Saturday, July 31, 2010

Two Poem Drafts

City Loop

The speeding cars upon the city loop,
self-moved but not self-moving, make their turns
and, heedless of the world, still make their laps
while time is lost and stormy sky is torn.
Can men who do not love the falling rain
take joy in life or walk the roads of grace?
So many human hearts will only run
on tar and stone, and never on wet grass;
they know no tempo but the running race,
and never meet another but to pass.
How can such people feel their hearts upraise?
Or know, not humming motor, but true peace?
But, as to far Damascus, still these streets
lead on to heaven's door with hurry straight.

Hurried Prayer

Creator of this ever-rolling orb,
the earth your footstool, all of space your robe,
as you have made this cosmos come to be,
so bring the waywardness of man to bay!
And work in me, most holy Lamb of God,
a power born of heaven, aimed toward good,
as you by greatest mercy have ransom brought
to all our race, and hope of glory bright.
And music Spirit, with your winds inspire
the souls of we who pray, and do not spare
one moment of delay, but to all who fear
descend in might and love and heaven's fire.
O God, three-personed, one in substance true,
redeem your slave-sold people in their tears,
and as you give from each to each again,
so give to us, that we might Godhead gain
and, though not Gods by right or nature born,
in you we may be Gods, in grace you bring.

Links for Thinking

* Steffen Ducheyne, Whewell's Tidal Researches: Scientific Practice and Philosophical Methodology (PDF) -- an excellent paper.

* Martha Nussbaum responds to some of her critics of her essay on banning the veil.

* Onora O'Neill discusses some of the difficulties that are intrinsic to assisted suicide legislation.

* A man in Bosnia has had to reinforce his roof with steel to protect his house from meteorites; it has been hit by meteorites six times in the past decade or so. He blames aliens; and under the circumstances I think everyone can be a bit sympathetic to his reasoning.

* And some YouTube finds. This has been going around because it is just a bit too true:



And several people have noticed this trailer for a cross-over film:



(And it is true that if anyone were to be the instigator, Lizzie would be.)

And another YouTube find:



Spektor is very uneven, but when she hits the ball, she hits it well. Samson and Us are also very good.

Experience vs. Pseudo-Idea

When I am speaking of a particular person and say, ‘If that person had been there, such a thing would not have happened; if it happened, it must be because that person was not there’, my ground for so speaking is a precise knowledge, or my claim to a precise knowledge, of the person in question. Nurse would have stopped the child from playing with the matches; which means, that she is prudent and careful, she can be trusted completely; she could not have let the child play with matches. But two suppositions are implied in this: first, that the person—the nurse in this case—does really exist; and secondly, that we know her so well that we can say what sort of person she is and what she would do in any given circumstances. The atheist, however, relies not on an experience but on an idea, or pseudo-idea, of God: if God existed, He would have such and such characteristics; but if He had those characteristics He could not allow etc. His judgment of incompatibility, in fact, is based on a judgment of implications. Or rather, what he wants to say is that if the word ‘God’ has any meaning—of which, indeed, we cannot be certain—it can be applied only to a being who is both completely good and completely powerful. This part of the argument might well be granted; but not so with what follows. When I am speaking of the nurse, I am relying on situations or circumstances which actually occurred, and in which she effectively demonstrated her prudence; or at least on an inner certainty of what I should have done in her place. But does such an assertion retain any meaning when it is applied to the behaviour of God? Whether those last words have any meaning at all and whether the idea of divine behaviour is not self-contradictory, is a very serious question, but we can leave that on one side for the moment. If I proceed to draw conclusions from what the divine behaviour has been in any particular historical instance, then I am ipso facto debarred from agreeing with what the atheist maintains. But is the alternative any better? Can I so put myself in the place of God as to be able to say how I should have behaved in any particular circumstances, what I should have allowed and what I should have forbidden? We may note that when we are speaking of an important public figure who is called upon to make a crucial decision, we often find it impossible to imagine ourselves in his place; in fact the very idea of doing so seems ridiculous. If we pursue that line of thought, we are obliged to recognize the absurdity of trying to put ourselves in God's place.

Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, vol. 1, Chapter V

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sin Crying Out

From an article on Newman by Anthony Kenny:

Well into the twentieth century, the Catholic Catechism listed “the sin of Sodom” – along with wilful murder, and defrauding the poor of their wages – as a “sin crying out to heaven for vengeance”.

