Saturday, November 28, 2009


I found this passage in a post by Jerry Coyne hilariously funny:

Well, I’m not in favor of stereotyping individual Muslims, but as for Islam, well, it does seem to be an intrinsically belligerent religion. Read the Qur’an — you’ll find plenty of belligerence there. And if you object that the Old Testament is belligerent, too, look then all the imams calling for jihad. And how many Muslims stood up to protest the widespread jubilation in the Middle East that ensued after 9/11, or stood up to defend the right of Danish newspapers to publish cartoons mocking Mohamed?

Got it; we're not in favor of stereotyping individuals, just of stereotyping entire populations generally. One wonders how long Coyne's list of "all the imams calling for jihad" is; how many instances did he bother to collect before he said, "Oh, yes, this is clear evidence that Islam is an intrinsically belligerent religion." A thousand? A hundred? Or is it just a vague sense that they are everywhere, derived from watching the news? Has Coyne actually researched this matter, and is just not sharing the research itself? I'd be interested in such research; which imams? Is there a lack of clear regional association (since if calls for jihad tend to be associated only with particular regions of the world, or emigrants from those regions, that would indicate that it can't be evidence for intrinsic belligerence even if there are lots of imams making those calls)? Is it evenly, or at least widely, distributed among Sunni and Shi'a and smaller Islamic sects? Are there any stable, long-term movements that are exceptions? It's extremely difficult to imagine that the Chishtiya or the Mawlawi or the Qadiris or the Mourides are going about belligerently calling for jihad, for instance. Well, I seem to remember that the Mourides do call for jihad, the jihad al-'aqbar (Great Jihad), which consists of trying to win over others through hard work, example, prayer, and study, which I suppose might be considered a kind of belligerence in a world of complete paranoia. Are there any Sufis really going around insisting on killing people? That would be interesting to know; if even Sufis were widely belligerent that would pretty much clinch the argument that Islam is intrinsically belligerent. I really would have to see the proof, though; a vague bit of handwaving, with a few rhetorical questions that are probably not based on actual study of the matter, is not a replacement for evidence.

Hellenic Reconstruction

An interesting interview on Hellenismos (hat-tip):

Jessica Orsini: Let's see. I was raised Roman Catholic, but the best way I can put it is that it "didn't click". For whatever reason, I was never able to forge a connection with the Abrahamic god . At 14, my immediate family left the Catholic Church in a tiff, storming off to the Baptists. That went no better for me. At 17, when I went off to college, my spirituality did as well. I finally came to realize that the connection I *had* forged, the voice I'd heard in the woods since I was a small child, was Artemis.

I was introduced to paganism by a very soft-polytheistic Wiccan; from there, I ran through the usual assortment of Llewellyn publications and wound up with a sort of mish-mosh. I spent twenty years of wrangling through various efforts at implementation, trying somehow to fit my beliefs to Wicca. I tried this sort of "take the best from each" approach - the "many facets" concept that is so popular with a lot of pagans today. But it never really worked for me. I finally realized that my beliefs would never fit Wicca... and that there was this amazing old way that actually *did* fit.
When it all boiled down, I needed the hard, deep roots of Hellenism. I needed Hesiod's Theogony, his Works and Days. I needed that cohesive pantheon, and the culturally complete approach it allows.

(I've removed footnote numbers and corrected a typo.)

I don't have much to say about it. But polytheistic reconstruction movements, like Hellenismos or Theodism, are an interesting phenomenon. There's a tendency to conflate 'ethnic/tribal religion' with 'folk religion'; but reconstruction movements are an obvious example of how this conflation fails to do justice to facts. Hellenismos, for instance, is an ethnic religion, but since it is a reconstructed one, it is scholarship-based in at least a basic way (and usually thoroughly so), and therefore not a folk religion in the usual sense. Greek and Roman reconstructions are particularly interesting, given the richness of the resources from which they can draw; one could certainly do much worse than thoughtful, reasoned appropriation of Sallust and Hesiod.

