Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dear Enough

Time's Fool
by Ruth Pitter

Time's fool, but not heaven's: yet hope not for any return.
The rabbit-eaten dry branch and the halfpenny candle
Are lost with the other treasure: the sooty kettle
Thrown away, become redbreast's home in the hedge, where the nettle
Shoots up, and bad bindweed wreathes rust-fretted handle.
Under that broken thing no more shall the dry branch burn.

Poor comfort all comfort: once what the mouse had spared
Was enough, was delight, there where the heart was at home:
The hard cankered apple holed by the wasp and the bird,
The damp bed, with the beetle's tap in the headboard heard,
The dim bit of mirror, three inches of comb:
Dear enough, when with youth and with fancy shared.

I knew that the roots were creeping under the floor,
That the toad was safe in his hole, the poor cat by the fire,
The starling snug in the roof, each slept in his place:
The lily in splendour, the vine in her grace,
The fox in the forest, all had their desire,
As then I had mine, in the place that was happy and poor.

Kick at the Rock, Sam Johnson

by Richard Wilbur

Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.

We milk the cow of the world, and as we do
We whisper in her ear, 'You are not true.'

Friday, June 25, 2010

On Hendel on Pascal

Ronald Hendel's opening to his recent article explaining why he is leaving the SBL:

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” This famous line from Pascal’s Pensées draws a wise distinction between religious faith and intellectual inquiry. The two have different motivations and pertain to different domains of experience. They are like oil and water, things that do not mix and should not be confused. Pascal was a brilliant mathematician, and he did not allow his Catholic beliefs to interfere with his scholarly investigations. He regarded the authority of the church to be meaningless in such matters. He argued that “all the powers in the world can by their authority no more persuade people of a point of fact than they can change it.” That is to say, facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts. Faith resides in the heart and in one’s way of living in the world.

Which would be a lovely opening if that were at all Pascal's view. In Pascal's view faith does reside in the heart, but Pascal, in drawing the line between the heart and the reason, is not drawing a line "between faith and intellectual inquiry"; that would make half his comments on the subject incomprehensible, because Pascal puts mathematics partly on the heart side of the division. The heart is that whereby we have the intuitive understanding essential for (among other things) actual life; all intellectual inquiry on Pascal's view has to be shot through with it, because all intellectual inquiry presupposes principles recognized by the heart. His quotation of Pascal on authority is even worse. Hendel hasn't bothered to go back to the original; his footnote here is from a secondhand source. It's from the Provincial Letters (letter 18). And it's in a defense of Jansenius. Now, if you know anything about the history of Jansenism, you'll know that the Pope had at the instigation of the Jesuits condemned several propositions of Jansenius. The Jansenists, wanting to be good Catholics but not willing to concede defeat, argued that the propositions were indeed wrong in the sense the Pope had condemned them, but that they were not as a matter of fact to be found in the text of Jansenius in that sense. When Pascal makes his claim about authority failing to persuade of fact, he is arguing that the only thing that can actually persuade someone of a fact is the senses -- unlike faith and reason. And it's clear from elsewhere (the preface to the fragmentary Treatise on the Vacuum, for instance) that Pascal would place almost Hendel's entire discipline outside the realm of sensible experience. History of any kind, on Pascal's view, doesn't deal with facts; it deals with authorities of various kinds. The only fields that properly deal with facts are those in which you can see, here and now, what you are talking about; history may draw on some of these, but once you make a historical conclusion you are in the realm of human authority, not fact. Where the testimony of the senses is uniform, we must interpret our authorities, even Scripture, accordingly; but, as Scripture is divine authority, we should accept it as exceeding any human authority. The Pascalian point really doesn't cut in quite the same direction as Hendel is suggesting.

This is why, incidentally, philosophers like myself have difficulty taking so-called "biblical scholars" entirely seriously. The whole point of the article is repudiation of the SBL for the sole reason that the SBL has given up critical investigation of the texts, but even in the article himself Hendel can't even be bothered to make use of the basic principles of critical investigation, merely appealing to authority rather than actually seeing what the text says. Instead of taking the trouble to understand Pascal critically, which isn't that difficult given that Pascal has been translated many jillion times and is easily accessible (especially in this internet age), he maneuvers him clumsily on a rhetorical chessboard to a pre-ordained conclusion. It's difficult not to wash one's hands of Hendel and his ilk, who make a great fuss over critical inquiry and reason but repeatedly seem to show that this is just all a rhetorical facade; who place themselves on the side of reason and critical investigation in the very same breath by which they blatantly violate both. It's not that Hendel's opponents are particularly better; it's just one sign, one of many, that the whole field is shot through with what looks like the grossest rational incompetence. Now some of this may just be appearance; perhaps Hendel is just having a bad day in which he can't think straight, and perhaps there are lots and lots of people in Biblical Studies who do a competent job quietly enough that they just don't ever come to notice. One expects kooks in every field, so one ignores them; it is people like Hendel, however, who make it difficult not to write off the entire area as just intellectually bankrupt. And, yes, it is not wholly fair to write off a field so thoroughly, so I try not to do so. People in the field don't give those of us outside the field that much to work with, though.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ipse Fabulator Maximus