It still does (1867):

The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are "sins that cry to heaven": the blood of Abel, The sin of the Sodomites, The cry of the people oppressed in Egypt, The cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan, injustice to the wage earner.

The description is Biblical, so it's not surprising that it's still there. I suspect that if there's any difference, it's that Catholics would be more likely today to interpret the phrase "the sin of Sodom" as a species of rape. I've discussed the list briefly before.

Incidentally, these are the instructions for searching the text of the Catechism at the Holy See's own website:

To search for a word, e.g. "home":

* click on the letter in the alphabet list corresponding to the first letter of the word: e.g. "H"
* press the Control and F keys;
* type in the search word: e.g. "home"
* click on the "Find" button. (The button may have a different name in your browser )
The computer will find and highlight the word you are searching for. (If the word is not found, a message will appear).
* Now click on the word to access its concordance.

Which has to be the most dimwitted search function I've come across in recent times, particularly since you have to find the alphabetical word list first, which they don't make entirely easy; on the instructions that tell you to find the alphabetical list, they don't even bother to link to it! And surely it wouldn't be all that difficult to set up some sort of Google search for a reference as important as the Catechism?

Kenny's review is good, btw. I also recommend Eagleton's.

The Higher Life and the Wider Life

Throughout the history of moral ideas, in spite of constant change, we may nevertheless trace a certain persistent content. In each modification the new stage is not entirely new; it brings out more fully something that was already suggested at an earlier stage. It is a permanent characteristic of the moral consciousness to find value in certain kinds of experience rather than in other kinds. At every critical turn the moral judgment pronounces for the superiority of the spiritual to the material in life, and recognises the importance of social ends when confronted by the interests or apparent interests of the self-seeking individual. The higher life and the wider life—the life of spirit and the life for others—these the moral judgment approves with a constancy which is almost uniform. Perhaps it is entirely uniform. The valuation has indeed been rejected by individuals from time to time—as it was by Thrasymachus in the Republic, as it is at the present day by the followers of Nietzsche. But this rejection is not so much a different interpretation of the moral consciousness as a revolt against morality. It is a substitution of new values for old, like the magician's offer of new lamps for old in the Arabian tale. The new lamps did not fulfil the same function as the old lamp; nor do the new values serve instead of the old. For, when we examine them, we find that they are only measurements of strength—physical standards, therefore—and not criteria of value or moral standards. In spite of the contrasts which we may discover between the ways in which different men and times express these values, their essential nature remains the same. They cannot be understood if we start by denying in toto the validity of the moral consciousness. And a sane criticism will find both unity of spirit and a principle of growth in its varied manifestations.

W. R. Sorley, Moral Values and the Idea of God, Chapter 4.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Of Christianity

I notice a number of people are making more of this than it is, so I thought I would say something. Anne Rice, who, of course, converted or re-converted to Christianity a while ago, recently left three messages on her Facebook page:

Gandhi famously said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” When does a word (Christian)become unusable? When does it become so burdened with history and horror that it cannot be evoked without destructive controversy?

and

For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to "belong" to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

and, to explain,

As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

One can sympathize, and it's a moment many Christians have, and the reason it has sometimes been popular to say that Christianity as a religion is to be repudiated, and that one should only be Christian in the sense of having a relationship with Christ. Indeed, some of what she says is very much in that vein. And anyone who cannot have some sympathy for it does not pay much attention to life with others in Christ, because it goes back to the Apostolic generation itself, for the Apostles and their converts were indeed a quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and, yes, sometimes even deservedly infamous, group. But even they were not out to be Christians; they did not seek to belong to Christianity, that vague, abstract, collective label, but to follow the Way, to preach the Truth, to live the Life. And the Way, the Truth, and the Life were Christ. To be Christian, in some sense of a group membership, is next to nothing in value; to be Christ's -- that is something for which men and women have lived and died.