But abhorred Strife bare painful Toil and Forgetfulness and Famine and tearful Sorrows, Fightings also, Battles, Murders, Manslaughters, Quarrels, Lying Words, Disputes, Lawlessness and Ruin, all of one nature, and Oath who most troubles men upon earth when anyone wilfully swears a false oath. [Theogony, 226-232, Evelyn-White, tr.]

Three Words

Just as we consider three things in the case of a craftsman, namely, the purpose of his work, its model, and the work now produced, so also do we find a threefold word in one who is speaking. There is the word conceived by the intellect, which, in turn, is signified by an exterior vocal word. The former is called the word of the heart, uttered but not vocalized. Then there is that upon which the exterior word is modeled; and this is called the interior word which has an image of the vocal word. Finally, there is the word expressed exteriorly, and this is called the vocal word. Now, just as a craftsman first intends his end, then thinks out the form of his product, and finally brings it into existence, so also, in one who is speaking, the word of the heart comes first, then the word which has an image of the oral word, and, finally, he utters the vocal word.

Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate q. 4 art. 1. (translation from Thomas Aquinas, Truth, vol. 1. Mulligan, tr. Henry Regenery (Chicago: 1952).

Friday, November 27, 2009


by Christina Rossetti

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

I think it was Sidgwick who said that this poem was the most perfect poem that any of his contemporaries had ever written.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Memorist (Part Five)

This is the fifth and final part of a short story draft. Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

The world rippled away again, and the Matriarch was once again the Infanta she had been. She sat at a low table. Across from her the Matriarch of the time, and next to her, the man the Infanta loved, that Matriarch's son.

They had just finished an intense argument on the handling of the civic unrest; one might almost call it heated except that heat was not something that could be associated with that Matriarch, and when she argued it was always coolly, coldly, freezingly. The Matriarch-to-be, who in the memory had both the thoughts she felt as Infanta at the time and the memories of the Matriarch she would become, remembered all too well how freezingly cold the Matriarch could be.

The argument had resulted in an impasse, and an impasse favored the Matriarch. Sighing, the Infanta called for drinks, which she set up herself on the low table. "It seems we will not be able to agree," she said.

"One would hardly expect that we would," said the Matriarch with cold amusement. "You do not see things as I see them, as you will see them when you yourself become Matriarch. You do not see the pitfalls of the alternatives you have suggested. A Matriarch must always be many steps ahead of everyone, or she is no longer Matriarch."

A loud rumbling noise outside caused everyone but the Matriarch to jump and look toward the window.

"What is that?" the Infanta demanded, turning back to the Matriarch, who was now leaning forward and looking intently at her.

"They are the bombs exploding in the city," the Matriarch replied. "There are many bombs in many cities today. But you need not be concerned, my dear; they are far enough away that we risk no harm." She smiled, for that Matriarch did smile, and it was a smile of cold and inhuman amusement.

The Infanta forced herself to be calm. "Well," she said, "I may not agree with the method, but we can all hope that it succeeds in obtaining the right results. Let us toast to the hope of your success."

And they toasted. The Infanta was carefully watching the Matriarch's face the entire time, so she was caught wholly by surprise when the man beside her suddenly seized, went white, and became rigid. She cried out in shock and horror, not knowing what to do; but there was nothing that she could have done, anyway. He was already dead. She looked again at the Matriarch and was arrested by that smile of cold, inhuman amusement that still played across her face.

"Almost, my dear," she said. "But not quite. I confess that this is the first time that you have given me reason to believe that you could really succeed me. It is clear from your bungling today that you are not yet ready. But that will be remedied in time. And for the same reason, you should not punish yourself too much for this. You will find that there is always punishment enough in being Matriarch."

