Saturday, December 12, 2009

Roses from the Arms of Death

Blue Roses
by Rudyard Kipling

Roses red and roses white
Plucked I for my love's delight.
She would none of all my posies--
Bade me gather her blue roses.

Half the world I wandered through,
Seeking where such flowers grew.
Half the world unto my quest
Answered me with laugh and jest.

Home I came at wintertide,
But my silly love had died
Seeking with her latest breath
Roses from the arms of Death.

It may be beyond the grave
She shall find what she would have.
Mine was but an idle quest--
Roses white and red are best!

Sins that Cry Out

Someone didn't quite go that extra mile of research. Here is the complete Wikipedia article on sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance:

The sins that cry to Heaven (or sins that cry Out to Heaven) is a group of sins in Catholic doctrine that cuts across mortal sins and venial sins. All of them are exemplified by a biblical sin:

* Willful murder – Cain's murder of his brother – Genesis 4:1-16
* Sodomy – the sin of Sodom – Genesis 19:5
* Oppression of the poor esp. widows, orphans and strangers for which the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites Exodus 20:20–22 (which is not obvious to the non-believing).
* Defrauding laborers of their wages – based on Deut 24:14–15

The list is just a list of sins which in the Bible are mentioned as crying out to the Lord for justice. The Catechism does indeed cite Exodus 20:20-22 as the source for oppression of the poor; and no doubt that passage doesn't obviously support the point for the non-believing, because it doesn't support it at all, whether you are non-believing or not. It's a typo; the passage in view is Exodus 22:20-24, which is a quite grim picture of divine reciprocity:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

To say that the sin of Sodom that cried out to the heavens for vengeance was the sin of sodomy is more than a bit of understatement; the context in Genesis is very clear that the men of Sodom were gang-raping travelers. The sequence of events starts with the Angel of the Lord telling Abraham that people are crying out to heaven against the sins of Sodom, and He says that he is going down into the city to see if it is true: "I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know." And then the two angels go down to Sodom to stay at Lot's house, where the men of Sodom gather, demanding that Lot give them the two guests to rape -- thus showing not only that they are sexually dissolute but that their sexual depravity extends even to disregard of the (at the time) iron-clad moral conventions concerning the basic hospitable treatment of guests. And then the angels tell Lot to flee the city, because it will be destroyed; the actions of the men of Sodom have confirmed the outcry to heaven against them. Lacking a real sense of hospitality, we lack a proper sense of the horror the ancient world would have had of the sheer, terrible sexual depravity involved in such violation of hospitality. But, no doubt, we can still see how it might cry out for vengeance.

The final sin in the list, robbing workers of their wages, is interesting in that it is mentioned in both the Old Testament and the New; and, indeed, the picture in James 5 is even more vivid than that found in Deuteronomy:

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter.

An Austen Evening Prayer

Jane Austen wrote three evening prayers. Here is one of them, an abridged version of which hangs on the wall in St. Nicholas Church, Steventon, where first her father and then her brother were rectors.

Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our Hearts, as with our lips. Thou art every where present, from Thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this, teach us to fix our Thoughts on Thee, with Reverence and Devotion that we pray not in vain.

Look with Mercy on the Sins we have this day committed, and in Mercy make us feel them deeply, that our Repentance may be sincere, and our resolution stedfast of endeavouring against the commission of such in future. Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of Temper and every evil Habit in which we have indulged to the dis-comfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own Souls. May we now, and on each return of night, consider how the past day has been spent by us, what have been our prevailing Thoughts, Words, and Actions during it, and how far we can acquit ourselves of Evil. Have we thought irreverently of Thee, have we disobeyed thy commandments, have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being? Incline us to ask our Hearts these questions Oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by Pride or Vanity.

Give us a thankful sense of the Blessings in which we live, of the many comforts of our lot; that we may not deserve to lose them by Discontent or Indifference.

Be gracious to our Necessities, and guard us, and all we love, from Evil this night. May the sick and afflicted, be now, and ever thy care; and heartily do we pray for the safety of all that travel by Land or by Sea, for the comfort and protection of the Orphan and Widow and that thy pity may be shewn upon all Captives and Prisoners.

Above all other blessings Oh! God, for ourselves, and our fellow-creatures, we implore Thee to quicken our sense of thy Mercy in the redemption of the World, of the Value of that Holy Religion in which we have been brought up, that we may not, by our own neglect, throw away the salvation thou has given us, nor be Christians only in name. Hear us Almighty God, for His sake who has redeemed us, and taught us thus to pray.

