Friday, June 05, 2009

Collins and Keillor

Over at "First Thoughts" they are discussing the poetry of Billy Collins:

Joe Carter
Micah Mattix
Sally Thomas

I don't really have much of an opinion on Billy Collins himself, but it seems a good occasion for a ramble. Let's start with this. Collins could do exactly what he does now if he were writing essays or novels. Take his "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House":

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

You could take the same thing and write it all together with no change, and it would be part of an essay, or of a novel, or of a letter home:

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking. He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark that he barks every time they leave the house. They must switch him on on their way out.

And you will have lost nothing. It is a poem, in the most basic sense that it is crafted language for the sake of the language, but the differences between Billy Collins and (say) Garrison Keillor, setting aside topics, are entirely incidental. You could write prose and do the same thing. I want to insist that there's room for poets to do this; it can be a useful and valuable thing to do. It is nonsense to think that poets should only write in verse, because all of language is the poet's working material. But at this point we aren't doing anything distinctively poetic, where that is understood to be contrasted with the prosaic. I sometimes wonder if interest in Billy Collins as poetry is a symptom of something very wrong with our contemporary sense of language, in this sense: that is, one might have the temptation to think that to get what Collins gives you have to be writing something that's not prose. But as Collins is basically writing rhetorical, declamatory prose in narrow columns, this shows that we have no proper appreciation for the power and potential of prose.

This is true of much of contemporary poetry, especially what often goes by the name of 'free verse'. I've often heard it asked whether free verse is really poetry; of course it is. It would be a more serious question to ask whether free verse is distinctively verse. And I think in many cases it clearly is not: it is prosaic as well as poetic. For instance, if I were to take the previous few sentences and scatter them on the page for effect, that would be poetic, a crafting of language, whether people of good taste thought it a good crafting or not; that extra bit of crafting makes it an extra bit poetic, one might say. Or, at least, it could: Mallarmé would make it very poetic, because every bit of white space would do something. The placement itself was poetic. An advertiser placing words across the page might not: the placement might be for effect, but the effect have nothing to do with the language. Most free versers, I think, are somewhere in between, although nowhere in Mallarmé's league. Some of them are so far on the advertiser's side that the placement is the only thing interesting about what they have written. But that is neither here nor there. The point is that Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard, while exquisite poetry, is not really verse. To have verse, you must have verses; verses are turns and returns of language, and to have returns at all the turns must be distinctive enough to be recognized when they come back. In formal verse, the turns and returns follow a set form. In free verse that is genuinely free verse the returns are not governed by this constraint. They surprise -- but they are still there.

Merely having verses is not enough to have verse, of course; even a freshman composition paper may have verses. The verses must be constitutive of what is being made, somehow -- and that 'somehow', while not infinitely forgiving, is nonetheless very affable. But much poetry is not verse, but prose; and Billy Collins writes poetry that is prose, at least, for all practical purposes. His line breaks are just prose thought-breaks, which is why it declaims well; it is an entirely arbitrary matter that he breaks it down on the page that way rather than letting it flow all the way across like water. And if you took away the little dams at the end of each line, letting each line flow into the other all the way across the page, you would find that in terms of language Billy Collins is a somewhat more eccentric Garrison Keillor. And you could scatter Garrison Keillor on the page and you would discover that Keillor writes poetry, too:

I'm not a storyteller, Stella,
but I impersonate one
and that is almost as good.

Storytelling is an intimate art,
practiced between people who know each other well,
and I've known some great ones,

a sculptor named Joe O'Connell
and my great-uncle Lew Powell
and the late Chet Atkins.

Chet was a true storyteller.
He blanched at the thought of doing it onstage,
but when he drove you around in his pickup truck,
he'd tell a whole string of stories,
some of them ribald,
about Nashville stars

and he imitated their voices beautifully
and he embroidered the stories beautifully
and, listening to him,
I just sat
and laughed
and wished we'd drive forever.

You can do this with Garrison Keillor all day. And, to reiterate, it really is poetry. But it's prosaic poetry. There is no verse to it, no turn and return, only the balanced phrase, the constructed clause, of a prose writer. Keillor does not magically become poetry by being scattered on the page; Collins would not magically cease to be poetry by being written across the page. They don't have the same style, but they are doing the same thing, and what they are doing is the poetic work of good prose. They just have different tastes in graphic design.

The purpose of this ramble was to ramble, not to answer Joe's question, but we have answered it nonetheless. Joe had asked,

In other words, is Billy Collins repackaging a form of slam poetry for literate yuppies or is he restoring an oral tradition that will open new audiences for contemporary poetry?

And the answer is that he is doing neither. You cannot restore what has always been here. We all laugh at Monsieur Jourdain, who spoke prose all his life and never knew it. But you and I are not much different; we have come across poetry, even spoken poetry, all our lives, and never knew it, either. One day we, like Monsieur Jourdain with prose, will recognize with delighted surprise that many things we did not recognize as poetry really are. We will, of course, be the more foolish-looking, for we had the word in hand, but could never remember what it meant, instead relying on little bits of folklore and half-formed feelings. We will be absurdly pleased to discover that poetry, really and truly, is the craft of making excellent language.

And the angels in the audience will laugh.

Notes and Links

* Ralph Hitchins in a comment at Cliopatria that Douglas MacArthur used the "Only the dead have seen the end of war" line in a famous speech at West Point, but attributed it to Plato. It definitely is Santayana's (Soliloquy #25, "Tipperary," Soliloquies in England). MacArthur (who seems to have read a lot of Plato, among other things, and so might well have just mixed up where he had read the quote originally) appears to be the source of the misattribution; I'd be interested, though, if anyone can find a source prior to MacArthur that attributes it to Plato.

