Saturday, February 05, 2011

Moon and Tide



Of course, they also knew in the thirteenth century that the moon causes the tides, despite lacking Newtonian physics; Aquinas even occasionally points it out (e.g., "Take, for example, the ebb and flow of ocean tides, which result from the motion of the moon and change in accord with it" from De Motu Cordis). The person to whom the first suggestion of the moon's role is attributed is usually Pytheas of Massalia in the fourth century BC. We don't actually have any of Pytheas's written work on the ocean; and the references to the moon are fairly vague, so we don't exactly know what role he thought the moon played. Aristotle didn't know for sure (the Mediterranean has no observable tides, so they had little chance to observe them unless they traveled very widely indeed), but he knew that the tides occurred in Northern Europe, and says that some people ascribed them to the moon, although he himself never commits to this view. By the thirteenth century, it appears to have been the common view (apparently due to the influence of Albumazar, both directly in translation and indirectly through Robert Grosseteste) that the tides are caused by some sort of lunar influence, either an astrological sympathy broadly considered (the common view), or a form of light (Robert Grosseteste's suggestion, although he suggests a number of other factors), or a magnetic attraction (which is proposed by William of Auvergne in the De Universo), although there were still lots of things about the tides that were not understood (and were recognized as not being understood). David Edgar Cartwright's summary of Grosseteste's speculations on the tides is a good one for pretty much the whole period (Tides: A Scientific History, [Cambridge UP: 1999] p. 16):

The hypotheses included some ideas which have since been proven false, together with others which in essence have stood the test of time. Their real interest lies in the evident desire of the medieval philosophers to explain phenomena hitherto taken as granted, without calling on the supernatural, and their appreciation of what celestial configurations are important in controlling the tide. Such factors as lunar and solar longitude, lunar distance and declination, and the wind, are still essentially relevant in modern theory; only the medieval physics is inadequate.

I'm not sure they would have seen it as explaining "without calling on the supernatural"; what we call the 'supernatural' they would have taken to be always operative, so not appropriate for explaining the distinctive features of any phenomenon, unless you were claiming that it was miraculous. But it's true that they saw the tides as a natural phenomenon, and looked for an explanation in the natures of the things themselves.

You can find historical arguments for divine existence that make appeal to the tides, though; for instance, in Cicero's statement of the Stoic argument (De natura deorum, Book II, Section VII):

And the element which surpasses all these, I mean reason, and if we care to express it by a variety of terms, intelligence, design, reflection, foresight, where did we find, whence did we secure it? Shall the universe possess all other qualities, and not this one which is of most importance? Yet surely in all creation there is nothing nobler than the universe, nothing more excellent and more beautiful. There not only is not, but there cannot even be imagined anything nobler, and if reason and wisdom are the noblest of qualities, it is inevitable that they should exist in that which we acknowledge to be supremely noble. Again, who can help assenting to what I say when he considers the harmonious, concordant, and unbroken connection which there is in things? Would the earth be able to have one and the same time for flowering, and then again one and the same time in which it lies rough? Or could the approach and departure of the sun be known, at the time of the summer and winter solstice, by so many objects spontaneously changing? Or the tides of the sea, and of narrow straits, be affected by the rising or setting of the moon? Or the dissimilar movements of the planets be maintained by the one revolution of the whole sky? It would be certainly impossible for these things to come to pass in this way, with such mutual harmony amongst all parts of the universe, if they were not held together by one divine and all-pervading spirit.

Of course, the difference here is that the Stoic argument is pantheistic: it's an attempt to argue that the universe is God, so the argument here is not an appeal to the tides being otherwise inexplicable but instead to the fact that the tides are one of the many phenomena of the universe that clearly display some kind of order ("harmonious, concordant, and unbroken connection") and therefore something that can be identified as rational. And this is, of course, a structurally stronger and practically safer beginning for an argument: the tides obviously do exhibit a kind of order.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Muslims, Muslims Everywhere


Al Qaeda Populating U.S. With Peaceful 'Decoy Muslims'

It's true; some of them are so friendly you could easily become friends with them.

I also need to get a job as a pundit for the Concurrence Round Table.

A World Full of Gods: Chapter One

It has been noted over and over again that contemporary philosophy of religion is a bit one-note. It's actually gotten much better over the past fifteen years or so, but one still gets a real sense, when one reads much in the field, that it walks a relatively tiny treadmill of problems that are treated in a relatively isolated fashion. As I say, people have noted this quite often, but philosophers noting things and philosophers doing much about it are quite different things.

