Wednesday, May 04, 2016

State of Fermentation

Every man is conscious of a succession of thoughts which pass in his mind while he is awake, even when they are not excited by external objects.

The mind on this account may be compared to liquor in the state of fermentation. When it is not in this state, being once at rest, it remains at rest, until it is moved by some external impulse. But, in the state of fermentation, it has some cause of motion in itself, which, even if there is no impulse from without, suffers it not to be at rest a moment, but produces a constant motion and ebullition, while it continues to ferment.

Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, Essay IV, Chapter IV.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

A Quick Trip to Italy, Miscellanea II

Florence: Museo archeologico nazionale di Firenze

Ancient putti:

Egyptian mummy; alas, I had difficulty getting proper focus through the glass:

View from a window:

Florence: San Lorenzo

A couple of details from inside:

Another view of the tablet for Bl. Nicholas Steno:


We didn't stop there, but on the way to Pisa we passed through Pistoia, the City of Plants; it is one of the world's major exporters of decorative plants. It was rather surreal; everywhere you looked all the plants were lined up in rows, tiny little bushes marching in parallel ranks with great big trees.

The Miracles Square:

Details on the Cathedral:

Some more of the Tower:

The Pisan version of the Capitoline Wolf. The primary one is in Rome, of course. I never learned if there was any story behind a copy hanging around on a pillar in the Plaza of Miracles.

to be continued

Monday, May 02, 2016

Two Poem Drafts


How foolish the world, how foolish am I;
from mewling of the babe to hopes that must die,
from vagrant cloak to toppled crown.

This illness knows no cure, or so it seems,
this flu of hearts, pathology of dreams:
almost do we win, and so we are struck down.

No matter our plans, our paths are not sure;
prepare as we will, new grief we endure,
and, learn as we might, we still play the clown.

Ah, folly, how vast is your kingdom and reign,
extending through ages o'er mountain and plain!


The womb to tomb will swiftly lead;
by tomb from womb my soul is freed.

From birth to grave, what lives must die,
and, dying, soon to life draws nigh.

Champion of Orthodoxy

S.Athanasius by M.Damaskenos (late 16th c.)

Today is the feast of St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Doctor of the Church. From his work On the Incarnation (Chapter 7):

A man's personality actuates and quickens his whole body. If anyone said it was unsuitable for the man's power to be in the toe, he would be thought silly, because, while granting that a man penetrates and actuates the whole of his body, he denied his presence in the part. Similarly, no one who admits the presence of the Word of God in the universe as a whole should think it unsuitable for a single human body to be by Him actuated and enlightened.

Sullivan on Plato on Trump

I don't usually find Andrew Sullivan very interesting, but he has a remarkably good discussion of Plato and democracy up at

As this dystopian election campaign has unfolded, my mind keeps being tugged by a passage in Plato’s Republic. It has unsettled — even surprised — me from the moment I first read it in graduate school. The passage is from the part of the dialogue where Socrates and his friends are talking about the nature of different political systems, how they change over time, and how one can slowly evolve into another. And Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” What did Plato mean by that? Democracy, for him, I discovered, was a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”

He goes on at greater length. He gets Plato essentially right, and, what's more, does so on a point on which professional philosophers sometimes trip up due to prior assumptions; thus, whether one agrees with the lessons he draws or not (and there are here and there bits of the rather odd and gossipy quirks that come up whenever he talks politics), it's a commendable look at Plato and how his political philosophy reflects on our own political system.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Fortnightly Book, May 1

The next fortnightly book will be The Theban Plays of Sophocles, translated by David Slavitt.

Sophocles is said to have written about 120 plays during his lifetime. We have seven of them and various fragments of others. The three extant Theban plays are not a trilogy in the proper sense, but three distinct plays from three distinct periods of Sophocles' life -- Antigone is quite early, Oedipus Tyrannos (also known as Oedipus Rex) is somewhat later, and Oedipus at Colonus is from the very end of his life (such that it was only performed posthumously). There is also no attempt to maintain any consistency among them. An additional complication in reading is that while the composition order is Antigone - Oedipus Tyrannos - Oedipus at Colonus, the dramatic order is Oedipus Tyrannos - Oedipus at Colonus - Antigone. So there's always a question as to the order in which one reads them. I will be following the composition order because that is the one Slavitt uses.

