Saturday, May 07, 2011

Hume's Tercentenary Birthday

Britain was fairly late in switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar (the latter was, after all, a Popish innovation). It only did so in 1752, as a result of the Calendar (New Style) Act, often known as Chesterfield's Act, passed a couple of years before. Noting that there were inconveniences in having a calendar that was so different from its neighbors, and a need to reduce confusion in matters of dating, this act made two changes: first, the official beginning of the year would be January 1 rather than March 25 (Scotland, while still on the Julian calendar, had already made this change a century and a half before); and the Gregorian calendar, denominated the New Style, would be used from then on. Switching to the latter required a little finagling of dates given the differences between the Julian and the Gregorian calendar by that time. In September 1752, the calendar was advanced several days -- one day it was September 2, and the next it was September 14. Because of this there is perpetual confusion about dates in 18th century Britain: dates before the turning point were sometimes converted to New Style and sometimes not, a few holdouts here and there continued to use Old Style, and people often mention dates without indicating whether they were New Style or Old Style. You always have to take dates in 18th century Anglophone countries with a grain of salt.

David Hume was born David Home to Joseph Home of Chirnside and Katherine Falconer on April 26, 1711 (Old Style) -- that is, this was his birthday in the Julian calendar that was regnant when he was born. Converting that date into New Style gives us May 7, 1711 (New Style). Thus it's an open question which day to celebrate Hume's birthday; if you prefer just sticking with the Old Style date, then you would celebrate it on April 26. You may have noticed that the Humean theme around here started up at that time. But if you want to celebrate the date as it would have been in our current calendar, you celebrate it today, on May 7. And this year Hume's birthday seems to deserve a bit of a mention, since Hume would be 300 years old, and over the course of that three centuries he has certainly made his mark felt.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Hume on the Paradox of Compassion

Poverty, meanness, disappointment, produce contempt and dislike: But when these misfortunes are very great, or are represented to us in very strong colours, they excite compassion, and tenderness, and friendship. How is this contradiction to be accounted for? The poverty and meanness of another, in their common appearance, gives us uneasiness by a species of imperfect sympathy; and this uneasiness produces aversion or dislike, from the resemblance of sentiment. But when we enter more intimately into another's concerns, and wish for his happiness, as well as feel his misery, friendship or good-will arises from the similar tendency of the inclinations.

A bankrupt, at first, while the idea of his misfortunes is fresh and recent, and while comparison of his present unhappy situation with his former prosperity operates strongly upon us, meets with compassion and friendship. After these ideas are weakened or obliterated by time, he is in danger of compassion and contempt.

Hume, Dissertation on the Passions, Section III, 6 (3.11-12). Most of the Dissertation on Passions is a condensation of Book II of Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, but this is one of the passages that in DP that has no close parallel in THN. I find this passage somewhat obscure, but I take it that the point is that imperfect sympathy with the poor and unfortunate produces an aversion, because the uneasiness of such sympathy is on its own like dislike; but when our sympathy is extensive enough to encompass desire for the happiness of the people in question (when we enter into their desire for happiness as if it were something like our own) then the sympathy, while still having that uneasiness that is like aversion, has a tendency that is similar to that of benevolence and affection. To put it in different terms, the distinction here is much the same as that which is sometimes expressed by distinguishing compassion from pity, in the sense in which the latter involves a condescension, or focus on the pathetic or contemptible character of what is pitied. As Hume says, there is a compassion with contempt and a compassion with friendship. One can tip into the other depending on the degree and manner in which we 'put ourselves in their place', as we say.

Music on My Mind

First, "Siren":

Second, "Poppaea":

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Hume on Delicacy of Imagination

One obvious cause, why many feel not the proper sentiment of beauty, is the want of that delicacy of imagination, which is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions. This delicacy every one pretends to: Every one talks of it; and would reduce every kind of taste or sentiment to its standard. But as our intention in this essay is to mingle some light of the understanding with the feelings of sentiment, it will be proper to give a more accurate definition of delicacy, than has hitherto been attempted. And not to draw our philosophy from too profound a source, we shall have recourse to a noted story in DON QUIXOTE.

It is with good reason, says SANCHO to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine: this is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and after mature reflection pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favour of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom, an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.

David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste. Delicacy of imagination is the ability to recognize by feel subtle qualities and features in a composition; as Hume goes on to argue, despite the fact that people vary considerably on this point with respect to their natural talents, by practice everyone can make considerable headway: wide experience, frequent examination even of the same works, and self-critique so as to remove interfering biases, give one the capacity to recognize very subtle features of any work of art, and thus to have a superior taste.

