Saturday, August 06, 2011

Music on My Mind

It is the Great Feast of the Holy Transfiguration, the Metamorphosis, so this comes to mind:


(Sufjan Stevens, "Transfiguration")

And a painting from Fra Angelico to go with it:

Friday, August 05, 2011

Weakness, Part IV

(Part I) (Part II) (Part III)

The next day a heavy new snow had fallen, and after breakfast the Matriarch proposed to Darin that they go for a walk before tackling the business of the day. Bundling into snow gear, Darin in dark blue and the Matriarch in white, they set out from the chalet as if they were heading toward the sulfurous springs, although they did not plan to go so far. They walked, or, rather, tramped in the snow, for about twenty minutes, when Darin suddenly realized that the Matriarch was no longer at his side. He looked behind, puzzled to see her standing still several yards behind, watching him inscrutably.

She held up her hand. "Do not come any closer. Bedros has snipers at the treeline who will kill you if you move any closer." She continued to give him that inscrutable look for several moments longer, then suddenly looked at the sky. "Honestly, Darin," she said. "Did you think such amateur cloak and dagger was protection enough from the intelligence agents of the Matriarch? She knew, and I knew. I always knew."

He stood there, saying nothing. The wind began to pick up, blowing through the Matriarch's hair and making it flicker like flame.

"The Matriarch always told me -- my predecessor always told me that the only way to be Matriarch was to extirpate every weakness. I thought I had done that. But I have begun to realize that I left the greatest weakness of all untouched. And such a weakness! I knew. And all the time some persuasive part of me kept convincing me that, when it was all done, you would give it all up for me. But the man who would do that would never have been involved in your treacheries in the first place. There is no other way it can go. A Matriarch must extirpate every last weakness."

Like a cornered animal that knows its life is at stake, Darin sprang at the Matriarch. He was fast, but the Matriarch, who had been ready the whole time, was faster. He never made it to her, but, clutching his throat, fell down thrashing a few feet from her.

The Death of Darin is another one of those scenes that the painters of Syan love to paint, and there are many more versions of this scene than of the Accession of the Matriarch because the Matriarchs themselves more often encourage it: in this scene, there is no dead Matriarch. As it is usually painted, the Matriarch of Syan stands gazing out to the viewer. The white of her coat, the paleness of her face, almost blend in to the snowy landscape and gray sky behind her. Almost she looks like Winter personated, except for the vivid sea-green of her eyes and her hair, gilded flame, flickering in the wind. She seems impersonal, a force of nature, although under the brush of a true master, a Misson or a Valer, there is a hint in the set of her face of some hidden but infinite sorrow. Darin lies at her feet in dark blue, dark blood pouring out on the white snow from the wound in his throat, a wound caused by a beautiful dagger with a golden hilt of ornate leaf-and-flower tracery. The composition of color is something no painter could resist.

But here, as always, the question I ask is what the painter does not show. Paintings abstract from time, and treat as timeless what is no longer-lasting than a heartbeat. They do not portray the subject of an action, but only a mere surface for viewing. And thus all the paintings of the Matriarch lie, for no Matriarch is in reality a mere surface for viewing, and every Matriarch, by virtue of what she is, is in every moment of her life the subject of actions that move nations and worlds.

The Matriarch stared down at Darin until he was quite dead and then bent down to retrieve the dagger. Her hand hovered above the hilt a moment then withdrew, empty. She turned and began to walk back alone.

She had not made it more than halfway, when Bedros came rushing up to her. "Matriarch!" he shouted. Then recovering his dignity, and lowering his volume, "Matriarch! Where have you been? We have been looking all over for you."

"I have been on a walk, Bedros," she said. "That is all." She then passed him without further explanation.