The basic tale of the House of Laius is easy enough to grasp. Oedipus was born to Laius and Jocasta, but there was a prophecy that any son born to Laius would murder his father. Because of this, Oedipus's feet were bound together and he was taken to a place where he could die of exposure. A shepherd saves him, however, and takes him to the court of Polybus of Corinth and Merope, who raise him as his own. When he grows up, however, he hears a rumor that he is not the son of Polybus and Merope, and, just to be sure, asks the Delphic Oracle who his parents are. The Oracle tells him that he will mate with his mother and murder his father. Oedipus misinterprets this as the Oracle refusing to give him an answer, takes it to be claiming that he will kill Polybus and sleep with Merope, and thus flees Corinth so that such a prediction can never come true. Of course, the tragedy lies in that the Oracle did, in fact, precisely identify who his real mother and father were. On the road to Thebes, he meets a man in a chariot and, as men sometimes do, they get into a quarrel over who has the right of way. Oedipus kills the man and proceeds to Thebes. When he eventually gets to Thebes, he saves it from a terrible monster, the Sphinx, and is rewarded by being made king and marrying the now widowed queen. Of course, the man he killed was his father Laius and the woman he marries is his mother Jocasta, although he does not know it. After some time passes, a plague has begun to rage in Thebes, and Oedipus sends Creon, his brother-in-law, to the Delphic Oracle to determine why. It is here that Oedipus Tyrannos picks up.

I've read all the plays before, but not in this translation. I very much liked Slavitt's translation of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy; it's very colloquial and at times paraphrastic, but very nice for conveying the gist of the work. Thus when I saw this work on the dollar rack at Half Price Books a couple of weeks back, I thought I would try out the translation. He gives an account of his own ideas of how Sophocles should be translated here; Eva Brann, who knows whereof she speaks, has an interesting review of this particular translation here, noting its strengths and weaknesses. Somewhere I have Paul Roche's translation of the plays of Sophocles, so I might compare the two on occasion.

Maronite Year XLIV

In the Maronite calendar, all of the Sundays of the Season of Resurrection deal with the aftermath of the Resurrection, the first six with Jesus's appearances to his disciples after the Resurrection. The Sixth Sunday is no different, and like all of the prior Sundays except New Sunday repeats the Easter liturgy. However, the Sixth Sunday of the Resurrection also looks forward to the Ascension, which separates it from the Seventh Sunday of the Resurrection.

The first Sunday in May is also always the feast of Our Lady of Lebanon, Notre Dame du Liban. The feast was instituted in 1908 at the dedication of the major Lebanese national shrine to Our Lady of Lebanon, in Harissa, which had begun to be built to mark the Golden Jubilee of the definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.

Sixth Sunday of the Resurrection
Romans 10:1-13; Luke 24:36-48

By Your death, O Lord, we are reconciled with God;
being reconciled, we are saved by Your rising,
knowing the sure hope of life and resurrection,
nourished by Your great sacrament.

In hope of victory we fight the great battles;
in hope we prepare for the light beyond all light.
You are our hope, for You are our means and our end,
and we are drawn upward with You.

In stupor, in confusion, the apostles stared,
astounded by Your ascension to Your Father;
they returned to Jerusalem in great wonder,
pondering with an Easter faith.

Are You not the one who comes forth from Your Father;
are You not the one who returns to His right hand?
Do you not from there send the Spirit as a help,
and there prepare a place for us?

From faith in Your ascension comes great and pure love,
a heart that bursts with great fire to ascend on high,
a heart that in Spirit is with our great High Priest,
present by prayer, hoping for more.

You have ascended to be present with Your Church,
working through her and in her in Your mysteries;
by sacrament we participate Your priesthood,
as if heaven were brought to earth.

In hope, in greatest hope, we fulfill our duties;
through Your rising and ascending we are raised high,
preparing to enter the light of God's glory,
on the day we rise and ascend.

Our Lady of Lebanon
Hebrews 7:1-10; Matthew 12:46-50

Blessings are great upon you, O Lady,
for you had faith and did the will of God.
O Cedar of Lebanon, high-enthroned,
look on your children with guidance and love.

Beautiful you are, pure of heart;
no blemish can be found in you.
Come from Lebanon, beloved!
Come from Lebanon, O fair bride!

Pray for us that we may have faith like yours;
intercede that we may withstand great winds,
like cedars that do not bend in the storm
but fearlessly hope for returning sun.

Beautiful you are, pure of faith;
no blemish can be found in you.
Come from Lebanon, beloved!
Come from Lebanon, O fair bride!

Pray for us that we may hope in Your Son;
intercede that we may know His great joy,
believing well what your Son has revealed,
and loving with the love He has shown us.

Beautiful you are, pure of hope;
no blemish can be found in you.
Come from Lebanon, beloved!
Come from Lebanon, O fair bride!

Mother of the Church, pray that we might love:
that we might love the blessed Trinity,
and also love you as our fair mother,
and complete these with true love of neighbor.

Beautiful you are, pure of love;
no blemish can be found in you.
Come from Lebanon, beloved!
Come from Lebanon, O fair bride!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Dashed Off VII

martyrdom as an expression of docilitas (and thus of the gifts of the Spirit)

Greed is not love of gain; it is a grasping after merely apparent gain.

exemplarity as essential to understanding experimentation (planning of experiment, replication of experiment)

abstractions as having a causal role in communication

the right to have a stable order of law and justice

Sacraments are instituted for remedy, instruction, and practice (duty).

Matrimony is the sacrament to which law is essential.

The sacrament of matrimony looks back to Eden and forward to the New Jerusalem. Its matter is implicit in reason itself and its form is the work of grace; in the union of both it signifies glory.