And, of course, since Hume thinks of moral judgment as a species of taste, what applies to aesthetic taste will apply, mutatis mutandis, to moral taste.

Added Later: The Don Quixote reference is to Chapter XIII, for those who like to see the original.

Cinco de Mayo

A repost with some revisions.

Cinco de Mayo celebrates the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, in which Mexican soldiers, facing a much larger French army, achieved victory. It is not to be confused with Mexico's Independence Day, which is September 16; Mexican independence from Spain was achieved almost fifty years before the battle of Puebla. During the administration of Mexican president Benito Juarez, Napoleon III had sent an army, under the pretext of debt collection, to establish French rule in Mexico under the viceroy Maximilian. It was a bold plan, but the odds dramatically favored Napoleon III: the French army was one of the finest in the world at that time, and the United States, who given the chance would certainly have opposed the French incursion and assisted the Mexicans (as they would later), was embroiled in the Civil War. The French smashed through the initial Mexican defenses.

Operating under the assumption that the Mexicans would capitulate if their capital were to fall, the French set out to attack Mexico City. The Mexican army, under the leadership of Texas-born Ignacio Zaragoza (Texas, of course, was at the time of his birth still part of Mexico; Zaragoza was born in Goliad and moved with his family to Mexico after Texas independence), retreated to the fortified city of Puebla. When the French arrived, they sent their cavalry out to the French flanks; the French army made the mistake of sending its own cavalry to chase them. The Mexican cavalry was easily able to tie up the French cavalry, thus forcing the French infantry to charge the Mexican infantry unassisted. The ground was muddy from rain, making it difficult to maneuver. It is also sometimes said that the Mexicans stampeded large herds of cattle against the French; which, if true, would have no doubt been a bit disconcerting. In any case, the French were eventually forced to retreat from Puebla. Against enormous odds, the Mexicans had won the battle.

But they lost the war. The French naturally brought in reinforcements and nothing could really stop them from seizing control of Mexico. Juarez was sent into hiding, where he organized the resistance. Maximilian ruled until 1867, when he was executed by troops loyal to Juarez.

Cinco do Mayo is celebrated in Mexico, but except for perhaps Puebla and the surrounding areas, it is not even close to being as popular as it is in the U.S., where it is perhaps second only to St. Patrick's Day as the most widely celebrated ethnic holiday.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

A Newish Canada

I don't keep up with Canadian politics like I used to, but I was interested to see the continued implosion of the Liberal Party in the recent election. The Liberal Party was once the most successful political party in the Western world, having dominated a G7 nation for the overwhelming bulk of the twentieth century. One of my favorite political jokes used to be that the difference between politics in the U.S. and politics in Canada was that U.S. politics was dominated by two large, corrupt, barely distinguishable parties, while Canadian politics was dominated by one large, corrupt, barely distinguishable party. Like most political jokes, it was ruined by a political upset, when the Conservatives installed Harper in 24 Sussex Drive.

Since then Harper has held on tenaciously, but it hadn't seemed that the Conservative regime would last long, being held together by fragile alliances. But now the Conservatives have, for the first time, a clear majority, with 167 seats. The Bloc Quebecois has been nearly totally swallowed up, down to 4 seats; and the once-mighty Liberal Party is limping along in third place with 34 seats. In effect, the Liberals were eaten away from both sides: the anti-NDP people defected to the Conservatives, people on the anti-Conservative side defected to the NDP. And what's really remarkable is how the NDP has benefited from the collapse of the Bloc and the Grits, having become the opposition leader with an astounding 102 seats. This from a party that was almost swept from the federal scene in 1993 after a massive route that left it only nine seats.

I have to confess, I honestly didn't think Jack Layton was competent enough to take advantage of the times the way he has. Indeed, I'm a bit impressed he lasted this long, since I wasn't expecting it. I remember looking at the field of candidates for NDP leadership as Alexa McDonough stepped down and liking every single one of them -- I'm not a huge fan of NDP politics, but many NDP politicians are quite charming -- except Layton, who manages to carry around the air of trustworthiness of a used car salesman or ambulance chaser and who can't seem to say or do anything without saying or doing it obnoxiously. Very American political style, actually. But Layton, despite not even having a seat in Parliament at the time, eventually beat the extraordinarily likable Bill Blaikie for the role. And he's managed to hold on. Perhaps that's what the NDP needed, after all. On the other hand, I remember Blaikie at his retirement bemoaned the fact that the quality of parliamentary culture had declined as people increasingly devoted themselves to "character assassination, simulated indignation, and trivial pursuit" rather than real debate. And while Layton isn't the only culprit by any means, simulated indignation is even more a part of him than his mustache is.