* Lama Tenzin Osel Rinpoche seems to be having a little difficulty reconciling Buddhist life with life in modern society. But, as usual, things are a bit more complex than the media lets on.

* Two posts on Quetelet: Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda and John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts.

* Some recent online reading:
Centola and Macy, Complex Contagions and the Weakness of Long Ties (PDF)

Elsberry and Shallit, Information Theory, Evolutionary Computation, and Dembski's "Complex Specified Information" (PDF)

Gendler, Alief in Action (And Reaction) (PDF) (Gendler's papers are always a delight to read, and this one is no exception. Creative, informative, and wide-ranging: this is how contemporary philosophy should be done but too often isn't.)

* Henry Karlson at "Vox Nova" discusses Nicholas of Cusa and Interreligious Dialogue

* Sherry has the first few hymns up on her Hundred Hymns List:
#101 Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted
#100 O God Our Help in Ages Past
#99 Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken
#98 Our God Reigns
#97 Nothing But Blood

* This is a note mostly as a reminder to myself: I need to get a hold of this article by Anne Jaap Jacobson in Philosophical Psychology. The abstract:

This paper argues for two major revisions in the way philosophers standardly think of vision science and vision theories more generally. The first concerns mental representations and the second supervenience. The central result is that the way is cleared for an externalist theory of perception. The framework for such a theory has what are called Aristotelian representations as elements in processes the well-functioning of which is the principal object of a theory of vision.

I've liked what I've read of Anne Jaap Jacobson's work on representations before, and this sounds particularly interesting.

Some Poem Drafts

Lots of little rough pieces in their initial stages.

In All the World Are None for Me

In all the world are none for me
but the whispers from the sea,
but the shadows on the sly
out the corner of my eye:
none to capture weary heart,
none to take this soldier's part,
only mocking almost-mights
haunting dark and lonely nights,
only idols made of sand
that whisper of the promised land,
only nothings made of air,
pithless deserts, dry and bare,
and one small impulse deep inside,
stubborn in its inborn pride,
to seek and quest and never stay
till love is found, or judgment day.


O hey nonny-nonny, heed and make way
to the hallelujah-holy-laden foofaraw day!
Light up the la-di-da glint-and-leap glow
and shout with a heigh-heigh, heigh nonny-no!
As nonny-no nothings leap up in the dance,
sing ditties no more and leave nothing to chance--
the nonny-hey ladies love rolling romance!


It is so strange to be alive,
so unexpected, as if the world
had suddenly jumped up in surprise
at its own contingent birth
and decided to return the favor
by allowing me to be;
and since this pleasant little wonder
has so taken me unawares
I'll pass on the gift with my pen.


My thoughts are on your body,
dewdrops clinging to the leaf;
take my hand, entwine our fingers,
let my breath course near your ear,
and warm me with your glow.

Unburdened by Quarrel

Unburdened by quarrel,
the mind springing open
feels sun on its inside,
delights in the truth.
Discoveries await!
Unbound and unbroken,
newly-winged thought
soars high over hills.

Tin Soldiers

Subtle words and little lies,
deception, games, and alibis,
sorrow, sadness, lonely sighs,
traps and coward's compromise:
row by row tin soldiers march
step by step to take your heart;
note by note their trumpets call--
one by one tin soldiers fall.

Wiglaf's Words

The broil of battle brought them together,
hardy Wiglaf said, heavy-hearted,
"Remember I well our meals in the mead-hall,
boasting of Beowulf-bravery in deed,
great giver of sword, giver of arms,
to whom we swore repayment in right
come the time, for kindness in kind,
even letting life to be lost.
Allowance he made for our claims as if weighty,
believing our boast and the bite of our steel,
but he, mighty king, meant this great monster
to keep for himself, to conquer and kill
as in the yore-time, years of his youth,
the days long ago, before our lord leaned
on lowlier lads, and lessers in arms.
On kingly flesh is now feeding the flame;
by almighty God, let my bones burn
before my liege lord be covered in fire!
Who are we, shield-carriers homeward seeking
before battle is broken, with Beowulf battered?
For such dutiful king to die forsaken,
butchered and beatend by terrible beast,
is not deserved, when still there is sword
yet to be drawn, in honor to serve!"
Then swiftly he ran, his king then to succor,
deep in his driving through dragon-formed flame.
"Beowulf, king, brightly beloved!
Remember your boast to hold your repute,
to live life of glory never forgotten!
Fight, sire, fight, for life and for fame,
I at your side, at your service my sword!"

Peppermint Tea

This peppermint tea like liquid love
warms the heart and cheers the soul,
scents the air with incense fair;
prayers raised of thanks and praise
cheer the heart as it takes in
your liquid love like peppermint tea.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Il Faudrait L'Inventer

Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer.
If God did not exist, one would have to invent him.

Welcome to the clandestine Enlightenment. It has been known for some time that the French Enlightenment had two faces, a public face and a clandestine one. Censorship was rather extensive at the time, but it was possible to evade it in a number of ways, so people who wanted to publish something that they didn't think would get past the censor would circulate it in the underground, either as a manuscript, or as a published tract, or some such. Much of this publication was philosophical in character. We should be very careful not to treat it as a monolithic thing; any number of things might not get past the censors, and people might worry about any number of things coming before the censor, so the literature of this philosophical underground is extraordinarily diverse -- some of it is atheistic, some of it is deistic, some of it is Christian but reform-advocating. What is more, the literature is very complex. The works were passed from hand to hand; they are often anonymous; clandestine copyings often involved massive plagiarisms; works would be altered, or expanded, or made more concise, by the copier, without any indication that this would be done. One notable work of the clandestine Enlightenment was an anonymous text called The Three Imposters, which owes its fame in part to the fact that it irritated Voltaire enough that he responded to it. The above dictum belongs to his reply.