Of the Platonic Idea as Understood by Aristotle
by John Milton

Tell, presiding goddesses of the sacred groves,
and Memory, blessed mother of Ninefold deity,
and Eternity, reclining in immeasurable and distant cave,
keeping records and unalterable laws of Jove,
recording heavenly feasts and quotidian acts of gods:
Who is that first, that eternal, incorruptible,
coeval with the heavens, one and universal
exemplar for God, after whose image
Nature has formed the human race?
Surely he does not, twin of virgin Pallas,
live unborn in Jove's mind?
But, remarkably, however common to all is his nature,
he stands apart as singular, locally bound;
possibly, as companion of sempiternal stars,
he wanders through heaven's ten spheres,
or inhabits the moon, planet closest to earth.
Possibly he sits by Lethe's oblivion-giving waters,
drowsily, among souls waiting placement in bodies;
or perhaps in some remote region of earth
this archetype of man walks, a great giant,
lifting his head high to frighten gods,
more huge even than star-bearing Atlas.
Nor did the Dircean augur, given deeper light
in blindness, see him in vision's depths.
Nor did Pleione's grandchild reveal him,
in night-quiet, to his wise tribe of prophets.
Nor did the Assyrian priest, though able to tell
ancient Ninus' ancestral tree, speak of old Belus
and of renowned Osiris, know anything of this.
Nor did even he of threefold glorious name,
Thrice-great Hermes, though knowing mysteries,
hand down such a marvel to Isis' devotees.
But you, perennial adornment of the Academy
(if you were first to bring to schools such monsters)
surely you will the poets exiled from the City
recall, for you are the greatest fabler --
or the founder himself must depart.

You can see theactual Latin here. C. S. Lewis also worked up a slightly paraphrastic version, which can be seen online (scroll down slightly). I'm not sure why Lewis blunts the Hermes Trismegistus reference; surely he recognized it. The poem, of course, is ironic; it is the Aristotelian, with his crude materialism, who is being made fun of, not Plato. For an English translation a little closer to the Latin in some ways, see here. Fabulator Maximus, by the way, is an excellent title.

Dawn Treader Trailer

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was, after The Magician's Nephew, in some ways the one I enjoyed most in the series (and Eustace was always my second favorite character, after Digory); but it seems to me that it is also the one that is least easily adaptable to the screen. It's an odyssey, not a unitary adventure. Just judging from the trailer, it looks like it will probably have the weaknesses one would expect -- the 'all Narnia depends on you' part is not promising, and a sign that they are struggling to give the story a more compact organization centered on some easily conveyed problem and culminating in a Spectacle that resolves that problem. And that runs contrary to one of the suggestions of the book, which is that new adventures and problems keep coming until you paddle off into the Light. I'm a bit puzzled as to how Peter and Susan on the screen -- although in practical terms I can see the value of keeping the actors on screen, at least as minor parts, until they need to be brought back for The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle. (It makes perfect sense, though, for Lucy to be face to face with the picture of Susan in the Magician's book.)

In some ways, though, the story probably can survive tinkering better than Prince Caspian did.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Three Poem Re-Drafts

How Strange Is That?

I felt I fell in love with you today; how strange is that?
Waiting for the bus we stopped and stayed to chat,
when suddenly and subito my head was overturned,
unbalancing my body, making blood to burn.
I'm not even sure I really caught your name!
Some mischievous cupid plays a little game;
uncanny things, ungrounded, maddening, swift,
then throw the world off kilter, make the earth to shift!
Meeting you but once, but for a little while,
I am haunted by your eyes, the flashing of your smile;
though I hardly know you, nonetheless my brain
spins out imaginations as though your heart were gained.
But swiftly comes its death as swiftly came its birth,
and if it pass away, what is such feeling worth?
The merest little fizzle, a frenzy in the brain,
and after sudden torrent nothing will remain
but cynic's self-suspicion, memories that fade,
and a wry and quiet gravestone where madness has been laid.

How Strange that You Think I Love You

How strange that you think I love you
when only time will tell:
when I've conquered death and heartache
and braved the gates of hell,
when, world within my fingers,
I let it slip on through
for wonder of your whisper,
for glory that is you.