Richard of St. Victor's argument for the Trinity is not from mere reason but is a reflection on the virtue of charity.

"The cause of spatiotemporal representations is nonsensible." (Kant CPR A 494/B 522)

moral law as exhibited in concreto in good character

representation as inherently practical/productive (union or conformity as the speculative/theoretical counterpart)

transitive, presential, and reflexive love

Time travel in science fiction is a pictorial representation of reflection on experienced time, as space travel is a pictorial representation of adapting to new experiences. (That is to say, one builds stories about these tropes by building on these already experienced activities of mind, and the tropes bear the impress of their origins.)

Bentham as an anti-Socrates

Appeal to 'brute facts' is always a rejection of parsimony.

iconoclasm as cultural/social/political die-off

the Decalogue as providing reference points for grave matter

three ecstasies of reason: prophecy, artistic inspiration, ardent love (each extends reason beyond its ordinary bounds)
- note that this supercharging of reason (intensified sympathy, concentration, pattern recognition, ingenuity) does not of itself guarantee that the principles used are right, and thus the need for insight and experience remains

arguments against free will // arguments for omne quod movetur
argumetns against omen guod movetur // arguments for free will
(the asymmetry arises not from structure of argument but from difference in generality)

Disease occurs in nature; it does not follow that it is natural to an animal that it be diseased.

State-focused socialism always devours worker-focused syndicalism.

Romantic comedy depends on the secrecies of sex.

epistles as presupposing or anticipating dialogue (one takes into account possible response, and any prior actual response)

social media as stuttered dialogue

the sign of the cross as the intersection of intercession and icon

icon as instrument of prayer & as instrument of doctrine

Scholarship requires abstract benevolence.

Confirmation carries forward the Messianic ministry in signs; its signs include good works and almsdeeds that signify Christ.

Peter & Paul as higher Romulus & Remus

most-promising-line-of-inquiry reasoning vs. no-alternative-line-of-inquiry reasoning

models // testimonies

Diogenes Laertius attributes to both Aristoxenus and Favorinus (DL 3.37, 3.57) the claim that most of Plato's Republic is ripped from Protagoras's Controversies (Antilogeia).

loci communes as superportable arguments (Cicero De Inventione 2.15.48)

eristic as mistaking product for skill (cf Aristotle)

contiguity, resemblance, and causation in ritual

friendship (love), self-giving, understanding (prudence), rectitude

deictics & empirical anchors in arguments

the Choice of Hercules as implicit in rhetoric

arguments for determinism // arguments for pantheism

Very often by our venial sins we contribute threads to a net making it difficult for others to break free from their mortal sins.

mortal sin, scandal, and cascade failure through populations

Human beings must be governed by symbols.

the transcendental conditions of homiletics, catechesis, and prayer

angels & divine catechesis
'Fear not' as a key element of catechesis

subsidiarity, solidarity, and peace as the governing principles of common good

The divine order is faithful to the truth in faith, built up in hope's justice, and animated by love.

Associations, like individuals, must be rendered their due.

constraints on cosmological study
(1) possibility horizon
(2) time horizon
(3) distance horizon
-- (1) arises from the fact that we have only one cosmos to work with and only limited tools to use in studying it

Hypothesis testing depends crucially on real evidence-conditioned possibilities.

All law suggests an ideal of citizenship.

the corpse as a reminiscence of the living body

Socratic method as a form of good counsel
advice as maieutic

Truth is the first precondition of reason.

the important difference between being an intrinsic and being an incidental means of oppression

Kant on incentives is actually very close to the right way to approach the fortitude of virtue (i.e., fortitude as a general property of virtue).

complex numbers // rotations // alternative possibilities

Socrates as philosophical Daedalus

Quality of work springs from the combination of skill and energetic endeavor.

True judgment with reason can be no more than a sign of knowledge.

Socrates' maieutic as a clue to what knowledge is

the notion of consenting under protest

the picturesque & natural history -- the 'frame' as a device for study and observation

Socrates doesn't say that Euthyphro's account of piety, to hosion, is wrong; he says that Euthyphro has given not the ousia of it but only a pathos of it.

All error well-argued is just incomplete truth, a part of a complex (error, diagnosis, and correction) that is true.

simultaneity as co-actuality (which is a way it often used to be understood) vs simultaneity as common measure

Apology-Crito-Phaedo as an account of piety

quod movetur as essential to the notion of experimention (which is always a moved being moved by movers)

elenchus as a protection of the rule of law

Snark, even when crafted rationally and for good reason, is not argument.

divine maternity as "the first principle of the nobility and dignity of Mary" (Lawrence of Brindisi)

"History has a way of resembling 'myth': partly because both are ultimately of the same stuff." Tolkien

valor may vanquish, or avail not

the permissible vs the expedient in liturgy

mood as a networking of signs

names as instruments for instruction
names as having dialectical appropriateness or inappropriateness (foundation of taxonomy)

Parenting is a lending of prudence.

