Friday, December 31, 2010

Passing Away

The Knell of the Year
by Christina Rossetti

Passing away, saith the World, passing away:
Changes, beauty, and youth, sapped day by day:
Thy life never continueth in one stay.
Is the eye waxen dim, is the dark hair changing to grey
That hath won neither laurel nor bay?
I shall clothe myself in Spring and bud in May:
Thou, root-stricken, shalt not rebuild thy decay
On my bosom for aye.
Then I answered: Yea.

Passing away, saith my Soul, passing away:
With its burdenof fear and hope, of labour and play,
Hearken what the past doth witness and say:
Rust in thy gold, a moth is in thine array,
A canker is in thy bud, thy leaf must decay.
At midnight, at cockcrow, at morning, one certain day
Lo the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay;
Watch thou and pray.
Then I answered: Yea.

Passing away, saith my God, passing away:
Winter passeth after the long delay:
New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender spray,
Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven's May.
Though I tarry, wait for Me, trust Me, watch and pray:
Arise, come away, night is past and lo it is day,
My love, My sister, My spouse, thou shalt hear Me say.
Then I answered: Yea.

31 December 1860

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

All Times Will Try Him True

A Child My Choice
By Robert Southwell

Let folly praise that fancy loves, I praise and love that Child
Whose heart no thought, whose tongue no word, whose hand no deed defiled.

I praise Him most, I love Him best, all praise and love is His;
While Him I love, in Him I live, and cannot live amiss.

Love's sweetest mark, laud's highest theme, man's most desired light,
To love Him life, to leave Him death, to live in Him delight.

He mine by gift, I His by debt, thus each to other due;
First friend He was, best friend He is, all times will try Him true.

Though young, yet wise; though small, yet strong; though man, yet God He is:
As wise, He knows; as strong, He can; as God, He loves to bless.

His knowledge rules, His strength defends, His love doth cherish all;
His birth our joy, His life our light, His death our end of thrall.

Alas! He weeps, He sighs, He pants, yet do His angels sing;
Out of His tears, His sighs and throbs, doth bud a joyful spring.

Almighty Babe, whose tender arms can force all foes to fly,
Correct my faults, protect my life, direct me when I die!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

All is Ours We Could Not Seek

Holy Innocents
by Christina Rossetti

They scarcely waked before they slept,
They scarcely wept before they laughed;
They drank indeed death's bitter draught,
But all its bitterest dregs were kept
And drained by Mothers while they wept.

From Heaven the speechless Infants speak:
Weep not (they say), our Mothers dear,
For swords nor sorrows come not here.
Now we are strong who were so weak,
And all is ours we could not seek.

We bloom among the blooming flowers,
We sing among the singing birds;
Wisdom we have who wanted words:
Here morning knows not evening hours,
All's rainbow here without the showers.

And softer than our Mother's breast,
And closer than our Mother's arm,
Is here the Love that keeps us warm
And broods above our happy next.
Dear Mothers, come: for Heaven is best.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Wonders of Technology

Hello All,

I am currently typing this at over 10000 feet -- considerably over, I'm certain, but I don't know the exact number -- in flight to Minneapolis. Delta Airlines has a GoGo partnership that lets them provide free Wifi in the air. Which sounds nice, but given that we are packed in like sardines and that the space laid out for each passenger was apparently done so on the assumption that Delta would now be serving only gnomes, it's much less impressive than it seems. My forearms are pressed at my side, my wrists are arched in carpal-tunnel-inducing ways, and I am thinking: surely this is not such an advance in technology as you'd think? To be sure, it is quite marvelous that I am able to blog in flight. Wonders of technology, to be sure. But right now I would much prefer a wonder of technology that made it economical for me to stretch my legs and not have the measly two feet within which to put a laptop, my arms, and the complimentary beverage that is currently being served. Even if I were doing this on an iPhone or some such, it would hardly be much of an improvement.

But such is our age: we can make an iPad, but God help us if we try to get back to the moon, because the only way we can do that at present is to reverse engineer the way it was done the first time, since so much has been lost. How splendid we are at little entertaining things, and how grandiose we can be about them! But, honestly, there are many levels of practicality and we are failing on several of them.

