Saturday, March 26, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones (1934-2011)

Diana Wynne Jones died this morning. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009 and, because chemotherapy was severely harming her health without doing much good, elected to stop chemo last summer.

Jones was a towering author in the fantasy genre, easily a more skilled author than many who are more famous. She mostly wrote for children and young adults, although most of her works stand up very well to adult reading. She was always funny, clever, and inventive, a sharp critic of the lack of originality and serious thought that pervades most of the fantasy genre, and an adventuresome author who could never be accused of lacking originality or serious thought herself.

I just finished re-reading two of my favorite Jones books, Dark Lord of Derkholm and, what is arguably her masterpiece, Fire and Hemlock. I recommend both very highly, as well as the first Chrestomanci novel, Charmed Life, and her short stories (the ones in Unexpected Magic I think are especially good).

Friday, March 25, 2011

A World Full of Gods: Chapters Three and Four

Chapter One of John Michael Greer's A World Full of Gods discussed the basic idea of polytheism and Chapter Two discussed some preliminary philosophical issues relevant to assessing the philosophical promise of polytheism. With Chapters Three and Four, however, we take what Greer himself calls a 'detour'. As I previously mentioned, I think conceiving of these chapters as detours was a serious structural mistake, which weakens and diffuses the argument of the work. One of the effects it has, of course, is that by the end of Chapter Four we have gone through a third of the book without even beginning its main argument, which starts in Chapter Five.

Further, the detour doesn't seem structurally well-conceived. Greer gives two different accounts of what he is trying to do in this digression, and why he thinks it is worthwhile. The first is that the strength of arguments for monotheism (discussed in Chapter Three) and for atheism (discussed in Chapter Four) is relevant to building a case for the intellectual merits of polytheism:

If traditional arguments produce a strong case for for the god of monotheism, or for no gods at all, an exploration of polytheism will have to take that case into account. If those arguments turn up evidence bearing on the relative merits of monotheism and polytheism, similarly, that evidence deserves a place in our discussion. For these reasons, a review of the standard arguments need not be a waste of time. (p. 39)

This suggests one possible strategy for situating polytheism within a field largely dominated by monotheistic and atheistic arguments: identify the strongest case for each that one can and, from a polytheistic perspective, meet them head on. If polytheism even manages to build a strong and distinctive counter-case, both in terms of objections and positive proposals, the basic point of the book (to show that polytheism can have real philosophical merit) would be met. In fact, we don't really get this in either Chapter Three or Four. The survey of arguments is fairly cursory (less than thirty short pages to cover four families of theistic arguments and three families of atheistic arguments), the objections raised against them are mostly the standard generic ones, and while there are some insightful points made, the discussions here are the weakest discussions in the book.

There is another justification Greer gives for the detour; the previous one was given before embarking on it, but this one comes after he has finished it:

That detour was unavoidable, since so much previous argument about gods has focused on topics such as the origins of the universe or the reasons for human suffering. Nor must a detour of this sort be entirely a waste of time; if gods exist, after all, it's reasonable to think that there may be circumstantial evidence for their presence. (p. 66)

This suggests a second strategy that could be taken in attempting to deal with the philosophical issues arising a field currently dominated by monotheism and atheism: focus on what Greer here calls "circumstantial evidence." I think we get more of this strategy in Chapters Three and Four, and most of the more interesting passages in these Chapters fit this strategy quite well: Greer will identify an argument usually assumed to lead to monotheism, e.g., cosmological arguments, and argue that you can have polytheistic versions as well. This is certainly true; certain kinds of cosmological and teleological argument, for instance, actually have polytheistic origins, or began in forms that are clearly suggestive of polytheism (Aristotle's discussion of first movers, for instance). And there is a rich vein of serious work here waiting to be uncovered; a Hellenic Reconstructionist, just to take one example, has an entire robust philosophical heritage to draw from, and other Neo-Pagan groups have plenty of room to discuss features of the world that play a major role in their religious life and examine how these features of the world display "circumstantial evidences" of the gods they worship. Likewise, Greer makes an effort to argue that at least some standard atheistic arguments depend crucially on monotheistic assumptions. One can imagine an extensive attempt to argue for ways in which polytheism manages to avoid or overcome standard problems posed by atheists against theism.

