Saturday, June 23, 2012

Last Word

Somewhere along the Ionian coast opposite Crete and the islands was a town of some sort, probably of the sort that we should call a village or hamlet with a wall. It was called Ilion but it came to be called Troy, and the name will never perish from the earth. A poet who may have been a beggar and a ballad-monger, who may have been unable to read and write, and was described by tradition as blind, composed a poem about the Greeks going to war with this town to recover the most beautiful woman in the world. That the most beautiful woman in the world lived in that one little town sounds like a legend; that the most beautiful poem in the world was written by somebody who knew of nothing larger than such little towns is a historical fact. It is said that the poem came at the end of the period; that the primitive culture brought it forth in its decay; in which case one would like to have seen that culture in its prime. But anyhow it is true that this, which is our first poem, might very well be our last poem too. It might well be the last word as well as the first word spoken by man about his mortal lot, as seen by merely mortal vision. If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.

G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man 1.3.

Theodore Morrison, The Devious Way (& Thoughts on Narrative Verse)


Rather than go about this the usual way, I think I will discuss Morrison's The Devious Way by looking at the requirements for a verse novel or, indeed, narrative verse generally.

The reason we talk in prose rather than verse is that prose is extremely tolerant of approximation and looseness. When you read a paragraph of prose, most of the language simply 'goes by'; it is not put front and center but pressed into the surface of a stream of thought that is always going to, or coming from, somewhere else. Verse, however, is different in precisely this way, that it is not tolerant of approximation and looseness. In verse, language is never allowed simply to 'go by', because it is always put out front. Stream of thought is carried not by the purely functional way in which you say this only in order to get to that; it is carried out by turn and return, i.e., verse in the quite literal sense of a turning. This function of turn and return could be carried by rhyme, or by metrical pattern, or by repetition, or by alliteration, or any number of other things, but precisely the thing that differentiates the coherence of verse from the coherence of prose is that in verse poetry verses must call out or respond to other verses in some way. This, incidentally, is why free verse, which is easy to write, is so extraordinarily difficult to write well: it requires no discipline to write it, because turn and return, call and response, are not formalized at all, but free verse, in order to be verse and not bad prose, must still have the turn and return of verses, the call and response, in some way, and given what free verse is, your means of doing this must be far more subtle than it is in other forms of verse.

When looked at this way, however, the notion of narrative verse presents something of a problem. Prose is very narrative-friendly, but good narrative verse is quite difficult because narrative verse poses problems narrative prose does not; we might say that narrative is itself more prose-friendly than verse friendly. Decent epic verse is a greater achievement than brilliant lyric verse because there are two additional temptations to avoid when writing the former. The first temptation arises from the fact that the most natural thing to do with verse is to present snapshots: things frozen in time. If you think about most great, striking, or memorable verse, this is precisely what you will tend to remember: some very vivid detail, some remarkable description, a perfect allusion, an abstract or figurative characterization of action, some movement or process somehow caught in a single moment of stillness. In verse everything said is front and center at some point, and this makes it easy to bring narrative to standstill. To the extent you do so, however, your narrative powers have failed: narrative must move. The other temptation, of course, is to lose a grip on your verse as verse, so that the only thing that distinguishes it from prose is that you scatter it on the page less efficiently. In bad narrative verse the poet is repeatedly defeated by both temptations: the narrative thought stops and starts spasmodically, the 'verse' is really just absurdly out-of-shape prose -- bombastic, maudlin, or flabby.

This, then, is the problem of narrative verse. As we know from Homer, Virgil, and Milton, though, it is a soluble problem. The narrative in the Iliad or the Aeneid, or Beowulf, or Paradise Lost, moves, and while it sometimes slows down, it does so deliberately without any choking of the engine. Everything moves forward. Even the great narrative poets struggle with the problem, however: hearing or reading the narrative is never as easy in the Iliad as it is in even merely competent prose. The narrative has to be carried, not by the flow of language, but by how verses in their turn and return, their call and response, are woven together. All good narrative verse, then, requires two things: a discernible order contributing to the direction of the narrative and a tightness of language suitable to verse rather than prose.