"even the gods love play" (Cratylus 406c)

"self-deception is the worst thing of all" (Cratylus 428d)

The Cratylus argues that language is needed for serious inquiry, and able to be used for it, but that it is not the terminus of it.

penance as a drive to truth
penance as a restoration of symbolism

(1) Participation in the sacramental life of the Church is a precondition for participation in the sensus fidei, because sensus fidei is to participate the mind of Christ, who is sacramental Head of the Church.
(2) Participation in sensus fidei is according to sacramental character.
(3) The primary elements of participation in sensus fidei according to baptismal character are articulated in the creeds.
(4) Sensus fidei lies primarily in the living of a truly Christian life according to confirmational character, the specific characteristic of which is teachableness, in service of Christ, by the Holy Spirit working directly in the teaching of the Church and the guiding of intellect and will.
(5) Evaluation of authenticity of alleged facets of sensus fidei belongs to ordinational characer and particularly to the bishops in college, and of priests and deacons as instruments of bishops in college, because by orders they are the protection of the sacramental life of the Church.
(6) Sensus fidei is not private judgment but confidelity.

The Pope and bishops obviously have a temporal jurisdiction in that all who are baptized have an obligation to lend reasonable temporal assistance and protection to the sacraments, whose primary guardians are the bishops.

natural law as the expression of human dignity
the Decalogue as the expression of human vocation

the tutorial or pedagogical character of law
Of every law it should be asked, "What does it teach?"

the gifts of the Holy Spirit as forms of conversion

the Church as nomothetic for theological vocabulary

factors in conciliar authority
(1) ecumenical convocation
(2) papal cooperation
(3) catholicity of participation
(4) catholicity of relevance
(5) reception of Scripture and prior councils
(6) liturgical incorporation afterward
(7) freedom from external interference

There is no nonmagisterial Church, and no nonmagisterial part of the Church; different parts of the Church merely play different roles in the Church's teaching.

Sensus fidelium is not separable from theology and Magisterium.

The marks of an authentic council and the marks of the authentic Church are the same.

Tradition is the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Tradition reminds (Jn 14:26), bears witness (Jn 15:26), guides (Jn 16:13), and makes divine things known (Jn 16:15).

Consent of the governed cannot be taken to imply that the government has no genuine authority, nor that governance is an optional extra.

Sophistes as an argumetn for universes of discourse

the verbal & the physical action registers of ritual
-- standards establish the abstract form that is 'filled' -- thus one may have incomplete ritual -- and sometimes disrupted by errors
-- every participant has verbal and physical action registers
-- these person registers may conjoin and separate

consciousness as exhibiting more and less

The mean in art lies in the product's tending to its end rather than the choice.

Humility takes on extraordinary importance because it is the compliment moral virtue pays to theological virtue.

Plato's metaphilosophical dialogues

Each gospel is a unification of viewpoints.

baptism as the sacrament of personhood

marriage & the uplift of law into grace

ethical closure principles

trust-building activities in marriage and solidarity-building activities in liturgy

the intrinsic aspiration of inquiry and human vocation to God (cp Descartes)

the philosopher as a sign of possible harmony

loyalty, piety, propriety, and reciprocity as the lines of authority
ritual propriety & the exemplar influence of virtue
ritual as a language for teaching virtue

philosophy as a preparation for the reception of grace and, when such, already the work of grace

merit as recompense owed under common good

Sloppiness in legislation drains the authority and effectiveness of a legislature.

models (paradigmatic cases) as being to division what example is to induction as such
myths/likely stories as ways of checking divisions
cutting at the natural joint Phaedrus 265e1-3; Statesman 262a8-11

Statesman and the comparative value of particular metaphors (e.g., is statesmanship better characterized metaphorically by herding or by weaving)

hospitality to Christ in the sacraments

a divine legacy to replace the legacy of sin
-- needs to overcome sin and replace its legacy on ongoing basis

due measure between extremes as having a role in analogical reasoning

the production of fit analogies as a liberal art

Legal justice is the virtue directly concerned with common good as such.

The papacy is not a sacrament, of course, but it is an argument for protecting sacraments.

canons of good taste and common (i.e., non-idiosyncratic) beauty

to metrion, to prepon, to kairon, to deon

In moral debt, payment of the debt is generally symbolic (tokens of respect, etc.) rather than an actual complete exchange of specific good.

the problem of philosophy without pietas (which necessarily is already degenerating into sophistry)

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad


Opening Passage:

For months the great pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land was chatted about in the newspapers everywhere in America and discussed at countless firesides. It was a novelty in the way of excursions—its like had not been thought of before, and it compelled that interest which attractive novelties always command. It was to be a picnic on a gigantic scale. The participants in it, instead of freighting an ungainly steam ferry—boat with youth and beauty and pies and doughnuts, and paddling up some obscure creek to disembark upon a grassy lawn and wear themselves out with a long summer day's laborious frolicking under the impression that it was fun, were to sail away in a great steamship with flags flying and cannon pealing, and take a royal holiday beyond the broad ocean in many a strange clime and in many a land renowned in history!

