Friday, March 06, 2015

Isaac of Nineveh for Lent XV

This world is the course of the contest and the arena of the courses. This time is the time of combat; and there is no law laid down in the field of combat and in the time of contest. That is to say, the King lays no limit on His warriors until the contest is finished and all men are brought to the gate of the King of kings, where each is examined whether he persevered in the contest and refused to admit defeat, or turned his back. For it oftentimes happens that a man who is altogether useless, who, because of his lack of training, is constantly pierced and thrown down, who is feeble at all times, suddenly seizes the banner from the hands of the mighty warriors, the sons of the giants, and makes his name famous....For this reason, no man should despair; only, let us not be negligent in prayer, nor be slothful to beseech the Lord for succor.

Homily 70 (p. 490).

Thursday, March 05, 2015

William Wallace, OP (1918-2015)

Fr. William Wallace died on March 3, at age 96. Fr. Wallace was a very important, and occasionally controversial, historian and philosopher of science. He taught at the University of Maryland. Among his notable publications:

The Scientific Methodology of Theodoric of Freiberg: A Case Study of the Relationship Between Science and Philosophy. (1959)

Galileo's Early Notebooks: The Physical Questions: A Translation from the Latin, with Historical and Paleographical Commentary. (1977)

Prelude to Galileo: Essays on Medieval and Sixteenth-Century Sources of Galileo's Thought. (1981)

Galileo and His Sources: The Heritage of the Collegio Romano in Galileo's Science. (1984)

Galileo, the Jesuits and the Medieval Aristotle. (1991)

Galileo's Logic of Discovery and Proof: The Background, Content, and Use of His Appropriated Treatises on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics. (1992)

Galileo's Logical Treatises: A Translation, With Notes and Commentary, of His Appropriated Latin Questions on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics. (1992)

The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis. (1996)

When I was in grad school, I heard an interesting talk by him on the history of measurement, namely, the development of 'per'. That is, how do we get from measuring things in terms like "five miles in an hour" to saying that someone is going, right now, "five miles per hour"? Or, to put it in other terms, we all know what the unit "mile" is, and what the unit "hour" is, but what is the unit "mile per hour"? The latter kind of unit is actually surprisingly late. For a very long time people resisted the notion that these hybrid units were proper units; they were very often taken to be calculating conveniences rather than measures of anything real.

His conclusions were sometimes controversial, but his work is absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the thought of Galileo. His major work, The Modeling of Nature, is also essential reading for anyone interested in broadly scholastic and Aristotelian approaches to science and the natural world.

(The above video is a preview of a course he taught through International Catholic University, based on The Modeling of Nature and his summary reference work, The Elements of Philosophy; you can see the quite developed and informative notes for the course as well.

Isaac of Nineveh for Lent XIV

Read often and insatiably the books of the teachers of the Church on divine providence, for they lead the mind to discern the order in God's creatures and His actions, give it strength, and by their subtleness they prepare it to acquire luminous perceptions and guide it in purity toward the understanding of God's creatures. Read also the Gospels, which God ordained for knowledge for the whole world, that you may find provisions for your journey in the might of God's providence for every generation, and that your mind may plunge deeply into wonder at Him.

Homily 4 (p. 146).

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Books III & IV

Book III

If we could roughly summarize Book II as having the theme of 'day by day', we can roughly summarize Book III as having the theme of 'looking ahead'. As with Book II, Book III reflects on mortality, but it does so in particular by repeatedly considering what kind of life one should live for what is left of one's life. In a sense we can say it takes the ideas of Book II and stretches them out from daily life to our indeterminate future. Marcus, of course, is throughout talking to himself, even when I say 'we'.

We should keep in mind that even before we die our capacities might fade. We should also keep in mind that many of the charms of life are little things, not beautiful in themselves, that contribute to the excellence of the larger picture: this is true of the cracks on baked bread, the bursting of figs or the beauty of olives as they are about to decay, and true also "of ears of wheat as they bend to the ground, of the wrinkles of a lion's brow, of the foam flowing from a boar's mouth" (III, 2). It is this that lets us see what we are likely otherwise to miss, that there is a sort of freshness and new beauty in the aged, a rightness in its own way, given the larger scheme of things.

We spend too much time thinking about what other people are doing, worrying about their thoughts when it has nothing to do with the common good. This wastes what remains of our lives (4). We should seek "justice, truth, self-control, courage," that is, the life of Reason, because it is not appropriate for anything else "to stand in the way of what is reasonable and for the common good" (6). We should not treat what is inconsistent with virtue as being in any way beneficial to us (7), but instead respect our capacity to reason (9).

