Saturday, October 27, 2012

C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces


Opening Passage:
I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew.

Being, for all these reasons, free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write. I will accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain. That is, I will tell all that he has done to me from the very beginning, as if I were making my complaint of him before a judge. But there is no judge between gods and men, and the god of the mountain will not answer me. Terrors and plagues are not an answer....

Summary: Till We Have Faces is the story of Orual, given the name Maia by her Greek tutor, whose name is Lysias but who is known as the Fox, and Istra, who is given the Greek name Psyche. They and their sister Redival are the daughters of a king in the small barbarian kingdom of Glome. (I suspect that Lewis got the name 'Glome' from Anglo-Saxon glom, 'twilight', which gives us the modern word 'gloam', but this is mere speculation.) Orual and Psyche love each other deeply, although they are very different: Orual is ugly, while Psyche is beautiful. Indeed, Psyche is dangerously beautiful, and some of the people begin to worship her. When Glome falls on terrible times of war, plague, and famine, however, the people turn and, partly through the troublemaking of jealous Redival, she is regarded as the cause of their suffering. The only way to undo the curse that has fallen on Glome is to sacrifice the Princess Istra to Ungit.

Ungit could perhaps be considered the third major female character of the book, since the book is structured entirely by the relation between Orual and Psyche to Ungit. Ungit is the fertility goddess of Glome. She is identified by the Fox as Aphrodite, although more like the Babylonian Aphrodite than the Greek, and when Orual, who later becomes Queen, brings in Greek ways, a statue of Aphrodite is set up in the House of Ungit. But she is a very barbarian goddess, represented by a lump of stone in the House of Ungit on which the priests make sacrifices, and when the people think she needs to be appeased, they sacrifice a man or a woman to her. Ungit in the myths of Glome has a son (sometimes represented instead as a husband), the Shadowbrute, or Brute, and Psyche is to be taken up on the Grey Mountain and sacrificed to the Brute, to become his wife. Orual, of course, is unable to do anything about it, but she goes afterward in the hope of burying Psyche's body. Instead she finds something else entirely, the foundation of her complaint against the gods. But what occasions her to write is a journey years later when she comes upon a little shrine dedicated to a goddess, and, asking the priest whose shrine it was learns that it was dedicated to the goddess Istra. When he tells the sacred story associated with the goddess Istra, however, Orual is furious: because it is a story of Orual and Psyche, but it is not her story. She resolves to write the true story and throw the lies and half-truths of the sacred stories back in the face of the gods, making her complaint against their injustice. And this is the book we have.

Glome is a fictional land supposedly well north of Greece, in an area in which there are many barbarian kingdoms. However, and very interestingly, the story can be dated with a fair degree of probability, allowing for literary license. The upper limit for it Apuleius's Metamorphoses. It is clearly implied that the Cupid and Psyche story in the Metamorphoses is based indirectly on Orual's book; she is writing for an unknown Greek, and the novel ends with arrangments to send the book to Greece. We don't know at what stage in life Apuleius wrote the Metamorphoses, but he died about AD 180. Apuleius wrote in Latin, but claimed to be adapting an earlier Greek text by someone named Lucian, and so Orual's book somehow is adapted by Lucian and then by Apuleius. This puts things more or less around the end of the first century at the latest. This can be confirmed in other ways. The Fox, who becomes the tutor of Orual and Psyche, is a Stoic philosopher who has been captured in war and sold into slavery and by that means come to Glome. He is very definitely Stoic, because almost everything he says is standard Stoicism -- this book would be a fairly easy way to introduce the topic of Stoic philosophy. And at one point, Psyche, in the course of describing the Fox's teaching, gives what is in fact a close paraphrase of the opening of Book II of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius is a nearly exact contemporary of Apuleius, since he also died in AD 180 and we know that the Meditations were more or less composed in the last decade of his life. It is not, of course, plausible that Lewis is suggesting Marcus Aurelius as the source of the Fox's teaching, but it is entirely plausible to suggest a common influence. The Emperor was only writing a sort of philosophical notebook for himself, and often quotes and borrows from other authors in various ways. If one assumed that Marcus Aurelius was quoting or alluding to someone, then, one would take the Fox and the Emperor as having a common link somewhere.