At which point the congregation would recite the Our Father together.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Amiability, Seriousness, Constancy

As a break from end-of-term grading, I re-watched the Rozema Mansfield Park, which recently became available at Hulu. I'm inclined to think that of all the Austen adaptations I have seen that it is the one that works best as a movie; but it very strikingly manages to do so by taking some very un-Austen-like directions. (And I think that when those divergences are considered it perhaps says something about us: for arguably what makes it more like a typical movie and less like an Austen novel is that in it women's bodies are an almost purely social artifice. But that is too complex an issue for an aside.)

In any case, it has started me thinking about the novel. While I think Pride and Prejudice will likely never be dethroned as the consummate novel, the novel that does most exquisitely what novels do most exquisitely, every time I go back to Mansfield Park I get a stronger conviction that it is really Austen's masterwork. It is not so perfectly a novel as some of her other works; but it has perfections of its own that are perhaps better than the perfections we look for in novels. This, of course, is an idiosyncratic view: Mansfield Park is famously the least liked of all Austen novels, and Fanny Price is famously the least liked of all Austen heroines. But I think this is all of a piece. What annoys people about Fanny is how unlike an Austen heroine she is. Were Mansfield Park written to the taste of most readers, Fanny Price would be a much stronger, much more charming, much wittier person than she is: her disadvantage with respect to Mary Crawford would not be due to any features of her personality but solely due to some feature of her social situation hiding her real superiority from the view of other characters (but not the readers). But Fanny foils all such expectations over and over again. She is not more charming than Mary; she is more amiable, but not even in the same league as Mary when it comes to charm. She is not wittier than Mary; she is just as intelligent, but no more so, and too quiet to be witty. And, remarkably, she is not stronger than Mary: Mary ends up shooting herself in the foot, so to speak, in the novel, but other than that she is largely in control of whatever situation it is in which she finds herself. Fanny is virtually never in control of the situation in which she finds herself, and she is clearly, and I think quite deliberately, a much weaker person, if we measure strength by forcefulness; a more constant person, certainly, but also a much weaker one. Mary Crawford is remarkable in that she is an Austen heroine, with the single all-important exception that she continually subordinates conscience and sympathy -- and I think it is clear enough that she is not wholly lacking in these -- to her own interest. And thus the contrast is almost complete: Mary is charming, intelligently witty, and forceful; Fanny is amiable, intelligently serious, and constant. The difference is that all of Mary's good qualities are in how she strikes you. All of Fanny's good qualities are in how she lives.

Thus I think Fanny calls up exactly the kind of sympathy people don't want to feel toward an Austen heroine: she is not at all the sort of woman someone could imagine being, or could imagine falling in love with, or, indeed, could easily imagine living happily ever after. She cries, and cries, and cries again. While she's not quite as silent and quiet as some of her detractors treat her, even when she speaks up she does so quietly. And her worst sin of all is that she is in no way fun; she is, if anything, far too serious. I do not think, contrary to a common view, that Austen writes her as always right; she spends much of the novel needlessly confused and part of her misery is her own doing. She does nothing but muddle through; but she muddles through with amiability, seriousness, and constancy.

And who wants that? That's what we think of as a good sidekick; it's what we want in a friend who will never outshine us, not in ourselves. And I think readers are over and over again annoyed by the fact that in Mansfield Park Austen shows, almost inexorably, that their own tastes are flawed. For our tastes are flawed; they are something to laugh at. We get so caught up in the obviously almost that we miss the subtly so. Mary Crawford had every potential to be an Austen heroine; Henry Crawford shows more than once that he has the potential to be an Austen hero. One of the reasons they are so likable is that they are not creatures of unadulterated selfishness, and more than once sincerely do something right. They have every obvious advantage. But they both fail miserably. None of the things Fanny has are immediately obvious; there are so many subtle complexities to her character that if you did not have the whole course of the story, you might well have overlooked or even misinterpreted them entirely. When she asserts herself at all she comes across as passive-aggressive. But reading her as such is itself a moral failing: it shows an inability to look beyond the superficial, the immediate context. For love and virtue and happiness simply are not a matter of immediate context; they require, as MacIntyre might put it, the narrative order of a life.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Some Poem Drafts

All very rough.


Do I exist and live and die to bare my heart in vain
like the unregarded droplets bursting on the window pane
in the ever-falling sorrow of the melancholy rain?
Do I exist to bare my heart, and bear this all, in vain?


