, therefore, divides an area into nine fields. The center field will belong to the state, the eight outer fields to various families; the center field will be cared for by the eight families together. This system provides a continual stream of revenue for the state, but much more importantly, it encourages cooperation among the people. In order to fulfill their responsibilities and keep their fields, people need to know their neighbors and find ways to work with them: "If those who own land within each ching befriend one another both at home and abroad, help each other to keep watch, and succour each other in illness, they will live in love and harmony" (III.A.3).

This part ends with Mencius's interaction with Mohists and Mohist-inspired philosophical movements in the region. Xu Xing preaches a philosophy of simplicity; according to tradition, he was the student of a student of Mozi, so he seems to be taking Master Moh's emphasis on simplicity to an extreme. The Mengzi says that he proclaimed the teachings of Shen Nong, the legendary creator of agriculture, so it's rural simplicity in particular that he advocates. A couple of Confucians, Chen Xiang and his brother Xin, convert to his teachings, and the former criticizes the economic policies of Duke Wen, and thus implicitly criticizes Mencius himself, whom we have just encountered giving Duke Wen economic advice. According to Xu Xing, the prince should farm along with the people and support himself by that means instead of filling up granaries by collecting from the people. You will note that this is not consistent with the ching-field system. Mencius points out that Xu Xing does not make everything himself; he must trade for most of it. And ruling an Empire is not an exception to this need for division of labor. He gives the example of the ancient hero-kings of China, who were involved in incessant projects for the good of their people. In addition, he sharply criticizes Chen Xiang himself for deviating from his Confucian teacher in order to follow "the southern barbarian with the twittering tongue, who condemns the way of the Former Kings" (III.A.4). Chen Xiang protests that the way of Xu Xing will restore honesty to the economic system by making everything equal, but Master Meng insists that it is this very fact that shows the intrinsic tendency of the policy to cultivate dishonest practices:

That things are unequal is part of their nature. Some are worth twice or five times, ten or a hundred times, even a thousand and ten thousand times, more than others. If you reduce them to the same level, it will only bring confusion to the Empire. If a roughly finished shoe sells at the same price as a finely finished one, who would make the latter? If we follow the way of Hsü Tzu, we will be showing one another teh way to being dishonest. How can one govern a state in this way?

In III.A.5, Mencius crosses arguments with the Mohist Yi Zhi over funeral practices for one's parents. The Mohists are big on simplicity and frugality, but Yi Zhi himself departed from this in giving his parents a lavish funeral. The rest of the passage is relatively obscure, and the exact interpretation somewhat disputed. Yi Zhi responds by appealing to the Confucian principle that the ancient kings did well because they cared for people as if they were caring for a newborn baby, and argues that it suggests not the Confucian doctrine of gradations of love but the Mohist doctrine of universal love. This is an argument of some potential bite, since, as we saw in Book II, Mencius's own argument for the rootedness of virtue in human nature was that we all will have compassion for a baby in danger.

It's unclear how it responds to the point about the funeral, but here is a rough possibility (partly suggested by Kwong-loi Shun's "Mencius' Criticism of Mohism: An Analysis of "Meng Tzu" 3A: 5", Philosophy East and West, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Apr., 1991), pp. 203-214, although I am simplifying the idea somewhat and glossing over nuances): Yi Zhi is arguing that lavish funerals are in fact (contrary to what one would expect from Mozi himself) consistent with the Mohist principle of universal love, which itself is the root of the Mohist critique of lavish funerals. In particular, the problem Mohists have with lavish funerals when they criticize them is not merely that they are lavish but that they are so in a way harmful to the good of society, because they violate the Mohist principle of universal love. If one approaches the funerals the right way, as a stepping-stone to acting with universal love, there is no real inconsistency. The Confucians, on this view, are actually guilty of the inconsistency, because they recognize that we would all protect a baby, and that the hero-kings were righteous because they protected the people as one would protect a baby, and they take the hero-kings to be exemplars for behavior, but they wish to combine all of these things with a principle of gradations in love, when they really show the importance of equality in love. Mencius replies in turn that while we would all protect a baby, this does not mean that we love all children equally. The one impulse of compassion will apply to all babies, but it will naturally apply even more to family members and so forth. There is no need for the balancing act of guiding our natural expression of affection for our parents according to Mohist universal principles that do not derive from this affection, as suggested by Yi Zhi; the whole of one's treatment of people flows from one properly cultivated source. Why have a lavish funeral for one's parents in particular? Because our compassion does have special regard for our parents, as can be seen if we reflect on what happens if sons see their parents' corpses rotting in the sun.