However, in the actual form we have these discussions in this book, the "circumstantial evidences" are discussed very briefly and tentatively, while the relationship of polytheistic arguments to atheistic arguments is largely confined to some interesting but incomplete discussion of theodicy. I think there are two major problems that prevent Greer from bringing these chapters together properly: (1) the fact that there really isn't space enough to pursue both the strategies suggested by Greer's justification of the detour, and thus they interfere with each other; and (2) the fact that Greer is deliberately refraining from intensive discussion of details. The point of the book is to look at polytheism in general; particular examples of polytheistic religions -- Greer's own Druidry, Wicca, folk religions, and so forth -- come up throughout the book. But they are precisely that: brief examples for illustration. Being stuck in generalities, however, is an impediment to serious discussion of the sort of topics that will come up in the monotheistic and atheistic arguments Greer is discussing. You need to ask questions like, "Is there something necessary about the gods?" and "Are the gods the causes of the world, or causes of parts of it, or caused by it?" and "What traces of the gods do we find in the world around us, that can reasonably be attributed directly to them?" and "What role do the gods play in moral life?" and "What do the gods do in the face of evil?" Generalities don't get us far with these questions.

These two chapters are still worth reading, however; they serve as a good, albeit very elementary, introduction to any polytheists who are unfamiliar with the basic ideas and arguments commonly discussed the philosophy of religion -- they are, in fact, little more than a whirlwind tour of these ideas and arguments, with some comments here and there about how polytheism might fit into the picture. But the atheistic side of the story is shortchanged, I think, and the monotheistic arguments are too briefly handled to have much effect, and the polytheistic discussions, far and away the most interesting parts of these Chapters, often seem to be crowded out by the rest.

However, even if the reader agrees with me about these two chapters, all is not lost; the detour is soon over, and with Chapters Five and Six we finally get into the meat of the book, and its most interesting and well-developed argument: the argument that religious experience in fact provides a support for polytheism that is (1) reasonable and (2) robust in the face of possible monotheistic and atheistic objections. I'll discuss Chapters Five and Six in a future post or two.

A Torch of Smoky Pine

Sonnet III
by George Santayana

O world, thou choosest not the better part!
It is not wisdom to be only wise,
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But it is wisdom to believe the heart.
Columbus found a world, and had no chart,
Save one that faith deciphered in the skies;
To trust the soul's invincible surmise
Was all his science and his only art.

Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
That lights the pathway but one step ahead
Across a void of mystery and dread.
Bid, then, the tender light of faith to shine
By which alone the mortal heart is led
Unto the thinking of the thought divine.

This Sanatayana is the very same as the philosopher. Santayana held that all serious systematic thought begins in media res, with all of us already believing a great deal about the world, not on the basis of any reasoning, but on the basis of our impulse to act. He crticizes extensively the notion that everything should be based on reasoning from foundational truths (it is not wisdom to close one's eyes only on inward vision), arguing instead that we must act in the world (we must not be only wise) and this requires a sort of faith that we'll get somewhere (the soul's invincible surmise). We may well turn out to be wrong in our belief, but we start with the believing, or we get nowhere at all, Columbuses too cautious to reach New Worlds.

"No se mata la justicia"

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez. Romero was the fourth Archbishop of El Salvador. When he was appointed, he had a reputation for being a conservative bishop, but shortly afterwards his close friend Fr. Rutilio Grande, who was fairly progressive, was killed; this led Romero to involve himself more actively in the sort of work Grande had been doing with the poor. He began actively campaigning against the government of El Salvador for its role in assassination, torture, and injustice against the poor.

