Saturday, August 29, 2009

Behind To-Morrow's Door

The Day of Days
by William Morris

Each eve earth falleth down the dark,
As though its hope were o'er;
Yet lurks the sun when day is done
Behind to-morrow's door.

Grey grows the dawn while men-folk sleep,
Unseen spreads on the light,
Till the thrush sings to the coloured things,
And earth forgets the night.

No otherwise wends on our Hope:
E'en as a tale that's told
Are fair lives lost, and all the cost
Of wise and true and bold.

We've toiled and failed; we spake the word;
None hearkened; dumb we lie;
Our Hope is dead, the seed we spread
Fell o'er the earth to die.

What's this? For joy our hearts stand still,
And life is loved and dear,
The lost and found the Cause hath crowned,
The Day of Days is here.

From his Poems by the Way.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ambrose on the Ring of Gyges

As told in The Republic by Plato's character Glaucon (Herodotus tells it differently), the lowly Gyges rose to be king of Lydia when he came across a tomb that held a magical ring. When the setting was turned toward the palm, he became invisible. By turning it back out, he became visible. Using the ring he was able to seduce the queen, kill the king, and seize power. This story, says Glaucon, sums up the view of Thrasymachus and others like him. There is a distinction between the morals of nature and the morals of convention, and it is the former, of course, that is natural to us. In the morality of nature it is better to do evil than to suffer it, and thus it is the morality of the strong and intelligent; but the weak and stupid are many, and, afraid of the strong, they put into effect a morality of convention, in which it is better to suffer evil than to do it. But they do this only because they are weak; if the power of Gyges came suddenly into their hands, or if they were able to seem just without being just, they all would forget their high artificial principles. However loudly they might say that it is better to be just than to seem just, they would rather have the benefits of seeming just, and not have the constraints of being just. We are all Gyges: give us the ring and we will take power.

Socrates has his own answer to this, which I won't get into here. It's interesting, however, to read St. Ambrose's response to the Ring of Gyges, which he addresses in his work De Officiis, usually called in English, "On the Duties of the Clergy." Very few people seem to know anything about it, but it's a classic of virtue ethics.*

Ambrose dismisses the story as a made-up tale; and the reason he does so is that he thinks we can learn more from real-life cases.** And he argues, using the examples of David protecting King Saul despite the fact that the latter was attempting to kill him and of John the Baptist facing down Herod, that there are clear real-life cases of people who do not succomb to the temptation of Gyges, but instead face even danger and death rather than do something unjust. We don't need the "pretense of a ring" to see that a wise man will rather face punishment than than do wrong. He then continues:

But although that fable has not the force of truth, yet it has this much to go upon, that if an upright man could hide himself, yet he would avoid sin just as though he could not conceal himself; and that he would not hide his person by putting on a ring, but his life by putting on Christ.

And he concludes that we should therefore not let expediency get the better of virtue, but, like the upright man, regard virtue as superior to expediency.

* Lest I be misunderstood, I should clarify this. The De Officiis is not a treatise on virtues but on (as you might guess) offices. The distinction is an important one in ancient virtue ethics that is almost entirely lacking in contemporary virtue ethics. Ambrose's De Officiis is effectively a Christianized version of Cicero's De Officiis. Cicero is presupposing a Stoic distinction between virtue, which in the Stoic view is the only good, and duty or office, which are derived from virtues but not virtues themselves. Offices, unlike virtues, presuppose well-defined social roles; while virtue relates directly to our final end, offices are primarily directed to ordering our everyday life and only indirectly to our final end; virtues are universal, offices can vary according to circumstances (although different offices differ in how much they vary). The distinction played and important role in early modern moral theory: the virtue theories of both Hutcheson and Hume are very Ciceronian, but Hume treats Cicero's De Officiis as a treatise on virtues. Hutcheson's view is that this Humean conflation is one of the fatal flaws in Hume's moral philosophy. Today's 'virtue ethicists' are Humean in this regard. Ambrose, however, is a solid Ciceronian: his book on offices is based on an account of virtue, but he doesn't conflate offices with virtues. They are a subordinate, secondary, derivative, field of inquiry.

** St. Ambrose's version differs slightly from Plato's version; in his account of the story, the message of the story is that "The hiding-place of the wise lies not in the hope of impunity but in his own innocency". This is indeed the message one eventually takes away, after Socrates is done with it; but it's not the immediate point of the tale, which is to present an argument for exactly the opposite conclusion. The reason is that Ambrose is not getting the story directly from Plato but from Cicero's De Officiis, and this (very Stoic) reading is Cicero's reading -- even the remark just quoted is found in Cicero. It's actually rather interesting, because Ambrose does not slavishly follow Cicero: Cicero immediately goes on to defend Plato against the charge that the story is false and fabulous by insisting that it is a hypothetical, while Ambrose dismisses it for precisely the same reason.