In any case, while details do not matter, this is actually somewhat relevant, for in the Roman Empire, too, there was in this period a contrast like that which we find in Glome: the rationalist Stoics looking down on pagan sacrifices, and it was the Stoics who first came into sharp conflict with Christianity. (Both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius criticize the Christians as fanatics, and Marcus Aurelius launched one of the major persecutions of Christians.) Like any good Stoic, the Fox understands the importance of civil religion; but he has no grasp of the sheer power of Ungit, and this is a severe defect in his otherwise excellent teaching. One of the more notable scenes in the book occurs when Orual is waiting in the House of Ungit to preside over a festival and she watches a peasant woman praying to the bloody stone that represents Ungit. Orual asks her whether she always prays to that Ungit rather than the Aphrodite-Ungit done in beautiful Greek style. And the woman replies that she does, because the other Ungit, the Greek one, wouldn't understand her speech, since she is the goddess only of scholars and the upper class of Glome society. It is an irony; the cosmopolitan goddess of the Stoics does not speak at so fundamental a level as the barbarian goddess who is worshipped with blood and sex, because sex and death are the matter of human life, and a goddess who can speak to ordinary people, and who can understand their speech, must be a goddess who understands sex and death. One can have both, but the people of Glome have no way of unifying them, only of putting them side by side; and part of Orual's difficulty is that she straddles both sides of the divide.

Orual herself is an interesting figure, a barbarian student of Greek philosophy. She begins to veil herself, and finds that hiding her face gives her power. She consolidates her throne by killing a man in sword combat. She rules wisely and well, bringing great peace, but her rule is her own way of running from a past she does not want to face. She hates Ungit, but comes to realize in the end that she is a sort of Ungit herself. And she is you and me. For we too hide our faces behind veils, and we too do not speak our hearts, but justify ourselves with half-truths, seeking to do good and yet somehow devouring others. And we too are constantly failing to understand that we cannot see the gods until we are able to live barefaced.

Favorite Passage:

...Now I knew that she was a goddess indeed. Her hands burned me (a painless burning) when they met mine. The air that came from her clothes and limbs and hair was wild and sweet; youth seemed to come into my breast as I breathed it in. And yet (this is hard to say) with all this, even because of all this, she was the old Psyche still; a thousand times more her very self than she had been before the Offering. For all that had then but flashed out in a glance or a gesture, all that one meant most when one spoke her name, was now wholly present, not to be gathered up from hints nor in shreds, not some of it in one moment and some in another. Goddess? I had never seen a real woman before.

Recommendation: It takes a particular taste, but it sails deep waters without being a murky book. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Poem Draft

Not quite in season, but it came to me this evening.

On Butterflies, for Brigitte and Arsen

Soft visions unfold, untwist like string,
like harmonies birds in the garden sing,
and burst to bloom
with colored wing
in dusty, sunny, windowed room:
by joke or grace (only God knows why)
the fairest flowers learn to fly.

Unfolding Every Hour

Light Shining Out of Darkness
by William Cowper

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

It's unclear whether Cowper invented the phrase in the first line (by which the poem is most commonly known) or is simply the earliest witness to a phrase used more commonly; but, of course, Cowper's popular poem has been a contributing factor to the widespread recognition of similar phrases. Like many of Cowper's hymns, it is chiaroscuro; Cowper suffered from severe depression, severe enough that he had attempted suicide several times. Thus a great many of Cowper's poems are about darkness; but, at the same time, they are also often about how it is never the whole story, and never has the last word.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Greater Scandinavia and Fennoscandia

For various reasons I've been researching, off and on, various features of what might be called Greater Scandinavian and Fennoscandian cultural sphere. It's somewhat difficult to pin down the bounds of it, so I'm trying to think through its boundaries, and I thought I'd do so 'out loud' here on the blog, in case anyone had any thoughts.

Scandinavia as such, Scandinavia Proper, we might call it, is pretty clearly established as the following countries:


Sweden and Norway are both on the Scandinavian Peninsula, which they share with Finland; Denmark is across the way on the Jutland Peninsula and the Danish Islands. It's not normal to think of them as such because of their significant differences, but they can be said to share a language, broadly speaking -- Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian, while in many ways very different, nonetheless share enough that they are, with a little work, mutually intelligible. They are, so to speak, clearly dialects of the Scandinavian superlanguage. There are ethnic and historical links, all of them quite close.