I. François-Marie Arouet

The man we know as Voltaire was born in Paris in November of 1694. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, and got him a position as an assistant to a lawyer, an opportunity François-Marie squandered by devoting his time to writing plays. His father eventually found out and sent him to the country to start his legal studies in earnest, but Voltaire continued to spend his time writing. His plays eventually became famous, and Voltaire ascended to the ranks of the French literati, feted by the finest French aristocracy. His pen name, Voltaire, seems to have been a sort of anagrammatic play on his last name. He died in May of 1778.

II. Les Trois Imposteurs

Like much of the literature of the clandestine Enlightenment, the history of the anonymous The Three Imposters is very difficult to trace, but it seems to have circulated fairly widely. The three imposters of the title are Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, who, according to the author, pretended to be in communication with God. The work is not quite atheistic in our sense, because it seems to allow a Spinozistic notion of God as an amoral Natura naturans, nature considered as active; but it is quite frank that what most people think of as God is an imaginary being and that there is no afterlife.

The theory underlying these claims is standard freethinking fare, primarily remarkable for how frankly it is laid out. People are extremely gullible when it comes to matters of fear, and there are plenty of con men, imposters, willing to gull them. The world is often a dark place, so people, desperate to pretend that there are gentle powers that are on their side and will make things OK in the end, begin to treat those powers as if they were real. Priests and the like, seeing a means to power, play on the fears of these ignorant people, teaching them to fear philosophy, inquiry, and truth until they blindly obey. From this fear-based stamping out of reason and good sense ridiculous opinions begin to collect together until you have religion and superstition, an empire of falsehood, as the text calls it. Of the people who impose this empire on the weak, ignorant, and stupid, some excel above others in the art of trickery; Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad are the three greatest of these vile tricksters, although the text as we have it seems somewhat confused, since it sometimes talks about three imposters and sometimes about four (including Numa Pompilius).

III. Epître sur Les Trois Imposteurs

Among Voltaire's works is a poem that is a scathing response to The Three Imposters, with the following note by Voltaire himself:

Ce livre des Trois Imposteurs est un très-mauvais ouvrage, plein d'un athéisme grossier, sans esprit, et sans philosophie.

[This book of the Three Imposters is a very bad work, full of a coarse kind of atheism, mindless and lacking philosophy.]

Perhaps playing on the confusion in the text between three and four imposters, Voltaire starts out the poem asking

Insipide écrivain, qui crois à tes lecteurs
Crayonner les portraits de tes Trois Imposteurs,
D'où vient que, sans esprit, tu fais le quatrième?

[Insipid writer, who pretends for your readers
to draw the portraits of your Three Imposters,
how does it happen that, mindless, you become the fourth?]

Voltaire continues by drawing a sharp distinction between Creator and priest, saying that merely because God is sometimes poorly served is no reason to disrespect God Himself. In fact, it is clear enough that there is a God:

De lézards et de rats mon logis est rempli;
Mais l' architecte existe, et quiconque le nie
Sous le manteau du sage est atteint de manie.
Consulte Zoroastre, et Minos, et Solon,
Et le martyr Socrate, et le grand Cicéron:
Ils ont adoré tous un maître, un juge, un père.
Ce système sublime à l'homme est nécessaire.
C'est le sacré lien de la société,
Le premier fondement de la sainte équité,
Le frein du scélérat, l'espérance du juste.

[Of lizards and rats my lodge is full;
but the architect exists, and whoever denies it
under the guise of wisdom is touched with madness.
Ask Zoroaster, and Minos, and Solon,
And the martyr Socrates, and the great Cicero:
They adored one master, one judge, one father.
This sublime system is necessary for men.
It is the sacred bond of society,
first foundation of holy fairness,
bridle on the wicked, hope for the just.]

In other words, whatever imposters there may be, many of the wisest of humanity have recognized that the world points to its architect and that this architect must be revered as judge and father; and on the basis of this principle civilization has been built. But suppose the author of the Three Imposters were right in claiming that God does not exist? Even so, he would still be clueless:

Si les cieux, dépouillés de son empreinte auguste,
Pouvaient cesser jamais de le manifester,
Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer.
Que le sage l'annonce, et que les rois le craignent.
Rois, si vous m'opprimez, si vos grandeurs dédaignent
Les pleurs de l'innocent que vous faites couler,
Mon vengeur est au ciel: apprenez à trembler.
Tel est au moins le fruit d'une utile croyance.

[If the heavens, stripped of his august imprint,
were ever to cease to manifest him,
if God did not exist, one would have to invent him.
Let the sage announce him, and the kings fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your greatnesses disdain
the tears of the innocent that you make to flow,
my avenger is in heaven: learn to tremble.
Such is, at the least, the fruit of a useful belief.]