Summary: The Innocents Abroad is an extremely varied and variable work, ranging from the fairly serious to the bitterly satirical to the lightly self-depreciating; it lampoons tourists and travel books but also at times stops a moment in wonder at the scene; it mixes enjoyment and impatience and boredom, sometimes in very quick succession. In this it is perhaps the travel book that most perfectly captures the impression of travel abroad as an experience. It is lopsided in how it handles it, due to Twain's tendency to the acidic and the acrid, but it shows more of the actual experience of travel than most travel books do.

The work is often quite biting, but even at its most acerbic it brings out two aspects of travel that both are major features of human nature and lead us often to make fools of ourselves: our passion for story and our taste for cashing this out physically. One of the constant satirical elements throughout the work is the often considerable disparity between places as described by people and places as actually experienced. Especially in the Holy Land, Twain mocks the descriptions given by the most travel books (often described or paraphrased under thinly veiled modifications of name, like 'Grimes' for William Cowper Prime). But there are many other manifestations of this. The tour guides always play up the importance of the place, to a point that is sometimes fantastic (the most hilarious cases of this in the book are in Genoa). More tellingly, travelers themselves filter their experience through the descriptions they have heard, so that instead of saying what they actually experienced, they simply repeat what other people have said the experience is (the most notorious case of this is in the attack on "Old Masters" before The Last Supper in Milan, for which Twain was rather sharply criticized on occasion, and the funniest is perhaps in Nazareth when different pilgrims keep coming up and describing the local women as 'Madonna-like').

There is not much point in going places just to be in other places. We travel in order to add things to the stories we tell about ourselves and to guarantee that our story will not be in quiet, boring isolation, but link up in various ways to stories we like to hear. Thus we tell stories -- fantastic ones if we cannot get historical ones -- about why this or that place is a place to be, or this or that thing is a thing to do. It is something we do everywhere, but it becomes obvious that it is being done when we are put in new situations, and when we come up against other people doing the same thing in ways that are unfamiliar to us. It is boring, and depressing, and oppressive, to be nowhere of significance for no reason of significance; but a local legend, however slight or however silly or however blatantly false, at least gives us material to work with. Twain is fairly good at recognizing this aspect, and it is the basis for some of the better humor of the book. He is aware that it doesn't really matter for the purposes of the travel that the story being told by the tour guide is just utterly and fabulously impossible, or so implausible as to strain any credibility, or even obviously a money trap for tourists, if it gives you something to tell a story about. Even if you think their story utterly ridiculous, it gives you the opportunity to tell a great story about how ridiculous it was. Even if you find it exasperating or irritating, you can turn evil to good later with jokes about how exasperating and irritating it was.

He is not so very good at recognizing that he is doing the same kind of thing. This is a bit odd, since hyperbole is a standard instrument in his repertoire, but he sometimes seems to lose track of the extent to which he is exaggerating. This is most obvious in the most bitter and biting parts of the book. Twain hates hypocrisy, and the bathos that it generates, and he has a taste for hunting it down without mercy. I suppose ruthless hypocrisy-hunting is a very, very American vice; but it is a vice, and, what is more to the point, it is an artistic vice as well as a moral one. Twain is effusive and generous if he comes expecting hypocrisy and finds none -- as in his praise of the Convent Fathers of Palestine, which briefly jars him into recognizing his failing -- but we are talking about human beings, who instinctively protect their ignorances, weaknesses, and malices with masks. If you hunt for hypocrisy, you will usually find it somewhere. And incessant hypocrisy-hunting can spoil jokes, ruin beauty, disturb peace, stir up spite, and crab with meanspiritedness the work of saying things well. Twain recovers from these spoilages quickly, because the work is constantly passing on to other things; but they happen frequently.

Human beings, however, do not merely tell stories, cannot merely tell stories, with words; they must have physical objects as well. I was a bit surprised at the extensive role of relics in the book. Of course, a lot of the places they visit are holy sites that preserve relics and purported relics, whether it be the bone of a saint or a yet another bit of the True Cross or a rock of historical importance. But one of the things we find throughout is the tendency of travelers to relic-hunt themselves -- chipping off bits from a wall, taking away water from a river, and so forth. Twain notes how much damage is done by this practice, but also how completely ineliminable it seems to be. We feel the need for our stories to have physical manifestations, and we get them however we can get them. It is a matter of self-preservation that our modern tourist spots make up artificial souvenirs for tourists to take as proxy-relics rather than carrying off the main attractions, as they are naturally inclined to do.