Book III.B (Teng Wen Gong II)

At the beginning of III.B, Mencius reiterates against several suggestions by various figures, probably his students, that the proper motive for action, including Mencius's own teaching, is not profit; one must act according to principle, and not be deflected from it by purported benefits. He also corrects the mistake (III.B.4) of thinking that the moral person can never benefit for his work, because benefits should be apportioned to the actual achieving of good, not according to whether people were aiming to be benefited. We continue with advice for the situations in between Qi and Chu, particularly for the kingdom of Song.

III.B.9, however, is particularly interesting. Gong Du notes that other schools regard Master Meng as particularly disputatious, and asks why. Mencius replies by giving an account of his entire approach. He does not argue because he wants to do so, but because he is forced to do so by the situation. He does not live in a time of sage-kings and heroes, but in a period of degeneration, in which all sorts of aberrant and dangerous philosophical movements are springing up:

The teachings current in the Empire are those of either the school of Yang or the school of Mo. Yang advocates everyone for himself which amounts to a denial of one's prince; Mo advocates love without discrimination, which amounts to a denial of one's father. To ignore one's father on the one hand, and one's prince on the other, is to be no different from the beasts.

We know very little about Yang, beyond a story, common to several sources, that he said he would refuse the throne of the Empire if it required harming even a hair on his head, and so cannot measure how accurate Mencius's assessment is. But it seems clear enough from what Mencius does say that, from his perspective, Yang and Mo are in one sense opposites -- Yang holds that one must focus on one's self and Mo holds that one must regard everyone equally -- but they both share the notion that our moral life is to be governed by some kind of benefit or profit. Against this Mencius is advocating the teaching of Confucius, which can form a middle way because it does not build on the notion of profit or benefit, but on the more fundamental principles of human nature. This teaching is not a mere abstract or academic pursuit; it shows the way to be moral and human, and a society in which this is not cultivated is a society in which men will turn on each other like beasts, a state, in other words, of some form of civil war. This is the reason for Master Meng's emphasis on argument:

The Duke of Chou wanted to punish those who ignored father and prince. I, too, wish to follow in the footsteps of the three sages in rectifying the hearts of men, laying heresies to rest, opposing extreme action, and banishing excessive views. I am not fond of disputation. I have no alternative. Whoever can, with words, combat Yang and Mo is a true disciple of the sages.

The last section, III.B.10, is perhaps an illustration of this, because he criticizes rather sharply a man he otherwise respects, because of the extremeness of his views and actions.

to be continued

Monday, July 27, 2015

Finite of Sense and Infinite of Thought

To the Number Three
by George Boole

When the great Maker, on Creation bent,
Thee from thy brethren chose, and framed by thee
The world to sense revealed, yet left it free
To those whose intellectual gaze intent
Behind the veil phenomenal is sent
Space diverse, systems manifold to see
Revealed by thought alone; was it that we
In whose mysterious spirits thus are blent
Finite of sense and Infinite of thought,
Should feel how vast, how little is our store;
As yon excelling arch with orbs deep-fraught
To the light wave that dies along the shore;
That from our weakness and our strength may rise
One worship unto Him the Only Wise.

This poem by Boole was published in Mary Everest Boole's Symbolical Methods of Study (1884), which also has several others. This is an interesting and difficult poem to interpret; Boole was a Unitarian (he is said to have considered converting to Judaism at one point), and it is possible that there is an implicit criticism of the doctrine of the Trinity here -- notice that we are "finite of sense and infinite of thought", and thus capable of rising above the world of sense, but the number three is specifically said to be the frame on the basis of which the "world to sense revealed" is framed. But it's also the case that Boole was not particularly dogmatic, so it's not clear that this is part of the intention. In any case, the poem is explicitly about higher-dimensional mathematics: three dimensions frame the world of sense, but the human mind is capable of thinking of more. Very similar themes and ideas are found later, long after Boole's death, in Edwin Abbott Abbott's Flatland (1884) and in the work of Charles Hinton (who married Boole's daughter).