The Devious Way is very inconsistent in how it meets these criteria and therefore does not succeed as a solution to the problem of narrative verse. It does not help that Morrison is writing a free verse novel, which compounds the problem to an extraordinary degree. Fortunately, he is actually a capable poet, and so recognizes that free verse is consistent with occasional and irregular use of traditional poetic technique, which he sometimes has to good effect. But 'free verse novel' is a label for what is perhaps the most difficult poetic problem known to the human race: how to write a long series of discrete verses carrying a continuous narrative suitable for prose, while not using most of the poetic tools for verse creation yet not falling into prose in the process. Morrison's book is not a total failure to solve this problem; it does many things right. Morrison chose an excellent narrative for the task, a modernized Troilus and Cressida tale. Chaucer had already showed the potential of this kind of narrative for verse, and although Morrison's 'modern' (i.e., non-epic, since most of what we mean by 'modern' in literature is really just 'inconsistent with epic' -- epic deals with things too timeless, or perhaps handled in too timeless a way, to be distinguishable as modern) characters are necessarily smaller and less interesting than Chaucer's epic characters, this is not a problem of any sort, just a difference in the kind of work they are producing. I went into the novel expecting the narrative to be one of the things I would not like about the book, but in fact it is a good narrative for a book of this kind. What is more, Morrison is quite sensible about the narrative; he keeps it both simple and reasonably interesting as a novel. So Morrison had the "narrative suitable for prose that could also be told in verse" part of the problem resolved quite well: it's a novel-ish narrative with verse-ish potential.

It's the rest of the problem that this verse novel fails to solve. Descriptions in particular seem to pose a problem for Morrison. He has some quite good ones, like this one (p. 46):

Stretched in a canvas chair, her lap in shade,
Her legs in sun, Christina leafed a book.
Her thought ran wavering up and down the page,
And what she tried to read was David's thought.

This is a good description of a recognizable phenomenon: Christian is reading a book David has thrust on her, and she cannot follow it both because it is not the kind of book she would usually read -- she is only reading it to find David's thought -- and because she is really more interested in thinking about David. The narrative function of these lines is clear, in four lines it perfectly captures a rather complicated scene, and while it's possible it could be improved, it is still a quite capable attempt to do what a poet should attempt to do in verse and poetic prose alike: say things exactly as they should be said. What is more, it's good as verse, too: each line presents us a reasonable stage for language to play its parts, and the lines are connected by turn and return. "Stretched in a canvas chair" calls and "Christina leafed a book" responds; "her lap in shade" calls and "Her legs in sun" responds; "her lap," "Her legs," and "her thought" gives us a more complicated structure of the same kind; the "Her thought..." line calls and the "...David's thought" line responds. It's true that it's not too far from what you would get in a perfect prose description of the same scene, but that's simply because perfect verse descriptions of scenes like this are going to have many similarities to their counterparts in prose; it's an ordinary scene with simple needs. This is solid free verse, suitable to narrative.

We get recurrences of this kind of description, so it's not an accident, but a sign of real potential. Most of the book is not like this, however; it reads like flabby, overstrained prose. People do not merely yawn; they yawn cavernously. People do not merely get angry; their faces knot with anger. People do not merely answer telephones; they answer telephones with fierce urgency. They do not just grin; they grin so that their grins show like cracked rinds. This is a book that needed a Jack Sprat editor. For instance, we get these two lines (p. 23):

Talk was catharsis. David sighed again,
Still unrelieved; the purge was incomplete.

Besides the unfortunate undertones of constipation (a misfortune only exceeded by a later line's description of someone's restraint by saying that they have 'the continence of a running spigot" (p. 110)), this is twice as many lines as actually necessary. "David sighed again, his catharsis incomplete" would do just as well and would involve less distraction from the narrative as we concentrate on David's purging.

Another example (p. 83):

Christina's aunt
Sighed as if heaving upward with her breast
Some weight of stone that had a lodgment there.

Do we really need the "as if"? Is there going to be any confusion about whether Christina's aunt actually has a heavy rock in her chest? Metaphor is more natural than simile, especially in verse; you should only similize when you get something out of it. Likewise, Morrison (and this is a recurring fault) can't say the mundane "a heavy stone that had lodged there"; instead of a heavy stone in the chest we get a weight that has a lodgment. There are, to be sure, conceivable poetic situations in which it would be better for something to have a lodgment than to lodge or be lodged, but they are surely quite rare, and it seems unlikely that Christina's aunt's heavy sighs are deserving of the honor.

We also regularly find verse shifting into something that is (1) very like prose but (2) only is distinguished from typical prose by the fact that it would usually be said better in prose. Part of the difficulty, I think, is that Morrison's Troilus and Cressida tale faces a serious problem that Chaucer nicely avoided. An epic Troilus, or Cressida, or Diomede, will naturally speak in verse. A modern-day David, or Christina, or Reuel who speaks in verse is very difficult to imagine. People do not converse epically, ever. They do not even usually converse lyrically. But a novel-ish narrative involving a love triangle and a Pandarus figure (Morrison actually has two, to split the functions of Chaucer's) will inevitably involve conversation. Morrison handles the conversation pretty well on its own, but it is very prose-like conversation (as it would have to be) embedded in descriptions that, if they were prose, would be purple or flowery. Now, I am on record as defending purple and flowery prose; but the contrast between conversations described in ways very similar to what you would actually hear and the conversational environment described in ways that would not be obvious to one actual experiencing them is jarring. And sounding like purple prose or flowery prose is not adequate for making something genuine verse; it's still just prose, however weirdly laid out.