As she continued her way back to the chalet, the snow began to fall again.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Curé d'Ars

Today is the feast of Jean Vianney, Often known as the Curé D'Ars. All of his life was shaped by the French Revolution, which occurred when he was a very young child. A member of a devoutly Catholic family, most of Vianney's earliest memories of Catholic life would have been of his family secretly attending the Masses that had been made illegal throughout France, and of priests constantly risking a great deal to do even simple catechesis. The Catholic Church was again restored in France after Napoleon's Concordat of 1801 with Pius VII; Vianney was a teenager at the time. This finally made it possible for Vianney to begin studying for the priesthood (with which he struggled, having started his education late in life), but this was interrupted in 1809 when he was drafted into Napoleon's army. He then lived for a time with a community of deserters under the name Jerome Vincent, until in 1810 an amnesty was declared for deserters, allowing him to return home safely. With so many interruptions to his education, he was almost not ordained, but his seminary teacher made the case that he made up for it in many other ways.

As a priest, Vianney began to have a first-hand experience with the desolation in Catholic life caused by the anti-Catholic elements of the French Revolution. Vianney himself had been fortunate. An entire generation had not been catechized properly. Nominally Catholic, they knew almost nothing about Catholic thought and life; when he was assigned to Ars he found that most of the Catholics in the town spent their Sundays working, dancing, or drinking and brawling in taverns. Vianney approached the problem forcefully, delivering fiery sermons that must have seemed somewhat odd coming from such a quiet and reserved man, and refusing communion and absolution to the impenitent. He also, however, devoted hours and hours a day to hearing confessions (late in his life he sometimes spent as many as sixteen hours a day in the confessional) and became famous for ceaselessly working to help his parishioners, founding many charities. He also became widely known as a priest who was virtually impossible to deceive in the confessional and who could be trusted to give excellent advice.

His parishioners developed a profound respect for him, and his fame spread widely by word of mouth. But Vianney wasn't wholly happy. He loved his parishioners, but he didn't like the life of a parish priest, which he thought was the sort of life that would virtually guarantee that a man could not become holy. Because of this he tried to run away to a monastery several times in his career. Each time he was forcefully brought back to his little parish. And so he remained at the little hamlet of Ars until his death in 1859.

Dark Wave and Stone

A Sea-Side Walk
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning


I. We walked beside the sea,
After a day which perished silently
Of its own glory---like the Princess weird
Who, combating the Genius, scorched and seared,
Uttered with burning breath, 'Ho! victory!'
And sank adown, an heap of ashes pale;
So runs the Arab tale.

II. The sky above us showed
An universal and unmoving cloud,
On which, the cliffs permitted us to see
Only the outline of their majesty,
As master-minds, when gazed at by the crowd!
And, shining with a gloom, the water grey
Swang in its moon-taught way.

III. Nor moon nor stars were out.
They did not dare to tread so soon about,
Though trembling, in the footsteps of the sun.
The light was neither night's nor day's, but one
Which, life-like, had a beauty in its doubt;
And Silence's impassioned breathings round
Seemed wandering into sound.

IV. O solemn-beating heart
Of nature! I have knowledge that thou art
Bound unto man's by cords he cannot sever---
And, what time they are slackened by him ever,
So to attest his own supernal part,
Still runneth thy vibration fast and strong,
The slackened cord along.

V. For though we never spoke
Of the grey water and the shaded rock,---
Dark wave and stone, unconsciously, were fused
Into the plaintive speaking that we used,
Of absent friends and memories unforsook;
And, had we seen each other's face, we had
Seen haply, each was sad.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Numbers and Genealogies

It must be said that in Sacred Scripture, according to the truth, nothing is contrary. But if some things appear to be contrary, either they are not understood or they are corrupted by the fault of the scribes, which is clear especially in numbers and genealogies. And so those things which cannot be determined the Apostle wills to be shunned.

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to Titus, sect. 99 [in Commentaries on St. Paul's Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, Baer, tr. St. Augustine's Press (South Bend, IN: 2007)]. The reference is to Titus 3:9.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

John of Avila

Very interesting: Apparently there's a rumor going around that the Pope will name St. Juan de Avila a Doctor of the Church at the next World Youth Day. I have mentioned John of Avila as a likely candidate, perhaps the most likely candidate, for being made Doctor of the Church at some point (here and here).