It is always difficult to know how seriously to take subtitles, particularly in a humorous work. The subtitle of The Innocents Abroad is The New Pilgrim's Progress. Part of the reason is surely just that the book is a sort of pilgrimage and a great deal of it is spent making fun of the pilgrims. One wonders, though, if there is something more to it. I'm reminded a bit of Hawthorne's "The Celestial Railroad", in which the bite and humor of the story lies in the sharp contrast with Bunyan's work, and I wonder if there is some of that here, as well. The voyage is a pilgrimage, but it is a pleasure excursion as well. The two are not mutually exclusive (as we see in The Canterbury Tales), but Bunyan's Christian is certainly not on a pleasure excursion at all, and I wonder if the contrast is one of Twain's subtler jokes -- for he is at times capable of subtle jokes, although he pretends not to be.

Favorite Passage: This is a long paragraph to excerpt, but many of Twain's better passages are his long ones, in which he can find the best mix for his humor, which requires that appreciative joking outweigh sarcasm; Twain can do the latter in an instant, but always needs a bit of a development for the former.

The donkeys were all good, all handsome, all strong and in good condition, all fast and all willing to prove it. They were the best we had found any where, and the most 'recherche'. I do not know what 'recherche' is, but that is what these donkeys were, anyhow. Some were of a soft mouse-color, and the others were white, black, and vari-colored. Some were close-shaven, all over, except that a tuft like a paint-brush was left on the end of the tail. Others were so shaven in fanciful landscape garden patterns, as to mark their bodies with curving lines, which were bounded on one side by hair and on the other by the close plush left by the shears. They had all been newly barbered, and were exceedingly stylish. Several of the white ones were barred like zebras with rainbow stripes of blue and red and yellow paint. These were indescribably gorgeous. Dan and Jack selected from this lot because they brought back Italian reminiscences of the "old masters." The saddles were the high, stuffy, frog-shaped things we had known in Ephesus and Smyrna. The donkey-boys were lively young Egyptian rascals who could follow a donkey and keep him in a canter half a day without tiring. We had plenty of spectators when we mounted, for the hotel was full of English people bound overland to India and officers getting ready for the African campaign against the Abyssinian King Theodorus. We were not a very large party, but as we charged through the streets of the great metropolis, we made noise for five hundred, and displayed activity and created excitement in proportion. Nobody can steer a donkey, and some collided with camels, dervishes, effendis, asses, beggars and every thing else that offered to the donkeys a reasonable chance for a collision. When we turned into the broad avenue that leads out of the city toward Old Cairo, there was plenty of room. The walls of stately date-palms that fenced the gardens and bordered the way, threw their shadows down and made the air cool and bracing. We rose to the spirit of the time and the race became a wild rout, a stampede, a terrific panic. I wish to live to enjoy it again.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Catherine Benincasa

Today is the feast of St. Catherine Benincasa of Siena, Doctor of the Church. The following is from a letter to Daniella of Orvieto. Sr. Daniella had fallen ill and thus was unable to complete her usual penitential practices and fell into a depression because of it, suspecting that she was damned; so St. Catherine counsels her to keep her sense of proportion. This is in line with her usual custom of advising contemplatives to avoid excess in penitential practices; she usually advises those in active life to engage in more penitential practices.

Penance to be sure must be used as a tool, in due times and places, as need may be. If the flesh, being too strong, kicks against the spirit, penance takes the rod of discipline, and fast, and the cilice of many buds, and mighty vigils; and places burdens enough on the flesh, that it may be more subdued. But if the body is weak, fallen into illness, the rule of discretion does not approve of such a method. Nay, not only should fasting be abandoned, but flesh be eaten; if once a day is not enough, then four times. If one cannot stand up, let him stay on his bed; if he cannot kneel, let him sit or lie down, as he needs. This discretion demands. Therefore it insists that penance be treated as a means and not as a chief desire.

Dost thou know why it must not be chief? That the soul may not serve God with a thing that can be taken from it and that is finite: but with holy desire, which is infinite, through its union with the infinite desire of God; and with the virtues which neither devil nor fellow-creature nor weakness can take from us, unless we choose. Herein must we make our foundation, and not in penance. Nay, in weakness the virtue of patience may be tested; in vexing conflicts with devils, fortitude and long perseverance; and in adversities suffered from our fellow-beings, humility, patience, and charity. So as to all other virtues—God lets them be tested by many contraries, but never taken from us, unless we choose. Herein must we make our foundation, and not in penance.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Greatness and Philosophy

Gregory Lewis has a very odd guest post up at "The Daily Nous". But, on the other side, it does a good job of pulling together a number of threads I've seen separately elsewhere, so it is handy for saying something all at once.

(1) The basic question asked is why the 'greatest philosophers' live so far in the past. But there's no actual standard by which greatness is being measured here. The measure seems to be mostly what contemporary philosophers would tend to apply that title to; that is, it is an indirect extrinsic measure by way of reputation. We aren't directly talking about greatness at all. This raises several problems.

(1a) If we're measuring reputation, why would one expect there to be very many contemporary philosophers with reputations on the level of Plato, who has been around almost nonstop for well more than two millenia? How would most philosophers even build up a reputation like that over a short time? Even Plato in his day did not (we might say) have the philosophical reputation of Plato; he was just one of many students of Socrates. Plato's reputation is partly due to the fact that he has kept being valuable in one way or another almost nonstop since his own day.