John Michael Greer's A World Full of Gods is an interesting attempt to do something about it. Greer is a modern Pagan associated with the contemporary Druidic movement. His goal in the book is to make a case for greater attention to polytheism and, since this is philosophy, polytheistic arguments. Greer's certainly right about that, and I think the book does touch on several reasons for thinking there is a real need to do so. I don't think the book is entirely successful in other ways, chiefly because Greer tries to do too much. But there is much that is interesting in the book, and here and there I will be posting on things Greer discusses.

Chapter One gives a basic case for why philosophers of religion should not uncritically accept the "monotheistic assumption": first, that there are still a great many polytheists in the world, and in the West they have become more visible than they have been in previous generations; second, that at least some philosophical work, albeit very scattered, has already been done, and this work shows that there are genuinely interesting philosophical issues to be discussed when it comes to polytheism. On the basis of an article by George Mavrodes, Greer characterizes polytheism as having the following features:

(1) realism about the divine: the gods are taken to be real and not figments of imagination or hypothetical constructs;
(2) pure descriptivism about the term 'god': the term 'god' is simply descriptive, and does not necessarily convey anything about one's personal worship (a polytheist can recognize gods he or she does not worship);
(3) pluralism about gods: gods are really distinct and not merely apparently distinct;
(4) finitism about divine attributes: something can be divine even if its attributes aren't infinite, e.g., a god does not need to be omnipotent;
(5) 'a common world', i.e., what we might call (Greer doesn't) interactionism about the relation between deity and world: the gods are involved with each other and with the ordinary world.

These five characteristics contrast in a number of ways with the assumptions that underly much philosophy of religion (which is usually either atheistic, and therefore lacking (1), or monotheistic, and therefore lacking (3) and usually (2) and (4), or deistic, and therefore lacking (5)), and this raises a number of philosophical questions. Greer will tackle these questions through the rest of the book; but it's important to keep in mind that his point in doing so is not to give definitive or magisterial answers to them, but to show that they may be worth raising in the first place. Chapter Two will argue that we can at least begin to answer such questions; and I'll discuss it briefly in a future post.

Thought for the Day

I got up this morning and checked my e-mail and discovered that it had snowed. (It's not much of a snow, but along with ice it was enough around here to cancel classes.) I think it says something about modern life that I learned from the computer about something that was just outside and visible through the window.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Newman on Meditation on Scripture

And what the experience of the world effects for the illustration of classical authors, that office the religious sense, carefully cultivated, fulfils towards Holy Scripture. To the devout and spiritual, the Divine Word speaks of things, not merely of notions. And, again, to the disconsolate, the tempted, the perplexed, the suffering, there comes, by means of their very trials, an enlargement of thought, which enables them to see in it what they never saw before. Henceforth there is to them a reality in its teachings, which they recognize as an argument, and the best of arguments, for its divine origin. Hence the practice of meditation on the Sacred Text; so highly thought of by Catholics. Reading, as we do, the Gospels from our youth up, we are in danger of becoming so familiar with them as to be dead to their force, and to view them as a mere history. The purpose, then, of meditation is to realize them; to make the facts which they relate stand out before our minds as objects, such as may be appropriated by a faith as living as the imagination which apprehends them.

Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 4.2.4.

Thursday Virtue/Vice: Mollience

[I'm going to try to start a series of posts for each Thursday, with each post talking briefly about a particular virtue or vice. I've long since found that I'm rather bad at keeping up extended series of posts, so no promises, and we'll see how long it lasts. But I do have a few things in the pipeline and also some things that can be revised and reposted, and the idea is that they'll usually be short summaries, so it might last a while before running out of steam.]