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Virtues of Taste

Tina Baceski in a relatively recent article in Hume Studies has a nice summary of the Humean account of aesthetic judgment:

To summarize: An art critic possesses delicate sentiment, a quick and accurate perception of beauty. Delicacy comes through being practiced in the sense of having repeatedly experienced a certain kind of art as well as having repeatedly experienced the particular artwork judged. Experience facilitates the comparison of different works so that the critic acquires knowledge of the potential kind and range of qualities of those works. Moreover, a critic is free of prejudice that interferes with his adopting the right point of view. Finally, a critic has good sense: he employs his reason to overcome his prejudices, to make fine-grained distinctions among aesthetic properties, and to discern "complicated relations." This helps to ensure that his perception is discriminating and that his responses to art are appropriate. Together, these characteristics--the virtues of taste--distinguish accomplished art critics from persons of ordinary aesthetic sensibilities.
[Tina Baceski, "Hume on Art Critics, Wise Men, and the Virtues of Taste", Hume Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2 (2013) p. 245.]

I've summarized Hume's account of good taste in these terms before:

(1) a broad base of relevant experience, so you can make informed comparisons;
(2) relevant skills of discernment, i.e., the acquired ability to identify important moves, novel twists, and the like;
(3) good sense, understood as the self-critical fairmindedness that allows us to be objective and unbiased.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

None 'Neath Sky so Rich as I

My Riches
by Emily Tolman

Mine is the gold of sunset,
The glory of the dawn,
The splendid star that shines afar,
The dew-bejewelled lawn.

Mine are the pearls and opals
That fall from wayside spring,
The silvery notes from thrushes' throats
Through woodland aisles that ring.

Mine is the rare embroidery
Of lichen on the wall,
The airy grace of fair fern-lace,
Meet for a prince's hall.

Softer than Persian carpet
The moss beneath my feet,
In dewy dells, where floral bells
Toll out their perfume sweet.

Banks cannot hold my treasure;
It needs no lock nor key;
None 'neath the sky so rich as I,
Who hold the world in fee.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Music on My Mind

Johanna Kurkela, "Kuolevainen". 'Kuolevainen' means 'mortal'; you can find lyrics and translation here.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Cedar of Lebanon

Today is the Feast of St. Sharbel Makhlouf (1828-1898); he is commemorated by Maronites on the third Sunday of July (his properly Maronite commemoration) and on the 23rd (his commemoration according to Rome's general calendar), and which of the two is emphasized more seems to vary according to the Maronite parish. As it happens, I was at a Maronite liturgy both last Saturday evening for the Vigil and today at two different Maronite churches, so I caught both commemorations.

St. Sharbel, or Charbel, was the son of a mule-driver who used to sneak away to pray at the monastery of St. Maron in Annaya, Lebanon. He eventually became a Lebanese Maronite monk there, but after some time there he decided to go further and become a hermit (this requires special permission, which he received). He was a hermit for twenty-three years, and gained a widespread reputation for hospitality and holiness.


Cedars grow tall on Liban hills,
life rooted deeper than human will;
flame is bright over muddy grave
of a hermit-saint who hid his face;
the heart is kissed by burning light
as cedar soars to sun and sky,
is charged with day without a night,
and burns but is not burned.

Thursday Virtue: Moderatio Exteriorum Motuum

There is no good English translation for the Latin word modestia. Indeed, it is difficult to explain what it is in the first place. It suggests moderation, but not all kinds of moderation are modestia; perhaps the best way to think of it is as moderation in how one presents oneself externally.

In his influential work, De Officiis, Ambrose of Milan argues that modestia is one of the most important duties/responsibilities (officiis) of youth; he takes it to be the restraint of oneself in word and action, giving as examples chastity, humility, sobriety, silence, and the like. One of the kinds of modestia he notes is that concerned with gesture and gait of body:

Modesty must further be guarded in our very movements and gestures and gait. For the condition of the mind is often seen in the attitude of the body. For this reason the hidden man of our heart (our inner self) is considered to be either frivolous, boastful, or boisterous, or, on the other hand, steady, firm, pure, and dependable. Thus the movement of the body is a sort of voice of the soul.