(1b) If you ask academic philosophers about reputations, what you will get will reflect philosophical pedagogy. All the people who get on the list will be philosophers who are useful for contemporary philosophical teaching. This will be due to a combination of factors in various proportions depending on the case -- teachability, the usefulness of a philosopher as a gateway to different philosophical field, the influence of the philosopher on those fields, the usefulness of the philosopher as a reference point for navigating contemporary philosophical research and discussion, are just three factors that obviously strongly favor Plato over almost anyone else, for instance. Frege pretty clearly gets on the informal list Lewis mentions primarily because analytic philosophers regularly use tools that can be traced to him. And so forth.

(1c) If we're just talking about a list of 'greatest philosophers', without any further specification, we're asking something very generic and general. It will favor brilliant generalists over brilliant specialists, influential people over people who have not been as influential, people we happen to know about over people we don't, people who have lots of extant works over people who don't. Obviously none of these are requirements, but if you ask, "Who are the greatest philosophers?", these biases are built into the question to begin with. Thus these lists give us people like Plato (who covers an immense array of fields) and Aristotle (who even in the ancient world was jokingly said to know everything), major generalists who have been almost continually influential on parts of the discussion and keep being explicitly discussed. You can be extremely influential (like Zhu Xi) and yet virtually unknown to the people making such lists; you can be extremely brilliant and yet too specialized to come to mind if the description is just 'greatest philosophers'; you can be extremely brilliant but out of fashion at the time that they make the list; and so forth. Lewis says that the list of greatest philosophers is partly explained by "polymath premium" and "forefather effect". Well, obviously these are found here and obviously they explain nothing; original generalists of great influence is literally just what we usually assume we are talking about when we talk about 'greatest philosophers' with no further specification. Others might get in if they are especially important to us, but that's about the only other thing we might take the question as asking.

(1d) By definition, great philosophy is something that endures. About whom do we have better information about the ability of their work to endure, Plato or someone in the philosophy department at the nearest college? Lewis at one point says that the list of greatest philosophers is partly explained by 'retroactive esteem'. This is not an explanation of the list of the greatest philosophers at all; the list of greatest philosophers is nothing other than a list of philosophers who are the objects of great retroactive esteem, for some reason or other. Even if we added someone currently living to the list, we could be dealing with nothing other than retroactive esteem for what they had accomplished.

(2) Lewis talks about low-hanging fruit; and this is, I think, a case of a metaphor running away with its argument. When we call something 'low-hanging fruit' we can mean that it is easy, or that it is unimportant, or that it is early (i.e., one of the next thing in some kind of order). A major problem is that in intellectual matters, these three easily come apart. Whether or not an intellectual question is difficult or easy to answer does not tell us anything at all about how important the answer is. The earliest questions, in the sense of being the first that you'd have to ask, are not always the easiest questions. And sometimes the most important things are also the obvious places to begin. And the danger here is assuming that we can simply conflate the three concepts. Lewis, for instance, explicitly conflates earlier with easier. This is an obvious error.

Plato and Aristotle are obviously going to take some of the earlier steps; that logically follows from the fact that they are earlier and took some steps. We learn nothing from this. The earlier steps are not necessarily easy; they could, for all the bare fact of earliness tells us, be the most difficult ones. The earlier steps are not necessarily of lesser importance; they could, for all the bare fact of earliness tells us, be the only important ones.

It's likewise important to keep in mind that 'low-hanging fruit' in intellectual matters is entirely relative, and not sharply defined. New discoveries mean new low-hanging fruit. New problems can mean new low-hanging fruit. And, what is more, in intellectual matters, fruit may be low-hanging from one direction and not from another. Relative idiots in mathematics can be taught to solve mathematical problems that four thousand years ago would have taken the greatest mathematical geniuses in the world to answer. How? As Descartes saw, through the refinement of method. But the fact that any logician today can handle syllogisms does not tell us much about their logical acumen in comparison with Aristotle, despite the fact that Aristotle probably did have a harder time with syllogisms. But that's because Aristotle had to figure out what syllogisms were, how they worked, and the methods for tracing out how they worked, almost from scratch; there could hardly be a logician alive today who actually did that rather than being taught Aristotle's answers (or refinements of Aristotle's answers). Inventing syllogistic is a sign of genius; learning it, not so much. Basic syllogistic is perhaps low-hanging fruit today, after Aristotle; before Aristotle it wasn't even obvious that it was on the tree.

(3) But there is a more important issue involved here. Lewis suggests that there is an incongruity between the fact that the 'greatest philosophers' tend so often to be long-ago and the fact that the population of the earth is so much greater. But there is nothing, literally nothing, in the history of philosophy to indicate that philosophical work correlates with population. Indeed, we know that it can be drastically affected by infrastructure. It is not really surprising that there are more significant philosophers in the burgeoning Spanish Empire in the sixteenth century than in the late eighteenth. Sixteenth-century Spain is highly educated, has a lot of resources, has a cultural emphasis on the general social importance of philosophy, has networks in place encouraging the interaction of philosophers in Spain and its colonies with philosophers outside it, is dealing with new problems in fields like law that desperately need solutions and that philosophers are actively encouraged to discuss by society at large. Late eighteenth-century Spain, despite some talented philosophers and universities still chugging along, does not actually have most of these advantages.