We should then describe things to ourselves in whatever way they actually are, seeing everything in its context (12); and we should, in addition always keep the essential ideas of Stoicism ready and 'on call' for whenever they might be useful (13), and not get lost in bookish wanderings (14).

We are made of body, soul, and mind; but the body we share with kind, the soul we share with wild beasts and catamites and people like Nero, and the mind with plotters and thieves. What do we have that rises above? What makes the good man? That

he loves and welcomes whatever happens to him and whatever his fate may bring, that he does not pollute the spirit established within his breast or confuse it with a mass of impressions and imaginings, but preserves it blameless, modestly following the divine, saying nothing but what is true, doing nothing but what is just. (16)

Pierre Hadot has noted that ancient philosophy is very concerned with what he calls spiritual exercises, little activities that help us to be better people. The Meditations, of course, is a book in which Marcus Aurelius is recording his own spiritual exercises. We have already seen this somewhat, but it becomes even more clear here in Book III, where the Emperor is engaging in a more systematic approach and summarizing some of the key spiritual exercises he thinks are important, and, even more than this, is actively reminding himself that he should focus on these spiritual activities and not "vague wanderings" (14).

Book IV

While Book III at least approached some sort of systematic discussion, Book IV begins the pattern that will be followed throughout the rest of the books, of shorter, more disconnected comments that formulate and reformulate the Stoic ideas with which Marcus Aurelius was concerned. Many of the sayings of Book IV are specifically on the theme of reason, but, of course, this topic connects with everything in Stoicism; Hadot notes, however, that Book IV carries over a number of themes from Books II and III (The Inner Citadel, p. 265).

As rational beings we should recognize our place in the cosmopolis:

If we have intelligence in common, so we have reason which makes us reasoning beings, and that practical reason which orders what we must or must not do; then the law too is common to us, and, if so, we are citizens; if so, we share a common government; if so,t he universes is, as it were, a city--for what other common government could one say is shared by all mankind? (IV, 4)

The cosmopolis is the city of Zeus (23), and we should have a sort of patriotic regard for it. Those who do not understand the universe's principles, however, are like foreigners in their own city, self-impose exiles (29). We should even think of the cosmos as a living being of interconnected parts (40).

Almost everything we know changes. The former times have passed (32), deeds become legend (33), as time is a river of things (43). Remembered and rememberer are both ephemeral (35). Everything is fleeting, so we should focus on what matters:

What is it which should earnestly concern us? this only: a just mind, actions for the common good, speech which never lies, and a disposition which welcomes all that happens as necessary and comprehensible, as flowing from a like origin and source. (33)

We should recognize that what does not make us worse cannot make our lives worse (8), and that everything which happens, is right (9). If something is bad for us, it is because we have judged it bad, so we should judge anything that could happen to good men and bad men alike as indifferent (39). When faced with apparent difficulty, we should think of it in this way: "this is no misfortune, but to endure it nobly is good fortune" (49).

There are, of course, quite a few other things here. For example: We should always be ready to do what reason shows best for humanity, but also be ready to change how we do things if someone puts us right (12). We should not be distracted by what our neighbors are doing and saying but should focus on what we ourselves are saying and doing (18). Beautiful things have their beauty in themselves; they do not get it from praise (20).

to be continued

Isaac of Nineveh for Lent XIII

It is better for you to free yourself from the shackle of sin than to free slaves from their slavery. It is better for you to make peace with your soul, causing concord to reign over the trinity within you (I mean, the body, the soul, and the spirit), than by your teaching to bring peace among men at variance....It is more profitable for you to attend to raising up unto the activity of your cogitations concerning God the deadness of your soul due to the passions, than it is to resurrect the dead.

Many have accomplished mighty acts, raised the dead, toiled for the conversion of the erring, and have wrought great wonders; and by their hands they have led many to the knowledge of God. Yet after these things, these same men who quickened others, fell into vile and abominable passions and slew themselves, becoming a stumblingblock for many when their acts were made manifest. For they were still sickly in soul, but instead of caring for their souls' health, they committed themselves to the sea of this world in order to heal the souls of others, being yet in ill health; and, in the manner I have stated, they lost their souls and fell away from their hope in God.

Homily 4 (pp. 144-145).