Romero himself was assassinated; he was shot in Church on March 24, 1980 while presiding at Mass. Ever since Father Grande's death he had recognized that it was a real possibility that he would be killed; his response to it had always been that even if he did die because of his advocacy, justice does not die, the Church does not die. From a Lenten sermon in 1979:

A Church that does not suffer persecution is not the true Church of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that martyrdom and suffering and fear and persecution are normal but rather that all of these realities ought to give meaning to the Christian spirit. It is not enough to walk with the Church when things are going well but we must also follow Jesus Christ with the same enthusiasm as the apostle who said: Let us also go to die with him.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thursday Virtue/Vice: Religion

Since this is Lent, it makes sense to do something on religion. We tend to think of the word 'religion' as indicating a kind of institution or belief; but much of the thrust of the word throughout its history has been to indicate a disposition, namely, a virtue. This is due in great measure to the influence of Cicero, who took religion to be a sort of natural impulse involving service and ceremonial rights to the gods that was then further strengthened by practice and human law (De inventione 2.53); because he talks about this in the context of the law of nature, and because he lists in combination with piety, vindication, gratitude, respect, and honesty, all virtues, he was regularly read as listing religion among the virtues.

Aquinas follows Cicero in this (ST 2-2.81.2), arguing that it is a potential part of justice. Justice in the strict sense is equal exchange between equals; but religion can't be the same as justice in this sense, because the relationship between God and creature is inherently unequal. Even pagan gods are at least seen as being superior to human beings, and human beings are held to receive more than they can repay even to pagan gods. Thus the kind of virtue that would govern the relation between God and human worshipper must be one that (1) renders to God His due but (2) does not assume that we can ever do so as full equals. The virtues that do this are all called by Aquinas potential parts of justice. They are justice in the broad sense of the term; they all involve rendering someone their due, but not on the assumption that equal exchange is possible. Religion is a potential part of justice; it is an expression of the fact that our relationships to others are relationships of giving and receiving, sometimes in full exchange of gifts, but in cases like God, or parents, or rulers, merely appropriate token gifts either for extraordinarily great benefits received or for the fulfillment of roles we respect or admire.

It's important to understand that particulars here are secondary. As Aquinas says, the exact details of rendering God His due do not themselves strictly follow from the principles governing the virtue of religion:

It belongs to the dictate of natural reason that man should do something through reverence for God. But that he should do this or that determinate thing does not belong to the dictate of natural reason, but is established by Divine or human law.

The details, in fact, are primarily for our sake; just as gratitude drives a person to try to render some token gift to a benefactor, even if they don't in any strict sense need it, so religion drives us to try to render due to God, even though He doesn't need sacrifices, prayers, or whatever is being offered. Our minds require honoring what we recognize as superior in some way; our intellects find it fitting to give gifts, even if only tokens, to those who have rendered us overwhelming gifts. Thus the actions of religion are very much like the actions that often arise through the virtue of filial piety: children give token gifts to their parents, from whom they receive the gift of life and education. The primary acts of religion are internal -- internal ceremonies or rites, we might say, involving respect or reverence toward God (prayer and devotion, in particular). But because human minds also require close connection to the sensible world, this internal activity expresses itself externally in symbolic form. These are ceremonies and rites as we usually think of them (kinds of corporeal reverence or adoration, as Aquinas calls them, as well as ceremonial gift-givings and gift-receivings).

This account makes religion a moral virtue, and on Aquinas's account all moral virtues observe a golden mean. The most obvious cases of virtues observing a golden mean consists of those that find a mean between extreme passions; but some virtues, and religion is one of them, finds a mean between actions. In other words, religion is not a habit of moderation in the strict sense; it is moderate in the sense that the religious person measures out properly the activities he performs, not rendering them to too many or to too few people; not performing them outside the times they are best performed but not neglecting them, either; and not performing them without regard for actual circumstances. Also like all other moral virtues, religion operates between vices of excess and defect; the primary vice of excess when dealing with our relationship to God is superstition (and, as with religion, this has been the primary sense of the term through most of its history), and the primary vice of defect is irreligion.