But I think it is in this we also see why things are not so simple. For the book of Acts tells us quite clearly how the followers of the Way became Christians, and in it is a lesson worth learning. It was in Antioch, it is said, where the disciples were first called Christians. But it is not a casual mention. The disagreements between the disciples and those around them had become violent, and blood had been shed. Stephen had fallen beneath the stones and a man named Saul, breathing murderous threats, began to drum up support for dragging all followers of the Way in chains before the authorities. Trying to destroy the assembly of the followers, he entered house after house, dragging out the men and women, and handing them over to be imprisoned. The persecutions grew fierce, and while a core group of followers remained in Jerusalem, most fled. They were scattered throughout the Roman empire, and some of these came to Antioch and proclaimed Christ to Gentile and Jew alike. Many believed.

And in the meantime, a new peace had come to the the community of the followers; and Saul himself, on the road to Damascus, fell down before Christ and began to preach the Way. And he was eventually brought by a close associate of the Apostles themselves, Barnabas, to Antioch. He and Barnabas taught the growing community at Antioch for a year; and it was there in Antioch that the followers of the Way were first called Christians. And at that time in Antioch, the community were moved to take thought for their fellow Christians in other places; the people, as they were able, gathered together their resources to help those in Judea who suffered from famine.

And that is why it is worth it to belong to Christianity, to hold to being a Christian, despite the fact that we are a quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and sometimes infamous people. Because ultimately, that name should never be given over. It was the name that marked the Church as standing together. They stood with the martyrs. They stood with the confessors. They stood with the apostles. They stood with the poor among them. And that was what made them Christian. And to be Christian is to hold together in persecution and in peace, and to commit to aiding those who also follow the Way when they are in need; it is to encourage each other in faithfulness, difficult as it may be, and to remain firm in heart. And it is not to be Novatianist or Donatist, demanding purity before association, but to keep in mind that Christ came not for the pure but for the disputatious, vexatious, hostile, quarrelsome, and, yes, deservedly infamous. It is to recognize that we are they; but that Christ is more.

But they did not join to join a club, and they did not sign on to belong to a group; they were, to use the phrase in the book of Acts, added to the Lord, and it was this that brought upon them the label Christian. We don't know all the details of how it arose; it may have been a name of mockery that came to be worn as a badge of honor, or it may have been something that some of them started calling themselves to affirm that they were added to the Lord. Whatever the reason, if, as I pray she is, Anne Rice really is committed to Christ, she's quit Christianity in the sense that everyone must, eventually, and she hasn't quit Christianity in the only sense that is important. I hope that she is not going to try to 'go it alone', as some try, the katharoi of every age; that way nothing lies but disaster. To associate with sinners is not really avoidable except by associating with no one; and associating with no one is no good for anyone. So I hope this is more like the Desert Fathers withdrawing from the cities in an attempt to follow a deeper and more faithful prayer and a more integral participation in the truly important work of the Church than any of the other interpretations that have been given to her words; and I hope she rediscovers that the label really is usable, regardless of frustration, because with it we stand with the apostles and martyrs and our brothers and sisters in need. But we are called not to a demographic, but (as we have always been) to the Way. Sooner or later, we must all learn: to love God is all, to love neighbor is all, the Lord to whom we are through the grace of God added (and not alone, never alone) is all in all; everything else is at most a hobby and at worst a dangerous distraction.

UPDATE: Added the first of the quotations above, which I think sheds a small bit of light on the ones that followed.

Admirable Activity of the Human Spirit

It seems to me, then, that knowledge, or perhaps we should rather say the activity of the mind which leads to knowledge, is good, not in the sense that human nature likes having it (although in fact most men do like having it), but in the sense that it is an admirable activity of the human spirit; that this activity owes its excellence not to our liking it, but to its being conducted according to its own proper principles, i.e. according to the principles discovered by logic; and that different instances of this activity are good in proportion as they are conducted according to these principles.

W. D. Ross, Foundations of Ethics, Chapter XI

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Strawson's Basic Argument

Galen Strawson has a post on moral responsibility at The Stone. One of the arguments he gives is:

(a) It’s undeniable that the way you are initially is a result of your genetic inheritance and early experience.

(b) It’s undeniable that these are things for which you can’t be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise).

(c) But you can’t at any later stage of life hope to acquire true or ultimate moral responsibility for the way you are by trying to change the way you already are as a result of genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(d) Why not? Because both the particular ways in which you try to change yourself, and the amount of success you have when trying to change yourself, will be determined by how you already are as a result of your genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(e) And any further changes that you may become able to bring about after you have brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by your genetic inheritance and previous experience.