Links and Links

* An excellent discussion of science popularization by Chad Orzel.

* Zuska on genius.

* Some interesting discussion of natural rights at "Positive Liberty"

Hanley on Natural Rights
Natural Rights Crank Speaks
Rights, Act III
Rights and Dangers

* A good column by Pankaj Mishra on Islam in Europe. (ht)

* Larry Moran has an interesting and, I think, cogent set of criticisms of Robert Wright.

* Time for a dose of scholasticism! The Everyday Thomist discusses A Thomistic Response to N. T. Wright on Metaphysics, Trinitarian Formulas, and the Historical Jesus. James Chastek of "Just Thomism" looks at the same topic a step farther back in If you don't like Scholasticism, don't study it. Meanwhile, Ralph McInerny has a post at "The Catholic Thing," Philosophia Perennis, which Lee Faber at "The Smithy" discusses in Thomistic Mediations; Or, a Scotist Looks at Vatican II.

* Luca Cardelli, Abstract Machines of Systems Biology (PDF), discusses the diagramming of biological systems.

* The CESNUR conference on mainstreaming and marginalization of religious movements has some interesting papers online. (ht)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

All Within Is Dark as Night

The Deserted House
by Alfred Tennyson

1. Life and Thought have gone away
Side by side,
Leaving door and windows wide:
Careless tenants they!

2. All within is dark as night:
In the windows is no light;
And no murmur at the door,
So frequent on its hinge before.

3. Close the door, the shutters close,
Or thro' the windows we shall see
The nakedness and vacancy
Of the dark deserted house.

4. Come away : no more of mirth
Is here or merry-making sound.
The house was builded of the earth,
And shall fall again to ground.

5. Come away : for Life and Thought
Here no longer dwell;
But in a city glorious —
A great and distant city —have bought
A mansion incorruptible.
Would they could have stayed with us!

Macabre, but Tennyson is often macabre; a sort of ghoulish sense of humor often plays through his work. Cells of madness, haunts of horror and fear....

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reid on Three Kinds of Natural Sign

Thomas Reid, as he tells us himself, was originally a Berkeleyan, although that changed when reading Hume's Treatise on Human Nature forced him to rethink his epistemology, and in particular his view of the role of ideas in epistemology. But here and there one can see signs that show his Berkeleyan origin, and his interest in natural signs is certainly one of them, even bearing traces of Berkeleyan language.

Natural signs Reid takes to differ from artificial signs in the fact that the suggestion (of what is signified by the sign) is in the case of artificial signs based on habit and custom; but in the case of natural signs it is based on the way our minds are constituted. He identifies three classes of natural signs.

In the first class are signs whose connection to what they signify is established by nature and discovered through experience. Science is based on the discovery of such signs -- causes as the signs of effects and so forth -- and so Reid uses Bacon's phrase interpretation of nature to describe this class.

The second class of natural signs is the class of signs that are not only established by nature but are known by some basic principle of our minds when we experience it. These Reid calls the natural language of mankind because they underlie all our communications. An infant, for instance, is frightened by an angry face and soothed by a smiling one. According to Reid, the ultimate principles of taste are all found here; taste is refined by reasoning and experience, but without the basic principles we'd have no taste to refine at all. The ability to appreciate this or that would simply not be part of the world as we experience.

The third class of natural signs consists of cases where the thing signified is suggested by the sign even though we have never actually experienced the thing signified (except through the sign, of course). What is built into us is not merely the ability to recognize the connection between sign and signified, as in the second class, but also the ability to know the signified at all. In the second class we can experience both sign and signified and know the connection by our natural ability. But in the case of the third class we only know the signified because the signs "conjure it up, as it were by a natural kind of magic, and at once give us a conception, and create a belief of it." For instance, our perceptions, thoughts, and desires suggest several features of the mind that has them even though we have no experience of our minds except through them: they suggest, for instance, that it has a continuing existence that underlies all of these thoughts. We have no sensation of this continuing existence, so it is not something we experience at all except insofar as we find it suggested by what we do directly experience. And the same is true, of course, when we extend the question to other minds than our own. Likewise, Reid suggests that hardness is another signified that we know only through its signs: we have a certain feeling of bodies and this suggests immediately something about their constitution, so immediately, in fact, that we easily confound the two.