Social context also seems to have an effect. Students in Plato's Academy or in the Stoa did philosophy pretty much all the waking day in a population that already did a lot of philosophy and for completely independent reasons actively encouraged arguing about practically everything. How much time does the philosopher of our day spend grading the same things over and over, or doing paperwork, or watching TV, or the like? How much does our society actively encourage philosophical discussion? How easy is it for someone interested in philosophy of X to find other people interested in it and to spend days and months discussing it with them, at relative leisure?

In early modern Vienna, you could find some of the greatest composers in Europe just by going down to the beer hall. It's not an accident that it was Vienna; Vienna was music-mad. This doesn't mean that most of the music in Vienna was great music; most of the music in Vienna was probably pretty kitschy. It did mean that great musicians went to Vienna because the Viennese appreciated music. It did mean that talented musicians in Vienna could easily find other talented musicians to learn from. It did mean that a lot of new approaches to music were being tried out in Vienna. It did mean that it was possible in Vienna for a musician to spend lots of time on music and nothing but music. And we can see this in other ways. Likewise, it's not a surprise that so much of Western philosophy goes back to Athens, in particular. Athens had the encouraging culture, it had the supporting institutions, it had the pressing need for solutions to problems (particularly in politics), it had a general belief that philosophy was some kind of important or other, it had the resources directed in the right way. That we find so much philosophical work done in Athens and so relatively little done in Carthage has absolutely nothing to do with their respective populations.

One of the assumptions the argument has to make is that great philosophy is cheap and easy, so that it's always equally possible. But everything we know about the history of philosophy suggests that the conditions for having a lot of major enduring philosophical work done at a given time and place are fairly fragile and difficult to build and maintain. Yes, modern America is massively larger than Classical Athens; but there's no reason to think that it's anywhere remotely as efficient at encouraging a lot of philosophical work that is likely to be valuable for centuries.

(4) If one looks over it all, there is an obvious problem with the whole discussion of whether Plato is really great; not once does it look at or assess anything Plato actually did. Occasionally, moving out and about, you'll find an idiot who blusters about how Plato is an idiot; I have never met any such person whose reading of Plato was even competent. I once came across someone arguing that Plato was famous because he had been a big fish in the small pond of Classical Athens. The obvious nonsense of this is seen once you actually look at the facts of the history of philosophy; Plato has been a big fish in every body of water. These sorts of things are always speculations divorced from actual evidence.

It reminds me of the people who were saying a while back that we live in a Golden Age of philosophy. Historically, the kinds of periods we call intellectual 'golden ages' tend to be periods of flourishing and innovative educational systems in which intellectual work is highly prestigious and generously rewarded with material benefits, and in which the intellectuals work both cooperatively and competitively on problems of widespread social significance; but the kinds of people who say that we are in a Golden Age don't ever look at any of that. They rarely dirty their hands with any evidence at all, and when they do, it's virtually never based on the bits and pieces that we have historical reason to think are relevant to 'golden ages'.

But from the perspective of the history of philosophy, it's the actual evidence alone that matters. To historians of philosophy belongs the realm of the dead; sooner or later everyone comes to us. When Minos judges you, O denizen of the 'Golden Age', it will not be in the finery you deck yourself. What matters is the evidence, and your bluster makes not one whit of difference in the scale. And when you are remembered, O philosophical Ozymandias, it will not be for your greatness in your own eyes. All that will matter will be the evidence in the sand.

The Mystery, the Pang, the Passage, the Unknown

Saint Catherine of Siena
by Alice Meynell

(Written for Strephon, who said that a woman must lean, or she should not have his chivalry.)

The light young man who was to die,
Stopped in his frolic by the State,
Aghast, beheld the world go by;
But Catherine crossed his dungeon gate.

She found his lyric courage dumb,
His stripling beauties strewn in wrecks,
His modish bravery overcome;
Small profit had he of his sex.

On any old wife’s level he,
For once—for all. But he alone—
Man—must not fear the mystery,
The pang, the passage, the unknown:

Death. He did fear it, in his cell,
Darkling amid the Tuscan sun;
And, weeping, at her feet he fell,
The sacred, young, provincial nun.

She prayed, she preached him innocent;
She gave him to the Sacrificed;
On her courageous breast he leant,
The breast where beat the heart of Christ.

He left it for the block, with cries
Of victory on his severed breath.
That crimson head she clasped, her eyes
Blind with the splendour of his death.

And will the man of modern years
—Stern on the Vote—withhold from thee,
Thou prop, thou cross, erect, in tears,
Catherine, the service of his knee?