Nonetheless, there are complicating factors. Take, for instance, Denmark. Denmark is itself part of a Commonwealth of nations, the Danish Realm, which includes the following nations:

Faroe Islands

In effect, they constitute one nation with three autonomous jurisdictions, all under the Danish Crown. All three were at one time part of the Kingdom of Norway. Danish is certainly spoken in both Greenland and the Faroe Islands. The only official language of Greenland is Kalaallisut, which is an Inuit language, but this is a relatively recent thing (2009), as it used to share the honors with Danish, and Danish is still widely spoken. The Scandinavian links with Greenland are extensive and go back a thousand years; allowing for a few centuries of interruption, Greenland has been linked with Scandinavia in one way or another. The Faroe Islands, which are north of Britain, are a similar story, except that the Faroese are ethnically Scottish as well as Scandinavian, and that Faroese is itself a descendant of Old Norse, and so is itself a Scandinavian language. So if we include the Danish Realm in Greater Scandinavia, we've added an Inuit nation in North America, and while one would technically include the Faroe Islands in Europe, it's notable that while Denmark is part of the European Union, the Faroe Islands are not.

If, however, we take the entire Danish Realm into Greater Scandinavia, it makes sense to count in Iceland, too. Iceland is not part of the Danish Realm, but it used to be, until 1944. Icelandic, like Faroese, is an Old Norse derivative and thus related to Norwegian. And Denmark and Norway at one time formed two relatively autonomous parts of one kingdom, which had Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland as its dependencies.

It would in any case be a candidate for other reasons. When we are talking about Greater Scandinavia, we are usually talking about the nations of the Nordic Council, or Nordic Nations:


Thus Iceland gets on the list as a full member. The following are associate members of the Nordic Council:

Faroe Islands
Åland Islands

The Åland Islands are an autonomous Swedish-speaking jurisdiction associated with Finland. And the following have observer status:


Should one include these? Well, if you are including Finland there's very little reason not to include Estonia, which is a Baltic nation just across the way from Finland, has an ethnically Finnic population, and has a language that is very closely related to Finnish. And Estonia spent time both as Danish territory and as Swedish territory.

Finland, in turn, is an odd nation. It is on the Scandinavian Peninsula and one of its official languages is Swedish, but its other official, and certainly primary, language, Finnish, is a radically different language from any of the Scandinavian languages. The Scandinavian languages are all Indo-European languages of North Germanic type, all deriving from Old Norse. Finnish, on the other hand, is not even Indo-European; it is a Uralic language. There are a lot of cultural similarities, and a lot of cultural differences.

Sweden is in a sense the culprit here. It's difficult for us to remember it, since Sweden comes across now as an unassuming nation, but this is a modern thing. Sweden, of course, was a Viking nation. And in the seventeenth century it was one of the greatest powers in Europe. There's an argument that can be made that for at least a short time it was the most powerful European nation. Swedish military reforms had made the Swedish army an almost unstoppable juggernaut. At its height the Swedish Empire included not only Sweden but also Finland, modern-day Estonia, much of modern-day Latvia and Lithuania (hence, I suppose, their observer status), Russian Karelia, and bits and pieces of north Germany (Pomerania, in particular). Finland was Swedish for about five and a half centuries, and an important part of the Swedish Empire at its height. Then it was seized by Russia, and was a Russian Grand Duchy for quite some time. It broke away in 1917, and after a civil war, managed to stabilize for a while. (Estonia was also seized by Russia, also broke away in 1917, managed to avoid civil war, but had to extricate itself from a short German occupation.)

There is another designation, Fennoscandia, which includes the following:

(in Russia) Karelian areas and the Kola Peninsula

And this does seem to identify some significant cultural commonality.

So, of the Scandinavian countries we've noted imperial reach. But how far should one really take it? Northern Scotland was Norwegian territory for centuries; the Danes had kingdoms in England once long ago; and so forth. Some of this reach dried up, of course. And, of course, there are various immigration cultures linked to it, as well -- Norwegian by way of Minnesota, and the like. While Greater Scandinavia is generally taken to be the Scandinavian Peninsula plus Denmark, the full sphere of Scandinavian influence is quite extensive.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Nearest Kin of the Moon

The Cat And The Moon
by William Butler Yeats

The cat went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon,
The creeping cat, looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.
Minnaloushe runs in the grass
Lifting his delicate feet.
Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?
When two close kindred meet
What better than call a dance?
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.
Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range?
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
Alone, important and wise,
And lifts to the changing moon
His changing eyes.