Here we find our dictum. The author of The Three Imposters argued that human beings invented the idea of God. Well, says Voltaire, reason shows that God exists, but even it did not, even if God did not exist, he would have to be invented. Why? Here Voltaire turns the argument of The Three Imposters on its head. Yes, the belief is useful for keeping people in bounds with fear, but it is the powerful and the mighty who are kept in bound by it. To protect the innocent from the oppression of the powerful, we must make it clear that those powerful can never get away with it, however clever or powerful they are; there is always a higher power, a higher law, that will bring them to justice. Belief in a just God is a means, one of the few, by which the poor and oppressed can fend off the powerful oppressor. If you oppress, you do see in the eyes of a judge who will wreak vengeance on you for the way you treat the poor and the innocent. If nothing else, whatever abuses, that is a powerful use. But even more than this, the belief assists the morality of the people:

Mais toi, raisonneur faux, dont la triste imprudence
Dans le chemin du crime ose les rassurer,
De tes beaux arguments quel fruit peux-tu tirer?
Tes enfants à ta voix seront-ils plus dociles?
Tes amis, au besoin, plus sûrs et plus utiles?
Ta femme plus honnête? et ton nouveau fermier,
Pour ne pas croire en Dieu, va-t-il mieux te payer?...
Ah! laissons aux humains la crainte et l'espérance.

But you, false reasoner, whose sad imprudence
reassures them on the path of crime,
what fruit can you draw from your beautiful arguments?
Will your children be more docile to your voice?
Your friends, in your need, more sure and more useful?
Your wife more honest? And your tenant,
will he pay you better for not believing in God?
Ah, leave humankind their fear and their hope!

It is the argument of The Three Imposters, not belief in God and an afterlife, that is useless; it will accomplish nothing. And it is the contempt of the author for fear and hope that is irrational: fear and hope, however limited they may be, are part of the moral life of human beings.

Voltaire goes on to argue contemptuously that the whole argument of the book is simply pointless. Can the author claim that Voltaire does not understand the infamies of superstition? Voltaire knows them better than the author does, having attacked them for fifty years.

Mais, de ce fanatisme ennemi formidable,
J'ai fait adorer Dieu quand j'ai vaincu le diable.
Je distinguai toujours de la religion
Les malheurs qu'apporta la superstition.

[But as the formidable enemy of this fanaticism,
I adored God when I vanquished the devil.
I have always distinguished from religion
the evils that support superstition.]

He has, he claims, done more good for religion than Luther or Calvin, having brought peace and tolerance to Europe, and he has contributed to what will become, eventually, a new era:

Je vois venir de loin ces temps, ces jours sereins,
Où la philosophie, éclairant les humains,
Doit les conduire en paix aux pieds du commun maître;
Le fanatisme affreux tremblera d'y paraître:
On aura moins de dogme avec plus de vertu.

[I see coming in the distance those times, those peaceful days,
where philosophy, enlightening humankind,
must bring them in peace to the feet of a common master;
fierce fanaticism will tremble to appear there:
there will be less dogma and more virtue.]

Thus the dictum is part of the freethinking Voltaire's attack on "un athéisme grossier, sans esprit, et sans philosophie": it is his own deistic kind of freethinking, not the crude atheism of the author of The Three Imposters, so contemptuous of the oppressed, that will enlighten Europe. The idea is that even if (per impossibile) God did not exist, he would have to be invented; he is essential to Voltaire's view of Enlightenment and tolerance.

Santayana on Naturalism

An interesting passage from Santayana's Three Philosophical Poets:

There are two maxims in Lucretius that suffice, even to this day, to distinguish a thinker who is a naturalist from one who is not. "Nothing," he says, "arises in the body in order that we may use it, but what arises brings forth its use." This is that discarding of final causes on which all progress in science depends. The other maxim runs: "One thing will grow plain when compared with another: and blind night shall not obliterate the path for thee, before thou hast thoroughly scanned the ultimate things of nature; so much will things throw light on things." Nature is her own standard; and if she seems to us unnatural, there is no hope for our minds.

He later goes on to add more to his account of naturalism, discussing its role in Lucretius's poetry:

No, the poetry of nature may be discerned merely by the power of intuition which it awakens and the understanding which it employs. These faculties, more, I should say, than our moodiness or stuffy dreams, draw taut the strings of the soul, and bring out her full vitality and music. Naturalism is a philosophy of observation, and of an imagination that extends the observable; all the sights and sounds of nature enter into it, and lend it their directness, pungency, and coercive stress. At the same time, naturalism is an intellectual philosophy; it divines substance behind appearance, continuity behind change, law behind fortune. It therefore attaches all those sights and sounds to a hidden background that connects and explains them. So understood, nature has depth as well as surface, force and necessity as well as sensuous variety. Before the sublimity of this insight, all forms of the pathetic fallacy seem cheap and artificial. Mythology, that to a childish mind is the only possible poetry, sounds like bad rhetoric in comparison. The naturalistic poet abandons fairy land, because he has discovered nature, history, the actual passions of man. His imagination has reached maturity; its pleasure is to dominate, not to play.

That last note sounds rather more ominous in our day and age than it could have in Santayana's; but it's in a long tradition of what counts as maturity of mind.

The book itself is quite interesting; it's intended to be a "first broad lesson in the history of philosophy -- and, perhaps, in philosophy itself," but it does so by looking at Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe as each summing up an entire philosophical approach to the world: Lucretius is the poet of naturalism, Dante the poet of supernaturalism, Goethe the poet of romanticism. While poetry doesn't allow room for the heavy step-by-step reasoning of philosophical investigation, Santayana thinks it has a great affinity for the visions of the world that such investigation eventually reaches. Thus, what he is trying to do in the second passage above is give an indication of how naturalism allows for the sublimity that makes a Lucretius, i.e., a truly great poet writing a truly great naturalistic poem, possible in the first place.