Let the figure be composed:
two winged horse, a charioteer;
in gods they are of fair breed,
in us they are mixed, one noble, one ignoble,
difficult to manage withal.
The soul cares for all the inanimate part,
traversing every heaven,
manifold in appearance, shape, and form,
some perfect and swift-winged,
soaring upward then to rule the world,
some imperfect, unfeathered,
failing in flight, falling to earth.


Essays were made for babbling, trying out things, gibbering, jabbering, talking out randomly, lying out loud, wheezily whispering what deserves a good shout, and yet by deals in dark backrooms, the rag-magazines, crypts we call classrooms, somehow it seized the reins of our words, and all words by essays are measured. I tried, I tried, I truly tried, but no more will I live this lie of babbling, jabbering essays: better words more artfully made, better outlines and disputations, better posts and confrontations, than words bound up and rationed by irrational self-parody of prose. Is not the essay nothing but loss to language, to life, to thought? Has it not made the mind to rot in pedestrian ways pedantic minds love? It is complicit in the ravings of degenerate minds gone mad, it is fluff, it is guff, it is puff, and filler and filling-stuff is all we ever see (not that we see much). I tried, I tried, I tried, but to try is not enough; that here and there is one worth reading--that too is not enough. And the saddest of all bad things in these essays that never assay, is that essays can never be taught, never be learned (banish the thought!), can never succeed save in lie, for by nature it can only be tried, and trying is far beyond the reach of even the finest teachers to teach. I have had enough of it. It is time that we got rid of it, time to teach the world to craft its words and cultivate language like gardeners' flowers, to capture again thought's wonder and power, and find in each word power and wonder, and banish this generic non-genre.

The Lady of the Garden

The garden bears the vestiges
of Our Lady of the Rains,
baptized from conception,
gentle Mary without a stain,
never without redeeming grace
from God made flesh and slain.
You are a flower in the garden;
beneath the trees grow I,
and the roses grow in splendor
with bright blooms that never die:
all are nourished by praying tears
she beneath the cross did cry.

Peirce on Dormitive Virtue

You remember the old satire which represents one of the old school of medical men,--one of the breed to whom medicine and logic seemed closely allied sciences,--who, asked why opium puts people to sleep, answers very sapiently "because it has a dormitive virtue." Instead of an explanation he simply transforms the premiss by the introduction of an abstraction, an abstract noun in the place of a concrete predicate. It is a poignant satire, because everyone is supposed to know well enough that this transformation from a concrete predicate to an abstract noun in an oblique case, is a mere transformation of language that leaves the thought absolutely untouched. I knew this as well as everybody else until I had arrived at that point in my analysis of the reasoning of mathematics where I found that this despised juggle of abstraction is an essential part of almost every really helpful step in mathematics; and since then what I used to know so very clear does not appear to be at all so....It is not an explanation; but it is good sound doctrine, namely that something in opium must explain the facts observed.

C. S. Peirce, Pragmatism as a Principle and Method of Right Thinking, Turrisi, ed. SUNY Press (Albany: 1997) p. 133. Catherine Legg has an excellent paper (PDF) on this argument.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Book Recommendation

I happened to be browsing in the library the other day and happened to pick up Edward Reed's From Soul to Mind. From the title I was expecting it to be rather bad, I think, but it turned out to be well worth reading. It's a history of the development of psychology as a discipline, very readable; it confirmed some things I had thought, corrected some misconceptions I had had, and taught me things I hadn't known at all.

Philosophers tend to assume that psychology grew out of philosophy; in fact, it's not hard to find them saying that it did, without qualification. There is a sense in which it is true; both contemporary academic philosophy and psychology grew out of more wide-ranging philosophical thought, especially in moral philosophy. But there is also a very important sense in which the reverse is true, and although it is a secondary issue in the book, Reed is especially good at pinning it down. Academic philosophy as we know it grew up as a reaction to the development of psychology as a science. Philosophy departments, especially in the English-speaking world, began to be created as a regular, distinct department as part of a struggle between those who held that psychology should be handled in purely experimental terms and a reactionary movement that advocated non-experimental approaches, or who argued for other sharp limitations in the study of psychology, and was trying to imitate the institutional success of psychology. 'Philosophy' is a potentially equivocal term. It can be used in broader and narrower senses, and it is generally only when used in the most broad sense that we can seriously say that psychology developed from philosophy. Any common use of the term that is narrower than that (and it is not difficult to find people advocating such uses as the primary uses) makes the reverse true.