Faciendum et Prosequendum

Aquinas's formulation of the first precept of natural law, bonum est faciendum et prosequendum is interesting, because it's arguably more robust than the usual English translations ("good is to be done and sought/pursued"). Faciendum applies not just to what we call "doing" but also to what we call "making". So to capture the meaning we possibly should translate it as:

Good is to be done, made, and sought.

Doing, making, seeking: each has its good, because each is a practical action with a goal. In a fully rational life, we do good things, make good things, and seek out good things in the world around us.

On Grisez on the First Principle of Practical Reasoning

Germaine Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Chapter 7, Question C:

According to St. Thomas, the very first principle of practical reasoning in general is: The good is to be done and pursued; the bad is to be avoided (S.t., 1–2, q. 94, a. 2). This is a directive for action, not a description of good and evil. “Good” here means not only what is morally good but whatever can be understood as intelligibly worthwhile, while “bad” refers to whatever can be understood as a privation of intelligible goods. Thomas’ formulation—“Good is to be done and pursued” rather than “Do good!”—suggests that he thinks this principle extends to and governs all coherent practical thinking.
In scholastic natural-law theory, the first principle of practical reasoning was misunderstood, formulated not as St. Thomas did but as a most general moral imperative: Do good and avoid evil. However, the first principle is not a moral norm; it governs morally good and morally bad thinking alike. Moreover, an imperative to do good and avoid evil would not be self-evident. Confronted with this command, one could reasonably ask: Why?

This whole line of argument I find simply bizarre. Aquinas does not say that the first principle of practical reason is "Good is to be done and evil is to be avoided." The first principle of practical reason, according to Aquinas, is "Good is what all desire," [bonum est quod omnia appetunt] i.e., by its very nature as good, good has the nature of an end of practical action and ends of practical action have in some way the nature of good. So where does "Good is to be done and pursued and evil is to be avoided" come in? Aquinas tells us (quite explicitly) that it is the first precept of law [Hoc est ergo primum praeceptum legis, quod bonum est faciendum et prosequendum, et malum vitandum]. Obviously the two are closely related, so in most cases it's not a big deal if one shifts back and forth between them or doesn't distinguish them very carefully, but Grisez's whole argument depends on sharply distinguishing the first principles of practical reason from moral imperatives. And he puts the first moral imperative on the wrong side of the line. The scholastic manualists, not Grisez, have the right interpretation of Aquinas: "Good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided," while not a grammatical imperative, has as a precept imperative force, and one can easily and naturally state it as "Do and pursue good and avoid evil!"

Grisez is right that the first principle of practical reason extends to all practical reasoning, even kinds that we don't normally consider moral, because without it no practical reasoning would be possible. But the first principle of practical reasoning as Aquinas understands in itself it tells us, effectively, that no sense can be made of denying that good is an end, or that what you take as an end you do so because you regard it as in some way good. When we regard it as having the character of law and imperative, the imperative is that good is to be done and evil avoided. Likewise, the distinction Grisez is making between moral norms and non-moral norms simply doesn't exist in Aquinas, unless you treat it as a distinction between natural laws that prescribe virtues and natural laws that don't. But this does not change the fact that in some sense all the precepts of natural law are moral precepts, precisely because they are precepts with regard to what is good.