This isn't an idle exercise; it really is Strawson's view that there is no such thing as moral responsibility, unless we use the phrase in an exceptionally weak sense. The argument above is part of a larger argument ("the Basic Argument") to this end.

Determinists, I find, tend to suffer from lack of imagination, which is perhaps why their arguments are so often elaborate exercises in handwaving that a baby could see through. One of the problems Strawson regularly has (he is not alone in suffering the malady) is an inability to see that 'responsibility' obviously means many different things, not just one or two, and we see this failing as clear as day in (b) in the above argument. Pretty standard usages of the term 'responsibility' and common, albeit not the most common, usages of 'moral responsibility' allow the notion of having responsibility for biological inheritance and early experience or, indeed, any number of things one did not decide or control, any number of things that are thought to come about by chance or by necessities independent of oneself. This same problem arises in another "richer" (to use Strawson's word) and much more problematic (to use my word) argument, in which we suddenly face the completely unexplained phrase "ultimately responsible" as if there weren't many other kinds of responsibility that might do just as well, however Strawson means it. Although actually, Strawson's "richer" argument is,, if we trim away dubious vagueness like this, just a version of an argument that has had a long history among those who accept that there is free will, because it's actually just an argument that deliberation (as it would have been called) cannot infinitely regress, which we find in Aristotle, Avicenna, Aquinas, and ten jillion other people; it is one reason why so very few people who claim that we are morally responsible and have free will have ever claimed that we cannot be "ultimately responsible" for our actions unless we choose every last little thing about them, and has been a standard part of at least certain kinds of accounts of free will and moral responsibility for literally centuries now. Try as he might, Strawson just can't convince me that what most people mean when they claim we are responsible for our actions is that we create ourselves ex nihilo. There's pretty much infinite room for a weaker account that is nonetheless still strong enough to work.

But I am being a bit unfair to Strawson, because his arguments really are pretty cogent when leveled against a wide variety of common positions on the subject today; it's an area of philosophy where memories tend to be short, and the development of ideas correspondingly weak.

Hall of Mirrors (Re-Post)

I'm re-posting, with some modification, this post from June 2008, for the purely personal reason that I want to think a bit more about the topic it discusses.

Hume tells us in the conclusion to Book I of the Treatise (T 1.4.7.12) that the origin of his philosophy lies in the sentiments of curiosity and ambition; and in the History of England he describes the progress of science in terms of the satisfaction of curiosity and vanity. But while he gives us an account of how curiosity plays a role in inquiry (Treatise 2.3.10), he doesn't give us any explicit account of how vanity plays a role. The result is that we have to extrapolate from what he does say. In T 1.4.7.12 he gives us a brief sentence: "I feel an ambition to arise in me of contributing to the instruction of mankind, and of acquiring a name by my inventions and discoveries." And he does give us an account of pride in Book II. From these we can get an idea of Hume's account of the role of vanity or ambition in inquiry. A precise idea would require getting into finer details of Hume's account of pride; but we can get the general idea, I think, by comparing it to the role vanity has in our pursuit of wealth.

In discussing the esteem we have for the wealthy, Hume has a fascinating passage (T 2.2.5.21) that is useful for this purpose. (I have added the bolding.)

In general we may remark, that the minds of men are mirrors to one another, not only because they reflect each other's emotions, but also because those rays of passions, sentiments and opinions may be often reverberated, and may decay away by insensible degrees. Thus the pleasure, which a rich man receives from his possessions, being thrown upon the beholder, causes a pleasure and esteem; which sentiments again, being perceiv'd and sympathiz'd with, encrease the pleasure of the possessor; and being once more reflected, become a new foundation for pleasure and esteem in the beholder. There is certainly an original satisfaction in riches deriv'd from that power, which they bestow, of enjoying all the pleasures of life; and as this is their very nature and essence, it must be the first source of all the passions, which arise from them. One of the most considerable of these passions is that of love or esteem in others, which therefore proceeds from a sympathy with the pleasure of the possessor. But the possessor has also a secondary satisfaction in riches arising from the love and esteem he acquires by them, and this satisfaction is nothing but a second reflexion of that original pleasure, which proceeded from himself. This secondary satisfaction or vanity becomes one of the principal recommendations of riches, and is the chief reason, why we either desire them for ourselves, or esteem them in others. Here then is a third rebound of the original pleasure; after which `tis difficult to distinguish the images and reflexions, by reason of their faintness and confusion.