Yes, I made the word up; effeminacy is one of those vices that needs a new name. It's the usual English translation, but it has misleading associations. Malakia (which is one of the old Greek words for it, the other being anandreia, for which 'effeminacy' is a pretty straightforward translation) or mollience or mollity (which Anglicize the corresponding Latin, mollities, which is used in English occasionally as a medical term indicating abnormal softenss of an organ, but is not all that easy to pronounce) might work -- both mean 'softness' and have associations with the vice, although from what I understand the Greek word has come in modern Greek to have the sort of baggage (in this case, association with masturbation) that comes from being used as a vulgar insult. A new name is needed in part because 'effeminacy' suggests that only men can be effeminate, which is indeed how it has often been treated, but is obviously not true: Effeminacy considered as a vice is excessive avoidance of the difficult or painful. Thus Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics (Book VII, section 7), "One who is deficient in resistance to pains that most men withstand with success, is malakos or luxurious, for luxury is a kind of malakia; such a man lets his cloak trail on the ground to escape the fatigue and trouble of lifting it, or feigns sickness, not seeing that to counterfeit misery is to be miserable." Aristotle also makes the interesting argument that, contrary to what is usually thought to be the case, excessive pursuit of amusements (for example, to the detriment of oneself or one's duties) really has more to do with avoiding pain than pursuing pleasure, properly speaking: amusement is a kind of rest from the pain of toil and labor, and so pursuit of amusement is (usually) more of a pursuit of rest from pain than a pursuit of pleasure itself. And that makes sense if you think about it; lots of amusements (slot machines, television) are obviously anodynes, and even amusements that are in some way difficult or tiring are usually pursued precisely because they are in some other way restful or relaxing.

Aquinas argues (ST 2-2.138.1) that effeminacy is opposed to the virtue of perseverance. He notes that nothing is considered soft if it yields to heavy blows (a wall is not soft if it can be broken by a battering ram), only if it yields to light ones, and so takes this to be the key feature of the vice. Since many of the motives that result in excessive yielding, like actual pleasure and fear of danger, are really pretty strong motivators, the motivation for real mollities has to be something that's generally pretty weak. On the basis of this he interprets Aristotle's account of vice in such a way as to come up with a full definition of the vice: withdrawal from good on account of sorrow caused by lack of pleasure, since mere dissatisfaction from not having pleasure is a comparatively weak motive, both psychologically and rationally. Someone who avoids a good solely because it doesn't give pleasure has a very weak reason for avoiding it, and is thus soft. The good in question is difficult only in the sense that it's not actively pleasant; it doesn't even need to be painful. That's a pretty low standard of difficulty.

With this refinement of Aristotle we get a good picture of just how common a vice mollities is: every act of avoiding something definitely good merely because it's not fun or enjoyable is an act associated with this vice.

Despite the fact that mollience is not confined to men, I think it's unsurprising that most words we have for it are words that are usually taken as insults for men; the virtue most associated with typical social ideas of masculinity is fortitude, and avoiding things that aren't fun is obviously a problem for fortitude (which requires perseverance).

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Snowdrops and My Heart I'll Bring

Feast of the Presentation
by Christina Rossetti


O firstfruits of our grain,
Infant and Lamb appointed to be slain,
A Virgin and two doves were all Thy train,
With one old man for state,
When Thou didst enter first Thy Father's gate.

Since then Thy train hath been
Freeman and bondman, bishop, king and queen,
With flaming candles and with garlands green:
Oh happy all who wait
One day or thousand days around Thy gate!

And these have offered Thee,
Beside their hearts, great stores for charity,
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh; if such may be
For savour or for state
Within the threshold of Thy golden gate.

Then snowdrops and my heart
I'll bring, to find those blacker than Thou art:
Yet, loving Lord, accept us in good part;
And give me grace to wait,
A bruised reed bowed low before Thy gate.

And, of course, it is the Feast of the Presentation -- Candlemas.

On Sam Harris's Response to His Critics

Sam Harris has an article up at The Huffington Post defending his work against some criticisms. A few brief comments:

(1) It's a minor issue, but Harris's tendency to get sidetracked into polemic repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly, weakens the force of otherwise straightforward argument virtually every time he argues. This is a serious weakness, and it seems clear (e.g., from critical responses to the remarks about Francis Collins in the book) that it makes it harder for critics to take him seriously. And this is a problem. Harris is pretty much the only public New Atheist to have any sense of intellectual strategy worth speaking of; one of his strengths is that he has recognized that a much bolder and more ambitious set of intellectual projects is required if this latest phase of atheism is to end up being anything more than a flash in the pan. Large portions of the intellectual landscape need to be changed. He also, in contrast to, say, Dennett, has a real grasp on the general sort of thing boldness and ambition really entail in this context. What he seems to have difficulty understanding is that this pushes him into the sphere of a different kind of critic, used to heated intellectual debate on precisely these kinds of subject, who find polemic boring, especially if it's polemic against people they don't much think about or care about. They will regard it as so much gab. When you are doing work that is getting the attention of well-established philosophers, the demeanor that avoids unnecessary bias against one's position is that of cool rationality, impervious to anything but argument (unless one can be either viciously witty or can reasonably guarantee that almost everyone is on your side already, neither of which Harris can pull off). And indeed this is what one already finds in reviews of Harris's book. Most of the first third of the article could simply be eliminated -- no one who is going to bother to read Harris's arguments particularly cares about Deepak Chopra's response to Harris, for instance -- perhaps at most reducing it to a sentence or two, and then settling down briskly and quietly to a response to the people he's really decided to respond to, with the paragraph about Colin McGinn. Much smarter way to start.