Reid sums up this classification in an interesting passage (Inquiry, Chapter 5, Section 3):

It may be observed, that, as the first class of natural signs I have mentioned is the foundation of true philosophy, and the second the foundation of the fine arts, or of taste--so the last is the foundation of common sense--a part of human nature which hath never been explained.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Opposite of Cruelty

Philip Hallie on the people of the tiny French village of Le Chambon in Haute-Loire, which consisted mostly of fundamentalists and conservative Huguenots who risked their lives saving around 6000 Jews (more than the population of the village) during the Holocaust, and who, although poor, shared everything they had with Jews in need:

But for me as a student of cruelty they were something more: they were an embodiment of the opposite of cruelty. And so, somehow, at last, I had found goodness in opposition to cruelty. In studying their story, and in telling it in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, I learned that the opposite of cruelty is not simply freedom from the cruel relationship; it is hospitality. It lies not only in something negative, an absence of cruelty or of imbalance; it lies in unsentimental, efficacious love. The opposite of the cruelties of the camps was not the liberation of the camps, the cleaning out of the barracks and the cessation of the horrors. All of this was the end of the cruelty relationship, not the opposite of that relationship. And it was not even the end of it, because the victims would never forget and would remain in agony as long as they remembered their humiliation and suffering. No, the opposite of cruelty was the not the liberation of the camps, not freedom; it was the hospitality of the people of Chambon, and of very few others during the Holocaust.

[Philip Hallie, "From Cruelty to Goodness," in Christina Sommers & Fred Sommers, Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, Harcourt College Publishers (2001) pp. 14-15.]

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Three Poem Drafts and a Re-Draft

Things continue to be quiet around here as I prepare for the new term. The re-draft is the third, which is based on Euripides, of course. It still needs work, but I write a good Medea, I think.

Faith, Hope, and Love

A splendid bird
winging homeward
shines in the sun;
home is in him--
it guides him long miles
to a high eyrie,
the very fire
born of the sun's light,
the heart of life.


Somewhere in infinity
the numbers flow beyond our minds;
at some point in eternity
are thoughts that free and ties that bind.
But here on earth with you, with me,
the simple things still bear a trace
of weird and wild divinity,
of backward glimpses of God's face,
and we may of this goodness taste:
your sighs are charms of ecstasy,
my poems Christian witchery,
and 'tween us both the world may find
a thread that God alone can wind.


Sit astride the starlit dome,
speak the words of ancient tales
that make the skies our rightful home
seen fitfully through the gloaming veils.
The stars for our chariot never fail;
their paces show their stock and blood,
more fair, divine, and purely good
than elfling gods in silver mail.

As I walked this twilight wood
I saw the stars and understood
that men who on the earth still roam
will face the force of storm and gale,
but stars yet shine on sand and loam
as tales are told; thus all is well.

Medea to Jason

I saved your life; they saw me save it
who stood on the Argos-decks and saw
the ships come rushing like sea-gull's flight
with spray of the sea and sign of the sun,
bearing down on you like morning light.
My dearest brother, my father's son,
who in the sunlit gardens had played,
my dearest kin, my sweetest soul, --
with the bronze at my side I gave him the night,
I sent him to darkness of death and of sea.
As his blood licked the foam and lept on the wave,
spreading on current like wind-blown fog,
I saved your life. They saw me save it
when you sowed the seed of the dragon's teeth,
when the gods were against you, and without friend
you wandered, but I was good to you,
and I, half-crazed with love for you,
saved your life in spite of the gods.
Now all of these years in a little box
as a little wife in a little town
my blood I've hid out of love for you,
my divinity hot with the heat of the sun,
my fire and fierceness, to be your wife,
to be a Greek; and for endless days
I bore the trial of name and despite--
barbarian! witch! vile of blood! --
I, who am kin of the holy sun! --
the names out of love I patiently bore,
and I bore the yoke, and I bore your sons,
for I was yours and you were mine,
your heart a trade for blood divine!
Until the day when your Hellene whore,
with her simpering ways and sluggish blood,
came calling and you crept away,
a worm, a snake, after lesser things,
who had had to bed the kin of the gods.
Then you hid yourself and your slimy sin
behind the faces of our sweetest sons;
'to free them from the stigma of blood' --
the stigma of me -- such a sun-bright sin,
to be a princess of a foreign land
where the god once wooed a Phoenician maid
who bore my father, a gold-rich king.
Such shame! How dare I, like a god to them,
live at all, when every Hellene born
by a simpering brat can better me!
Steal my life, and steal my soul,
and steal my sons to sate your sin,
and you will see, in a biting light,
in a fire that only the sun-born can light,
then you will see, like a burst dawn,
what it is that you stole, and in despair
you will rue the day your mother bore,
you will rue the light, you will rue the day,
you will rue the sun that makes you see,
and weep in the morning at dawning light!
For I am Medea; call me a witch,
a barbarian-slut, and curse my name,
but never again as the sun survives
will you stray from me in your slightest thought,
or cast me aside, or take me for nought;
for as long as you live, and wherever you go,
this pain will sear your inmost soul.