It shows, I suppose, that there is more to technology than ingenuity and science: it's not that we don't have ingenuity, and it's not as if the basic theoretical apparatus has not improved. But technology has a logistics and an economics that must be respected: you must be able to marshal the actual resources and get them to the right people at the right places at the right times. This is true of science, and, indeed, any intellectual endeavor, of course; to name just one significant example, it seems clear enough that the reason the late Middle Ages failed to achieve a Scientific Revolution a la Michael Flynn was simply logistics: they had all the pieces to do what Galileo did, and many of them were no less ingenious, but they were scattered, the means of communication were not adequate to guarantee that the pieces would eventually come together in the right hands, and resources were beginning to be diverted elsewhere for various reasons. But with technology unfavorable logistics and economics are massively more devastating: requiring far greater resources than purely intellectual inquiry, deviations and problems in the obtaining and distributing of those resources multiply all along the line.

Then, too, technology by its nature repeatedly comes up against dead ends. There's a reason, for instance, that we find it so hard to shake our dependency on gasoline: for the things we want gasoline to do, there is quite literally nothing better than it. It's powerful, it's relatively safe and portable, and we have all the prior technology in place to take full advantage of everything it has to offer. It's at a valley, one might say, in the technological landscape: no matter which direction you go, you do so at some cost: either the fuel becomes less efficient, or it becomes more dangerous, one has to rethink entirely the way we ordinarily do things. I don't know anything about aerospace technology, but I'm sure we're pretty close to such a valley in this field, as well: the basic technology has not undergone any significant changes, at least any that are obvious, in my lifetime. It's all been relatively minor tweaking, and what you get for the cost seems to have been steadily decreasing. Is there really no way to improve on the basic technology, not by increment but by establishing something that is of an entirely new level of development entirely? One wonders. But setting aside abstract possibilities -- it seems that we can't. Progress in technology should make flying cheaper and cheaper, easier and easier; but even when we set aside security and the like, it's difficult to say that we are actually progressing rather than regressing. And that is a bit disturbing.

Perhaps it's really an issue of being outcompeted for limited resources by other technologies. After all, we may be crammed into the cabin, but I am blogging from the air and we do have those iPads and ebook readers and LED lights in our stoplights. Perhaps -- and there is independent reason to think it -- we have become a frivolous and slothful people, unwilling to put the effort in to do what really would be valuable to do. Perhaps we are hitting our limits, and there is nothing more left to do but fall helplessly back to earth like some modern Icarus. Perhaps there are geniuses out there who will show us new ways. Perhaps I am just being absurdly pessimistic because I am cramped into a tiny space too small for this free Wifi to be especially wonderful, and especially at these connection speeds. I do not know. But when people talk of the wonders of technology, I think of them, too; and I wonder, which of them have we failed to achieve?

Who Will Count the Billows Past?

St. John's Day
by John Keble

Peter seeing him, saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou Me. St. John xxi. 21, 22.

"Lord, and what shall this man do?"
Ask'st thou, Christian, for thy friend?
If his love for Christ be true,
Christ hath told thee of his end:
This is he whom God approves,
This is he whom Jesus loves.

Ask not of him more than this,
Leave it in his Saviour's breast,
Whether, early called to bliss,
He in youth shall find his rest,
Or armed in his station wait
Till his Lord be at the gate:

Whether in his lonely course
(Lonely, not forlorn) he stay,
Or with Love's supporting force
Cheat the toil, and cheer the way:
Leave it all in His high hand,
Who doth hearts as streams command.

Gales from Heaven, if so He will,
Sweeter melodies can wake
On the lonely mountain rill
Than the meeting waters make.
Who hath the Father and the Son,
May be left, but not alone.

Sick or healthful, slave or free,
Wealthy, or despised and poor -
What is that to him or thee,
So his love to Christ endure?
When the shore is won at last,
Who will count the billows past?

Only, since our souls will shrink
At the touch of natural grief,
When our earthly loved ones sink,
Lend us, Lord, Thy sure relief;
Patient hearts, their pain to see,
And Thy grace, to follow Thee.

Some Links for Reading

* Stephen Carlson looks at the meaning of kalyma, usually translated as 'inn', in Luke's birth narrative (PDF).

* A fascinating post on the history of thought about how glaciers relate to climate change.

* Getting science education in the classroom right.

* Tom at "Chronicon" discusses misconceptions about the dating of Christmas.