As it is, however, I would encourage anyone reading Harris just to hop over his polemical passages; his arguments are often stronger than the polemic would lead you to believe.

(2) Harris is entirely right that most of the arguments made against his argument for a science of morality allow for no principled reason not to object to a science of health as well. This is a point that needs to keep being hammered home.

ADDED LATER: I see that Sean Carroll is attempting to address it. Unfortunately, his argument fails, for reasons noted below. (a) The initial values in practical sciences do not require consensus: in order to determine whether there is legitimately a science of health it is irrelevant how many people think health is important, or even what views of health there may be (and there are many more than Carroll suggests). But some of those views of health clearly do allow for scientific study, and thus there are sciences of health. Indeed, to the extent we do agree on health, it's pretty obvious that most of this is due to the science and not prior to it. So the degree of disagreement on the subject is absolutely irrelevant. (b) The initial values in practical sciences identify what is studied; thus removing it from what he calls 'science' is not relevant either. (c) Carroll keeps arguing as if Harris needed to present a complete science of health. I suspect this is because he's a physicist, and so his scientific specialty is one that has had geniuses hammering at it for centuries, ironing out confusions, finding new things to measure, and so forth. But all Harris needs to make his basic case is to present the start of a science, to show that we actually have in hand things that could reasonably be called first steps. Most of Carroll's arguments would, if sound, apply to almost any scientific field in its early stages -- including early physics.

(3) Harris identifies three significant challenges put forward against him; he address the first two at some length and the third, the Measurement Problem, only briefly. The first is the Value Problem:

1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value well-being, our own or anyone else's. (The Value Problem)

Harris's argument is simply unconvincing on this point, since he concedes too much to his opponents. The fact of the matter is that Harris doesn't have to argue that there is a scientific basis for saying that we should value well-being. Two other positions (not mutually exclusive) are available to him:

(a) There is a basis for saying that human beings in the main do value well-being.

(b) There is a basis for saying that other things human beings value have some real relation to well-being (they presuppose it, or partly constitute it, or some such).

Consider the analogy with medicine again. Suppose you have people who literally do not care about their health in any way, shape, or form. How does that affect medicine? It doesn't. Medicine is a serious field of human endeavor because in the main human beings do value health, and many of the other things human beings value presuppose health. This on its own is enough to get medicine off the ground as a serious field of scientific inquiry, if only it can be established that there are actual scientific methods capable of contributing (however imperfectly at this stage) to our understanding of health. And that, of course, is determined simply by looking at the methods in question. Harris doesn't have to deliver an entire science of morality as a fait accompli; he just has to establish reasons for thinking (1) that it is a worthwhile endeavor; and (2) that at least some parts of it are already feasible. He does want to go farther than that, of course, and not just say (for instance) that only small parts of what we count as morality fall under scientific purview, but he does not have to defend this entire position to deal with the value problem. All sciences having to do with practical matters get their basic values (health in the case of medicine, structural integrity in the case of structural engineering, etc.) from what human beings in fact value. A science of morality need not be any different.

This is, incidentally, a very Humean response to the Value Problem, which is perhaps worth mentioning given that most of Harris's critics deploy loosely Humean objections against his project in general.

(4) The second challenge is what Harris calls the Persuasion Problem.

2. Hence, if someone does not care about well-being, or cares only about his own and not about the well-being of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem)

This, however, is not an issue arising from Harris's project but a difficulty with theories of morality in general. It's a sensible knave problem. It is true that any theory of morality has to deal with the sensible knave problem, but by the same token Harris can avail himself of any answer to the sensible knave problem that does not rule out the possibility of a science of morality (Hume's own, for instance). Arguably it's a hard problem (which is why rationalists tend to press objections like this against empiricists), but there's nothing about it that makes it a hard problem for Harris in particular.