So what can we say about The Devious Way? Verse novels can fail in three possible ways: they can fail both as verse and as novel; they can succeed as verse but fail as novel; or they can fail as verse but succeed as novel. Morrison's work falls into this third category. This is a pretty decent novel (or rather novella, as it would be in prose): plausible characters in a good story, and Morrison's modifications of the standard Troilus narrative, by making it less tragic (it is not a tragedy but a story about the devious ways life travels) make it more readable, and are done well. Ironically, given that Morrison is a poet, it fails as verse. Some of the verse is very good; most of it, however, is inconsistent, and some of it is really just bad prose. Because it succeeds as novel, and because Morrison does have poetic skill, it is probably better than most verse novels. I am very much in favor of the idea of more verse novels; but The Devious Way, I think, shows that we still have a long way to go before we get any that are quite adequate.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Lovely as a Lapland Night

To a Young Lady who had been Reproached for Taking Long Walks in the Country
by William Wordsworth

Dear Child of Nature, let them rail!
--There is a nest in a green dale,
A harbour and a hold;
Where thou, a Wife and Friend, shalt see
Thy own heart-stirring days, and be
A light to young and old.

There, healthy as a shepherd boy,
And treading among flowers of joy
Which at no season fade,
Thou, while thy babes around thee cling,
Shalt show us how divine a thing
A Woman may be made.

Thy thoughts and feelings shall not die,
Nor leave thee, when grey hairs are nigh,
A melancholy slave;
But an old age serene and bright,
And lovely as a Lapland night,
Shall lead thee to thy grave.

On Singer on Religious Liberty

Peter Singer has a truly absurd article up at The CapTimes in which he insists on -- 'argues for' would be too generous a phrase -- a particular conception of religious liberty, one in which it boils down to "rejecting proposals that stop people from practicing their religion," meant in the very strict sense of giving freedom only from things that make it impossible to practice your religion. He considers several cases -- Jewish and Muslim laws for slaughtering animals, Catholic opposition to contraception, the advocacy of certain Jewish groups of separate seating for men and women on buses and opposition of the same to elminating military service exemptions for full-time religious students. The basic idea, of course, is that nothing absolutely requires Jews and Muslims to eat meat, and nothing absolutely requires Catholics to be engaged in health care services, and nothing actually requires ultra-orthodox Jewish groups to ride buses or not to serve in the military if they are religious students. So there's no problem, and appeal to religious liberty in these contexts is a misuse or abuse of the right.

In reality there are plenty of problems with this, of course. The first is that it's effectively a claim that rights associated with religious freedom protect nothing except belief and a small handful of practices that the religion in question explicitly requires even in the face of death. For instance, on Singer's reasoning it's not a violation of religious liberty to forbid Catholics to attend Mass or Confession on pain of death. The reason is that, while there's a general requirement to attend Mass and Confession, it's a defeasible requirement: you aren't required to risk your life to go to Mass. And so on down the list. There are certain things that you are absolutely required to do even in the face of death -- hold fast to the confession of faith, for instance -- but very, very few religious practices fall under this category. And this tends to be generally true, although different religions have different ways of handling this issue (pretty much every major religion does, because historically it has come up on occasion). Anyone who thinks that religious freedom means that you are free to do those things that your religion requires you to be a martyr for, and nothing else, and that anyone appealing to religious liberty for other uses is "misusing" the right, deserves to be ridiculed as an idiot. Yet this is what Singer's argument requires: the prohibition or requirement would have to be categorical. If we start adding exceptions to this principle, however, Singer's argument falls apart -- his suggested solution is not, in fact, the solution to the problem, but some more complicated principle he doesn't give.

And these things are much trickier than Singer suggests, in any case. For instance, he says, "Catholicism does not oblige its adherents to run hospitals and universities." This is true in a sense, considering only this. But there's a good argument that the Church does require Catholics to defend the Church against any intrusion into its intrinsic rights and privileges and any unnecessary intrusions into its customary rights and privileges (and since Catholics have run hospitals and universities for something like eight centuries now, these are very, very customary) and it explicitly in a number of documents requires Catholics to uphold rights of religious conscience that are clearly more broad than anything Singer has in mind. So here we see another thing that Singer has overlooked: some requirements are specific and some requirements are general, and Singer is clearly only thinking of specific requirements. Yes, it's true that the Catholic Church does not require its adherents specifically to work for, maintain, or support hospitals and universities; but this does not mean that it has no relevant requirements that require specific action under the given circumstances.