Thus I find Grisez's last two sentences in the passage above incomprehensible when we are understanding the terms as Aquinas (and the scholastic manualists) understands it. As a precept the command "Do good and avoid evil" admits of justification: it can be justified by the self-evident links, posited by the first principles of practical reason, between what is good and what one takes as an end. 'Self-evident' is a term that properly applies to principles, not precepts, at least considered as precepts. Certain precepts of reason are derived from self-evident principles, since they outline the actions you need to do in order not to act irrationally in light of those self-evident principles. But that's the only sense in which an imperative or precept can be considered self-evident. If someone, confronted with the command "Do good and avoid evil," responds with "Why?" rather than "OK, but what's good and what's evil?" they are either (1) being as irrational as someone who thinks that they can still believe two things when they have rigorously proven to their own satisfaction that they can't both be true or (2) not understanding the language you are using or (3) merely trying to determine the precise character of the principle from which this precept derives.

Likewise, all practical reasoning, whether moral or immoral, depends on both the first principle of practical reasoning and the first precept of the natural law, as Grisez suggests, but this is only in the sense that all thinking, whether consistent or inconsistent, depends on the principle of noncontradiction. Grisez himself explicitly recognizes this feature of the principle of noncontradiction, and explicitly follows Aquinas in treating the first principle of practical reason as analogous to the principle of noncontradiction, but his argument is very difficult to reconcile with this line of thought. And I think it's largely for the reason given above, namely, that he is mostly following Aquinas but both draws the line between first principle and first precept in an entirely different place and imposes on the whole a moral/nonmoral distinction that is very foreign to Aquinas. The result is confusion.

These problems, of course, are closely related to standard objections to Grisez's New Natural Law Theory, which are summarized nicely in the first part of Tollefsen's article on New Natural Law.

UPDATE: As Toomas Vooglaid notes in the comments, some of the things said here are seriously misleading as stated. See my reply to Tom for a clarification.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Truth, Lie, and the Devil's Daughters

An adapted folktale.

Once upon a time in a far away and dangerous land, there was a traveller called Truth; and it so happened that she had the misfortune of falling in with a traveller called Lie.

"Let us journey together," said Truth, "for this whole land has been wasted by devils until nothing grows any more, and provisions are scarce for travellers in this part of the world. I see that you have water, of which I have just run out, and I have some bread I can give you for it."

"Certainly," said Lie. "I have been travelling for a very long time now without eating. Give me the bread now, and I will give you the water later when you are thirsty."

So Truth gave the bread to Lie, and Lie ate. They travelled for a long time, and finally Truth said, "I am thirsty. Can I have the water now?"

"I don't know," said Lie. "If you drink it, would I have any more? I tell you what, you must give me something very precious in return for the water."

Truth by now was desperately thirsty. "What do you want?" she asked.

"Your eyes," said Lie.

And so desperately thirsty was Truth that she gave her eyes for the water. But Lie only gave Truth some of the water, saving the rest for herself.

And they journeyed for a great while longer, and Truth was thirsty again. "Please give me more water," she said to Lie.

"I am almost out," said Lie. "I don't think it's fair for me to give you something so precious unless you give me something precious."

Truth, who was again desperately thirsty, asked, "What do you want?"

And Lie said, "Your arms and legs."

Truth was so desperately thirsty that she agreed, and Lie took her arms and legs. Without arms and legs Truth could no longer travel, and Lie was going to leave her simply by the road. But Truth begged Lie not to leave her in the blasting hot sun, but at least to carry her to the shade of the bushes a little ways off. So Lie kicked Truth until she rolled under the bushes, and Lie went off on her own.

But God looks out for Truth, even if no one else does. As it happened, the bushes where Lie left truth were near a crossroads leading to a gallow where periodically the Devil's daughters gathered the souls of the condemned to take them away to Hell. Two very vicious men were dead on the gallows, so in the twilight, indeed, at that point exactly between day and night, the Devil's daughters came down the road and packed the souls of the vicious men in little boxes to take back home.