(5) The Measurement Problem -- that we have no metric for well-being and therefore can have no science of morality -- succombs to similar arguments. For instance, to establish a science of morality Harris doesn't have to establish his full position, nor that he can measure everything to do with well-being; he just has to establish that some things widely recognizable as indicative of well-being or contributing to well-being in some essential way can be. Again, Harris doesn't have to present a fait accompli; he has to present a real beginning.

ADDED LATER (Feb 7): Harris has a new version of the essay up; the same basic argument, but with a much cleaner structure -- the problem noted in (1) is pretty much eliminated, to the great benefit of the argument, and just at a glance (I haven't compared the two side by side) it looks like a few other points might be given somewhat clearer formulation. Say what you will about Harris, but the man learns quickly -- he often revises in exactly the right direction.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Conceptual Toolkit

I've been looking over the Edge Question for 2011. Usually the questions are pretty pointless, but this one was a good one: What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit? Of course, good questions don't automatically get good answers, and, as you might expect, most of the answers are nonsense, being either very dubious philosophy or bad pop psychology. But some of them were interesting.

I've roughly divided them into two groups, tactical (things that are good to consider in approaching problems generally) and technical (how to do or handle specific kinds of things that come up a lot). There are a few, of course, that could be put into either, depending on how precisely one took the answer. It's very noticeable that, with a few exceptions, almost everyone who gave a tactical answer to the question (which was most people) massively overstated the importance and value of their particular favored tactic, sometimes to the point of making obviously untenable claims about it. I've only picked out the ones that seem to me to be remotely plausible, leaving out those where (1) the person's underlying explanation was so utterly wrongheaded as to be useless; (2) the 'cognitive tool' could hardly have much of a role in solving actual practical problems in thinking; (3) the cognitive tool is unlikely to be useful outside of a very narrow range of study, and therefore not by any stretch likely to be useful to everyone. With (3) there were some judgment calls, but I was generous wherever I could see the case actually being made. I did leave out one, Free Jazz, which was a good answer to a cognitive toolkit question, but whose status as a scientific concept -- which was the point of the question -- was more than little unclear.

Tactical

Howard Gardner, How Would You Disprove Your Viewpoint? Popper's account is problematic in a number of ways, but it's certainly true that our points need room to bruise themselves against discoveries, to borrow George Eliot's phrase.

Gino Segre, Gedankenexperiment. The SEP article on Thought Experiments is quite good, for those interested in the underlying philosophical issues; one of the authors is James Robert Brown, whose Laboratory of the Mind, also on thought experiments, is quite good as well.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Inference to the Best Explanation. Very important idea; also very difficult to pin down properly. What counts as the best explanation? Do we use domain-specific or domain-general criteria, and how? There's lots of argument on these questions.

Nicholas Carr, Cognitive Load. Basically this boils down to saying how hard things are to learn, either intrinsically (because of the complexity of the material) or extrinsically (because of the format in which it is presented) or in terms of how much of a person's attention can actually be brought to bear. But I suppose you can't turn in grant proposals for experiments on the different ways things are hard to learn. Still, it's definitely true that there's more to the concept than we usually think, and much of it would be valuable to keep in mind.

Kevin Kelly, The Virtues of Negative Results. Hume somewhere notes that one of the most important features of the human mind is our ability to learn even from our mistakes; and one can certainly broaden that to include not just mistakes but to simple failure to obtain a result.

Lee Smolins, Thinking in Time versus Thinking Outside of Time. Platonism is rather more flexible and sophisticated than anything talked about here; but one gets used to physicists thinking in philosophical cartoons. Smolins seems to be trying to argue that one is better than the other, but the thrust of his examples is in a different direction: that it's odd to expect the two to be competition with each other at all, as long as you recognize the distinction.

Paul Kedrosky, Shifting Baseline Syndrome. You can read the paper by Daniel Pauly from which this term comes online.

John McWhorter, Path Dependence. Scott Page has a good paper (PDF) discussing uses and abuses of this idea.

Jonah Lehrer, Control Your Spotlight. Finally someone who really and truly understood the question. It comes very close to being the only answer given that completely fits the question: scientific in a straightforward sense, genuinely useful to everyone, applicable to solving problems.

Tanya Lombrozo, Defeasibility. Michael Sudduth's article at the IEP gets into some of the details.