Which leads to a third point. The Catholic Church also requires of its adherents acts of mercy, among which are visiting the sick, comforting the afflicted, and instructing the ignorant. Fulfilling these functions in an optimal way is precisely one of the reasons Catholics developed hospitals and universities. Singer only considers ends; he leaves means out of the scope of religious freedom entirely. This means that Singer's account of religious liberty is consistent with an extraordinary degree of religious persecution: no law would violate religious liberty unless it took away all means of fulfilling the relevant requirement, even if it made it extraordinarily difficult to do so. Now, Catholics being a large population with a wide diversity of resources, if contraception insurance is really so serious a matter as to demand the total dismantling of centuries-old and highly successful Catholic hospital and Catholic university systems, it would still be possible for Catholics to fulfill the requirements of mercy in some other way, although not as effectively. But it's important to understand that this 'religious liberty' is so minimal that very little short of active violence is forbidden. Religious congregations can be taxed out of existence; states can make laws so restrictive that it is very difficult for people to do anything to practice their religion (as long as it is still possible); religious property like churches or synagogues can be confiscated at will; and so on and so forth, and none of it counts as a violation of religious liberty. Given that all of these are historical ways in which religious groups are persecuted, Singer's conception of religious liberty is a pretty pathetic sort of freedom. What is more, it is a historically rootless conception of religious liberty as well: if you look at the history of the development of religious freedoms you will find almost immediately that all these kinds of scenarios were part of what the religious freedoms were developed to avoid, and Singer's account of religious liberty has room for none of them.

It is unclear why we are forced into this strait of considering requirements alone, anyway. There is no form of liberty that we protect solely by looking at what is absolutely required for it. Suppose, for instance, that you have a certain right -- make it whatever you will -- and that you are faced with government actions that, while technically consistent with that right, put you in a position where you will be worse off if you make use of that right. Singer is arguing that, as long as a government action is technically consistent with right to practice your religion, it is illegitimate to criticize and oppose a government action on the basis of that right, because your opposition is not "really" based on that right. But this is irrational nonsense. Even if something is technically consistent with a right, that doesn't mean that it can't be opposed on the basis of that right. Because not only are there things that are strictly required or prohibited in order to maintain a right in the first place, there are different things that make a society better or worse in terms of that right. For instance, technically, if we are all allowed free speech one day a year, and only one day a year, we still have a right to free speech. I mean, one day a year you can say whatever you want; that's free speech, and everyone has a right to it. But that doesn't mean that this is a society that is a good society in terms of its respect for free speech. Obviously that's an extreme example, but it makes the point: some actions are more conducive to the protection that the right is supposed to give. Some actions penalize people using their rights even though they still allow them to act in accordance with them. People can reasonably appeal to rights even when they are not strictly violated in the case at hand, if they feel that the case at hand is putting the society uncomfortably close to being the kind of society that would violate the right. Likewise, they can actively work for a society that offers more extensive protections for that right, and they can oppose actions that roll back protections for that right, all in the name of that right. None of this is unreasonable.

Moreover, it's simply good sense to realize that people are being reasonable if they oppose actions that unnecessarily make them worse off if they act in accordance with their right; and it's good sense to recognize that a reasonable government will take steps not to make people worse off when they act in accordance with their rights, to the extent that that is possible. This means that people can appeal to their rights on a much grander scale than Singer is allowing, and, yes, they can do so even if other people disagree. If you say that I can have free speech but only as long as I give up my job, I am not being unreasonable in opposing your conditions in the name of free speech, despite the fact that you are technically still allowing me free speech. If your whole claim that you are still protecting religious liberty rests on the principle that you are allowing people to do what the Catholic Church says they should do, and all Catholics have to do in return is shut down their universities and hospitals, you really don't have cause to be surprised if any of them happen to think that you are an enemy of religious liberty. If we allow freedom of press as long as the press sticks to print, it is entirely possible to doubt that we are seriously doing what we should to protect freedom of press, and it is no good insisting that the press under our plan has perfect and complete freedom because there's nothing about the freedom of press that requires journalists to use television and radio.

It is entirely true that on these last few points, since we aren't dealing with strict requirements, the lines could be drawn in more than one place. They have to be negotiated through normal and reasonable channels of society. But one thing you don't get to do is tell people that they can't negotiate them. And Singer's argument requires this, since it implies that (for instance) no one can oppose an action by appeal to a right because they are worried that the action, without violating the right itself, makes it easier to violate the right, or that it imposes undue hardship or too high a price for the exercise of that right, or anything that is not a strict violation of rights. No rights can be properly protected under those terms; it's a claim that no one can appeal to them until they are in imminent danger of being violated, that no one can advocate a society that does better in protecting them. What Singer is arguing is ridiculous for any right; and it is a ridiculous thing to argue here.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

