Saturday, February 23, 2008

Lin Yutang on Travel to Improve One's Mind

The first kind of false travel is travel to improve one's mind. This matter of improving one's mind has undoubtedly been overdone. I doubt very much whether one's mind can be so easily improved. Anyway there is little evidence of it at clubs and lectures. But if we are usually so serious as to be bent upon improving our minds, we should at least during a vacation let the mind lie fallow, and give it a holiday....

Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, Reynal and Hitchcock (New York: 1937) p. 329.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

For He's A Jolly Good Fellow

John Henry Newman was born 207 years ago today. A good time to start brushing up on your Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

My Birthday
J. H. Newman

Let the sun summon all his beams to hold
Bright pageant in his court, the cloud-paved sky
Earth trim her fields and leaf her copses cold;
Till the dull month with summer-splendours vie.
It is my Birthday;—and I fain would try,
Albeit in rude, in heartfelt strains to praise
My God, for He hath shielded wondrously
From harm and envious error all my ways,
And purged my misty sight, and fixed on heaven my gaze.


Not in that mood, in which the insensate crowd
Of wealthy folly hail their natal day,—
With riot throng, and feast, and greetings loud,
Chasing all thoughts of God and heaven away.
Poor insect! feebly daring, madly gay,
What! joy because the fulness of the year
Marks thee for greedy death a riper prey?
Is not the silence of the grave too near?
Viewest thou the end with glee, meet scene for harrowing fear?


Go then, infatuate! where the festive hall,
The curious board, the oblivious wine invite;
Speed with obsequious haste at Pleasure's call,
And with thy revels scare the far-spent night.
Joy thee, that clearer dawn upon thy sight
The gates of death;—and pride thee in thy sum
Of guilty years, and thy increasing white
Of locks; in age untimely frolicksome,
Make much of thy brief span, few years are yet to come!


Yet wiser such, than he whom blank despair
And fostered grief's ungainful toil enslave;
Lodged in whose furrowed brow thrives fretful care,
Sour graft of blighted hope; who, when the wave
Of evil rushes, yields,—yet claims to rave
At his own deed, as the stern will of heaven.
In sooth against his Maker idly brave,
Whom e'en the creature-world has tossed and driven,
Cursing the life he mars, "a boon so kindly given."


He dreams of mischief; and that brainborn ill
Man's open face bears in his jealous view.
Fain would he fly his doom; that doom is still
His own black thoughts, and they must aye pursue.
Too proud for merriment, or the pure dew
Soft glistening on the sympathising cheek;
As some dark, lonely, evil-natured yew,
Whose poisonous fruit—so fabling poets speak—
Beneath the moon's pale gleam the midnight hag doth seek.


No! give to me, Great Lord, the constant soul,
Nor fooled by pleasure nor enslaved by care;
Each rebel-passion (for Thou canst) controul,
And make me know the tempter's every snare.
What, though alone my sober hours I wear,
No friend in view, and sadness o'er my mind
Throws her dark veil?—Thou but accord this prayer,
And I will bless Thee for my birth, and find
That stillness breathes sweet tones, and solitude is kind.


Each coming year, O grant it to refine
All purer motions of this anxious breast;
Kindle the steadfast flame of love divine,
And comfort me with holier thoughts possest;
Till this worn body slowly sink to rest,
This feeble spirit to the sky aspire,—
As some long-prisoned dove toward her nest—
There to receive the gracious full-toned lyre,
Bowed low before the Throne 'mid the bright seraph choir.

February 21, 1819.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Alphonsus Liguori was a promising young lawyer in the eighteenth century. 'Promising' is perhaps not the right word; he was generally recognized to be brilliant, passionate about his profession, and extraordinarily difficult to beat in a court of law.

In 1723, however, he was leading counsel for one of the sides in an important lawsuit between a Neapolitan nobleman and the Grand Duke of Tuscany, involving hundreds of thousands of ducats. He was confident of winning, having checked over the evidence multiple times, and gave a brilliant opening speech. Almost immediately, however, the opposing counsel said, "All of these arguments are a waste of breath; there is a document that destroys your entire case."

"And what document is that?" Liguori asked, with some heat.

And the counsel handed him a document he had read dozens of times; but as he read it then and there he realized that he had misread it every single time, and that the actual phrasing had almost the opposite meaning he had read into it. He conceded the case, and was so crushed that the opposing counsel and judge actually felt they had to console him for the loss; in particular he felt that it looked like it was a deliberate deceit on his part, and that his career was ruined. He left the court certain he would never return again. After a few days he did recover from the blow, and regard the humiliation as sent from God to deflate his rising sense of self-importance. But he never went back to court; instead, he joined the Oratory, eventually going on to found the Redemptorists, become the greatest of the Catholic casuists, and be canonized a saint. But that all started with the difficulty of interpreting a text.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ethics Course Recommendations?

