Saturday, October 09, 2010

I Will Rise and Go to Him

An old poem from undergraduate days. "St. Alban's" is the location where the poem was written -- St. Alban the Martyr in Oxford, if I recall correctly. Twelve years ago! It's difficult to believe. The poem's weak in parts, but salvageable, I think.

Danse Macabre

The dirty beggar on the street,
cold of hands and bare of feet,
shivering in his dark, toorn rags,
living out of well-worn bags,
saw a messenger come to him,
divinely tall and ghostly slim:
"I am a herald straight and true;
my lord King Death now calls for you."

Then thought the man, "This world is cold
and I am hungry, ill, and old.
What have I to lose in this?
What is in this pain to miss?
My lord King Death, though harsh and grim:
I will rise and go to him."

A merchant with his goods all sold,
sitting in his house of gold,
heard a knocking at the door
of the threshold to his store
and rose to answer on a whim.
And there the herald said to him:
"I am a herald straight and true:
my lord King Death now calls for you."

Then thought the trader, "How can I
leave and let this world go by?
And yet this King is strong and great;
his word is law, his hand is fate.
My lord King Death, though harsh and grim:
I will rise and go to him."

A king in mighty halls of stone
sitting on his diamond throne
heard in audience the songs
of many choirs joined in throngs.
Then came the herald, wise and tall,
who shouted before great and small:
"I am a herald, straight and true;
my lord King Death now calls for you."

"Alas, I do not wish to die,
but this king's more great than I,"
said the king of many lands,
with many waiting at his hands.
"My lord King Death, though harsh and grim:
I will rise and go to him."

Imagine now a praying man
in the halls of Lateran,
the pope himself, the praying pose,
in the secret of the close.
The messenger to him then came
and said, him greeting by his name,
"I am a herald, straight and true;
my lord King Death now calls for you."

Then said the pope, "I must obey
though I would rather in this stay.
But never was the mortal man
who could this summons e'er withstand.
My lord King Death, though harsh and grim:
I will rise and go to him."

MEMENTO MORI. St. Alban's, 29 July 1998.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Monarchy and Democracy

The unity and integrity of the state seem to be best secured in an absolute monarchy, but only for as long as everything really is united in one hand. If the state grows to a point where for practical reasons it becomes mipossible to concentrate the range of affairs of state in one hand, then monarchy is destabilized and the subsistence of the state is to be secured only through transition to another form of state. Democracy, by its very idea, gives the state its most secure grounding. However, it places demands upon the totality of the citizens that -- when measured against the average caliber of human beings -- are set so high that they are always very unlikely to be fulfilled. The danger of deterioration is very great with this modality of state.

Edith Stein, An Investigation Concerning the State, Sawicki, tr. ICS (Washington, D.C.: 2006) pp. 34-35.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Philippa Foot (1920-2010)

Philippa Foot, the notable moral philosopher, recently died; while well-known, she was, I think, always underappreciated. I was reading one of her essays earlier today, and came across a passage in a discussion of whether (e.g.) a habitual coldblooded murderer could be counted as having the virtue of courage given that his action (deliberately and coldbloodedly murdering someone) is not the sort of thing a coward could do. And she noted that defects can cancel out other defects, citing a passage in Aquinas (ST 1.58.4 ad 3) in which he talks about how a blind horse is better off if it's slow. The Aquinas passage is actually on a slightly different topic, but Foot is quite right that it contains the basic ideas for a Thomistic response to the problem: Aquinas notes that the natural inclination to the object of a virtue is a sort of beginning of virtue, but need not be complete virtue. And this makes sense of the murderer: a habitual, deliberate, and coldblooded murderer might be unable to be cowardly: to have the vices required for being such a person you have to have the inclinations that are the beginning of courage: the things that would be courage if they were properly developed.

In any case, suddenly linking the topic to Aquinas's example of the blind horse is very like Foot: she always approached things obliquely, and so often saw things others didn't.

Linkable Thinkables

* A new blog, by Jender of "Feminist Philosophers": What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? Some of the stories do have happy endings, but others are less pleasant, and, although it's difficult to get people to understand this, these kinds of stories are not uncommon even today.

* Henry Karlson looks at St. Justin Martyr on the topic of suicide.

* A quick post on the opening words of Plato's Republic. As I always tell my students, Plato doesn't put things into his dialogue at random.

* Modern-day journalism in a nutshell: Mother-in-law jokes are now illegal in the London Borough of Barnet. Except, of course, that the city council did not in fact outlaw mother-in-law jokes, but simply used them in a brochure as an example of a kind of joke that people could find offensive, so the headline is completely wrong.

* Speaking of which: Your all-purpose guide to science news articles on the web. John Wilkins discusses.

* On Hypatia of Alexandria.

* On Boethius and the Consolation of Philosophy

* Akeel Bilgrami judges the 3QuarksDaily philosophy prizes; his response is almost infinitely better than Daniel Dennett's last year, which showed very little other than the fact that Dennett doesn't understand what blogging is.