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Four Thoughts

I have been thinking recently about what might be four ethical ideas that I wish were taken more seriously, or taken seriously among a wider group of people, and these are the four I came up with:

(1) Some things that are morally permissible are nonetheless morally risky.
(2) Enduring difficulty is itself a human excellence.
(3) We should restrain ourselves even when dealing with good and innocent pleasures.
(4) Exchanges should be done in such a way that all parties to the exchange benefit in some way.

The sharp eye might note the connection to the cardinal virtues. What are some ethical ideas that you think should be taken more seriously?

Isaac of Nineveh for Lent XII

You yourself know that at all times the hope of comfort is wont to make men forget what is great, and good, and virtuous. Unless they resolve in their minds to suffer hardships, not even those who are found in this present world in the life of the flesh can attain the end of their desire. And since experience testifies to this, there is no need to prove it with words. For in every generation of those who have gone before us, even until now, it is this and nothing else that has made men feeble, so that they do not gain victories and are hindered from excellent deeds. Therefore, to sum up: no man disdains the Kingdom of the Heavens except in hope of some small comfort in this life.

Homily 72

Monday, March 02, 2015

Texas Independence Day

In 1836 fifty-nine delegates from various parts of Texas arrived at Washington-on-the-Brazos in the midst of Texas's war with Mexico to hammer out exactly why they were engaged in a war against Mexico. Discontent against Mexican rule had been so extensive that going to war was the easy part. There was broad agreement about the occasions for the war, but it had quickly become clear that there was widespread disagreement about the objective of the war. In particular, there was a considerable rift between those who held that the war should aim at independence and those who held that the war should aim at restoring the constitutional status of the free states of Mexico that had been granted by the 1824 Federal Constitution of the United Mexican States but had been increasingly ignored and then finally repealed in 1835. (The latter was very closely tied to the original reasons for the war, and was a big, big issue. Texas was not the only Mexican state to rebel over it. Yucatan would declare its independence for exactly the same reason a few years later, and a number of other Mexican states began actively refusing to cooperate in various ways with the federal government of Mexico.)

One of the results, modeled on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, was the Texas Declaration of Independence. It bears some remarks of the inconsistencies in the Texas position (e.g., it lists as causes of war both the repeal of the 1824 Constitution, which established the Catholic Church as the national religion, and the establishment of a national religion), but obviously it came down firmly on the independence side of the debate. That document was signed on March 2, 1836, making this Texas Independence Day.

The Convention also enacted a conscription law and established a provisional government with David Burnet as Interim President and Lorenzo de Zavala as Interim Vice President. (Burnet was not a delegate to the Convention, but had arrived at that time in Washington-on-the-Brazos in the hope of gathering volunteers to assist in the desperate situation at the Alamo. Zavala was a delegate, and had been one of Mexico's most talented statesman.) They also expanded Sam Houston's military authority.

Because of the Mexican Army, Burnet transferred the state capital from Washington-on-the-Brazos to Harrisburg almost immediately. As Santa Anna closed in on Harrisburg, the seat of government was transferred to Galveston on April 13. On April 21, Santa Anna was captured by Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto, which ended the war.

Isaac of Nineveh for Lent XI

Present your petitions to God so as to accord with His glory, that your honor may be magnified before Him, and he rejoice over you.

Homily 3 (p. 135).

Sunday, March 01, 2015

A Poem Draft

Second Week in Lent

"To know the goodness of God is the highest prayer of all."

What lowly treasures do I bring,
like macaroni strung on string,
to Christ my Savior, God, and King:
good deeds like beads or bits of shell
to One who saves from death and hell!

Not though I plan and toil and fret
can I repay a tenth my debt,
or can return the good I've met;
all I can do is show I know
and scatter mercies as I go.

Fortnightly Book, March 1

The fortnightly book this time around is Two Plays of Anton Chekhov. Chekhov was thrown into literary life as many great authors are, by a desperate need to support his family. He also did extensive medical work as a doctor, despite the fact that he himself suffered from tuberculosis, which, of course, eventually killed him. He is best known as a short story writer, but he wrote several plays. He is regarded as a master of indirect action and subtext; he has a tendency to structure his plays so that major elements of dramatic action occur off stage, and things left unspoken sometimes matter as much as things that are said. His plays are often regarded as masterpieces but difficult to produce; they make very careful and deliberate use of temporal effects, for instance -- other playwrights will tell you that a scene takes place in a room, but Chekhov will tell you that it takes place in the room at noon on a sunny day, and this will make a difference to the story. He also likes using sound effects to carry information. The following stage direction from The Three Sisters shows something of both of these qualities:

The bedroom of OLGA and IRINA. On the left and right beds with screens around them. Past two o'clock at night. Behind the scenes a bell is ringing on account of a fire in the town, which has been going on for some time. It can be seen that no one in the house has gone to bed yet. Ont he sofa MASHA is lying, dressed as usual in black. Enter OLGA and ANFISA.