I will be teaching an ethics course (standard survey-level) this summer, so I thought I'd fish around for any suggestions for teaching it, if anyone has come across anything that they thought worked well (or that they think might work well). The main texts are already chosen -- Pojman's Moral Philosophy and Appiah's Cosmopolitanism, partly chosen because they're relatively inexpensive and easy to find. I'll likely be doing at least a brief section on business ethics (conflict of interest, ethical risk), and am toying with the idea of a section on feminist ethics of care. Since I've complained before (and here) about how practical considerations get shortchanged in typical ethics courses, I want to focus on ethical practices; anything anyone can suggest (supplementary texts, possible projects and assignments, etc.) to this end would be especially welcome.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Wisdom from Clement of Alexandria

For neither are knee and leg, and such other members, nor are the names applied to them, and the activity put forth by them, obscene. And even the pudenda are to be regarded as objects suggestive of modesty, not shame. It is their unlawful activity that is shameful, and deserving ignominy, and reproach, and punishment. For the only thing that is in reality shameful is wickedness, and what is done through it.

St. Clement of Alexandria, Paedogogus Book II Chapter VI

Bits and Pieces

* Roman Altshuler on arguments in continental philosophy.

* Rebecca recently featured the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the moral argument for God's existence in her Theological Terms series.

* The perfect summation of vast swathes of contemporary analytic philosophy. Fortunately it isn't always bad; just enough to be occasionally exasperating. Ht: John Wilkins, who notes that this is probably the way most undergraduates see philosophy (I say good for them, it shows they were paying attention for at least some parts of the lectures!); but it's also secretly the way most professional philosophers see the philosophical work of colleagues with whom they radically disagree!

* A. C. Grayling has a nice little note on the importance of beauty in Prospect. The attribution of subjectivism to Thomas Aquinas is not, I think, defensible, since Thomas does not regard beauty as a form of pleasure, although he links the two (the beautiful is that which pleases on being seen). But abstracting from that, the general line of reasoning in the column is a good one.

* I just recently heard Tracy Chapman's song, All that You Have Is Your Soul. Wow, what a great song:

So don't be tempted by the shiny apple
Don't you eat of a bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
'Cause all that you have is your soul

A good song for Lent.

* Chris at "Mixing Memory" has a post on cognitive science research into links between loneliness (or lack of it) and religion.

* Fr. Chris Tessone discusses the art of the collect at "Even the Devils Believe".

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Without Mercy or Relief

From Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century:

What would one of our ancestors have said upon seeing these boulevards lit as brightly as by the sun, these thousand carriages circulating noiselessly on the silent asphalt of the streets, these stores as sumptuous as palaces, from which the light spread in brilliant patches, these avenues as broad as squares, these squares as wide as plains, these enormous hotels, which provided comfortable lodging for twenty thousand travelers, these wonderfully light viaducts, these long, elegant galleries, these bridges flung from street to street, and finally these glittering trains, which seemed to furrow the air with fantastic speed?

No doubt he would have been astonished; but the men of 1960 were no longer lost in admiration of such marvels; they exploited them quite calmly, without being any the happier, for, from their hurried gait, their peremptory manner, their American "dash," it was apparent that the demon of wealth impelled them onward without mercy or relief.

Jules Verne, Paris in the Twentieth Century, Richard Howard, tr. Ballantine (New York: 1996) p. 26. Keep in mind that Verne's vision of the future was written in 1863.

Rough Jottings Toward a Possible Deontic Logic

Standard deontic modal logics (D-type systems) lack the standard M-axiom:

(M) □A → A

The idea behind this is put clearly in McNamara's SEP article:

Given these correspondences, it is unsurprising that our basic operator, read here as “it is obligatory that”, is often referred to as “deontic necessity”. However, there are also obvious dis-analogies. Before, we saw that these two principles are part of the traditional conception of alethic modality:

If □p then p (if it is necessary that p, then p is true).
If p then ◊p (if p is true, then it is possible).
Their deontic analogs are:

If OBp then p (if it is obligatory that p, then p is true).
If p then PEp (if p is true, then it is permissible).

The latter two are transparently false, for obligations can be violated, and impermissible things do hold.

It can easily be seen that the reason for rejecting (M) in deontic logics is that "p" is understood as "It is the case that p". But this means that D-type modal systems are actually hybridizations of different modalities: the actuality modality is at home in systems designed for representing necessity and possibility (it is the intermediate modality between them); whereas it is something very different from obligation and permissibility. But what if we did, in fact, interpret the default operator as an intermediate modality between obligation and permissibility? There is, in fact, no reason why we can't do so. So suppose that, instead of representing "It is the case that p" the expression "p" represents something like "p is something that is preferred or advised by the prudent reasoner". Prudential counsel or preference is certainly a plausible candidate for an intermediate modality between obligation and permission.

Then we have a deontic logic that is an M-type system. In fact, S5 becomes a plausible deontic modal system. That is, you can make reasonable arguments for the plausible of all three of these axioms:

(M) □A → A
(B) A → □◊A
(5) ◊A → □◊A

(B), in fact, can be interpreted as a rejection of (a form of) tutiorism: if A is a conclusion that can be prudentially prefered, the permissibility of drawing that conclusion is obligatory. (M) indicates that obligatory conclusions can always be prudently drawn. (5) indicates that if prudently concluding A is permissible, its permissibility is obligatory (i.e., if a prudent reasoner can, qua prudent, draw the conclusion represented by A, a prudent reasoner must draw the conclusion that a prudent reasoner can draw the conclusion represented by A).

We can even begin to see more clearly how deontic operators relate to modal ones. The obligation operator tells us that a prudent reasoner must draw the conclusion as something to be preferred; the permission operator tells us that a prudent reasoner can draw the conclusion as something to be preferred.