All That We See or Seem

A Dream Within A Dream
by Edgar Allan Poe

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Rational Cascades

One of my interests is in the phenomenon of what I call rational cascades. We often model reasoning as if it consisted in tiny little arguments of organized premises leading to conclusions by well-defined rules of inference, each argument essentially standing alone. But this is obviously not how human reasoning actually works, even among very rational people. Many of our inferences are, of course, probabilistic; but even more important than this, I think, is the fact that if you refute a premise, this doesn't just affect the argument immediately at hand; changing that premise is likely going to affect a whole lot of other arguments, inferences, and estimates, even if one does not yet know how. There might have been other things that partially depended on analogy with that premise, or were made probable by that premise, or are implied by that premise in combination with other things that have not been changed; it might affect your assessment of evidence elsewhere, or your evaluation of certain kinds of arguments.

In practice, this does not occur all at once, but slowly as our minds work out their views more consistently. A change causes a cascade, but in human beings the cascade takes time to promulgate. This is the explanation, I think, for a common phenomenon, namely, coming to realize that you already believe or don't believe something. I read something about Eddie Izzard once which talked about how he was performing one night and suddenly had the intense realization that he no longer believed there was a God -- not that he suddenly came to the conclusion that there was no God, but that he suddenly realized he already didn't believe there was a God. Now, that sounds a bit odd if you think of human reasoning only in terms of set arguments, but it makes sense in terms of cascades: the foundations eroded, and it just took time to realize it. One also finds plenty of cases in the opposite direction, people who suddenly realize that they've believed in God for a while without expressly putting it that way. In essence, some change happened that committed them, but working out the commitment and its effects was not necessarily straightforward. And we find this sort of thing across many different fields.

Of course, by the same token, given that we play off each other, rational cascades can happen in a more complicated way between individuals; thus when you look at the history of logic, you find that the area of logic, broadly construed, in which people have most often considered issues relevant to rational cascades is rhetoric. In a sense, in fact, you can think of rhetoric as the logic of rational cascades for human minds. Newman's An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, for instance, which puts itself forward as not so much a logic as a rhetoric, could very well be read as a partial theory of rational cascade. We tend not to think of rhetoric as having much to do with logic in itself, but of course this is a new thing.

The difficulty with dealing with rational cascades, of course, is that they are (1) complicated; and (2) catastrophic. They are complicated because there are so many possible relations among ideas and judgments (analogical, probabilistic, implicative, associative, etc.). And they are catastrophic because they really are cascades: there are changes and changes and suddenly some critical threshold is reached and the whole thing moves. The human mind works as a sort of sandpile. Add a grain or take a grain and the sandpile is much the same as it was; but add or take away enough and a few more grains force the whole pile to adjust. But it's clear that some grasp on them is possible: kinds of behavior and typical causes can be identified, and to some degree have been. It's also clear, however, that doing so requires going beyond what we normally think of as logic to look at how character, environment, and social interaction affect reasoning.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

'Epistemic Closure'

'Epistemic closure' is one of those terms that has come to have two inconsistent meanings, a technical one and a popular one. The technical meaning is that you are operating in a system in which, if something is known, and that something entails something else, then that something else is known. That is, if I know that the sky is blue, and if the sky can't be blue unless it exists, than I also know (simply because of these two things) that the sky exists; epistemic closure would apply if all known truths were like this -- we would then say that knowledge is closed under entailment. You could have variations on this. although entailment is the most common one; for instance, one could have an epistemic closure principle in which knowledge is closed only under equivalence, in which case we'd have to talk about equivalence rather than entailment. But the basic structure is pretty straightforward. Closure occurs when a property that applies to something also applies to everything you can get as a result by a particular operation; and epistemic, of course, just means 'having to do with knowledge in some way'. The concept is useful because it raises all sorts of philosophical questions.

In the past few years, though, the phrase has taken on a popular use. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, we owe Julian Sanchez this obfuscatory usage. In this usage, it just means 'closedmindedness'. There is absolutely nothing lost by using the phrase 'closedmindedness', except that everyone knows what that means; and there is absolutely nothing gained by using 'epistemic closure' except that you might more easily get the insult by the slow-witted. The term arose in the context of politics, and it touched off a pretty big bunch of posts and discussions, mostly of the uselessly handwringing or idiotically supercilious kind in which people speculate airily about the characters of others without any serious evidential basis, but I've noticed it a few times here and there, so perhaps it is coming back. If you mean that someone has a closed mind, though, just say that they have a closed mind; 'epistemic closure' makes you sound either pompous or cowardly or both.