If I read him correctly, Santayana doesn't think Lucretian naturalism is quite adequate. The other two poets Santayana considers are Dante and Goethe, who with Lucretius he takes to sum up all of European philosophy, and I think his sympathies are more on the Goethe side of things -- Goethe is, so to speak, the synthesis of the thesis of Lucretius and the antithesis of Dante, and is the poet who sums up the modern age. But in the end Santayana faces us with the puzzle that each of the three gives us something that is very desirable, both rationally and vitally: philosophy and poetry alike find in each of naturalism, supernaturalism, and romanticism something they cannot afford to lose. Thus in the end I think Santayana is committed to saying that, sitting at the feet of Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe we learn that we still have much to learn, for the philosophical has not yet been finished, and the poet has not yet arisen, that can give us the vision of the world that captures everything that reason and life need and find in each of the three poets.

One Sad, Contrite Heart

A poem by Rumi, as translated (according to Alger), by one "Professor Falconer," who otherwise I do not know:
Text not available
The poetry of the Orient By William Rounseville Alger

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Those Who Cannot Remember the Past

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

I don't know how long I'll keep up this series, but the idea of looking at the context of well-known philosophical sentences still seems good after having considered it a while. So I thought I'd start, not with one of my original thirty, but with Dave M's excellent suggestion of Santayana's famous dictum. One sees quite a bit of variation in how it is quoted; but the above formulation is the original, from Santayana's Life of Reason. It's one whose context I didn't know offhand, so it interested me as well.

I. George Santayana

First, let's get some background on Santayana himself. Santayana was born in Madrid in December of 1863 to a diplomatic family. He was christened with the name Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, but he was often called George, due in part to his half-sister Susan. By the time he was about eight years old his family had for various reasons begun to live in Boston, where Santayana lived the next forty years of his life. He attended Harvard and almost immediately joined the faculty there, where he became a very popular teacher. After his retirement from Harvard he went to Europe and never returned to the United States. He died of cancer in 1952 and is buried in Rome. Wallace Stevens, one of his former students, commemorated him in his poem, "To an Old Philosopher in Rome", sometimes considered one of Stevens's best poems.

Much of Santayana's philosophical work, which took part in the Pragmatist movement, is aesthetic in character; he was fascinated by the human imagination and strove to investigate its many ins and outs, and held that one of philosophy's chief purposes was to proclaim and rejoice in those aspects of life that make it worth living. It's rather unfortunate that the above maxim is nearly the only thing anyone ever quotes him for, because he is very quotable. Here are a few quotables from him:

A man's feet should be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world.

Wisdom and happiness consist in having recast natural energies in the furnace of experience.

Only the dead have seen the end of war.

An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world.

There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.

For an idea ever to be fashionable is ominous, since it must afterwards be always old-fashioned.

History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.

Religion is an imaginative echo of things natural and moral.

The life of reason is a heritage and exists only through tradition.

The list could be extended considerably.

II. Life of Reason

The five-volume Life of Reason is one of Santayana's masterworks. On Santayana's view, reason is a sort of vital force combining both judgment and feeling, ideation and instinct. Through reason we take all our impulses and desires and compare them with our ideas and ideals, and we cannot rid ourselves of either one. The life of reason, therefore, requires a certain sort of cultivation of the art of living. This is what he tries to lay out in the Life of Reason volumes: how all our life is built up by the slow, steady mastering of impulse and experience by reflection. William James was somewhat ambivalent about the work. In a letter he wrote:

Santayana's book is a great one, if the inclusion of opposites is a measure of greatness. I think it will probably be reckoned great by posterity. It has no rational foundation, being merely one man's way of viewing things: so much of experience admitted and no more, so much criticism and questioning admitted and no more. He is a paragon of Emersonianism — declare your intuitions, though no other man share them; and the integrity with which he does it is as fine as it is rare. And his naturalism, materialism, Platonism, and atheism form a combination of which the centre of gravity is, I think, very deep. But there is something profoundly alienating in his unsympathetic tone, his "preciousness" and superciliousness. The book is Emerson's first rival and successor, but how different the reader's feeling! The same things in Emerson's mouth would sound entirely different. E. receptive, expansive, as if handling life through a wide funnel with a great indraught; S. as if through a pin-point orifice that emits his cooling spray outward over the universe like a nose-disinfectant from an "atomizer."

I confess that the precise meaning of that last metaphor somewhat eludes me.

III. Remembering the Past

The passage from which the maxim about remembering the past was taken (from volume I of Life of Reason):

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.

The basic idea here, I take it, is not a moral one, but quite simply an observation about human nature. As already noted, on Santayana's view reason is the combination of impulse and reflection, and, in particular, it is reflection's slow exploration or mastery of experience over time. This increasing mastery is slow and gradual, and therefore it requires the retention of past victories. In other words, the point is simply that learning is cumulative. It's not a statement about history, as such, as it is often taken to be; rather, the point is that learning requires remembering what has been learned before.

But Santayana's literary style, for which he was famous even in his own day, has perhaps overreached his intent; the statement about remembering the past is itself very memorable, and once it got out on its own into the vast world, it was inevitable that it would build up a history and a set of associations that it did not have when it was a young observation in the text of Santayana.

IV. Resources

George Santayana at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

George Santayana at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


John Wilkins notes in the comments that the relevant volume of Life of Reason is online. He says of the chapter: "I chased this quote down some time back for my book. The chapter, 'Flux and Constancy' is a not bad attempt to come to terms with the new world view of evolution, cosmic and biological, and the idea that history is constantly blurring the boundaries."