The two women, the Matriarch then and the Matriarch who would come after her, looked across the table at each other. "If it's any comfort, my dear," the first one said, "it was as much his bungling as yours. He didn't quite betray you; but he had hinted enough that I might rue disagreeing with you that it was clear enough what you were planning. My son had his charms -- but he knew nothing about power. So very like a man -- to the end, he thought he was a player at the game rather than a piece on the board in a game played by you and me, Matriarch to Matriarch. Well, almost, anyway: if you had succeeded, you would have shown yourself a true Matriarch. A Matriarch is in control until the very end, and only a Matriarch can kill a Matriarch."

"Yes," the other woman said -- but here the memory began to ripple away, for this is not how thing had gone at the time. At the time she had been too shocked and horrified to respond. But now she spoke, as if she had waited a long time to say the words. "That is one of the few truths you ever told me. Only a Matriarch can kill a Matriarch. I proved that well enough when later I killed you. I have held power longer than you, and I am in control to the end, and, unlike you, to the very end. Only a Matriarch can kill a Matriarch."

The memory was rippling away into the Drawing Room, and she, now Matriarch herself again, could see the water on the table beside her. She seized the glass of water and drank it down. As she did, she heard the defining word of her life spoken to her, but it sounded as if it were shouted from a long way away: "Matriarch!"

The Matriarch of Syan was dead. She was rigid and pale. Her lips were set in that thin line that may or may not have been a smile or a frown. Her eyes were glassy, staring ahead, and a single tear coursed down her cheek.

The Memorist leaped up and smelled the glass she had used. "Poison," he said, "very strong!"

The Matriarch's attendant grabbed her right hand. The compartment on the ring had been opened and emptied. "She poisoned herself," he said in a tone of complete bafflement. Then he turned to the Infanta, whom he had brought as the Matriarch had ordered. She was standing in the doorway, bewilderment on her face.

"You are the Matriarch now," he said.

Happy St. Catherine's!

Today is the feast of Queen Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Most Wise Virgin and Great Martyr, patron saint of philosophers (and also orators, theologians, wheelwrights, young maidens, and female students). Saint Catherine of the Wheel was one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages; a common practice was to deliver a Saint Catherine's day eulogy on the Philosopher, Aristotle, and she was a favorite in iconography. She was also, as patron saint of maidens, a favorite saint of the Maid of Orleans, also known as Joan of Arc. Probably the most famous painting done of her is Titian's Saint Catherine of Alexandria at Prayer, but she is a common figure in other notable paintings (see also here). God grant us all wisdom and insight in our day, that we may all stand like Saint Catherine for the truth that does not die; and let the world bring what wheels it may to break the truth, in the end the truth shall remain inviolate and the wheels themselves shall break.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Beattie on a Standard of Taste

To be pleased with novelty and imitation, to prefer good pictures to bad, harmony to harshness, and regular shape to distortion; to be gratified with accurate representation of human manners; to be interested in a detail of human adventures, and more or less, according to the degree of probability: to look with delight on the sun, moon, and stars; the expanse of heaven; grand and regular buildings; human features expressive of health, sagacity, cheerfulness, and good nature; colours, and shapes, and sizes, of plants and animals, that betoken perfection and usefulness; the scenery of groves and rivers, of mountains and the ocean; the verdure of spring, the flowers of summer, and even the pure splendour of winter snow; is surely natural to every rational being, who has leisure to attend to such things, and is in any degree enlightened by contemplation.

If this be denied, I would ask, whence it comes that the poetry of all nations, which was certainly intended to give pleasure to those for whom it was made, should abound in descriptions of these and the like objects; and why the fine arts should have been a matter of general attention in all civilized countries? And if this is not denied, a standard of taste is acknowledged; and it must be admitted further, that, whatever temporary infatuations may take place in the world of letters, simplicity and nature sooner or later gain the ascendant, and prove their rectitude by their permanency. Opinionum commenta delet dies; natura judicia confirmat.