How strange that you think I love you
when in this world of lie
scarce any deed is done
the next does not deny;
no proof is in my promise
nor certainty is saved
until what binds me to you
outlasts the silent grave.


Farther shores I know than this,
visions vivid like the morrow;
holy heaven, everlightened,
sends such mercy, masters sorrow.
I wish anew on falling stars;
those leaping lights in dance display
a drove of powers pouring down
like righteous ruin of the day.
Rue no more the pastward lesson,
harbor here in love alone;
this castle-keep and quiet eyrie
founds itself on saving stone.

Sex and the Conventions of Youth

I don't necessarily recommend you read this post; there's a verbal picture or two from which some of you might run screaming.

What human beings find sexual or sexy is in general closely associated with youth, where that is understood as something like 'nubile youth'. But because what we associate with youth is heavily influenced by culture, the curious feature of this is that what we consider sexual or sexy is constantly changing, and almost necessarily so.

Take, for instance, the waltz. When young people first began dancing the waltz, it was a considerable scandal throughout Europe. And it certainly was young people; only they would have been risque. For prior to the waltz, dances involving men and women typically would either involve no touching at all or touching only at the hands; also, there was clearly demarcated personal space among the dancers. The waltz broke both of these rules of propriety. In a waltz the dancers are face to face and chest to chest. And, what is worse, the man's hand is squarely on the woman's waist. Close in, with the man's hand on the woman, moving to a beat -- ONE, two, three; ONE, two, three; ONE, two, three; sway, rise, fall; sway, rise, fall. It was virtually sex on the dancefloor. And if you think about it, the old guard who thought this were quite right; the waltz is very sexy in these ways. And in some ways it is more like sex than most of the more vulgar dances one can see in nightclubs these days. Better tempo, for one thing, and you can look right into the eyes of the person you feel right up against you.

But, of course, the young men and women who danced the waltz when young continued to dance the waltz as they grew older. Dancing instructors tamed the waltz by establishing a clear frame and rules of propriety for those who were squeamish. And eventually the young were no longer young, and still dancing the waltz, and if you went to a dance you could see your grandparents dancing the waltz. And just try to think simultaneously of the waltz as sex on the dancefloor and of your grandparents dancing the waltz, I dare you. If your grandparents dance the waltz in public, you are going to have a little bit of a problem thinking of it as sexy, aren't you?

One wonders at the limits of this. Mercifully, I think that when I am in my eighties I will be spared the sight of my fellow senior citizens dancing the grind, for the safety of their hips, if nothing else; but, of course, it could be that by the time I am in my eighties dancing instructors will have begun teaching tamed versions of the grind for those who don't like that much touching, and everyone will regard the grind as the sort of thing old people do at weddings. Nobody will think of it as risqué.

Or it might break off as a sort of subculture. Polka did that. It's common to think of polka as very silly and old-fashioned music for very silly and old-fashioned dancing; but obviously nobody thought Polka was old-fashioned when it first came out, and nobody thought it silly, either. Polka is dance music, and like all new dance music it was associated with sex-obsessed young people -- young men showing off for young women, to get them interested enough to go farther than dancing. That's why polka has so much beat to it; and why the bare beat, if you consider it alone, starts sounding a lot like the dance music that is played in nightclubs today. We think it's silly because of the tubas; but the thing about tubas is that they are good for conveying a LOUD BASS BEAT if you don't have amplifiers. You don't just hear a tuba, you feel it, just as you feel the drum track blasted in nightclubs. It's dance music, differing only in the preferred instruments. Perhaps the sort of thing that is done in nightclubs today is the sort of thing that will eventually be seen the way we see polka. Perhaps it will be a thing we associate with odd European festivals, in which all the men wear jeans-and-boxer combos rather than lederhosen. It won't seem sexy; it will just seem weird (or quirkily fun, if you like that sort of thing). Oompa-oompa-oompa. Or, rather, uhntiss-uhntiss-uhntiss.