Beattie on Truth V: Human Equality

What makes a philosophical position, or any position, dangerous? When Beattie considers this question in his Essay on Truth, he links this notion of danger with the moral and social life of human beings. Since even knowledge gets its value for human beings from its contribution to their true and lasting happiness, those positions are dangerous that put severe impediments in the way of this. Ultimately this means that we should be quite wary of anything tending to the subversion of the basic principles of human nature: "Every doctrine is dangerous that tends to discredit the evidence of our senses, external or internal,and to subvert the original instructive principles of human belief" (p. 477). Hence the problem of skepticism: skeptics attack precisely these principles, and even if they confine themselves to one or two, their method of approach generalizes to them all. Nor does the usual skeptical defense of attacking bigotry and human pride really work, given that what they actually attack are the human being's natural defenses against both; under the guise of attacking bigotry, the skeptic leaves nothing but bigotry standing.

In this light it is unsurprising that Beattie has no patience for Aristotle's defense of natural servitude: "It would have been more worthy of Aristotle, to have inferred man's natural and universal right to liberty, from that natural and universal passion with which men desire it, and from the salutary consequences to learning, to virtue, and to every human improvement, of which it never fails to be productive" (p. 463). And it is with this in the background that Beattie attacks Hume's comments on the superiority of the white races. He refers, of course, to Hume's infamous footnote in the essay on Natural Characters, in which Hume says,

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho' low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

Of this, Beattie says, "These assertions are strong; but I know not whether they have anything else to recommend them" (p. 464). He then goes through a number of the problems with this line of reasoning:

(1) Even if most of the claims were true, they wouldn't prove the superiority of white races over other races, unless it were proved that the other races, when new arts and sciences were introduced among them, were unable to understand and use them. "To civilize a nation, is a work which requires long time to accomplish" (p. 464); two thousand years ago, the white races were as barbaric and savage as one could possibly find. What matters is not who by historical accident achieved this or that art or science but the human capacity to be civilized.

(2) Hume's claims are much too strong, with all the nevers, nones, and nos. Nobody could possibly know them except by a close familiarity with races past and present. But we simply don't have anything like that historical knowledge.

(3) We have excellent reason, however, to regard all of Hume's major claims here as false, or, at best misleading. When we look at what we do know the histories of the non-white races, we find that they accomplished some extremely impressive things. There were vast and powerful empires in Peru and Mexico that could not have been run without ingenuity and organization. Coming into contact with Africans and the natives of the Americans, the whites were repeatedly introduced to art and skill of which they otherwise had no inkling. The Iroquois Five Nations had a government as eminent and noble as any. And we can say even more. Nobody could possibly think that the life of a slave is one that is very congenial to learning and ingenuity, but when we look at black slaves, who are scattered, oppressed, and working under terrible conditions, what we actually find is exactly the reverse of what Hume claims: we find extraordinary ingenuity, expressed in handicraft, music, and anything that the slaves could manage under their harsh conditions to teach themselves or pick up from others. And Beattie gets a bit sarcastic when he notes that Hume is obviously being arbitrary in his reasoning when he appeals to the lack of genius found in "Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe":

That a negroe-slave, who can neither read nor write, nor speak any European language, who is not permitted to do any thing but what his master commands, and who has not a single friend on earth, but is universally considered and treated as if he were of a species inferior to the human;--that such a creature should so distinguish himself among Europeans, as to be talked of through the world for a man of genius, is surely no reasonable expectation. To suppose him an inferior species, because he does not thus distinguish himself, is just as rational, as to suppose any private European of inferior species, because he has not raised himself to the condition of royalty. (p. 466)

Without writing and iron-working, the Europeans would be no better off than the worst-off African tribes; but Europe did not get these because Europeans are superior. We know that extremely important inventions, like the mariner's compass or gunpowder, can originate with accidents, and even if they did require genius to achieve, the only people who can lay claim to that genius are the people who actually invented them. And, likewise, mere difference from European manners cannot be taken as evidence of ignobility. If the Iroquois were to visit Europe, they would have some very ignoble and barbaric things to write back home about.

Beattie ends his discussion of this point with an appeal to his countrymen:

It is easy to see, with what views some modern authors throw out these hints to prove the natural inferiority of negroes. But let every friend to humanity pray, that they may be disappointed. Britons are famous for generosity; a virtue in which it is easy for them to excel both the Romans and the Greeks. Let it never be said, that slavery is countenanced by the bravest and most generous people on earth; by a people who are animated with that heroic passion, the love of liberty, beyond all nations ancient or modern; and the fame of whose toilsome, but unwearied perseverance, in vindicating, at the expense of life and fortune, the sacred rights of mankind, will strike terror into the hearts of sycophants and tyrants, and excite the admiration and gratitude of all good men, to the latest posterity. (pp. 467-468)