James Beattie, Elements of Moral Science, Part I, Chapter I, Section XI, #240-241. The Latin at the end is from Cicero and means, colloquially, that time destroys fictions of opinion but confirms the judgment of nature.

On Bossuet and Divine Right

Jason Kuznicki:

Many point to Christianity as the historical force that challenged the ancient world’s inegalitarianism. There is quite a bit of truth to this, but it’s possible to push the case too far. Many ideas that are crucial to the modern political synthesis are nowhere to be found until the seventeenth century at the earliest, and even during that era, the far more typical Christian politics was not John Locke’s, but that of the lesser-known Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux and court preacher to Louis XIV. Bossuet’s Politics Drawn from Holy Scripture made the case that the most natural Christian polity — indeed, the only properly Christian polity — was an absolute monarchy, because the king was an image of God on earth. Christianity certainly taught that there was an inherent dignity to all people, regardless of social station, but it was quite reluctant to challenge the idea of social station itself.

Bossuet is an extraordinarily bad example to hold up as the typical view, because Bossuet's view was anything but typical: he was a Gallicanist, and precisely one of the things that made Gallicanism controversial even among Catholics was that it was widely held to involve an excessive estimate of the sacral importance of the temporal authority (and in particular, French authority). You have to understand that there was no divine right of kings in the Middle Ages; it was held that authority generally had its wellspring in God, but kings in (for instance) the early Middle Ages were not in a position to assert themselves possessors of any sort of divine right: the favor of Heaven was not certain and the Church was for obvious reasons suspicious of any attempt by kings to regard themselves as having any special consideration from heaven simply because they were kings. To begin to get something that can reasonably be called divine right you have to have a strong sovereign with centralized authority capable of asserting such a right and getting away with it; this requires ideas that originally begin to develop in the medieval disputes between the Emperor and the Pope, and in the rise of Philip the Fair (whose reign has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the single worst thing ever to happen to the Catholic Church). In the early modern period these ideas coalesce around the monarchs who have by that point developed strongly centralized nation-states, of which France is the most obvious. And the French were able to get away with this sort of assertion only because France had by that time developed a considerable degree of independence within the Church (once again, going back to Philip the Fair). Thus we get to the rise of Gallicanism, and the view that God had established Louis XIV with a right to rule that not even the Pope could contradict. Obviously this was not going to be universally accepted even among Catholics, and thus the seventeenth century has no views of Christian politics that can be called typical: Protestants and Catholics do not share views on the subject, Protestants tend to support their local governments as legitimate regardless of the kind, and the Catholics are by this time regularly split between parties like the Gallicans (monarchists or nationalists, we might call them) and the Ultra-montanists (papalists, we might call them). Bossuet, far from presenting a typical view of Christian politics in the seventeenth century, cannot even be said to represent the majority of Catholics at that time.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Memorist (Part Four)

This is the fourth part of a short story draft. Part I, Part II, Part III.

Sixty years allows for great changes. Every Matriarch was once an Infanta, and this one was no exception. She had once been young, and famously beautiful, with golden hair and a dazzling smile, and a widely admired vivacity of mind. She had married the son of the Matriarch at the time, and the match had been good. She had been adopted as Infanta, and people had rejoiced. People who smarted under the rule of the Matriarch then in power looked at the couple and said to themselves: Good days are ahead.

Thus when I say to you that the Matriarch, through the machine of the Memorist, found herself sitting on a grassy green hillock, with a blue sky and shining sun ahead, laughing and laughing at some joke told by the man she loved, you will know that such a thing is possible. Sixty years allows for great changes. Have you not known changes in your own span of life? The Matriarch never smiled; but the Infanta she had been had laughed.

"It really wasn't that funny," said the handsome man at her side, the son I just mentioned, throwing a dandelion in her direction.

"I'm sorry," she said, "but it was the way you said it." She picked up the dandelion he had thrown and held it up to the light, studying it closely. Then she threw it aside.

"I am worried," she said. "All this unrest in the cities. And your mother will not listen to reason."