Kathryn Schulz, The Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science. It probably is useful as a guard against too simplistic a view of scientific progress, although how valuable it is for more than that is a controvertible question.

Evgeny Morozov, The Einstellung Effect. New term for an old idea: we try to solve new problems in old ways, especially if the new problem is superficially like old problems we often have met with before. While it's sometimes given a negative tone, this is probably a mistake: it can be argued that most of the time it really improves our reasoning. It's the exceptional cases that are the problem.

Sue Blackmore, Correlation Is Not Causation.

David Eagleman, The Umwelt. John Deely discusses the concept.

Brian Knutson, Replicability. A trickier concept than it seems: it's a modal notion, and raises the question of how similar things have to be to count as replicated, which is only sometimes easy to answer. But replicability is quite significant when it comes to deciding new paths of inquiry and invention.

Timo Hannay, The Controlled Experiment
Richard Dawkins, The Double-Blind Control Experiment. The only overlapping instance of a tactical suggestion. There were others that touched on experiment; these were the two best, although neither provides a genuinely satisfactory account of experimentation. Dawkins is one of a handful who really grasps the meaning of the question, but he ruins it by making the absurd claim that the mere idea of double-blind control experiments will improve everyone's thinking automatically if we just understand it and "revel in its elegance". Really? I mentioned before that most of those who proposed tactical answers massively overstated the importance of their particular answer; compared to Dawkins almost everyone else looks modest in their claims. I doubt that the idea alone would really have much effect, especially if we begin our understanding of it with such a blatant case of magical thinking. In any case, Allan Franklin's article on Experiment in Physics at the SEP deals with some of the philosophical issues involved in the concept of experiment.

Technical

John Allen Paulos, A Probability Distribution. A statistics tutorial on it.

W. Daniel Hillis, Possibility Spaces. Less useful than Hillis suggests, but sometimes essential.

Steven Pinker, Positive-Sum Games. Sometimes pretty much everyone can win; ignoring that possibility shuts down some serious opportunities.

Rob Kurzban, Externalities. Externalities are benefits or harms
that are not compensated in exchange. For instance, if a factory makes something and in the process releases a small amount of pollution in the air, this is a small negative externality to all of us, because the factory does not have to compensate everyone affected by this small amount of pollution. Likewise, if the factory owners clean up the area and put in a park where previously it was desolate, this is a small positive externality for people driving by, because they don't have to pay to see it. Externalities are the things in our lives that are exchanged but invisible to anyone who considers only money and contract. Assessing externalities is a pretty important part of civic life.

Terence Sejnowski, Powers of 10
Carl Page, Power of 10. The only clearly overlapping technical suggestion. A fun Java applet tutorial for powers of 10.

Giulio Boccaletti, Scale Analysis

Keith Devlin, Base Rate.

Diane Halpern, Statistically Significant Difference. Given how pervasive statistics are, it certainly is important for statistical ideas to be more widespread than they are. A brief discussion.

Kevin Hand, The Gibbs Landscape

So, what did you think?

"Irrational and Extremely Stupid"

Very much liked this passage from a post at Seraphic Singles:

Almost everything we have been taught to find romantic--unrequited love, going into a decline for love, writing impassioned love-letters, standing outside our ex-girlfriend's window holding up a ghetto blaster playing "In Your Eyes"--is actually irrational and extremely stupid. The early 19th century has a lot to answer for. I reserve special blame for Goethe.

Although some of the things listed, I must insist, are not the fault of Romantics, but due to courtly love traditions. The Romantics mostly just made it fashionable for a while to commit suicide over some of them.

It really is remarkable how completely arbitrary romantic conventions are, and how slavishly they are followed nonetheless. It spreads everywhere: Queen Victoria wore a fancy white dress when she was married, she was imitated by rich people trying to make their weddings suggestive of Victoria's, then everyone else imitated the rich people trying to make their wedding as fancy as possible. Before everyone had the good sense just to wear their nicest clothes. Now people spend ungodly sums on a dress that will only be worn once. It's likewise amazing how people will pass off as wedding traditions things that were completely made up for Princess Diana's wedding, or for some soap opera or movie wedding. And wedding 'traditions' are just extreme forms of romantic conventions. It makes one wonder: How much of what we usually think of as a romantic date is really just bits and pieces cobbled together from movies?