'Doctor of the Church' is a purely liturgical title given to universal teachers. The word 'Doctor' here means 'teacher'. Because it is a liturgical title, it is not given to martyrs (whose status as martyrs or confessors would typically override their status as doctors for liturgical purposes). It has become increasingly important as a sign that the person in question is an excellent source for understanding the Catholic faith, because to have the title is exclusive to (1) saints in the universal calendar who (2) were doctors (i.e., theological teachers) and who (3) have left theological writings that (4) are of high quality and broad application. Currently there are thirty-three individuals with the title. John of Avila, if he really is named, would make the the fourth person from Spain on the list; World Youth Day 2011, of course, is in Madrid in a couple of weeks. If he is named, I'll have to update my Doctors of the Church post.

There's a lot to like about John of Avila in particular; his correspondence is excellent, and filled with good practical advice.

A Bit on Evidence and History of Philosophy

I mentioned Peter Anstey's discussion of the discovery of a book probably in David Hume's library in my last links post, but I thought I would discuss it a bit more, because it shows the ways in which historical work in philosophy is both very evidential in character and, in being evidential, requires the integration of very diverse kinds of evidences.

As Anstey notes, in 1959 Richard Popkin touched off a heavy debate with his article, "Did Hume Ever Read Berkeley?" Much of what Popkin was trying to do was shake up a common historical narrative, one that was too easily taken for granted (and, indeed, is still often taken for granted): the narrative that British empiricism ran a certain course, in which Locke began building the empiricist approach, Berkeley took it farther so as to dissolve the material world and leave only the mind, and Hume took Berkeley's developments even farther to dissolve even the mind, thus making the British empiricist tradition a straightforward chain and Hume the natural terminal point in it. Popkin suggested that the actual evidence for the key idea here, that Hume knew anything specific about Berkeley, was very slight. Hume obviously knew of Berkeley, since he's mentioned in footnotes in a number of places (the Treatise, the Enquiry, the Essays). But the question Popkin put on the table was this: What evidence was there that Hume had the opportunity to become acquainted with details of Berkeley's arguments?

This is a very good question, and it remains a very good question to ask despite the fact that Popkin's question has pretty much been answered several times over. This is one of the things that historians of philosophy do: we establish topographies of evidences. Even if you know that Hume had reading knowledge of so-and-so, it's still worthwhile to know exactly what supports the claim that he did so. One reason, obviously, is that you can't actually know that Hume had reading knowledge of so-and-so without knowing the evidence for it; but another reason is that the evidences sometimes highlight features of Hume's work that might go unrecognized if you don't realize that the evidences are there in the first place. This is precisely what happened: Hume scholars went to work answering Popkin's question. Actually, almost no one thought that Popkin was right in suggesting Hume's ignorance, but forcing scholars to lay out in a clear and articulated way why he was wrong led to all sorts of discoveries about Hume's work.

There are a number of internal evidences for Hume's real acquaintance with Berkeley. You might not put much emphasis on the footnotes, although Hume is so stingy when it comes to acknowledging influences (this is not unusual in the period) that one could argue that a footnote acknowledging the importance of someone is more than just a casual mention in passing. But one definitely does want more, and there are internal evidences aplenty. In the essay "Of National Characters" he paraphrases a passage from Berkeley's Alciphron (and attributes the idea to Berkeley in a footnote); the passage is buried deep in Dialogue V of Berkeley's work, so that suggests something. More than this, however, it is possible to find what seem to be echoes of Berkeley in Hume's discussions of our knowledge of bodies, sensible minima, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, his account of mind, and others. Careful sifting by scholars still turns up new plausible cases even today.