The Rural Walk Through Lanes

For I have loved the rural walk through lanes
Of grassy swarth, close cropped by nibbling sheep
And skirted thick with intertexture firm
Of thorny boughs; have loved the rural walk
O’er hills, through valleys, and by rivers’ brink,
E’er since a truant boy I passed my bounds
To enjoy a ramble on the banks of Thames;
And still remember, nor without regret
Of hours that sorrow since has much endeared,
How oft, my slice of pocket store consumed,
Still hungering, penniless and far from home,
I fed on scarlet hips and stony haws,
Or blushing crabs, or berries that emboss
The bramble, black as jet, or sloes austere.

William Cowper, from The Sofa. I think this passage alone would earn Cowper a place as a magnificent poetic talent.

Philosophical Sentences

One thing I've learned in blogging is that only a few people read the posts you work hard on and many people read your throw-away posts. Another thing I've learned is that an extraordinary number of people around the world, day in and day out, type the phrase "philosophical sentences" into the search engine, because this light little bit consistently gets several hits a day, making it my highest-traffic post in five years of blogging. The post is just a list, in no particular order, of philosophical statements that are widely recognized even by non-philosophers, even if they do not know the source. I came up with thirty that I've found floating around in the culture at large in some form or other:

1. I think therefore I am. (Descartes)
2. Virtue is its own reward. (Cicero)
3. I proclaim that might is right, and justice, the interest of the stronger. (Plato, but not his own view)
4. God is dead. (Nietzsche)
5. The unexamined life is not worth living for man. (Plato)
6. It [the just state] will be possible when, and only when, kings are philosophers and philosophers are kings. (Plato)
7. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. (Emerson)
8. Man is by nature a political animal. (Aristotle)
9. To us, probability is the very guide to life. (Butler)
10. All men desire to know. (Aristotle)
11. Philosophy begins in wonder. (Plato)
12. Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth. (Aristotle)
13. Reason is, and only ought to be, the slave of the passions. (Hume)
14. Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains. (Rousseau)
15. What is time, then? If nobody asks me, I know; if I have to explain it to someone who has asked me, I do not know. (Augustine)
16. Give me chastity and continence, but not yet. (Augustine, describing the real meaning of his prayers for chastity after his conversion)
17. Love and do what you will. (Augustine)
18. The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. (Pascal)
19. Why is there something rather than nothing? (Liebniz)
20. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. (John Stuart Mill)
21. That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers. (Hutcheson - although it was due to other people that it became popular)
22. Everything is what it is, and not another thing. (Butler)
23. Truth is the cry of all, but the game of few. (Berkeley)
24. To be is to be perceived. (Berkeley, of ideas)
25. God and nature do nothing in vain. (Aristotle)
26. There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it. (Cicero)
27. We go to war in order to live in peace. (Aristotle)
28. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. (Marx)
29. Religion is the opiate of the people. (Marx)
30. Justice is rendering each person his due. (Plato, quoting Simonides)

Have you come across others? The idea would be statements that people remember either intact or with only a little bit of distortion, as opposed to simple phrases like, say, 'invisible hand'. If you think of any, I'll put them up.

UPDATE: It just occurred to me that there is room for a series of philosophical posts that took each of these sentences and explained what they meant in context, etc. These are little fragments of philosophy that lots of people come across at least here and there in their lives, so why not use them as seed crystals for somewhat deeper philosophical inquiry? It might be worth trying out, at least. Does anyone else think so?

UPDATE II: Some good suggestions:

Whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence. (Wittgenstein)
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (Santayana)
There is nothing outside the text. (Derrida)
Existence precedes essence. (Sartre)
Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. (Pascal)
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. (Voltaire)
All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. (Voltaire's Pangloss)
That which does not kill us makes us stronger. (Nietzsche)
He used also to say...that he knew nothing, except the fact of his ignorance. (Socrates, according to Diogenes Laertius)
Everything flows, nothing stays. (Heraclitus, quoted by Plato)

UPDATE III: Welcome Brad DeLong readers! Thanks for the additional suggestions. (I'll put them up as soon as I've had a chance, real life allowing, to verify their original forms.)

For also knowledge itself is power. (Bacon -- I can't believe I hadn't thought of this one before!)
The world is all that is the case. (Wittgenstein)

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Five Years

Five years ago today this weblog began as a sort of open notebook for my thoughts. The name comes, ultimately, from the Iliad. Zeus, talking to the other gods, affirms his superiority over them all by suggesting a test of power:

Make ye fast from heaven a chain of gold, and lay ye hold thereof, all ye gods and all goddesses; yet could ye not drag to earth from out of heaven Zeus the counsellor most high, not though ye laboured sore. But whenso I were minded to draw of a ready heart, then with earth itself should I draw you and with sea withal; and the rope should I thereafter bind about a peak of Olympus and all those things should hang in space. By so much am I above gods and above men.

The Greek here is seiren chruseien ex ouranothen kremasantes: A chain of gold from heaven hang. Plato mentions this passage in the Theaetetus, and one finds it peaking out here and there at various times. But the particular form 'siris' is due to George Berkeley.

Berkeley's Siris, subtitled, "A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water, and Diverse Other Subjects Connected Together and Arising from One Another," is a somewhat unusual work first published in 1744. As the subtitle suggests, part of Siris's concern is with reflecting on tar-water, a home remedy which Berkeley had discovered in the Americas, and which he thought (in combination with reducing alcohol intake and increasing exercise) would help effect a revolution in the health of the poor, at a very cheap and affordable cost. But the work does not stop at tar-water; from tar-water it goes on to speculation about the nature of the world, rising higher and higher until ultimately it reaches God, and ultimately a series of hints gathered from various Platonic and Neo-Platonic sources suggestive of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Berkeley saw Siris as describing the ascent up a chain that began at the lowest part of the universe, something as insignificant as tar, and step-by-step rose up to the very throne of God, and thus borrowed the image from the Iliad of a golden chain from tar to God. This image is most explicitly developed in his poem, "On Tar," which serves as a sort of summary of the view of the world laid out in Siris.