The Devil's daughters, however, are great gossips, as I am sure you know all demons are, and, though some may be surprised to hear it, it is very difficult to gossip in Hell. The reason for this is that Hell is already filled to the brim with gossips, and they all talk so much and so long that the entire place is just a roar of noise as each gossip tries to talk more and louder than all the others. Further, they are constantly shouting at each other to shut up so that they can hear the news; indeed, they shout this so much that no one could tell them any news if they wanted to do so. You can't hear a thing in the place. Thus it was that whenever the Devil's daughters came to take the souls of the condemned men, they stopped at the crossroads, near the bushes where Truth now lay hid, to gossip.

Said one demon to another, "What have you come across in walking to and fro over all the earth?"

That one replied, "Today I took the soul of a doctor who had discovered a great medicine that no one can ever be allowed to know."

"And what is this medicine?"

"It is simple enough. This next night is a new moon; and every new moon the dew carries with it enchantments that in every other phase the moon jealously hoards. And when the conditions are right -- when it is a Friday, and the grass is green, that enchantment is a great power to heal. If cripples roll in that dewy grass, or if that dew is put on blind eyes, the cripples will walk and the blind will see."

Then the first demon turned to the third and said, "And what have you come across in walking to and fro over all the earth?"

"Oh," said the third demon with glee, "I have a great thing to tell. There is a town not far from here which gets water from a little pool deep in a mountain. I have poisoned the water with a subtle poison, and all the population will die."

"What is this subtle poison?"

"It is not too difficult. I have placed in the pool a stone that taints the water, so that if anyone drinks from it, they will inevitably die, but slowly enough that it seems like a plague. If someone took the stone out for even fifteen minutes, the flow of water would carry all the poison away into the underground river where the dark things of the earth will draw it out. But no one ever will, for the stone looks like an ordinary stone, except with silver flecks, and the poison works slowly enough that they will never learn the cause."

"Splendid!" said the other demons.

The Devil's daughters talked of many other things, much more terrible than these. They are things that no human being should ever know, and therefore you will not get me to tell you what they were, no, not for all the gold and power in the world. Truth heard them all, but many of them were about things very far away or about people long forgotten, and she did not remember them all later.

Truth waited under the bush until nightfall again, and then rolled around on the dewy grass as best she could. She was greatly relieved when her arms and legs grew back again; it was very painful, but there was no pain that she had ever felt that was so precious, nor would she ever feel any pain equally awful and equally precious until much later, when she gave birth to her child, Hope. But that is another story. With her arms and legs restored, she was able to rub the dew into her eyes and see again. No sunrise was more wonderful than the one she saw with new eyes when the sun came up.

Truth hurried to the nearby town and went directly to the office of the Lord Mayor, telling him all that she had heard. He did not believe her at first, but being a cautious and prudent man, he had someone bar the way to the water and sent another man inside to fetch the stone. There he found the stone, just as Truth had said, and brought it back.

"Can this stone really be so poisonous?" he asked. He had the townsmen catch him a rat, and having put the stone in a bowl of water, put the water in the cage with the rat. For one day nothing happened, although the rat drank from the water. But on the second day the rat's hair and teeth began to fall out, and on the third its skin began to fester and bleed, and on the fourth it was dead.

"This," said the Lord Mayor, "is a truly terrible poison." They threw out what was left of the water (where it touched, plants died and never grew again), and, locking the stone in a box, and that box in another box, and that box in a chest, and burying the chest deep under ground far from any water, he had the townsmen roll a great boulder over the spot, so that no one could retrieve it.

The town rejoiced at the good fortune Truth had brought them, and shared with her everything they had.

After Lie had left Truth, she had journeyed on. She did not know where the town was, or even that there was a town, and so she wandered long and aimlessly, seeking food. She indeed grew very hungry, for she had had nothing to eat since Truth had shared her bread. So when she came to the town she began to beg. But the townsmen did not know her, and did not trust her, for having just recently narrowly escaped with their lives, they worried that the Devil's daughter might come back to finish the job. Thus they did not give her much.

In this condition, she happened to come across Truth again, and was amazed at her condition. Truth shared her bread with Lie again, and told Lie all of what had happened to her.