This striking extended metaphor gives us a starting point for considering how vanity might play a role in inquiry. We start with an original satisfaction in wealth, due to "that power...of enjoying all the pleasures of life," which itself brings about pleasure in the mind of the one has the wealth (we'll call him Rich). The passions that we feel tend to be communicated to others by sympathy and imagination; recognizing the pleasure and pride Rich has in wealth, the rest (we'll call them the Chorus), assuming no interfering factors, come to love and esteem him by sympathy, i.e., by the echoes or reflections in the Chorus of Rich's own pride and pleasure. Rich, however, comes to recognize that the Chorus loves and esteems him, and this gives us our second reflection, because by sympathy Rich shares in (and, indeed, can't help but share in, all other things being equal) the Chorus's love and esteem for himself, which adds a second level of satisfaction to his original satisfaction. As he says elsewhere, talking about the love of fame (T 2.1.11.9), "'Tis certain...that if a person consider'd himself in the same light, in which he appears to his admirer, he wou'd first receive a separate pleasure, and afterwards a pride or self-satisfaction...." This second satisfaction is what Hume calls vanity, and he very notably insists that it is the chief reason for our pusuit of wealth. From vanity we get a third reflection, dimmer than the first, but still recognizable: the Chorus doesn't just take pleasure in the idea of having Rich's enjoyment of wealth (first sympathy), it also takes pleasure in the idea of having Rich's enjoyment of the love and admiration he gets through sympathy with the Chorus's original sympathetic pleasure with himself, and this new pleasure in the chorus is the "third rebound" of sympathy. In principle, we could go on, but as Hume says, due to the "faintness and confusion" of reflections in this hall of mirror, we lose the ability to distinguish the outlines of the sentiments clearly.

So we have, to sum up, the following process:

original person
(1) first satisfaction (pride in having), which is reflected in others through

others
(2) first sympathy (as others sympathetically participate in the original person's first satisfaction), which creates in others
(3) love and admiration for the original person, which is reflected in that person through

original person
(4) second sympathy (as the original person sympathetically participates in others' admiration for him as possessor), which induces in the original person
(5) second satisfaction, or vanity (pride in being admired or loved), which is reflected in others through

others
(6) third sympathy (as others sympathetically participate in the second satisfaction of the original person), which creates in others
(7) the desire to be loved and admired as the original person is admired.

Hume tells us that wealth is the cause that produces pride most intensely and copiously (T 2.1.10), so one presumes that the status of vanity will be somewhat messier in the pursuit of scholarly distinction than it is in the pursuit of wealth. But the same process will be found there. As Hume says (T 2.2.1.9), "There are few persons, that are satisfy'd with their own character, or genius, or fortune, who are nor desirous of shewing themselves to the world, and of acquiring the love and approbation of mankind."

Thus vanity forces inquiry to take a profoundly social shape: we can't have second sympathy if there is no one other than ourselves admiring us for our genius. We need the sympathetic echo chamber, the hall of mirrors.

Higher Religion and the Worship of Oecumenical Man

When a higher religion of either family—the Judaic or the Buddhaic—comes into collision with an oecumenical empire, the conflict is of momentous importance. In an oecumenical empire, a higher religion is meeting its most formidable adversary—Man's worship of collective human power—in its least maleficent and least unedifying form. As an object of worship, an idolized oecumenical empire shines out against the foil of its fallen predecessors the parochial states in an antecedent time of troubles. In contrast to these fallen idols, as well as to a nascent Judaic higher religion, an oecumenical empire brings, not the sword, but peace. It is a régime under which, on the whole, the best elements of a dominant minority are in command; for the public spirit of its professional civil service and professional army counts for much more, in its effect on the lives of its subjects, than the personal unworthiness of individual emperors. In the third place an oecumenical empire is the antithesis of the fallen parochial states and the forerunner of the nascent higher religions in standing for the ideal of the unity and brotherhood of all Mankind. This remote oecumenical collective human idol may not be capable of evoking such warm positive devotion as the familiar parochial idols—a Sparta or an Athens, a Judah or a Tyre, an Assyria or a Babylonia, a Ts'i or a Ch'u; but, nevertheless, any threat to an oecumenical empire's stability, security, and survival will arouse alarm and opposition, not only among the dominant minority, but among the masses as well.