The internal evidence, then, is quite good; much better than Popkin had suggested, although Popkin was quite right that most of it was not on the immediate surface. To find it you have to identify echoes of phrasing, parallel structures of argument, and ideas original to Berkeley that are also found in Hume. This takes quite a bit of comparative work to do properly, and, indeed, much of it has taken decades of serious work and considerable debate. But an additional problem with internal evidences in general is that they admit of alternative explanations. Berkeley's main works were talked about quite a bit; it's always possible that genuinely Berkeleyan ideas were the topics of conversation and thence made it into Hume. In this sort of case, Hume would have known genuinely Berkeleyan arguments and ideas, but the kind of transmission would be different. This would be important to know, because secondhand oral transmission of philosophical ideas and arguments works rather differently than transmission by direct access to philosophical texts. Other explanations also can arise: sometimes ideas are 'in the air', i.e., due to common environmental or social causes; sometimes common ideas in two authors indicate not influence between them but influence from a common source (who may or may not be already known); and so forth. Given the extent of the internal evidence that Hume was acquainted with details of Berkeley's work, the scale on which one would have to deploy these alternative explanations would be extraordinary and implausible. But the internal evidences themselves don't fully rule them out.

What one needs is a direct link, and in the Berkeley-Hume case, the first real direct link was the discovery of a letter from Hume to Michael Ramsay dated August 31, 1737; for purposes of Hume scholarship, arguably the most important letter from Hume ever discovered. In this letter, Hume, who is about to publish the first book of the Treatise of Human Nature recommends some background reading for Michael Ramsay to understand the metaphysics of the work. He recommends, specifically, Malebranche's Search after Truth, Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge, the more metaphysical articles in Bayle's Dictionary, such as the articles on Zeno and Spinoza, and, if Ramsay could at all find it, Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy. Since Hume is quite clear that he was directly influenced by these works, it is, as one might say, a 'smoking gun'. The Ramsay letter is one of those crucial far-flung lines of evidence. A Polish princess, Princess Izabella, had acquired it. She was actually Scottish herself, Isabella Fleming by birth, but had married to Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryska. At some point the princess had met David Hume the younger -- the nephew of David Hume the philosopher and historian -- and she made a serious effort to obtain manuscripts of the original Hume. In 1790 she acquired five letters of Hume, one of which was the Ramsay letter. Thus the direct evidence for whether the Scottish philosopher had ever closely read the Irish philosopher was hanging out in the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland. Tadeusz Kozanecki published three of the letters in a Polish journal in 1963; Popkin became aware of this and in 1964 conceded the point in the article, "So, Hume Did Read Berkeley".

This did not close out the investigation of evidences, however, and other links were found. In 1973, Michael Morrisroe published a potentially even better 'smoking gun' evidence. In another letter to Michael Ramsay, this one dated September 29, 1734, Hume explicitly says that he was re-reading Berkeley's Principles and Locke's Essay. You can't get plainer than that. Unfortunately, things get a little complicated. Morrisroe tells us that he was given the opportunity to make a typescript, but that the letter was auctioned off and its location unknown. He did not say what he did to establish authenticity, although the letter (about ten sentences long) certainly sounds rather Hume-like. As far as I know Morrisroe's source has never been rediscovered. It's generally accepted as legitimate, but the circumstances put it in a very different category of evidence than the 1737 Ramsay letter, of which the original manuscript is still available.

One of the nice things about the discovery discussed by Anstey is that it adds, for the first time, yet another kind of evidence, by giving us a (probable) instance of a work by Berkeley in Hume's own library, namely, the second (1709) edition of Berkeley's An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision. We have here a book with a bookplate. The bookplate establishes at the very least that the book was in the library of one of the two David Humes (the philosopher or his nephew); and the bookplate in question is one of two different David Hume bookplates. If we add to this the Hillyard-Norton hypothesis that the State A bookplate is that of the original David Hume, we get the result that Hume had this work in his library, and thus at least the opportunity to have read it; and given Hume's penchant for reading, it increases the likelihood that he read this particular work. This of course has a certain tenuousness to it. There are good reasons to accept the Hillyard-Nortan hypothesis, but they are all indirect; and merely having the book on the shelf isn't an automatic guarantee of having read it. But, as I noted before, one of the topics on which internal evidence suggests that Hume was influenced by Berkeley is the topic of sensible minima, and so this discovery immediately suggests the project of looking more closely for parallels, echoes, and the like connecting this particular work with Hume's discussion of that topic.