Material and Formal Complicity (repost)

This is a slightly modified repost of some jottings originally posted in 2007.

The usual question that arises when we talk about complicity in evil is, "In what evils are we really complicitous?" As it happens, I am universalist, or a near universalist, when it comes to complicity; I think that, as a matter of fact, there are few evils in which we do not tend to be complicitous. Of course, it makes it easy to answer the question in most cases -- we are really complicitous in most evils for which the question can arise at all. If we can seriously debate whether we are accomplices, it's usually a sign that we are. But it raises the complementary question: what do we do about our complicity in evil?

A distinction should perhaps be made between material complicity and formal complicity. Material complicity occurs when, given someone engaging in some wrongdoing, we make their wrongdoing possible through our association with them. Formal complicity occurs when through our association we make possible their wrongdoing in the very aspect in which their actions are wrong. It's a sharing in the very perversity of the action. Thus, if an antisemite insults a Jew, you and I are materially complicitous in the action; for instance, we allow the freedom of speech that makes possible the antisemite's wrongdoing. We become formally complicitous if we somehow share in the insult, for instance, by condoning it. This distinction between material and formal complicity is often not made; people tend to assume that the only complicity is formal complicity. The reason is not hard to find, I think; many cases of merely material complicity are not culpable, and we tend to assume that relationships that don't involve culpability involve no moral problem. Thus, we tend to assume our material complicity in the antisemite's action raises no moral problem; the moral problem only arises if we somehow directly share in its blameworthiness. It's clear, however, that this is an untenable assumption.

Not all moral problems have to do with culpability. Culpability, blame, usually suggests that we have lapsed in our responsibility; but there are moral problems that arise when we follow through on our responsibilities. A common problem of this type has to do with cases where we have to take responsibility for someone. If a family member misbehaves in an especially egregious way, for instance, we often can't simply shrug it off as not our fault. It doesn't always matter whether it is our fault; it is a moral problem we have to deal with. In a case like that of the antisemite, being innocent of antisemitism ourselves is not enough to resolve all moral problems. Our material complicity raises a serious moral problem that can't be shirked -- at least, shirking such problems is usually regarded by reflective people as itself blameworthy. At the very least, given that we basically allow the antisemite a space to insult Jews maliciously, we face the question: What are we to do about it? (I won't argue it here, but I would suggest that in fact all rights recognized by society work in exactly this way: By recognizing a right, we affirm that we will all accept responsibility for any problems following from the exercise of that right, because we regard the right as sufficiently important for such a serious commitment. Thus all recognition of rights raises the question of material complicity in the abuse of such rights.)

One of the tricky things about material complicity is that we often can't rid ourselves of it. There are very good reasons why we should allow the freedom of speech the antisemite is able to abuse. So we can't deal with the problem of material complicity by eliminating the right. Are we just stuck with an unresolvable problem? I don't think so. I think there's a natural resolution to (at least many) problems of material complicity, namely, developing forms of solidarity that counteract the problem in question. To return to the antisemite example, the most natural and obvious response to antisemitism is solidarity with the victims of antisemitism.

I say 'natural' but not 'easy'. In fact solidarity is always a very difficult thing to establish. You don't establish solidarity with Jews in the face of antisemitism by saying, or even shouting, "Attention, everyone; I am in solidarity with all Jews everywhere." Solidarity involves working together with someone; this is impossible without establishing some set of shared interests, projects, desiderata, etc. and acting accordingly. Thus the resolution of the problem of material complicity is a serious change in one's life. Such a change doesn't eliminate our material complicity in wrongdoing, or, at least, does not usually do so; it involves taking a stand against the wrongdoing itself, in union with those who are wronged. It involves speaking for the voiceless, defending the defenceless. All this is terribly difficult, and, more seriously, there is no way, by natural lights at least, to do it systematically. Every case is different, and we are complicitous in too many different things. To some degree we can prioritize. We are not equally complicitous in everything in which we are complicitous. Our associations with wrongdoing, even our innocent associations, are not all the same, and some raise problems more urgently than others. But even holding the solution to the problem of material complicity, we are still left with the problem. There are so many demands. The problem has a solution in principle; but practice is another story.

Of course, to some extent, all one can do in such a situation is one's best -- start with the obvious and work out from there. It remains, however, an issue worthy of further thought.