It's very likely the fear of NDP dominance that led to the entrenchment of the Conservatives. So I suppose the real question is: Are the Conservatives the Liberal Party of the twenty-first century? That would be a feat that would be hard to pull off. On the other hand, it still isn't clear that NDP can play opposition well enough to take the 24 Sussex from the Conservatives (this would depend, for instance, on keeping Quebec happy, because if the BQ recovers, the NDP can look forward to nothing stronger than a weak minority government on occasion, and also depends on Harper's ability not to push his newfound stability too far). It's a new season in Canadian politics; it is extremely unlikely the Liberals will ever recapture their former position, and thus it's a Conservative vs. NDP Canada. And that means Canada has entered a phase of parliamentary politics most Western parliamentary democracies entered long ago: the dominance of Labor-left over Liberal-left.

On the other hand, it's hard to see how this would significantly change the dominant issues of Canadian politics, either.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Aquinas and Hume on Divorce and Marital Friendship

In light of Russell Nieli's discussion of Hume's discussion of divorce and polygamy, I thought I would juxtapose two passages on the subject of divorce, one from Aquinas and one from Hume, to show their similarities.

First Aquinas (Summa Contra Gentiles 3.123):

The greater a friendship is, the more solid and long-lasting will it be. Now, there seems to be the greatest friendship [maxima amicitia] between husband and wife, for they are united not only in the act of fleshly union, which produces a certain gentle association even between animals, but also in the partnership of the whole range of domestic activity. Consequently, as an indication of this, man must even 'leave his father and mother' for the sake of his wife, as is said in Genesis (2:24).

As with Aquinas, Hume places the emphasis on prudence, reason, and friendship ("Of Polygamy and Divorce"):

But friendship is a calm and sedate affection, conducted by reason and cemented by habit; springing from long acquaintance and mutual obligations; without jealousies or fears, and without those feverish fits of heat and cold, which cause such an agreeable torment in the amorous passion. So sober an affection, therefore, as friendship, rather thrives under constraint, and never rises to such a height, as when any strong interest or necessity binds two persons together, and gives them some common object of pursuit. We need not, therefore, be afraid of drawing the marriage-knot, which chiefly subsists by friendship, the closest possible. The amity between the persons, where it is solid and sincere, will rather gain by it: And where it is wavering and uncertain, this is the best expedient for fixing it.

It's interesting that Aquinas and Hume hit on roughly similar arguments in criticizing divorce; and perhaps even more interesting is the importance given to friendship in their accounts of marriage. The common link is almost certainly Cicero, although I haven't actually read anything by Cicero about marriage; that is, most of the commonalities between Hume's moral theory and Aquinas's (and there are many more than one might expect) are explainable by the influence of Cicero on Hume. Aquinas has the stronger view of the role of friendship in marriage, of course; both of them take friendship to be essentially constitutive of marriage, and Aquinas has the stronger view of marriage, so his position requires him to make stronger claims about the friendship involved.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Athanasius Contra Mundum

Today is the Feast of St. Athanasius the Great of Alexandria (c. 295-373), Confessor and Doctor of the Church, Father and Pillar of Orthodoxy, one of the most influential theologians in the history of the Church. In his lifetime he was falsely accused of heresy, embezzlement, murder, treason, and sacrilege; he was exiled five times by four different Roman emperors for a total of seventeen years of exile; was deposed by Arian councils on multiple occasions; but he never gave up.

From the De Decretis:

For God creates, and to create is also ascribed to men; and God has being, and men are said to be, having received from God this gift also. Yet does God create as men do? or is His being as man’s being? Perish the thought; we understand the terms in one sense of God, and in another of men. For God creates, in that He calls what is not into being, needing nothing thereunto; but men work some existing material, first praying, and so gaining the wit to make, from that God who has framed all things by His proper Word. And again men, being incapable of self-existence, are enclosed in place, and consist in the Word of God; but God is self-existent, enclosing all things, and enclosed by none; within all according to His own goodness and power, yet without all in His proper nature. As then men create not as God creates, as their being is not such as God’s being, so men’s generation is in one way, and the Son is from the Father in another. For the offspring of men are portions of their fathers, since the very nature of bodies is not uncompounded, but in a state of flux, and composed of parts; and men lose their substance in begetting, and again they gain substance from the accession of food. And on this account men in their time become fathers of many children; but God, being without parts, is Father of the Son without partition or passion; for there is neither effluence of the Immaterial, nor influx from without, as among men; and being uncompounded in nature, He is Father of One Only Son.