* I found Dawkins's fuming over original sin a bit funny. What's funniest about it is that he immediately breaks down into so much sputtering he can't even get coherent enough to say why; a rather serious failing given that he explicitly says that belief in it is nastier than anti-Semitism and conniving at the rape of children. But it highlights how much of Dawkins's anti-Catholicism -- which has led him to break down into wild fulmination and then incoherence before -- is driven by his melodramatic emotionalism rather than any serious reasoning or objective assessment. One finds very quickly that it's a common failing; Catholics are always, apparently, in the wrong, but the reasons given for thinking so are usually extremely vague appeals to gut reaction. One always has to wade through a vast and thick miasma before one gets to any arguments. In honesty, though, I'm inclined to be less hard on Dawkins on this point than on anti-Catholics from other cultures; the vein of British Protestant anti-Catholicism runs very, very deep, and people genuinely do find it hard to shake. And there is no question that British atheists tend to be very discernibly Protestant even long after they have ceased being Christian. That's something of a thought, actually: Dawkins as a sort of British Comte. But one has to say, if one is to be fair to Comte, that Comte put more effort into these things.

* Thony C discusses Newton's obsession with chronology -- an obsession that was common among the great minds of his day. I suspect that later generations will look at our generation's interest in evolutionary psychology in much the same way; small assumptions, apparently reasonable, made in the beginning can easily throw ambitious projects well out of whack if they are wrong, or involve equivocations, or overlook qualifications. What is important is precisely what Thony is trying to insist upon (with most people to no avail, I think): rational systems built on false assumptions are still rational systems, and can at times exhibit the power, and even progress, of human reason as much as rational systems that just happened to be built on true assumptions.

* Terry Teachout on Jack Benny. He's too pessimistic: I listen to Jack Benny's radio programs quite regularly, for instance, and I don't think he quite appreciates the degree to which satellite radio and the internet can bring back radio classics. But it's true that most people's sole acquaintance with Jack Benny comes from missing the joke in Back to the Future:

Dr. Emmett Brown: Then tell me, "Future Boy", who's President in the United States in 1985?
Marty McFly: Ronald Reagan.
Dr. Emmett Brown: Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who's Vice-President? Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady!
Marty McFly: Whoa! Wait! Doc!
Dr. Emmett Brown: And Jack Benny is Secretary of the Treasury!

Which is actually hilariously funny if you know anything about Jack Benny. But even though most people might not know much about Benny, the serious options for niche interest in him (and other radio classic greats) have massively expanded in the past decade.

Hell Cannot Bind Light from Descending

St. John the Apostle
by Christina Rossetti

Earth cannot bar flame from ascending,
Hell cannot bind light from descending,
Death cannot finish life never ending.

Eagle and sun gaze at each other,
Eagle at sun, brother at Brother,
Loving in peace and joy one another.

O St. John, with chains for thy wages,
Strong thy rock where the storm-blast rages,
Rock of refuge, the Rock of Ages.

Rome hath passed with her awful voice,
Earth is passing with all her joys,
Heaven shall pass away with a noise.

So from us all follies that please us,
So from us all falsehoods that ease us,–
Only all saints abide with their Jesus.

Jesus, in love looking down hither,
Jesus, by love draw us up thither,
That we in Thee may abide together.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Philosophy in the Spam Filter

I'm preparing to visit family, and I'm uncertain what internet access I'll have until after New Year's. But there will be some posts that I've pre-scheduled.

In the meantime, I was cleaning out spam that had been caught in my spam filter and found some of it rather funny; I'd heard about spammers using bots that have algorithms to make comments more relevant, or more relevant-like, but I hadn't come across them before. And what I discovered is that Viagra is apparently relevant to all philosophical problems, albeit in a slightly risqué way. But some of them are amusing, and it serves as a way to revisit some old posts.

On a 2007 post about testimonial injustice:

Agree, It's anoying when some people 20 years ago, disapproved the use of the generic viagra because was against the nature and bla bla and now this product helps a lot of people around the world. Thanks for sharing.

While it's certainly not true that taking viagra is, as such, unnatural I'm not so sure this is true of every intention with which it is used. But that's only loosely related to testimonial injustice, if at all.

On a 2008 post about appeal to intuitions in philosophy:

I think it is convenient that we trust our intuitions because most of the time they are warning symbols. I have noticed that since I am taking viagra online I have more intuitions.

Since the point of the post is that there is no good account of what counts as an intuition, I suppose one could call them intuitions; and I suppose they are 'warning symbols'. But, of course, there's no particular reason to think more intuitions are a good thing.

On a 2008 post that quotes Aquinas on two kinds of division:

You're right, I think the species, always the members of the division, are on a par in the point, and you can find more information from Generic Viagra and then you can fix this blog. By the way I do work in early modern philosophy, like you do.

I suppose that's one way to respond to the currently bad job market; but who knew that generic viagra provided information on medieval logic? I bet you didn't know that.