'Siris', then, is Berkeley's Anglicization of the Greek word for 'chain'; it thus shares an etymological relationship (although how close is difficult to say) with the Latin word 'series', which can also mean 'chain', and which, of course, gives us the English word spelled in the same way. The name seems fitting enough for a weblog, which is a series of posts, and in particular for the sort of weblog a notebook of my thoughts would inevitably have to be -- ranging, as noted in the header of this blog, from very simple, perhaps even silly things, like tar-water, up to divine things. Seiren chruseien kremasantes is the motto: Hang up a chain of gold.

As time has passed it has seemed more and more to me that blogging, done properly, is a very Romantic medium; that is, it is (whatever the content of one's philosophical views) a style or an approach very much in keeping with that of Romantic philosophy. The Romantics tried to return to philosophy the important idea of ingenium, or wit, the faculty of discovery or invention. Schlegel calls it "fragmentary genius" and "logical sociability". saw philosophy as having the potential to combine in itself science and poetry, truth and sublimity. Good posts are exercises of wit: ways of doing philosophy, directly or indirectly, through aphorism and anecdote, commentary and conversation, all very Romantic forms of publication. Moreover, the blogosphere, albeit only within certain sharp limits, allows for what the Romantics called Symphilosophie: exchange of ideas so rapid and fluid that in a sense philosophy, without ceasing to be individual in pursuit, becomes communal, collaborative, and social by its very nature. A symphony of reason, so to speak, in which we each play our own notes but at the same time are interacting with each other so that our notes continually play off the notes of others. The Romantics would have loved jazz music. They argued that reason should not be thin, watery, calculating stuff, but instead thick and fiery, like intellectual electricity infusing a poetic style of thought. And this requires that philosophy be carried not by mere academics pursuing merely academic questions, but by friends in conversation: philosophical friendship that allows for a philosophy that is in some sense a communal work of art. The ability of blogging to contribute to this is only limited, but I think it's undeniable that to some extent it does exist: blogging done well makes up a part of the conversible world of ideas.

There is a third way in which blogging is a very Romantic thing, and that is its fragmentary and on-the-fly nature. The Romantics saw themselves as engaged in a massive reform of philosophy; but philosophy is an infinite discipline, vast beyond any one mind. How can such a reform even get off the ground? By recognizing the importance of workshop philosophy. Even if your ideas are jumbled, they still have value as rough drafts. Just as the rough draft of a work of art is itself a valuable element of the creative process, so too the rough draft of a potentially beautiful, or forceful, or fruitful idea is a valuable element of reasoning. The Romantics took this in a strong sense; Schlegel at one point says that if a person can't make a crayon-sketch of an idea, or sketch a thought in a few pen strokes, philosophy can never be either an art or science. This is one reason why the Romantics liked aphorisms and fragments so much: each aphorism or fragment is a pen-sketch, in a few strokes, of a powerful idea or set of ideas. And while bloggers rarely reach the brilliance of those pen-sketches, it makes sense to see blogging as the same sort of thing: fragment-publication, draft-presentation. Posts are, to use the phrases of Novalis, "pollen" or "literary seedings". They are not the full-grown ideas, but we scatter them liberally and sometimes they fertilize or seed another person's mind, to the benefit of us all. There's that Symphilosophie again.

It is no secret, however, that blogging is often associated with bad habits; and even if all the above were true, if blogging (whether active blogging, i.e., writing posts, or passive blogging, i.e., reading blogs) makes you a worse person, you obviously shouldn't be doing it. So what counts as the ethical practice of blogging? And, what is more, how does one integrate blogging into one's overall self-improvement (which is often a different thing)? By happenstance one day I came across a 'Code of Amiability' written out by the Venerable Maria Teresa Josefina Justina Gonzalez-Quevedo (more commonly noted as Ven. Teresita Gonzalez-Quevedo) for her nuns. The Code was as follows:

The virtue of amiability results from the fusion of several strong virtues. It is the all things to all men that grows out of charity: the knowledge of self that humility teaches; the pure detachment found in mortification; the meekness born of patience; and the undaunted courage won of perseverance... The Code of Amiability obliges one:

1. To smile until a kindly smile forms readily on one's lips.
2. To repress a sign of impatience at the very start.
3. To add a word of benevolence when giving orders.
4. To reply positively when asked to do a favor.
5. To lend a helping hand to the unfortunate.
6. To please those toward whom one feels repugnance.
7. To study and satisfy the tastes of those with whom one lives.
8. To respect everyone.
9. To avoid complaining.
10. To correct, if one must, with kindness.

These are the dispositions which union with the amiable Virgin will place in our heart.