Since there is an intimate relation between our bodies and our souls, there is a relationship between our outward movement and our character, with the former serving as a sign of the latter. Ambrose is rather brutal in his assessment; he gives specific examples of people he has known who showed their arrogance or faithlessness in how they walked and moved their hands. One of the Ambrose's concerns is our tendency to posture and preen, to treat our body as if it were a way to manipulate other people. Another is that our lack of priorities often shows up in how we move -- our hastiness, our self-importance, our lack of respect for ourselves and our position. Our movements should be simple and plain, appropriate to our situation and our station, communicating the spiritual beauty of our characters through the natural ease and dignity of our use of our bodies. Conceit and deceit, arrogance and artifice, are especially to be avoided.

Aquinas follows Ambrose in accepting that there must be such a virtue (2-2.168.1), again, because denying that morality includes this sort of thing in its scope is to falsify the relationship between soul and body. Morality is concerned with the direction of action by reason; and our physical movements are directions capable of being directed by reason. Thus there is a virtue of moving rationally. It is a subjective part (particular kind) of modestia, which is a potential part (close cousin) of temperance -- the difference being that temperance, the more important virtue, is concerned with internal matters.

There are two things we need to keep in mind in order to achieve this modestia of movement: we need to make our movements appropriate to the people with whom we deal (including ourselves), and we need to make our movements appropriate to the situation in which we find ourselves. Thus Aquinas identifies two elements to this moderation of external movements: ornatus, which concerns the former, and bona ordinatio, which concerns the latter. (He gets the terms from Andronicus of Rhodes.)

This all might sound a bit odd as a matter of ethics, and again, we have no actual word in English to describe the virtue in question. However, a little thought shows that there must be something to it. One of our most basic notions of 'good behavior' consists entirely in the kind of moderation of physical movement covered by good behavior. We see this especially in how we train children, but we occasionally express the same sort of approval and disapproval in how we regard adults, and our annoyance and social penalizing of jostlers, those who invade people's personal space or take up more room than they need to, those who rush around, those who flail wildly, those who cannot keep their hands to themselves. And it is unsurprising, really: how we move is one of our forms of communication, and we get exasperated at people who move in such ways that they act as if they were the only person who mattered, or as if they were trying to dominate others or the situation. Like Ambrose, most people recognize that you can move in ways that force others to adapt and that communicate exactly the wrong things; and, like Ambrose, most people get exasperated at the kinds of outward movements suggestive of arrogance or pretense. Nobody, whether Ambrose or Aquinas or anyone else, considers the virtue in question to be among the most important virtues; but that there is something about moral life involved can hardly be put into question.

Bringing Starry Wisdom Down

The Fellowship of the Dead
by George Boole

Fellowship of spirits bright,
Crowned with laurel, clad with light,
From what labours are ye sped,
By what common impulse led,
With what deep remembrance bound,
'Mid the mighty concourse round,
That ye thus together stand,
An inseparable band?

Mortal! well hast thou divined
What the chains that strongest bind;
For the free unfettered soul
Bows to no enforced control;
Sympathy of feelings shared,
Deeds achieved, and perils dared,
These to spirits are—beyond
Time and place—the noblest bond.

All who felt the sacred flame
Rising at oppression's name,
All who toiled for equal laws.
All who loved the righteous cause,
All whose world-embracing span
Bound them to each brother man
Are upon the spirit-coast
An indissoluble host.

All who with a pure intent
Were on Nature's knowledge bent.
Watched the comet's wheeling flight,
Traced the subtle web of light,
And the wide dominion saw
Of the universal law.
In this land of souls agree
With a deep-felt sympathy.

All that to the love of truth
Gave the fervour of their youth.
Then for others spread the store
Of their rich and studious lore,
Bringing starry wisdom down
To the peasant and the clown.
Are with us in spirit-land,
An inseparable band.

Whether they were known to fame,
Whether silence wrapt their name,
Whether dwellers in the strife
Or the still and cloistered life;
If with pure and humble thought
For the good alone they wrought.
When the earthly life is done,
In the heavenly they are one.

And their souls together twine
In a fellowship divine,
And they see the ages roll
Onward to their destined goal,
Dark with shadows of the past,
Till the morning come at last.
And an Eden bloom again
For the weary sons of men.

This George Boole is the George Boole, best known for his work on differential equations and on algebraic logic. Boole, who was a mostly self-taught polymath, was an avid reader of poetry and occasionally wrote it for relaxation. This particular poem was published well after George Boole's death, in Mary Everest Boole's The Message of Psychic Science to the World (which was privately printed in a small run in 1883 but published for general readership in 1908).