On a 2008 post about Virginia Woolf's famous claim that she had to kill the angel in the house:

I liked the headline above, and I agree with you about the womens. I do not believe that you know, maybe you can share things from Generic Viagra and that would be great. It becomes not merely art that they can inspire but the state to which they are expected to aspire.

So viagra becomes not merely art that they can inspire but the state to which they are expected to aspire? That sounds a bit disturbing. But it does tie in with occasional feminist worries about the potential dangers of a Viagra culture.

On a 2007 post about the virtue of epieikia:

First of all, it is pretty important to define justice since several points of view because in my opinion it is not fair to have someone in jail because of misdemeanor. I think it is so cruel that thy can not take viagra online.

Well, that isn't too far from epieikia, of course; but it's a stronger position than I think most people would argue.

Of course, there are some non-philosophy ones. On a 2008 post about deus ex machina and children's stories:

I like Narnia because it is a mix of fantastic elements all creating a scary story out of innocence! I remember I read the last book and I couldn't stop until I finished it! I had to take much viagra online.

Also a bit disturbing; not my response to The Last Battle at all. He seems to have misunderstood the point of "further up and further in."

Play Smiling with the Flame and Sword

St. Stephen's Day
by John Keble

He, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. Acts vii. 55

As rays around the source of light
Stream upward ere he glow in sight,
And watching by his future flight
Set the clear heavens on fire;
So on the King of Martyrs wait
Three chosen bands, in royal state,
And all earth owns, of good and great,
Is gather'd in that choir.

One presses on, and welcomes death:
One calmly yields his willing breath,
Nor slow, nor hurrying, but in faith
Content to die or live:
And some, the darlings of their Lord,
Play smiling with the flame and sword,
And, ere they speak, to His sure word
Unconscious witness give.

Foremost and nearest to His throne,
By perfect robes of triumph known,
And likest Him in look and tone,
The holy Stephen kneels,
With stedfast gaze, as when the sky
Flew open to his fainting eye,
Which, like a fading lamp, flash'd high,
Seeing what death conceals.

Well might you guess what vision bright
Was present to his raptured sight,
E'en as reflected streams of light
Their solar source betray -
The glory which our God surrounds,
The Son of Man, the atoning wounds -
He sees them all; and earth's dull bounds
Are melting fast away.

He sees them all—no other view
Could stamp the Saviour's likeness true,
Or with His love so deep embrue
Man's sullen heart and gross -
"Jesus, do Thou my soul receive:
Jesu, do Thou my foes forgive;"
He who would learn that prayer must live
Under the holy Cross.

He, though he seem on earth to move,
Must glide in air like gentle dove,
From yon unclouded depths above
Must draw his purer breath;
Till men behold his angel face
All radiant with celestial grace,
Martyr all o'er, and meet to trace
The lines of Jesus' death.

The Bitter Herbs Ordained

The Passover in the Holy Family
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Here meet together the prefiguring day
And day prefigured. 'Eating, thou shalt stand,
Feet shod, loins girt, thy road-staff in thine hand,
With blood-stained door and lintel,' — did God say
By Moses' mouth in ages passed away.
And now, where this poor household doth comprise
At Paschal-Feast two kindred families, —
Lo! the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay.

The pyre is piled. What agony's crown attained,
What shadow of death the Boy's fair brow subdues
Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained
By Zachary the priest? John binds the shoes
He deemed himself not worthy to unloose;
And Mary culls the bitter herbs ordained.

The painting as well as the poem is Rossetti's, and the two are a pair. Today, of course, is the Feast of the Holy Family.

Tread Thou in Them Boldly

The 26th is best known for being the Feast of St. Stephen, although because it falls on Sunday this year things are somewhat different for liturgical purposes. But it's worthwhile remembering the Protomartyr. The most famous St. Stephen's Day carol:

Good King Wenceslas
by John Mason Neale

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page,
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing!

St. Wenceslas, of course, also known by the Czech name Vaclav (he's the patron saint of the Czech Republic and you'll find lots of Czechs named after the saint), was Duke of Bohemia in the tenth century. His grandfather was converted to Christianity by Saints Cyril and Methodius. He was murdered on the way to church on the Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian by his younger brother Boleslav, who then became Duke. There is an old Czech legend that St. Wenceslas sleeps beneath Mount Blanik with a legion of knights, and that he will return in the time of the Czech people's greatest need. His own feast day is September 28. The page also has a name: Wenceslas's most loyal servant was a man named Podevin, who assisted Wenceslas with his charitable works and, after his death, attempted to avenge his death (for which he was killed).