"Thus," she said, "even the selfishness of Lie turned to good for Truth, and this is why I do not begrudge you my bread: you may have meant me ill, but it all turned out better than it could have otherwise turned out."

Then Lie became very jealous, and determined to go back to the crossroads and hear the secrets of the Devil's daughter, and use them as Truth had to get good things. This she did, and hid beneath the bushes.

The Devil's daughters came again. But they are fools who think to take advantage of a demon twice, and the Devil's daughter who had planned to poison the town had heard that they had, impossibly, escaped the fate she had put on them.

"There is no way the town could have survived unless someone knew everything I had told you," she said.

"I told no one," said the one demon.

"Nor I," said the other.

"Then someone was listening. Before we speak another word, let us look high and low and all around to make sure that not even a field mouse can hear us tonight."

This they did and, of course, they discovered Lie. They were not amused. They burned her with Hellfire until she was nothing but ash, and then went on their way.

But the wind picked up the ash that once had been Lie and carried it to and fro over all the face of the earth; and like all the ash of Hell it clings most especially to anything that has a human heart. And thus it is that, no matter where in the world you go, wherever men and women dwell, you always find traces of Lie.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Links of Note

* Catarina Dutilh Novaes has a good post on the history of philosophy as philosophy, with a follow-up on instrumental- and intrinsic-value defenses of HoP.

* Matt Hoberg looks at the early history of the doctrine of double effect.

* TurretinFan gives us Chrysostom's Sermon 5, on Lazarus:
We differ from unbelievers in our estimate of things. The unbeliever surveys the heaven and worships it, because he thinks it a divinity; he looks to the earth and makes himself a servant to it, and longs for the things of sense. But not so with us. We survey the heaven, and admire him that made it; for we believe it not to be a god, but a work of God. I look on the whole creation, and am led by it to the Creator. He looks on wealth, and longs for it with earnest desire; I look on wealth, and contemn it. He sees poverty, and laments; I see poverty, and rejoice. I see things in one light; he in another. Just so in regard to death. He sees a corpse, and thinks of it as a corpse; I see a corpse, and behold sleep rather than death. And as in regard to books, both learned persons and unlearned see them with the same eyes, but not with the same understanding—for to the unlearned the mere shapes of letters appear, while the learned discover the sense that lies within those letters— so in respect to affairs in general, we all see what takes place with the same eyes, but not with the same understanding and judgment. Since, therefore, in all other things we differ from them, shall we agree with them in our sentiments respecting death?

* John Farrell has a very nice short video on the supposed burial place of Luna, St. Patrick's nephew and assistant, on Inchagoill Island.

*Czeslaw Milosz on Catholicism.

* Julianne Wiley discusses Elizabeth Anscombe. There are a few small mistakes (like misspelling Elmar Kremer's name) but it gives the gist. (ht)

* George Weigel has a nice little essay on Italy at 150 at NRO

* Martha Nussbaum considers scholarship and public service.

* Susanne Klingenstein reviews George Santayana

* While in D.C. last week I visited the Smithsonian and saw the Hope Diamond -- one of the busier exhibits in the museums I visited, although nowhere near as busy as the exhibit displaying the dresses of First Ladies at the American history museum. So I was interested in coming across this article describing the sort of research currently being done with it.

Three Poem Re-Drafts


Rain outside washes down the summer heat;
puddles and streams flood the city street,
leaving the air cool; and, with relief,
the trees stretch out in branch and leaf
to dance and play with misty wind
as with some long-forgotten friend.
As a man from arid desert washes hands and face,
so they wash, with unpretentious grace,
and rub their boughs together as if with glee.
So you, my Lord, my Savior, work in me
new rain, which to the swelter of the mind
brings cool; and, through this mist, of life remind
old images, long dried from agelong drought,
to raise, and bring their gladness out.