Or perhaps we really will be subject to the sight of grandparents and fathers and daughters grinding, God help us. What we can be sure of is that what people think of as sexy will have changed radically. The young will find new things to push the bounds of propriety because what their elders saw as pushing the bounds of propriety is something the young think of as associated with their elders. For my own part, I root for the least probable of all the scenarios, in which the young again dance the waltz on that line between what you can and can't do in public. If nothing else, the music showed more genius then.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hume on More (Re-Post)

I thought it would be interesting to look at Thomas More through the eyes of someone who admires him even despite a stern disapproval of his Catholicism, namely, David Hume. From his History of England:

After the prorogation, Sir Thomas More, the chancellor, foreseeing that all the measures of the king and parliament led to a breach with the church of Rome, and to an alteration of religion, with which his principles would not permit him to concur, desired leave to resign the great seal; and he descended from his high station with more joy and alacrity than he had mounted up to it. The austerity of this man’s virtue, and the sanctity of his manners, had no wise encroached on the gentleness of his temper, or even diminished that frolic and gaiety, to which he was naturally inclined. He sported with all the varieties of fortune into which he was thrown; and neither the pride, naturally attending a high station, nor the melancholy incident to poverty and retreat, could ever lay hold of his serene and equal spirit. While his family discovered symptoms of sorrow on laying down the grandeur and magnificence, to which they had been accustomed, he drew a subject of mirth from their distresses; and made them ashamed of losing even a moment’s chearfulness, on account of such trivial misfortunes. The king, who had entertained a high opinion of his virtue, received his resignation with some difficulty; and he delivered the great seal soon after to Sir Thomas Audley....

The oath regarding the succession was generally taken throughout the kingdom. Fisher, bishop of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More, were the only persons of note, that entertained scruples with regard to its legality. Fisher was obnoxious on account of some practices, into which his credulity, rather than any bad intentions, seems to have betrayed him. But More was the person of greatest reputation in the kingdom for virtue and integrity; and as it was believed, that his authority would have influence on the sentiments of others, great pains were taken to convince him of the lawfulness of the oath. He declared, that he had no scruple with regard to the succession, and thought that the parliament had full power to settle it: He offered to draw an oath himself, which would ensure his allegiance to the heir appointed; but he refused the oath prescribed by law; because the preamble of that oath asserted the legality of the king’s marriage with Anne, and thereby implied, that his former marriage with Catherine was unlawful and invalid. Cranmer, the primate, and Cromwel, now secretary of state, who highly loved and esteemed More, entreated him to lay aside his scruples; and their friendly importunity seemed to weigh more with him, than all the penalties attending his refusal. He persisted, however, in a mild, though firm manner, to maintain his resolution; and the king, irritated against him as well as Fisher, ordered both to be indicted upon the statute, and committed prisoners to the Tower....

John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, was a prelate, eminent for learning and morals, still more than for his ecclesiastical dignities, and for the high favour, which he had long enjoyed with the king. When he was thrown into prison, on account of his refusing the oath which regarded the succession, and his concealment of Elizabeth Barton’s treasonable speeches, he had not only been deprived of all his revenues, but stripped of his very cloaths, and, without consideration of his extreme age, he was allowed nothing but rags, which scarcely sufficed to cover his nakedness. In this condition, he lay in prison above a twelvemonth; when the pope, willing to recompense the sufferings of so faithful an adherent, created him a cardinal; though Fisher was so indifferent about that dignity, that, even if the purple were lying at his feet, he declared that he would not stoop to take it. This promotion of a man, merely for his opposition to royal authority, rouzed the indignation of the king; and he resolved to make the innocent person feel the effects of his resentment. Fisher was indicted for denying the king’s supremacy, was tried, condemned, and beheaded.

The execution of this prelate was intended as a warning to More, whose compliance, on account of his great authority both abroad and at home, and his high reputation for learning and virtue, was anxiously desired by the king. That prince also bore as great personal affection and regard to More, as his imperious mind, the sport of passions, was susceptible of towards a man, who in any particular opposed his violent inclinations. But More could never be prevailed on to acknowledge any opinion so contrary to his principles as that of the king’s supremacy; and though Henry exacted that compliance from the whole nation, there was, as yet, no law obliging any one to take an oath to that purpose. Rich, the solicitor general, was sent to confer with More, then a prisoner, who kept a cautious silence with regard to the supremacy: He was only inveigled to say, that any question with regard to the law, which established that prerogative, was a two-edged sword: If a person answer one way, it will confound his soul; if another, it will destroy his body. No more was wanted to sound an indictment of high treason against the prisoner. His silence was called malicious, and made a part of his crime; and these words, which had casually dropped from him, were interpreted as a denial of the supremacy. Trials were mere formalities during this reign: The jury gave sentence against More, who had long expected this fate, and who needed no preparation to fortify him against the terrors of death. Not only his constancy, but even his cheerfulness, nay, his usual facetiousness, never forsook him; and he made a sacrifice of his life to his integrity with the same indifference that he maintained in any ordinary occurrence. When he was mounting the scaffold, he said to one, "Friend, help me up, and when I come down again, let me shift for myself." The executioner asking him forgiveness, he granted the request, but told him, "You will never get credit by beheading me, my neck is so short." Then laying his head on the block, he bade the executioner stay till he put aside his beard: "For," said he, "it never committed treason." Nothing was wanting to the glory of this end, except a better cause, more free from weakness and superstition. But as the man followed his principles and sense of duty, however misguided, his constancy and integrity are not the less objects of our admiration. He was beheaded in the fifty-third year of his age.