* Turretinfan had two interesting posts recently on a common misquotation of Luther in Catholic apologetics:

Final Piece in Cochlaeus' Misquotation of Luther Puzzle
Cochlaeus Misparaphrase Debacle Summary

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


I happened to be in Borders on Sunday, just looking around. I was actually looking for a decent place to have lunch, but I have difficulty passing a bookstore without looking inside. In any case, what it brought home to me more than anything was that there are a great many very/rather bad books being published.

I've occasionally daydreamed about starting a bookstore that was done right; Brandon's Choice Books, I always think of it. It would only have good books -- and I'd be pretty generous with that label, since all one needs is good for their kind. But it would be a store where you could always guarantee that you'd find every work by Jane Austen or J.R.R. Tolkien that is currently being published; where the philosophy section would be large, classics in every genre would be easy to find, and the light throw-away fiction that was available (for there would have to be some) was all on the shelf because someone who likes reading had liked it, and wholly for that reason. The science section would not consist of bad popularizations, but of actual introductions to actual science, decent-quality scientific biographies, and classic works. Political hackery of whatever stripe, whether left, right, up, down, backwards, or what-have-you, would never even make it to the floor. The store would not look like an expanded airport bookstore. It would not have many comfy chairs, which is perhaps a con, but on the other hand it would not have them because the store would be overflowing with books. There would be a print-on-demand press for public domain books; there would always be academic works bought wholesale and remaindered and used so that they were relatively cheap; the science fiction sections would be to die for; if you suddenly had a hankering to build up your own mystery collection, you could at one location buy virtually every Rex Stout and Dorothy Sayers and Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie that's currently in print. It would be a nice bookstore; shelves upon shelves upon shelves upon shelves of books. And when I finally manage to sell my ocean-front property in Arizona to fund it, you are all invited to the Grand Opening.

If you had a bookstore like that, what authors and titles (from any genre whatsoever) would you make sure were always in stock?

Monday, October 04, 2010

A Heart that Watches and Receives

Among the Lyrical Ballads we have an interesting pair of poems, "Expostulation and Reply" and "Tables Turned" that, while not themselves providing a full philosophical argument, nonetheless do present one in summary form. Wordsworth said that they "arose out of conversation with a friend who was somewhat unreasonably attached to modern books of moral philosophy"; the friend in question was almost certainly William Hazlitt. The first poem, "Expostulation and Reply," has two characters, Matthew and William; William is presented as the narrator of the poem. Matthew finds William sitting on an "old grey stone" by Lake Esthwaite, and says that he is just dreaming his time away and should engage in a more constructive study:

"Where are your books?--that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.

"You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you!"

To this expostulation William replies in fact the sort of thing that he is doing would be done anywhere and it makes sense to do it where the mind can nourish itself best:

"The eye--it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where'er they be,
Against or with our will.

"Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.

Just as importantly, however, William suggests that it is strange to think that consideration of the whole vast world of nature would amount to nothing:

"Think you, 'mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?

"Tables Turned" forms the sequel to this brief summary of a philosophical conversation between friends; it is the more important, and more famous, of the two. 'Matthew' is here merely addressed, and not named; the whole poem is a counter-expostulation in which the narrator, finding his friends at his books, turns the table, saying he should get up from his books and take up a more constructive kind of study:

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

He makes the same point that had been made by William in the previous poem, albeit in a much stronger and less tentative form:

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Whereas William had only suggested that it would be strange if the "mighty sum of things forever speaking" provided no insight, here we have an insistence that it provides more insight than (to use the phrase from the previous poem) the "spirit breathed from dead men to their kind." The "wise passiveness" of the previous poem in the face of "Powers which of themselves our minds impress" are also found here, as an "impulse" that gives healthy "spontaneous wisdom" and cheerful truth. But the point is not merely stated: an argument is given. Books involve chopping up the world in artificial ways:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

At the heart of poems, of course, is the very Wordsworthian insistence that the human mind and the natural world are well-suited to each other, and that, therefore, the "wise passiveness" of "a heart that watches and receives" is an important element to learning. Nature is not merely a backdrop; it is the essential environment for the healthy development of our minds, since only from Nature's "ready wealth" can we get the full nourishment our minds require. And, note, this is especially important for the development of moral reflection: our capacity for moral reflection needs to work "in the light of things" and needs as its objects "the beauteous forms of things".

I've occasionally seen "Tables Turned" used as an example of Romantic anti-intellectualism. But this is clearly a misinterpretation, even setting aside the fact that 'Romantic anti-intellectualism' usually turns out not to be anti-intellectual at all. The point is not that book-study is useless, because the point at issue in the poem-pair is what provides the most valuable environment for moral reflection and, perhaps more importantly, what is the proper approach to take if you are attempting to improve your habits of moral reflection. The point of "Tables Turned" is that active searching of books for arguments can quickly mire you in purely artificial disputes, leading to shallow habits of moral reflection; the approach that the poet himself advocates, on the other hand, consists of a mind that with "wise passiveness" "that watches and receives" from the "ready wealth" of the world, and thus is not hampered in its moral reflection by the artificiality and, occasionally, mere quibbling, of book disputes; it doesn't stay with the "dull and endless strife," which requires an active searching and constant examination, but instead comes forth "into the light of things," not merely to weigh arguments put forward by others but to be taught about itself.