Francesca and Paolo

I asked what was their tale,
but sulking Paolo only wept,
and Francesca said with sorrow,
"It was the book's fault,
wherein we read of Lance and Gwen,
for what the book said, we did,
and when they touched and kissed,
then Paolo, and this was his fault,
leaned in with touch and kiss,
and I couldn't refrain from return,
for Love overpowers all,
and because of what was Love's fault
we read no more that day."
So said Francesca sadly;
sulking Paolo only wept.

The Lily of the Year

The lily of the year, O Lord,
your rising from the dead,
perfumes with life the ages, Lord,
like scent of new-baked bread,
or scent of summer rain
that promises to parched earth
that spring rush is in the air
to green and seed and birth,
or bouquet of wine that hovers
to fill your house with love;
it gives us cheer and gladness
to praise our God above.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Stay of Contrite Hearts

Second Sunday In Lent
John Keble

And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father. Genesis xxvii. 34. (Compare Hebrew xii. 17. He found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.)

“And is there in God’s world so drear a place
Where the loud bitter cry is raised in vain?
Where tears of penance come too late for grace,
As on the uprooted flower the genial rain?”

’Tis even so: the sovereign Lord of souls
Stores in the dungeon of His boundless realm
Each bolt that o’er the sinner vainly rolls,
With gathered wrath the reprobate to whelm.

Will the storm hear the sailor’s piteous cry,
Taught so mistrust, too late, the tempting wave,
When all around he sees but sea and sky,
A God in anger, a self-chosen grave?

Or will the thorns, that strew intemperance’ bed,
Turn with a wish to down? will late remorse
Recall the shaft the murderer’s hand has sped,
Or from the guiltless bosom turn its course?

Then may the unbodied soul in safety fleet
Through the dark curtains of the world above,
Fresh from the stain of crime; nor fear to meet
The God whom here she would not learn to love;

Then is there hope for such as die unblest,
That angel wings may waft them to the shore,
Nor need the unready virgin strike her breast,
Nor wait desponding round the bridegroom’s door.

But where is then the stay of contrite hearts?
Of old they leaned on Thy eternal word,
But with the sinner’s fear their hope departs,
Fast linked as Thy great Name to Thee, O Lord:

That Name, by which Thy faithful oath is past,
That we should endless be, for joy or woe:—
And if the treasures of Thy wrath could waste,
Thy lovers must their promised Heaven forego.

But ask of elder days, earth’s vernal hour,
When in familiar talk God’s voice was heard,
When at the Patriarch’s call the fiery shower
Propitious o’er the turf-built shrine appeared.

Watch by our father Isaac’s pastoral door—
The birthright sold, the blessing lost and won;
Tell, Heaven has wrath that can relent no more;
The Grave, dark deeds that cannot be undone.

We barter life for pottage; sell true bliss
For wealth or power, for pleasure or renown;
Thus, Esau-like, our Father’s blessing miss,
Then wash with fruitless tears our faded crown.

Our faded crown, despised and flung aside,
Shall on some brother’s brow immortal bloom;
No partial hand the blessing may misguide,
No flattering fancy change our Monarch’s doom:

His righteous doom, that meek true-hearted Love
The everlasting birthright should receive,
The softest dews drop on her from above,
The richest green her mountain garland weave:

Her brethren, mightiest, wisest, eldest-born,
Bow to her sway, and move at her behest;
Isaac’s fond blessing may not fall on scorn,
Nor Balaam’s curse on Love, which God hath blest.

Lenten Giving

The three ascetic disciplines of Lent are praying, fasting, and almsgiving; if you still haven't decided where to donate for Lent, besides your local charities you could perhaps consider one or both of these two organizations:

(1) Catholic Relief Services, which is collecting money to help people in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake. CRS has an AIP grade of A.

(2) African Windmill Project. This organization helps farmers to increase yields and consistency in Malawi, which repeatedly has problems with famine. Chris Adare gives a taste of some of the projects for this charity on the African Windmill Project blog.