Athanasius I

His Eyeless Rush

The Wind is Blind
by Alice Meynell

“Eyeless, in Gaza, at the mill, with slaves”
Milton’s “Samson.”

The wind is blind.
The earth sees sun and moon; the height
Is watch-tower to the dawn; the plain
Shines to the summer; visible light
Is scattered in the drops of rain.

The wind is blind.
The flashing billows are aware;
With open eyes the cities see;
Light leaves the ether, everywhere
Known to the homing bird and bee.

The wind is blind,
Is blind alone. How has he hurled
His ignorant lash, his aimless dart,
His eyeless rush, upon the world,
Unseeing, to break his unknown heart!

The wind is blind,
And the sail traps him, and the mill
Captures him; and he cannot save
His swiftness and his desperate will
From those blind uses of the slave.

Four Humean Formulations of the Design Argument

From "The Platonist" in Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (1742):

Compare the works of art with those of nature. The one are but imitations of the other. The nearer art approaches to nature, the more perfect is it esteemed. But still, how wide are its nearest approaches, and what an immense interval may be observed between them? Art copies only the outside of nature, leaving the inward and more admirable springs and principles; as exceeding her imitation; as beyond her comprehension. Art copies only the minute productions of nature, despairing to reach that grandeur and magnificence, which are so astonishing in the masterly works of her original. Can we then be so blind as not to discover an intelligence and a design in the exquisite and most stupendous contrivance of the universe? Can we be so stupid as not to feel the warmest raptures of worship and adoration, upon the contemplation of that intelligent being, so infinitely good and wise?

From The Natural History of Religion in Four Dissertations (1757):

As every enquiry which regards religion is of the utmost importance, there are two questions in particular which challenge our principal attention, to wit, that concerning its foundation in reason, and that concerning its origin in human nature. Happily, the first question, which is the most important, admits of the most obvious, at least the clearest solution. The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflexion, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion. But the other question, concerning the origin of religion in human nature, is exposed to some more difficulty.

From Part II, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (posthumously published in 1779 but finished just prior to Hume's death in 1776; the character Cleanthes is speaking):

Look round the world: contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy which ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed. By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, do we prove at once the existence of a Deity, and his similarity to human mind and intelligence.

From Part XII, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (the character Philo is speaking):

You, in particular, CLEANTHES, with whom I live in unreserved intimacy; you are sensible, that notwithstanding the freedom of my conversation, and my love of singular arguments, no one has a deeper sense of religion impressed on his mind, or pays more profound adoration to the Divine Being, as he discovers himself to reason, in the inexplicable contrivance and artifice of nature. A purpose, an intention, a design, strikes every where the most careless, the most stupid thinker; and no man can be so hardened in absurd systems, as at all times to reject it. That Nature does nothing in vain, is a maxim established in all the schools, merely from the contemplation of the works of Nature, without any religious purpose; and, from a firm conviction of its truth, an anatomist, who had observed a new organ or canal, would never be satisfied till he had also discovered its use and intention. One great foundation of the Copernican system is the maxim, That Nature acts by the simplest methods, and chooses the most proper means to any end; and astronomers often, without thinking of it, lay this strong foundation of piety and religion. The same thing is observable in other parts of philosophy: And thus all the sciences almost lead us insensibly to acknowledge a first intelligent Author; and their authority is often so much the greater, as they do not directly profess that intention....

So little, replied PHILO, do I esteem this suspense of judgement in the present case to be possible, that I am apt to suspect there enters somewhat of a dispute of words into this controversy, more than is usually imagined. That the works of Nature bear a great analogy to the productions of art, is evident; and according to all the rules of good reasoning, we ought to infer, if we argue at all concerning them, that their causes have a proportional analogy. But as there are also considerable differences, we have reason to suppose a proportional difference in the causes; and in particular, ought to attribute a much higher degree of power and energy to the supreme cause, than any we have ever observed in mankind. Here then the existence of a DEITY is plainly ascertained by reason: and if we make it a question, whether, on account of these analogies, we can properly call him a mind or intelligence, notwithstanding the vast difference which may reasonably be supposed between him and human minds; what is this but a mere verbal controversy? No man can deny the analogies between the effects: To restrain ourselves from inquiring concerning the causes is scarcely possible. From this inquiry, the legitimate conclusion is, that the causes have also an analogy: And if we are not contented with calling the first and supreme cause a GOD or DEITY, but desire to vary the expression; what can we call him but MIND or THOUGHT, to which he is justly supposed to bear a considerable resemblance?