It's important to understand that none of this is a mere side-issue for Beattie; he is discussing how the skepticism of his day is toxic to morals. Attacking the basic principles of human nature, skeptics like Hume take away the possibility of building our assessment of the rights and worth of human beings on their shared human nature, which is what should be the real foundation of any such discussion, forcing people instead to try to construct it out of a conglomeration of accidents, just as Hume does in his assessment of non-white races. In reality, the worth of the non-white races is found in precisely the same thing as the worth of whites: they too yearn for freedom, for happiness, for justice; they too are capable of honor and decency; they too want to know the world around them and are capable of doing so through external sense and internal sense and all the other principles of human nature. All such worth lies in one thing: that they are human, and have good sense as their common birthright. But the skeptic cannot recognize any such thing. Here we see the danger of Hume-style skepticism to morals and the moral sciences. Of course, one could fix this element in Hume, but it would be open to Beattie to point out that any such thing is an ad hoc adjustment, not flowing from the basic approach.

There is an interesting postscript here. If you look at modern versions of the essay on Natural Characters, what you will see is this version of the footnote:

I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

You will notice the revisions to the first two sentences -- these occurred in Hume's very last revision, for an edition that was published posthumously. Some people have suggested that this is in response to Beattie, and indeed hit is notable that he weakens some of his expressions and draws a more limited conclusion. However, there's no reason to think that Hume ever read Beattie closely, and clearly this footnote does not constitute anything like an adequate response to Beattie's arguments, which would require only slight modification to be just as forceful against this as against the original. So we don't actually know why Hume made the change. It's clear enough, though, that it wasn't enough of a change. And it's important to understand that there's no real excuse for it: Beattie's position wasn't unheard of, especially in Enlightenment Scotland, which did as much as, and perhaps more than, any other culture at the time to further the idea of natural rights. And Hume's reasoning here isn't very good; Beattie's third argument in particular utterly demolishes it. At the same time, however, Beattie raises an important issue. Perhaps Hume's approach does not require the conclusion he draws here (which is supposed to be based on empirical data), but there certainly seems to have been nothing to rule it out, impede it, or put it into question. And Beattie's whole point is that the skeptics of his day are dangerous in the perfectly straightforward sense that, despite their cant about opposing bigotry, when they are done, bigotry, prejudice, and arbitrary assumption is all that is left.

In any case, that's Beattie's Essay on Truth.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Affectionate Conscience

Conscience too, considered as a moral sense, an intellectual sentiment, is a sense of admiration and disgust, of approbation and blame: but it is something more than a moral sense; it is always, what the sense of the beautiful is only in certain cases; it is always emotional. No wonder then that it always implies what that sense only sometimes implies; that it always involves the recognition of a living object, towards which it is directed. Inanimate things cannot stir our affections; these are correlative with persons. If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear. If, on doing wrong, we feel the same tearful, broken-hearted sorrow which overwhelms us on hurting a mother; if, on doing right, we enjoy the same sunny serenity of mind, the same soothing, satisfactory delight which follows on our receiving praise from a father, we certainly have within us the image of some person, to whom our love and veneration look, in whose smile we find our happiness, for whom we yearn, towards whom we direct our pleadings, in whose anger we are troubled and waste away. These feelings in us are such as require for their exciting cause an intelligent being: we are not affectionate towards a stone, nor do we feel shame before a horse or a dog; we have no remorse or compunction on breaking mere human law: yet, so it is, conscience excites all these painful emotions, confusion, foreboding, self-condemnation; and on the other hand it sheds upon us a deep peace, a sense of security, a resignation, and a hope, which there is no sensible, no earthly object to elicit. "The wicked flees, when no one pursueth;" then why does he flee? whence his terror? Who is it that he sees in solitude, in darkness, in the hidden chambers of his heart?

Bl. John Henry Newman, An Essay in aid of a Grammar of Assent

Monday, June 18, 2012

Music on My Mind

Wolf Gang, "The King and All of His Men." It grows on you more than you might expect.

Links and Notes

* Christopher Framarin reviews Stephen Phillips's Epistemology in Classical India, and in the course of doing so discusses some interesting aspects of the epistemologically sophisticated Nyaya school.

* Catarina Dutilh Novaes discusses medieval theories of consequence at the SEP.

* An excellent discussion of Aquinas's account of fear:

* Ten years of playing Civilization II

* Ranch Style Beans are a big thing here in Texas; cans are easy to get here, of course. (I remember once in high school when we lived in Pennsylvania and my grandparents would ship up cans in care packages.) But I want to try this home-cooked variation on it sometime.

* This geometry book for children, by Grace Chisholm Young and William Henry Young (who wrote some truly excellent mathematics textbooks at the beginning of the twentieth century), looks fascinating: rather than using diagrams, it uses folding and cutting of paper. This was the sort of thing I always liked when I was a kid, and I could well imagine taking to this approach.