The Code was not written with blogging in mind, of course, but it seemed to me that it would be a good idea at least to try to embody the Code of Amiability on this weblog. I have a fairly affable temperament as it is, so it didn't seem like it would be wholly out of the realm of possibility that I could do a fair job being amiable in the blogosphere. I didn't think it would be easy, but I think even so I underestimated the difficulties of following such a Code; blogging is a medium very conducive to impatience (against (2)), ranting (against (9)), and unkind correction (against (10)). It doesn't help that my sense of humor is naturally acidic, that I have very little patience for certain ways of thinking, and that, as one of the major things I do is criticize reasoning, I am sometimes in risky territory from the very beginning. So I can't, unfortunately, say that I've been as amiable as I should have been in every case; but over time I've developed some rules to help me do a better job. For instance, when I feel I've been overharsh, I try to allow the other person the last word even if I think I'm actually getting the better of the argument. It's irrational to think that every argument needs to be argued out to the very bitter end every time it is raised, and there are many, many arguments where both sides would be better off shelving the dispute until they have had time to cool down and think things through more thoroughly. When you are arguing you want to argue it out to the bitter end; but this is often not a good thing at all, either for the people arguing or for the rational integrity of the argument itself. And I have a few other rules that follow, a bit more loosely. It's all a work in progress, a sort of ethical experiment. So far I've been pleased with the overall results, since I think I have become more thoughtful and less quick to rush in where angels fear to tread. But there are miles to go. It's an ongoing discipline rather than an achieved perfection.

According to Blogger's count, I have in five years published nearly 3,700 posts here at Siris. I have learned an immense amount in that five years, for which I thank you all. To celebrate my five years blogging here, I will here and there, over the next few months, re-visit some old posts, perhaps re-posting them with revision if I think they've stood the test of time, perhaps correcting them if I think I went wrong in some way. I'll probably also rework the sidebar a bit, and may explore a number of other things. Mostly, however, it will be the same old Siris, which is still, as it was when it began, a forum to let my mind be unruly.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Man of System and His Chess-Board

In the previous post I mentioned Adam Smith's chess-board analogy in VI.ii.42; I thought I'd put it up, because it is a salutary reminder for anyone dabbling in politics of any sort.

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

How You Play the Game

In Part VII of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments we find an interesting analogy developed between Stoicism and certain views of sportsmanship. Says Smith:

Human life the Stoics appear to have considered as a game of great skill; in which, however, there was a mixture of chance, or of what is vulgarly understood to be chance. In such games the stake is commonly a trifle, and the whole pleasure of the game arises from playing well, from playing fairly, and playing skilfully. If notwithstanding all his skill, however, the good player should, by the influence of chance, happen to lose, the loss ought to be a matter, rather of merriment, than of serious sorrow. He has made no false stroke; he has done nothing which he ought to be ashamed of; he has enjoyed completely the whole pleasure of the game. If, on the contrary, the bad player, notwithstanding all his blunders, should, in the same manner, happen to win, his success can give him but little satisfaction. He is mortified by the remembrance of all the faults which he committed. (VII.ii.28)

Thus the Stoics can be seen as having the same view of life itself that we are often encouraged to have about games: it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play. The prize for winning is far and away less important than the pride of playing well:

Human life, with all the advantages which can possibly attend it, ought, according to the Stoics, to be regarded but as a mere two-penny stake; a matter by far too insignificant to merit any anxious concern. Our only anxious concern ought to be, not about the stake, but about the proper method of playing. If we placed our happiness in winning the stake, we placed it in what depended upon causes beyond our power, and out of our direction. We necessarily exposed ourselves to perpetual fear and uneasiness, and frequently to grievous and mortifying disappointments. If we placed it in playing well, in playing fairly, in playing wisely and skilfully; in the propriety of our own conduct in short; we placed it in what, by proper discipline, education, and attention, might be altogether in our own power, and under our own direction. Our happiness was perfectly secure, and beyond the reach of fortune. (VII.ii.28)

One of the interesting things about Smith's writing is his very clever use of analogies to convey points; he must have been an excellent teacher. Here he is trying to set up the reader to understand more accurately the Stoic idea that they would probably have found most perplexing, namely, philosophical suicide. He uses a similar approach elsewhere; another very striking one is the chess-board in VI.ii.42.

One of the interesting threads in the Scottish Enlightenment is the influence of Stoicism on the major thinkers of the time. This has been studied to some extent; but it's one of those areas where more is always needed, because Scottish thinkers like Smith and Hume put an immense effort into understanding the Stoics and adapting their views to eighteenth century society.

(cross-posted at Houyhnhnm Land)

Iustinus Martyr

Today is the feast of St. Justin, Martyr and Philosopher. From his Second Apology:

For no one trusted in Socrates so as to die for this doctrine, but in Christ, who was partially known even by Socrates (for He was and is the Word who is in every man, and who foretold the things that were to come to pass both through the prophets and in His own person when He was made of like passions, and taught these things), not only philosophers and scholars believed, but also artisans and people entirely uneducated, despising both glory, and fear, and death; since He is a power of the ineffable Father, not the mere instrument of human reason.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Three Poem Drafts

Fickle Water

Fickle water
cupped by firm Rock
forms deep pools;

I flow here,
I flow there.
You alone uphold me,
make me still.

In the Dark and Dead of Night

In the dark and dead of night
I feel your glory still inside;
through the sorrow and the pain
I see your rainbow in the rain;
and as the wind moves through the leaves
your Holy Spirit moves through me:
through the dark and through the storm
you lead us onward to our home.


How lovely is a library:
books like berries on a bush,
bursting in the mind, many-flavored,
full of light and life, sweet knowledge
reaching toward the vital sun,
ripening from the flower
in gift and propagation!


Whitsun Day
by Christina Rossetti

'When the Day of Pentecost was fully come'

At sound as of rushing wind, and sight as of fire,
Lo flesh and blood made spirit and fiery flame,
Ambassadors in Christ's and the Father's Name,
To woo back a world's desire.

These men chose death for their life and shame for their boast,
For fear courage, for doubt intuition of faith,
Chose love that is strong as death and stronger than death
In the power of the Holy Ghost.