(Although Reed doesn't address this particular point, it is precisely for this reason that twentieth century analytic philosophy was so dominated by MME: mind, metaphysics, and epistemology. Although all three areas slowly expanded in what they covered, MME at its core consisted of topics, handled non-experimentally, that the psychologists at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries were attempting to study. There is no intrinsic reason why so much of philosophy in the past ten decades should have been taken up with issues in epistemology and the philosophy of mind. History of philosophy developed too slowly to serve in the same stead, and the same is true a fortiori for comparative philosophy, but ethics would have done just as well as the dominant philosophical field. Indeed, in a sense it started out that way: moral philosophy was king and in the nineteenth century topics analogous to those handled in MME were typically handled as adjuncts to such moral philosophy (philosophy of science, for instance, was an incidental outgrowth of disputes between utilitarians and intuitionists). But early philosophy departments were heavily concerned with psychological issues, or, perhaps more accurately, philosophical issues raised by psychology, and the result was that those issues became fixed as standard philosophical topics: skepticism, mind-body union, accounts of sensation and how they relate to the external world, etc. These topics can be traced back historically; and their rise can be traced to groups that, for widely varying reasons, opposed experimental approaches to the study of the mind. Since that time they have taken on a life of their own, but the reaction to psychology is what entrenched them. So the early institutional origins of contemporary philosophy -- in reaction to and in imitation of the development of psychology departments -- have had an impact on the field, even though (of course) there are other factors that have come into play since.)

There are occasional weaknesses in the discussions in the book, but I found them to be rather minor. Highly recommended, especially to philosophers.

Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009)

Stephen Toulmin died on Dec. 4 at age 87. He was probably most widely known for his theory of argument. He was both well respected and a genuine maverick; he never simply followed fads but continually went out in new directions. There's very little by him that's online, but here's an interview with him:

A Conversation with Stephen Toulmin

Monday, December 07, 2009

Marenbon on 'Aquinas's Principle' (Repost)

This is a repost from October 2007.

In a discussion in his newer introduction to medieval philosophy text, John Marenbon considers the following principle in Aquinas, which he calls 'Aquinas's Principle':

If the antecedent of a conditional contains a cognitive proposition, the consequent should be understood according to the mode of the knower, and not that of the thing known.

The illustration is the conditional,

If I understand something, it is immaterial.

This, if 'Aquinas's Principle' is used, should be understood as:

If understand something, it is immaterial according to its being understood.

To this Marenbon replies that there are plenty of conditionals with cognitive antecedents to which Aquinas's Principle does not apply. His example:

If I feel something with my touch, it is a material thing.

Of which he says, "The consequent...does not need to be qualified by a phrase such as 'according to its being touched'. It is simply true that anything I can touch must be material."

Whatever may be said of 'Aquinas's Principle', Marenbon's counterexample seems to me to be badly chosen. For while it may be simply true that anything I can touch must be material, it does not follow that anything I touch must be simply material. The natural way to understand Marenbon's conditional is to understand it as meaning,

If I feel something with my touch, it is a material thing insofar as it is touched.

For instance, there are plenty of entities that can be touched but are not simply material; for example, a university, which is material to the extent that you can touch it, but is not insofar as it is (for instance) a legal corporation. And the qualification could still be added, without significant change of meaning, for purely material things -- it's just that there would be very little point in doing so. The fact that we don't need it for practical purposes isn't an adequate reason for rejecting 'Aquinas's Principle'.

In any case, I don't see any reason to hold that Aquinas held 'Aquinas's Principle' in an unqualified way; it seems to me that Marenbon takes Aquinas's words out of context and interprets them out of that context. The natural way to read Aquinas's statement in context is to take him as saying that when the antecedent clarifies that the existence in question is existence in the soul rather than in itself, we must not then take the consequent as saying anything about existence in itself. The principle that is really doing work here is not the claim about conditionals, however, but the claim that "the existence of a thing in itself is different from the existence of a thing in the soul."

John Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy Routledge (New York: 2007) 253-254.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Tumultuous Privacy of Storm

Friday there was a great big fuss about the snow we were supposed to get here in Austin; people were in a fit of anticipation over the fact that there was supposed to be an inch of it -- which is rather funny, but snow is a very occasional thing here. As it happened, we did get snow: there were a few snowflakes drifting down for about ten to twenty minutes, and that was all.

The Snow-Storm
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hill and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hiddden thorn;
Fills up the famer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.