That's a bit long, but I think it's interesting enough to warrant it. Jennifer Herdt, in her wonderful Religion and Faction in Hume's Moral Philosophy, notes that this appraisal of Thomas More is something of an anomaly for Hume's view on the psychology of religion. Generally speaking, Hume holds that (monotheistic, and particularly institutional monotheistic) religion induces an 'artificial life' -- an unnatural way of living -- that is characterized by gloom, hypocrisy, and irrationality. These make sympathetic understanding impossible; they interfere with an outsider's ability to put themselves in the religionist's shoes. The only understanding available is to identify causes external to the religious viewpoint (supposedly) leading the religionist to the behavior and assertions put forward in that viewpoint: secret motives, passions, political factions. The religious viewpoint in itself is incomprehensible. None of these apply to More, however. As Herdt notes:

The virtues of constancy and integrity are hardly those which Hume should in theory discover in a theist, even the most sincere. So Hume in this instance seems to give the lie to his own assumptions about the nature of theistic belief and therefore to the limits of sympathetic understanding of a theist by a non-theist.

[Jennifer Herdt, Religion and Faction in Hume's Moral Philosophy. Cambridge (1997) p. 214]

So Hume's account of religion has no place for people like More. Of course, as Herdt goes on to note, Hume's account of religion, insofar as it is directed at anybody, is directed at the very narrow Scottish Calvinism that Hume knew growing up; and seen in this light a lot can still be said for Hume's account. The anomaly of More isn't a counterexample for the account, strictly speaking; it just marks a way in which it is limited.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Stewart-Williams on Suicide

Stewart-Williams, still excerpting from his book, continues to use the name of Darwin in an incantatory way to defend things that have nothing to do with Darwin one way or another. In this case it is euthanasia and voluntary suicide. And his argument is extraordinarily weak; it boils down to the claim that since human life is not infinitely valuable (as his muddled argument last time was intended to prove), "then there is no reason to assume that the duty to preserve human life should always take precedence over other considerations". But this is simply confused; since not all arguments for exceptionless prohibitions are based on claims about infinite value, the most that one could say if human life is not of infinite value is that there is no reason to assume that the duty to preserve human life should always take precedence if the infinite value of human life is the only thing to be considered. But there are any number of other things that enter into these assessments; consistency, for instance, or overall consequences. (On the other side, it should be noted that infinite value of human life does not of itself rule out suicide absolutely; infinite value overbalances any finite value, but we are still left with the question of how to handle cases where the scales are weighted with infinite values all around. A concrete case would be where one's own suicide would save someone else's life. Thus the infinite value thesis is not only not a necessary condition for the prohibition, it isn't a sufficient one, either. It is merely one element capable of contributing to an overall case.)

It's interesting to compare and contrast Stewart-Williams's argument with Hume's argument in favor of voluntary suicide, to which it is considerably inferior, for all that Hume wrote before Darwin. And even Hume was in some parts simply updating even older Stoic arguments for suicide.

ADDED LATER: Stewart-Williams ends his post with an argument that suicide, although permissible, should not be undergone lightly:

The evolutionary process that gave us life involved the suffering of untold millions of people and other animals. Does this not oblige us to cherish our existence if we possibly can, to make the most of the life that our forebears unwittingly bequeathed us with their torments and agonies?

To which the obvious answer is, "No, why would it?" And this really is one of the problems with Stewart-Williams's arguments so far: he keeps making claims about obligations, but appears to have no substantive account of what makes something an obligation -- none, at least, that can be discerned from his arguments.

Get Out and Shoot Arrows

For, contrariwise, I heard myself a good husband at his book once say, that to omit study some time of the day and some time of the year, made as much for the encrease of learning as to let the land lie some time fallow, maketh for the better encrease of corn. This we see, if the land be ploughed every year, the corn cometh thin up : the ear is short, the grain is small, and, when it is brought into the barn and threshed, giveth very evil fall. So those which never leave poring on their books, have oftentimes as thin invention as other poor men have, and as small wit and weight in it as in other men's.

Roger Ascham, Toxophilus, First Book of Shooting. This is a very charming book, by the way, consisting of a dialogue between an archer and a scholar in which the archer defends the value of getting away from books on a nice day in order to bend the bow and then gives a brief tutorial on archery.