Alfred Toynbee, An Historian's View of Religion, Chapter 7. Were he writing today, he might consider use the word 'cosmopolitan' rather than 'oecumenical'; the former has come to mean something very like what Toynbee means by the latter. The primary advantage is that the latter more easily serves as an adjective to the word 'empire'.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Art and Religion

How, then, can fine art and religion obtain mutual benefit by association with each other? Possibly as follows. Religion can help fine art to realize that the form is of God, whereas the style is merely of the copyist Man. On the other hand, fine art can help religion to recognize the formal beauty of the archetypes provided by Deus sive Natura.

R. R. Marett, Faith, Hope, and Charity in Primitive Religion, Chapter IX

Monday, July 26, 2010

On a Symptom of Deteriorating Artistic Sense and Taste

We tend to think of Shakespeare as high-brow art. What we have difficulty remembering is that this is an accident of how most people are exposed to Shakespeare, and the company lovers of Shakespeare keep. In reality, all the Shakespearean plays have as much claim to being low-brow as they have to being high-brow. It is impossible to imagine the plays being written in a flurry of deliberately cultivated creativity, in an attempt to create art for art's sake; the purpose of the plays was to entertain a wide audience. Theaters were built near brothels; the groundlings were from the lowest walks of life. There were, it is true, seats for the higher classes, and no doubt some plays were for special performances at the Court; but the wealthy have their low-brow tastes, too. And the plays appeal to what we think of as low-brow tastes: battles and murders, processions and madness, spectacle on every page. But it was also a time when even low-brow tastes included sonorous declamation, elaborate punning, and absurdly complicated stories. And it is the sheer artistic ingenuity and talent devoted to such common tastes that make Shakespeare's works rise above the ordinary.

And, indeed, if you look at the history of their performance, you find that Shakespeare's plays were enjoyed by everyone; indeed, lower classes were arguably even better acquainted with them than wealthier classes. They were the people's culture, the people's entertainment, and Shakespeare could have had nothing like the influence he had on the English language if this had not been the case. That Shakespeare has increasingly become a high-brow taste, an enjoyment for those who like period pieces and paying for expensive sets and costumes, is a relatively new thing, and is, I would suggest, a sign of just how far Shakespeare has fallen from his original cultural place. It is a sign of decadence and degeneration that he is presented for high-brow tastes.

One finds this pattern repeated in many other cases, although not, of course, all. Homer's poetry was originally just the oral poetry everyone turned out to listen to; Dante's poetry was written in the vernacular, in the common speech for the common man. Where the truly great artist dwells there is no distinction between high-brow and low-brow; there is only human. Eventually, however, people lose their capacity to participate in the work itself, often due to how the work is presented to them; and then there arises the distinction between the low-brow, which cannot rise to the occasion, and the high-brow, which thinks itself elite and above the common taste because it enjoys what any common peasant would have enjoyed more completely a few generations back.

Both of these are serious problems, I think. High-brow tastes are entirely manufactured; they come about solely because people try to use art as an excuse to consider themselves better than others. And equally, the establishing of the distinction between low-brow and high-brow is constantly hoisting culture that rightly belongs to everyone out of the reach of the masses. Full operas were rarely if ever available to the poor, but there was a time -- and it ended not so very long ago -- when the poor were the enthusiastic devotees of operatic arias. If you went to a state fair, there would often be a stage somewhere at which large numbers of people would gather to listen with rapture to fully operatic singing of short passages. This is, incidentally, one of the reasons why country music, so very different in other ways, has physiological similarities to opera: the opera singer uses the mouth, the sinus cavity, the chest cavity, and the diaphragm to sing, and old-time country singers did the same. There was less focus on virtuouso note-hitting and volume, so it stayed more in the sinus cavity than opera singing did, thus giving it a twang, but the two are related; country was created by people who listened to operatic arias (among other things) and learned how to sing from them. Names like 'Grand Ole Opry' are not so far off.* But no longer; opera is high-brow, and it is dying because of it. This happens to all high-brow art; that an art has become confined to high-brow tastes is a sign that it is dying.