The two plays in the volume are The Cherry Orchard and The Three Sisters, each of which took him a year to write, and both of which are often considered good even for Chekhov. They are translated by Constance Garnett, who was famous for her translations of Russian works.

The volume is by The Heritage Press (New York), so it has a nice maroon vellum cloth binding with gold stamping. You can see it online here. It also has an introduction by actor Sir John Gielgud and illustrations by the very famous graphic artist and illustrator, Lajos Szalay. The type is twelve-point Garamond.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Lloyd C. Douglas, Magnificent Obsession


Opening Passage:

It had lately become common chatter at Brightwood Hospital -- better known from three hundred miles around Detroit as Hudson's Clinic -- that the chief was all but dead on his feet. The whole place buzzed with it.

Summary: The highly successful neurosurgeon, Dr. Hudson, is overworking himself, but this seems likely to change because he is marrying a young woman, Helen, and going on his honeymoon. Unfortunately, not very long after the marriage a terrible accident happens and Dr. Hudson dies. What is worse, he could have lived, but the machine that would have saved him was being used at that moment to save someone across the lake: rich and largely useless playboy, Robert Merrick.

Merrick, however, is affected by the fact that his life has come at the cost of a man who did, and would have continued to do, extraordinary good to others, and, making friends with a nurse at Brightwood, Nancy Ashford, he sets out to make the sacrifice worth it and learn about Dr. Hudson. With Nancy's encouragement, he sets out to get a degree in medicine, and with her help he decodes Dr. Hudson's secret journal, in which the surgeon claims to record a secret of extraordinary power. In the meantime, he meets Helen Hudson and falls in love with her; a relationship that is more than slighly complicated by the fact that Bobby is the reason Helen's husband is dead, as well as by the fact that Joyce, Dr. Hudson's daughter and Helen's stepdaughter (but only a few years younger than Helen), is in love with Bobby.

This is a gimmick book. That is, one's interest in the plot is kept up in part by the fact that it is organized around a gimmick. Gimmicks can be handled extremely well -- Umberto Eco writes gimmick books, for instance, and good mystery novels are very often built on gimmicks -- or much more weakly -- The Da Vinci Code is an example of story that is moved along almost entirely by gimmicks. The trick to a gimmick is that you want it to be something that the reader can puzzle over but also could in principle solve (whether they ever actually do or not), without making it obvious that the author is dumbing down a story to the reader's level. I would say that the two-level gimmick is used here is somewhere in the middle: there is a reasonably clever cipher for the journal, not difficult but not obvious, and the deciphered journal provides clues for Dr. Hudson's secret. The clues basically amount to veiled and incomplete allusions to a particular page in a Bible, and fully understanding what is going on requires being able to tell what the alluded-to passage is. Since the Bible is one of those books that is both very familiar and very unfamiliar, this is a balancing act: readers who know the Bible well could find the allusions obvious and repetitive, while readers who don't know it very well need to be able to find it. The novel reduces the danger of the former problem by making its main characters exactly the sort of people who are not going to be familiar with the Bible and by repeatedly stating theological claims in terms very different from what you would expect, as if they were being translated into a different language. The latter, on the other hand, are certainly given enough clues to figure it out, although we have to keep in mind that as this book was written in 1929, its original readers would not have had a search engine and would have had actually to take a Bible off the shelf and flip through it to try to find out Dr. Hudson's secret -- which, of course, would have been part of the point. I'm not sure it ends up being wholly successful, but it's a clever enough attempt that, with everything else going on in the book, it doesn't need to be wholly successful, just enough to keep things moving along.