Possibly related, but maybe just a tangent: Romeo amd Juliet we usually read as romantic tragedy. But it can also be read as the tragedy of a feud between families, brought to a crisis by teenagers incapable of thinking clearly, in precisely the boringly predictable ways teenagers are, which in this case just happens leads to complete disaster because of the feud. They are very different readings, and on one the whole thing is not so romantic, but they are both possible interpretations of the text. We read it the one way, but not the other, and that says something about us. Or take a different sort of case, that of Lydia and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice: how often do readers today fail to see just how stupid their running away was? (Thereby leading us to overlook just how utterly extraordinary Darcy's involvement in the matter was, which is much of the structure of the plot.) How much do we miss because we don't see things like this?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Some Links

* An article on the lambs blessed on St. Agnes' Day.

* An extraordinarily good post by Daniel Mitsui on mass media (esp. television) and the Eucharist

* An interesting post by a prostitute on the glamorization of prostitution

* Bill Witt has an annotated bibliography of books that in some way cross the Evangelical/Catholic divide.

* Maronite History Project

* William Mitchell at the IEP

* Venn Diagram Worksheet Maker

* I'm hoping to add a few good works on science to my reading list this year. I don't really like the usual pop-science fare, which tends to be badly written and misleading, so what I have in mind is something meaty but put forward at the more introductory or lower-intermediate level. Any of the major fields of science and mathematics would do. Anyone know of works that would fit the bill?

ADDED LATER

* John Wilkins has a very good post on classification and induction.

Love and Truth

Love is the teacher of gods and men, for no one learns without desiring to learn. Truth is sought not because it is truth but because it is good.

Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, Routledge (New York: 2007) p. 118.

Two Poem Drafts

Royal

As though I were a twelve-point stag
you've slain me:
though royal in my gloried might
I fell.
These passions in my beating heart
arraign me
before a court of life and death
to tell
of all my soul's desires, which now mount
unsated
as blood from forth the hunted heart
will swell;
and yet your bullet leaves me more and more
elated
with joy not lead nor pain nor death
can quell.

Bells

The bells ring out with concinny,
how fair and low, how long
they ring of right and wrong,
of truth with time and tintinny;
like crystal charged with ecstasy
they call out notes among
the hills; their voices strong
that, bounded, hide infinity.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

And the Lull'd Winds Seem Dreaming

There Be None of Beauty's Daughters
by George Gordon, Lord Byron


There be none of Beauty's daughters
With a magic like Thee;
And like music on the waters
Is thy sweet voice to me:
When, as if its sound were causing
The charm├ęd ocean's pausing,
The waves lie still and gleaming,
And the lull'd winds seem dreaming:
And the midnight moon is weaving
Her bright chain o'er the deep,
Whose breast is gently heaving
As an infant's asleep:
So the spirit bows before thee
To listen and adore thee;
With a full but soft emotion,
Like the swell of Summer's ocean.

Untaught, Unlettered, Poor, Vile, Stupid, and Obscure

I have said these things, because I once heard a Christian disputing in a ridiculous manner with a Greek, and both parties in their mutual fray ruining themselves. For what things the Christian ought to have said, these the Greek asserted; and what things it was natural to expect the Greek would say, these the Christian pleaded for himself. As thus: the dispute being about Paul and Plato, the Greek endeavored to show that Paul was unlearned and ignorant; but the Christian, from simplicity, was anxious to prove that Paul was more eloquent than Plato. And so the victory was on the side of the Greek, this argument being allowed to prevail. For if Paul was a more considerable person than Plato, many probably would object that it was not by grace, but by excellency of speech that he prevailed; so that the Christian's assertion made for the Greek. And what the Greek said made for the Christian's; for if Paul was uneducated and yet overcame Plato, the victory, as I was saying, was brilliant; the disciples of the latter, in a body, having been attracted by the former, unlearned as he was, and convinced, and brought over to his side. From whence it is plain that the Gospel was a result not of human wisdom, but of the grace of God.

Wherefore, lest we fall into the same error, and be laughed to scorn, arguing thus with Greeks whenever we have a controversy with them; let us charge the Apostles with want of learning; for this same charge is praise. And when they say that the Apostles were rude, let us follow up the remark and say that they were also untaught, and unlettered, and poor, and vile, and stupid, and obscure.

John Chrysostom, Homily 3 on I Corinthians, section 8. Never let it be said that Chrysostom minced words.