It is possible to turn back this trend. One art that seems to have slowly made gains in this direction is ballet, as ballet companies have moved out of the confines of expensive venues to give samples of their art in schools and at festivals. And what they've found is that ordinary people love it: people who would never have the time or patience or money to sit through a full performance will nonetheless become enthusiastic over shorter performances in more accessible venues. You don't have to have a rich taste to appreciate the athletic virtuosity or grace of ballet; you just have to be human.

How far the trend can be reversed, however, is hard to say. We live in an age where the high-brow / low-brow distinction is fixed from the beginning. It is purely artificial, but it is found everywhere. Some arts get tagged as low-brow. It does not matter how much artistic talent goes into them, how much ingenuity; since it is seen as merely for the masses, the sort of thing anyone can enjoy, it is never regarded as high art. Some arts are tagged as high-brow. It does not matter how much they express the real human condition, real human sorrows, real human joys; since it is high-brow, you have to acquire an affectation to like it, and it is beyond the reach of the common masses. Both expectations are self-fulfilling, and the result is that we are all impoverished; we have arts of wide appeal and we have great artistic talents, but our arts of wide appeal (on both sides of the divide) never reach their potential and great artistic talents (on both sides of the divide) are attenuated into weak and anemic forms or chopped down to a misplaced common level.

Still, the Muses still breathe and inspire, and here and there one finds things that buck the trend. I'm inclined to think that Hitchcock in movies and Tolkien in literature are examples; and I would say there are many more examples of the kind. But the real salvation of art will lie in bucking this whole distinction between what is enjoyable for the masses and what is enjoyable for an elite; art under such a distinction inevitably deteriorates, as does everyone's ability to appreciate art. Art, like Shakespeare in a sane society, is neither high-brow nor low-brow; it is human.

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ADDED LATER
* I thought I would say a little bit more about this. The 'Grand Ole Opry' gets its name not from any direct operatic connection but from the fact that it used to air on NBC radio after a program that consisted of classical music and selections from Grand Opera (the Musical Appreciation Hour); the name 'Grand Ole Opry' grew up as a joke one day when the host, Judge Hay, called it by that name to contrast it with the previous program. But notice what still comes out in the joke: people listening to the radio that evening would first hear classical and operatic music, then hear the more barn-dance style music of the Grand Ole Opry, and the joke when originally made assumed that the audience had also listened to the more educational classical-and-opera program.

Joint Activity

If we may take the old trio of cognition, feeling, and emotion, as covering the field of human faculty, we may say that religion employs all these activities at once and hence engages the whole man. On the cognitive side, the religious man is a philosopher ex officio, whether a competent one or not. Since he is trying to adjust himself to the government of the world, he will inevitably feel some interest in knowing the truth about it, and hence be carried on to form some conception of it. This conception, in turn, will evoke toward its object some attitude of reverence, love, indifference, or fear. Again, if he conceives the world to be governed by a personal being who is wise and good, as Christianity does, he will try to bring his practice into line with what he takes to be the divine will. His religion, then, will not be a function of thought or feeling or will; it will be the joint activity of all three; it will be the response of the man as a whole to what he takes as ultimately true and ultimately good.
Brand Blanshard, Reason and Belief, Chapter XII

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Thomist Ground of Religion

A nice quote from James Chastek:

St. Thomas did more than anyone to show the reasonableness of the Faith, and yet his argument that religion is natural (and I here really mean religion, not some shorthand for Christianity) is that man simply cries out to something greater than himself when he is beset by his weakness and need. I’m reminded of a PBS drama that showed a group of Jews arguing about the existence of God at a concentration camp, and by the end of the show everyone had proven that God did not and could not exist. In the last moment of the show, they are all ushered away, and one of them asks “so what do we do now?” and another, with calm assurance, says “Now? Now we pray.”

James has passages like ST 2-2.85.1 in mind.

The Five Questions of Historical Inquiry

There are three distinguishable but clearly interrelated methods of historical knowledge: factual, explanatory, and normative. The first of these methods is divisible into three forms of inquiry: chronology, interpretation, and recreation. Historical knowledge thus seeks answers to five questions: first, “What occurred in a specific place at a specific time?”; second, “What is the importance of what occurred?”; third, “What was it like when it occurred?”; fourth, “Owing to what conditions did it occur?”; fifth, “Is it good or bad that it should have occurred?” These are all pertinent questions; none can properly be disqualified; and they all permit of answers more or less true and more or less proved.

Ralph Barton Perry, Realms of Value, Chapter XX