"The Matriarch is not known for listening to anything," said the Matriarch's son. "But she usually knows what she is doing."

"Yes!" she cried. "She knows what she is doing when it comes to keeping the power in her own hands, or squeezing peasants for taxes, or marching her soldiers here and there."

"That is what Matriarchs do," the young man said. "You will have to do these things yourself."

She sighed. "Yes, but there is exercise of power and there is exercise of brutality, and they are not the same thing." She looked at him wistfully. "Don't you think so?"

He had perhaps not been taking the conversation fully seriously up to this point, but at this question he looked her in the face thoughtfully and with a slow nod of the head said, "I think you are right. But maybe it is not always easy to divide the two."

The Matriarch-to-be plucked another dandelion and twirled it. "If she continues in the way she has proceeded, there will be bloodshed in every city from here to the farthest borders. She will succeed in what she is doing, but the people will drown in blood. Traitors will be purged, but at the cost of many innocents. And she will not listen to reason. She must be stopped."

The Matriarch's son looked sharply at her. "If she will not listen, how can she be stopped?"

She turned to say something to him, but the whole world was rippling around her and the ripples carried the words away. She found herself again in the Small Drawing Room, facing the young man, the Memorist.

"Matriarch!" said a voice at her side, and she turned to see the young man who had told her of the Memorist's arrival.

"Well?" she said, more sharply than she intended.

The young man glanced at the Memorist, but continued. "They have begun to move. You asked me to tell you when they had begun."

"And how have they begun to move?"

"The sublieutenant I previously told you about has tried to convince the Infanta to poison you. He then met with the general, and now he is back with the Infanta. She has agreed."

"I see," the Matriarch said. Then she looked intently at him. "And your sources for this information are good?"

The young man smiled. "They are very good."

The Matriarch's eyes narrowed. "I see. Your source is a woman. The Infanta's handmaiden, perhaps." Her hand began absently tracing the design of her ring. "You overestimate your influence over her, I assure you. What do you know of a woman's mind? Nothing!"

The last word came out savagely, and the young man stepped back in surprise. "Apologies, Matriarch, but I assure you that my source is good."

"Hmm. Well, it tallies with my own sources. I have sent portions of the legion on fool's errands. No doubt the general is trying to undo the mess now. Now, then, is the time to strike, before he can bring back all of his handpicked traitors."

"I have already begun, as you had requested before. The general will soon be in our custody. I will arrange for him to have an audience with you tomorrow in the torture chambers."

"No," said the Matriarch. "I will not have time for such things. We must set an example of him, swiftly. His head is to be on a pike in front of the palace as soon as possible. And the head of this sublieutenant, too."

"And the Infanta?"

The Matriarch looked down at the ring she had been stroking. "Bring her here. I will myself give her the punishment she deserves. But heads on pikes first; then you can bring her. You may go."

As the young man bowed and backed out the door, the Matriarch turned again to the Memorist. "Let us continue."

Caplan on Casuistry

An interesting post by Bryan Caplan on what he calls 'ethical intuitionism'. I don't think he's using the word in quite the way philosophers would, although what he does give us could count as one kind of ethical intuitionism, depending on the underlying moral epistemology. What Caplan is actually arguing is that we should do casuistry -- because that's what he actually describes:

Sensible moral reasoning begins with concrete, specific cases. For example: It would be wrong for me to walk over to Robin right now and punch him. From there, we can start to generalize. It would probably be wrong for me to walk over and punch any of the people in this room. At the same time, we can note exceptions. If Robin had consented to box me, then punching him would be OK. In fact, it would probably be wrong not to try to punch him, because I'd be cheating you, the audience.