Of course, when we are talking about whether Hume read Berkeley, we really mean several different works by Berkeley, and this needs to be taken into account. The result we actually have is, roughly:

(1) Hume certainly read the Principles, and very early on, probably more than once; the two Ramsay letters and internal evidence support this so completely that it is as established as anything of this sort can be.

(2) Hume may have read the Three Dialogues at some point, but this is a matter of internal evidence -- passages in Hume's works that are reminiscent of things in the Three Dialogues.

(3) Hume likely read the Alciphron, on the basis of the fact that he paraphrases and refers to a particular passage in it in the essay "Of National Characters"; this, the strongest of the internal evidences, would put the reading of the Alciphron before 1752, when the essay began to be published in Hume's essay collections. Unfortunately, as the passage in question is a pretty trivial passage and is incidental to Berkeley's overall argument, it doesn't tell us much at all about how closely Hume read this dialogue, beyond the fact that he seems at least to have been struck by a figure of speech in Dialogue V. Possible lines of further study are links between the Alciphron and Hume's economic essays and links between the work and the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

(4) Hume could well have read the New Theory of Vision, since he very likely had it in his library, due to the bookplate evidence; and a closer look at internal evidences relevant to the topics in this work is thus warranted.

(5) There is some internal evidence of the influence of Berkeley's Querist on Hume's economic essays.

(6) Of a number of Berkeley's other works -- Siris, the Theory of Vision Vindicated, etc. -- there is currently no evidence of influence, although , of course, new evidence could always turn up. Hume was at least aware of the basic idea of Passive Obedience, i.e., passive obedience, since he mentions it, but I don't know of any work done on direct links or influences, and this is very much one of the ideas that would have been talked about anyway.

All this is somewhat simplified. Getting this far really involves a great deal of argument back and forth among scholars as they try out the various ramifications of looking at the evidence this way and that. But it serves to give an idea of how the finding, sorting, filtering, and integrating of evidence works in historical approaches to philosophy.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Love and Knowledge

Although both love and knowledge are necessary, love is in a sense more fundamental, since it will lead intelligent people to seek knowledge, in order to find out how to benefit those whom they love. But if people are not intelligent, they will be content to believe what they have been told and may do harm in spite of the most genuine benevolence.

Bertrand Russell, "The Good Life," in What I Believe (and reprinted in Why I Am Not a Christian). As he famously also says in the essay,"Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love, can produce a good life," and "The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge." A very traditional notion, that, although his accounts both of love and knowledge in the essay (which was written for popular consumption) have some dubious features, stemming from Russell's very limited and dubious conception of what is involved in ethics.

Three Poem Re-Drafts

Rust and Fire

One in kind are rust and fire.
All ruin is combustion slow
while flaming quickly is desire.
The flame will have the sharper glow
and spread a prettier light,
but wood will rust with aching speed,
to give but swift delight.
Death comes from some consuming need,
corrupting all with falling fate;
to make its ash and steal its hearts
it does not cease nor does it wait,
corroding every cell and part.
But decadence with more control
corrosion too will spread abroad;
the iron burns in part and whole
from air and malice of the gods.
Decay, then, is but slow desire:
one in kind are rust and fire.

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 every heart's desire; they flow unsated
as blood from forth the hunted heart will swell;
and yet your bullet leaves me more elated
with joy not lead nor pain nor death can quell.

City Light and Darkness

Beneath the moon-sphere city lights
in foggy halos cast like stars
their asterisks upon the night
and make the concrete glow, and cars
in speed unheeding of the scene,
so like the blur on movie screen,
make motion, growling, headlights bright,
and slice their way through starlit night.