Every single one of these raises interpretive questions. "The Platonist" is a sketch of a philosophical perspective that is not Hume's, but that Hume seems to have some sympathy with. The design argument in The Natural History of Religion is only raised in order to distinguish sharply between an account of why human beings are religious and an account of what philosophical arguments can establish religious belief; much of NHR is filled with irony, so one might read it as ironic -- but it can't completely be removed without devastating one of Hume's key arguments, namely, that religion must originally be polytheistic, and could not be derived from "a contemplation of the works of nature" such as we find in the design argument, because then they would have been monotheists. (But, on the other hand, this argument also doesn't seem consistent with Hume's later views, as expressed in the Dialogues. Did he change his view? Or is the later expression a sign that this argument is not meant to be taken at face value? But how does one avoid taking it at face value while also not ruining the early argument of NHR?) In the passage from Part II of the Dialogues, Cleanthes gives the argument that will be criticized through most of the rest of the work. But, on the other hand, Philo repeatedly claims only to be criticizing Cleanthes's claim that this argument gives us insight into the nature of the deity; also repeatedly, he insists that he's not criticizing its ability to conclude to the existence of a deity. Yet Philo's summary of the argument in Part XII is clearly taken by him to give a very vague result -- he goes on to argue that the difference between the reasonable theist and the reasonable atheist is purely verbal! ("The Theist allows, that the original intelligence is very different from human reason: the Atheist allows, that the original principle of order bears some remote analogy to it.") Lots and lots of questions. But it's worth looking at Hume a bit on this point, because he is with Newton and Paley one of the three major architects of the design argument as we generally find it.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Our Hearths are Altars All

First Sunday After Easter
by John Keble

First Father of the holy seed,
If yet, invoked in hour of need,
Thou count me for Thine own
Not quite an outcast if I prove,
(Thou joy'st in miracles of love),
Hear, from Thy mercy-throne!

Upon Thine altar's horn of gold
Help me to lay my trembling hold,
Though stained with Christian gore; -
The blood of souls by Thee redeemed,
But, while I roved or idly dreamed,
Lost to be found no more.

For oft, when summer leaves were bright,
And every flower was bathed in light,
In sunshine moments past,
My wilful heart would burst away
From where the holy shadow lay,
Where heaven my lot had cast.

I thought it scorn with Thee to dwell,
A Hermit in a silent cell,
While, gaily sweeping by,
Wild Fancy blew his bugle strain,
And marshalled all his gallant train
In the world's wondering eye.

I would have joined him--but as oft
Thy whispered warnings, kind and soft,
My better soul confessed.
"My servant, let the world alone -
Safe on the steps of Jesus' throne
Be tranquil and be blest."

"Seems it to thee a niggard hand
That nearest Heaven has bade thee stand,
The ark to touch and bear,
With incense of pure heart's desire
To heap the censer's sacred fire,
The snow-white Ephod wear?"

Why should we crave the worldling's wreath,
On whom the Savour deigned to breathe,
To whom His keys were given,
Who lead the choir where angels meet,
With angels' food our brethren greet,
And pour the drink of Heaven?

When sorrow all our heart would ask,
We need not shun our daily task,
And hide ourselves for calm;
The herbs we seek to heal our woe
Familiar by our pathway grow,
Our common air is balm.

Around each pure domestic shrine
Bright flowers of Eden bloom and twine,
Our hearths are altars all;
The prayers of hungry souls and poor,
Like armed angels at the door,
Our unseen foes appal.

Alms all around and hymns within -
What evil eye can entrance win
Where guards like these abound?
If chance some heedless heart should roam,
Sure, thought of these will lure it home
Ere lost in Folly's round.

O joys, that sweetest in decay,
Fall not, like withered leaves, away,
But with the silent breath
Of violets drooping one by one,
Soon as their fragrant task is done,
Are wafted high in death!

One of Keble's most underappreciated poems, I think. In this poem he never stumbles, and repeatedly comes close to the topmost summit of poetry, which is to say something so well that it could not be said better.