That's argument by cases of consciences, and such argument is casuistry. I agree we need a genuine casuistry; it's lack has left a void that has been filled by ridiculous trolley problems. (Trolleyology, I once joked to someone, is the devil's version of casuistry.) But it's clear enough, as well, that casuistry on its own doesn't get you far at all. Pascal in his Provincial Letters bent or broke more than one truth, but his attack on casuistry was surely right in one respect, namely, that casuistry alone leads to moral absurdities; and big moral absurdities are moral abominations.

Tyler Cowen also has an interesting comment on Caplan's piece:

My overall view is that ethical intuitionism settles many fewer issues than most of its proponents like to think. That said, there is often nowhere else to go. We somehow need to come to terms with two propositions at the same time:

1. We need to think more rather than less ethically.

2. The content of ethical philosophy tells us less, in reliable terms, than most people would like to believe.

Which are both right. But contrary to Cowen's suggestion, I think it's clear enough that this is because we have no developed casuistry -- it's casuistry that gets into the real details of the ethical life and the ethical society. But what we have is a very degenerate form of it, consisting of very few tools for analyzing cases and of almost no forms of inference beyond analogical reasoning. That's not going to get you much. One might as well try to build a ship and go to the moon with nothing but free-body diagrams of inclined planes.

Memorist (Part Three)

This is the third part of a short-story draft. Part I, Part II.

In a run-down, deserted part of the palace, fit only for mice and conspirators, a general and a sub-lieutenant met to have a quiet chat.

"You are late," the general growled, obviously in a bad mood.

"I am sorry, sir," replied the sublieutenant; "the Infanta kept me too long."

"Are things in place yet?


The general growled again, this time without words. Then he said, "'Almost' is not enough."

"To be honest, sir, I'm not sure how far the Infanta can be pushed. She is a weak woman."

"Of course, she's a weak woman! Do you think The Dragon Lady would stand another strong-willed woman as Infanta? A rival for control? But it is to our advantage; it makes her pliable to our will as well as the Matriarch's. And even a weak woman can poison."

"Yes, sir. I mean that she may not have the courage to go through with it."

There was another growl. "For sixty years The Dragon Lady has kept power in her iron grasp. My father was a sublieutenant like yourself when she first seized it. It's time she toppled, and toppled in a way that put the power into our hands. I expect you to find a way to get her to do it."

Then they broke apart and went on their ways.


The Memorist did not seem put out at having had to wait so long for the Matriarch; but if he was, such feelings were not the sort of thing you expressed in her presence. She was surprised at how young he looked, and how foolish. But, she reflected, everyone had begun to look young once she had turned eighty. And foolish.

"I understand, Matriarch, that you already know something of my art," he said.

"By report only."

"That is enough; until you have experienced itself, that is enough. It will save us time for explanations. There are only certain things that you must keep in mind.

"First, there is no method of precise control. I cannot guarantee what you will experience, and I cannot guarantee that it will be pleasant. The experience follows not my guidance but the guidance of associations in your own mind.

"Second, it is important that you remain seated. You can harm yourself by walking around if you are not first brought out.

"Third, nothing can be changed. You are not sent back; you merely experience again. Trying to change anything will distort the experience and possibly break it.

"Fourth, I will carefully you observe you the entire time. If something seems to be wrong, I will bring you out. If I do, it is important that you not struggle against it; that, too, can harm.

"Do you understand?"

"Yes," said the Matriarch, sitting down in a chair beside a table on which sat a pitcher and a glass of water. "Let us proceed."

And she relaxed back into the chair as the Memorist turned on his machine and the world began to ripple away like a pond-surface.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Instrument of Wondrous Hypotyposis

Umberto Eco discusses our interest in lists:

The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order -- not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists -- the shopping list, the will, the menu -- that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

I'm not really convinced, though, with Eco's moral psychology of the list, in which we like lists because we like things without limits. I think, if you must speculate in such terms, that the reverse is more plausible; we like lists because we love limits. And even death: what frightens people about death is not that it is a limit but that it itself is not limited. The list of things that death destroys can never be completed. But I don't think our taste for lists really has much to do with death rather than, say, order.