Beside the road, and unremarked,
a sidewalk-walker travels home
with step on step through rushing dark
that he may shed his long-spent roam
like shoes on floors of well-lit rooms
and, reading, bunker from the gloom
until, now tired, a card to mark
his page, he thence to dreams embarks.

How weary I now feel, with aching feet,
and all the world seems as it were a dream,
and I, a walker too, march on in beat
to final glimpse of one bright homely gleam;
but of the lights I see, not one that shines
gives promise of my goal, for none are mine:
but forward still I march, with no retreat,
to window-shine of home-light sweet.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Links for Thinking, Notes for Noting

* Alfred Corn in Rimbaud's Last Revelation discusses the difficulty of translating Rimbaud.

* Brad Jones has an interesting look at moral rhetoric in Presidential State of the Union addresses.

* Rob MacDougall's "Old is the New New" has been put in Cliopatria's history blogging Hall of Fame; a very good choice.

* Remarkable: A man tries to frame an ex-girlfriend in an intricate revenge plot and almost succeeds; a last-minute informer tipped the police and DA to their mistake. It looks to me like the prosecutors weren't pushing heavily enough on the police because the ex-boyfriend was a police informer (and thus the case would have problematized evidence for other cases) and the police, unpushed, were satisfied with making what seemed to be the easiest case. Some of the details seem obscure, though. Pretty nasty business.

* An interesting survey suggesting that conflict over religious diversity in Britain is not primarily motivated by the religious themselves. One can never build anything on a single survey, but it does fit with what often seems to be the case: broadly 'cultural Christians' or 'cultural Muslims' often seem less tolerant than actively practicing Christians and Muslims, and nonreligious often seem less tolerant than religious over new or encroaching religious movements. The people who are going to be most tolerant in any given situation are (1) the people who are least likely to feel their identity threatened by the mere existence of the other parties and (2) the people who can think most in reciprocal terms, i.e., see where the other parties are coming from. These will not necessarily be true of the actively religious and false of the culturally religious in every situation, but they certainly will in some.

* On the real rules of Monopoly. Of course, it probably has to do with three things rather than the one sugested, half-joke though it may be: (1) parents are just not particularly interested in the challenge of teaching children how to make reasonable bids in an auction; (2) people often play Monopoly because of (not despite) the fact it takes hours, and it is notable both that family board games are always fairly time-intensive and that lengthening the game is precisely one of the usual results of the very popular Free Parking cash pile innovation; and (3) bidding doesn't improve the game that much, because distributing properties by bid, by reducing the extent to which possession is a matter of luck, reduces the emphasis on the complex (and not always strictly in accordance with the rules) property-trading in the middle stages of the game, which many people prefer and arguably makes for a more interesting game by forcing people to work with each other in particular negotiations rather than always pitting them against each other (i.e., it increases the chances that everybody has a firm hold on something somebody else wants). (It also doesn't necessarily penalize people who play in friendly and generous ways, which is good for the whole family-game thing.) The article misses out on the fact that for many people collecting the matched sets is itself the primary interest of the game: people like being the first to collect a set, and when the sets are all collected, the game from then on is (as far as play usually goes) simply one of who can outlast who given the distribution of the board, which is for most people the least interesting part of the game. Indeed, in actual play it is often left unfinished -- it's the part of the game most people don't mind not finishing. People usually play Monopoly like a card game: the main goal most people have in actual play is to position themselves with good hands (a nice set of properties), not to bankrupt anyone else. Some people like the latter, but this is so far from being what everyone likes about Monopoly that people commonly hate it.

* H. Allen Orr on David Brooks's latest book:

Some of Brooks's scientific findings are also crushingly banal. On their first date, Rob checks out Julia's curves and Brooks dutifully reports that studies show that men's eyes are drawn to the curve of women's breasts. Anyone who needs science to tell them that men like women's breasts may need to get out more often.

* Taylor Marshall has a good post on reatus poenae and original sin.

* Peter Anstey discusses a Hume find.