* Two things on conversion:

Calah Alexander discusses the difficulties of her conversion in The Long Road of Grace and Mercy;

and Leah Libresco is becoming Catholic, and her discussion of the reasons for her shift are quite interesting. Many prayers for her, and I think that she will like the fact that in Catholic Christianity reason is not just a moral requirement but a divine vocation, and intimately linked with love of others. Different things work differently for different converts. For converts of Leah's type, i.e., intellectual with strongly ethical orientation, the single best thing to keep in mind is patience, both in the sense of not rushing or forcing things and in the sense of being patient with people. This probably won't be a problem in general, but there are always occasions when this is a temptation. I often recommend, too, for those who might be interested, the following course of reading, if they haven't read them yet (it works very well as a progression in this order):

Plato, Gorgias
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
Aquinas, Treatise on Happiness (i.e., Summa Theologiae 2-1.1-21)
Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing

Plato, of course, is Greek pagan, Boethius (subtly) and Aquinas (explicitly) Catholic, and Kierkegaard is Lutheran, and none of the figures agree completely with the others, and in each case some of the arguments raised can be left as well as taken, but it's all in the family, for the reasons Justin Martyr gives in the Second Apology. (And while there are many handy Catholic guides focused on the practice of confession, there's no Catholic book on the underlying moral idea of the practice of confession that is as good as Kierkegaard's.) And Adolphe Tanquerey's classic Spiritual Theology, on spiritual (including moral) progress in Christian life, is one of the handiest books if you can find it. But, again, no need to rush or force things in any way; and different people have different needs and interests.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

You May Talk of Lofty Places

by Edgar A. Guest

I would rather be the daddy
Of a romping, roguish crew,
Of a bright-eyed chubby laddie
And a little girl or two,
Than the monarch of a nation
In his high and lofty seat
Taking empty adoration
From the subjects at his feet.

I would rather own their kisses
As at night to me they run,
Than to be the king who misses
All the simpler forms of fun.
When his dreary day is ending
He is dismally alone,
But when my sun is descending
There are joys for me to own.

He may ride to horns and drumming;
I must walk a quiet street,
But when once they see me coming
Then on joyous, flying feet
They come racing to me madly
And I catch them with a swing
And I say it proudly, gladly,
That I'm happier than a king.

You may talk of lofty places,
You may boast of pomp and power,
Men may turn their eager faces
To the glory of an hour,
But give me the humble station
With its joys that long survive,
For the daddies of the nation
Are the happiest men alive.

Guest was born in England, but lived in the U.S. from the time he was ten years old. He was prolific in his poetry, writing humble poems on humble topics, and became so popular that he was named the Poet Laureate of Michigan, an honor that is uniquely his. He also has the enviable and unique honor of having been attacked for his poetry by both Dorothy Parker and Lemony Snicket.

Book a Week, June 17

I'm going to be trying to get a number of things done and out of the way this week, and the past few readings have been relatively heavy one-week readings given the number of things on my plate. So for this book I wanted something lighter, and surveying my shelves, picked out a slight volume that I hadn't read before, The Devious Way by Theodore Morrison. Inside the book is stamped in several places, WARDROOM LIBRARY USS GENL. R. E. CALLAHAN (AP-139), which means that it belonged to my grandfather. He served on the USS R. E. Callahan in World War II as a young naval officer. Unlike his older brother, who was Marine in Europe, he never saw any of the harsher side of war, because the Callahan was a supply ship in the Pacific. While it wasn't what you could call a safe occupation, it mostly put him out in the middle of nowhere for long periods of time; when he'd talk about it, he'd say that mostly what he remembered about it was water and water and more water, just endless ocean. He actually died very shortly after a ship reunion in Niagara Falls, so the R. E. Callahan was a bit of a bookend for both parts of his adult life. This book must have been a book he borrowed from the Callahan library and either lost or forgot to return until it was too late to make a difference.

The book turns out not only to be a slim volume but a verse novel. I've tried to find some background on it, but there's relatively little. Theodore Morrison was a professor of creative writing for several decades at Harvard. Looking at D. G. Myers's discussion of creative writing programs in The Elephants Teach (an excellent book, by the way), I see he gets two mentions, which add the information that he was a director for the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, and that he did a great deal of work to bulk up the Harvard creative writing program, which means he was in the thick of the academic literary world. From that I already suspect that I will not like the book, but as a light bite it might be worthwhile. The Devious Way was published in 1944, given the creative writing program association and the pretty obvious Troilus and Cressida allusions in the chapter titles and the like, I suspect this will be a verse novel about boring people with sordid lives, summed up in the line that I just saw leafing through it, "When Renny yawned, the evening was at end." But we'll give Morrison a chance.