This is also a spiritual secret book. Most spiritual secret books (The Celestine Prophecy, for instance) sacrifice story to message. I don't think that this is the case here. You can hardly miss the message, but arguably it sacrifices the clarity of the message to the story; it involves no spoilers to say that the secret has something to do with voluntary giving, but much of the story makes the voluntary giving seem quite selfishly motivated. This is not the full story, but a great deal of the problem arises from what would perhaps have recommended it to its original readers -- it's a religious story in which religion is deliberately played down and into which anything obviously religious makes only occasional and minimal entrance. This makes the spiritual secret come across more like a kind of attempt to manipulate things by magic, de-sacralized religion precisely coming across as a kind of magic. Again, this would recommend it to a lot of readers, in the same sense that there are plenty of people who are allergic to discussions of prayer who will nonetheless eat up books like The Secret, which substitutes something pseudo-naturalistic to do loosely similar things. Douglas does a few things to prevent religion from becoming only a kind of magic -- like most modern fiction, 'science' is the word the book actually uses for 'magic' -- but the book doesn't really avoid it, or even try very hard, in part because its characters are not the sort of people who could make that distinction very well in the first place. The story leads the message, which overall makes it a better novel than most spiritual secret books.

The romantic side of the story I found somewhat wearing, but it's not awful. Part of this is that the characters have their plausible weaknesses and strengths, even though it is sometimes difficult to find oneself fully sympathizing with Bobby and Helen as the structure of the romance really requires. Possibly the books is doing too much to develop the romance plot entirely as it should have been.

In addition to the book, I also listened to two radio versions -- the one by Lux Radio Theater with Irene Dunn and Robert Taylor and the other by Screen Guild Theater with Myrna Loy and Don Ameche. As I suspected, there is heavy movie-influence here, and the romantic story is played up. I liked how it was played up in the Lux Radio Theater version more than in the other, although I think the psychology of the characters was in some ways more plausibly expressed in the other. The cipher, of course, doesn't carry over, so the secret itself is played down in both cases. One strength I think the radio versions had over the book is that romantic love is a more obvious -- and less potentially problematic -- proxy for religious love of neighbor than science is. That is because we have actually adapted to romantic love to be religious in tone. People joke about Christian pop music being Jesus-Is-My-Girlfriend music, which is occasionally funny because true; but they often fail to grasp the fact that the reason it sounds this way is because there is a long tradition by now of poets and singers talking about their girlfriends as if they were Jesus. Indeed, you can trace this very easily, since it has often been done deliberately. Golden Age Hollywood, TV, and Radio are especially guilty of this. But because the religious tone of romantic love has become such a staple, the radio program's focus on romantic love rather than science and technology makes the story seem considerably more religious in character, despite the fact that the religious elements play even less of a role in the story. A very interesting comparison and contrast.

Favorite Passage:

"At all events, you have the scientific outlook -- the scientific approach," insisted Doctor MacLaren. "Perhaps you noticed at what pains I was to avoid the old stock phrases of theology."

"I fear I wouldn't recognize them as such," confessed Bobby. "But -- what's the matter with the old terminology?"

"Obsolete! Misleading! We'll have to evolve a new vocabulary for religion to make it rank with other subjects of interest. We've got to phrase it in modern terms; don't you think so?" Doctor McLaren was eager for his guest's approval.

"Perhaps," agreed Bobby tentatively. "I don't know. Whether people could learn any more about religion by changing its names for things of concern to it, I'm not sure. It just occurs to me -- casting about at random for a parallel case -- that the word 'electricity' means 'amber.' All that the ancients knew about electricity was that a chunk of amber, when rubbed with silk, would pick up a feather. Now that it has been developed until it will pick up a locomotive, electricity still means amber. They never went to the bother to change the name of it. Maybe they thought there was at least a pleasant sentiment in retaining the name. More likely, the never thought about it, at all. Too busy trying to make it work, I suppose." (pp. 291-292)

Recommendation: I don't know that you need to go out of your way to read it, but as light pop reading it is certainly better than many other books that became bestselling popular sensations; and when it pretends to get in deep water, it at least gestures at genuinely deep waters rather than at some shallow stand-in made up in its author's head, like so many books of this kind do. Taylor Caldwell could have done, and later would do, better, but I would give it a Recommended, if it happens to come your way and you want something light.


Lloyd C. Douglas, Magnificent Obsession, Collier & Son (New York: 1929).

Isaac of Nineveh for Lent X

You wish to ascend to Heaven, and to receive that Kingdom, communion with God, the consolation of the spiritual goods of yonder blessedness, the fellowship of the angels, and immortal life, and you ask if this path requires toil? Great is this marvel! Those who yearn after the things of this perishing world pass over the terrible waves of the sea, and they brave journeying on rough roads, and for all that, they never ask whether there is any labor in this, or any affliction in what they desire to do. But we search everywhere after comfort! If, however, we always keep in mind the path of crucifixion, we shall think that every other affliction is lighter to bear than this.

Homily 72.