On Humean Axiomatics

There is a lovely book, little read now, I suppose (although it still makes it into footnotes), but lovely and worth reading for anyone who is interested in the philosophy of David Hume, called Hume's First Principles. It was published in the 1960s and its author was Robert Fendel Anderson. One of the points of the book is that a great deal of Hume's basic philosophy derives from two principles:

(1) Whatever is conceivable is possible.
(2) Whatever is distinguishable is separable.

From these two, with very little work, Hume is able to derive two more substantive claims:

(3) The mind does not perceive any real connection among distinct existences.
(4) Distinct perceptions are distinct existences.

These already have substantive ramifications. You get something even more Humean if you add to them the basic principle of Hume's empiricism, the Copy Principle:

(5) All our simple ideas in their first appearance are deriv’d from simple impressions, which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent.

I've noted before that Hume's arguments are often more carefully reasoned than they look. So I was thinking today about how one might go about constructing Humean philosophy synthetically. You'd start with (1), (2), and (5); you'd need to postulate the existence of at least one mind; you'd need definitions for perceptions/ideas, real connections, impressions, and the like. What else might you need to add, or at least have in the system? An obvious candidate are the principles of association.

(6) Ideas are associated by resemblance, contiguity in time and place, or causation.

Which would require definitions for association, resemblance, contiguity, and causation, and would probably need to be specified into several different principles. The definition for causation would obviously be something like Hume's own. Hume scholars often talk about Hume's account of causation in terms of 'revival sets', so if you gave a definition of a 'revival set' -- roughly, the set of ideas that can come to mind when itis faced with another idea -- you could probably use it as a basis for your association principles. In any case, you'd want Hume's Rules by which to Judge of Cause and Effect somewhere:

(7) The cause and effect must be contiguous in space and time.

(8) The cause must be prior to the effect.

(9) There must be a constant union betwixt the cause and effect.

(10) The same cause always produces the same effect, and the same effect never arises but from the same cause.

(11) Where several different objects produce the same effect, it must be by means of some quality, which we discover to be common amongst them.

(12) The difference in the effects of two resembling objects must proceed from that particular, in which they differ.

(13) When any object encreases or diminishes with the encrease or diminution of its cause, it is to be regarded as a compounded effect, derived from the union of the several different effects, which arise from the several different parts of the cause.

(14) An object, which exists for any time in its full perfection without any effect, is not the sole cause of that effect, but requires to be assisted by some other principle, which may forward its influence and operation.

The relation among these is somewhat interesting. (7), (8), and (9) are obviously just Hume's basic account of what causation is (objectively speaking). Hume says (10) is derived directly from experience, so it also is basic; it, which can be called the Experimental Principle, is also extremely important, since Hume says most philosophical reasoning (which would include most scientific reasoning) depends on it. Hume explicitly appeals to (10) in his arguments for (11), (12), and (14), and while he is somewhat vague, I think (13) is based on (9). It has been noted that (10) and (11) are very similar to principles of reasoning formulated by Isaac Newton, and this is certainly deliberate.

From (10) and (13) Hume elsewhere ("Of Interest") derives another principle,

(14) An effect always holds proportion with its cause.

And so one could continue on. One of the reasons why one would do this would be to clarify the relations between Hume and other people. For instance, I get off the boat quite early, since I don't think (2) is correct (it makes modal logic impossible, at least in any robust interpretation, which I imagine would be fine with Hume, but which is not fine with me). James Clerk Maxwell, the physicist, has an interesting passage in one of his books (Matter and Motion, I think), in which he argues that the second half of (10), "The same effects have the same causes" is a sort of general philosophical maxim from which one can derive what Maxwell calls the "Statement of the General Maxim of Science" -- "The difference between one event and another does not depend on the mere difference of the times or the places at which they occur, but only on differences in the nature, configuration, or motion of the bodies considered". So Maxwell certainly accepts the second half of (10), although he thinks it needs to be clarified and specified further. However, Maxwell also explicitly denies the first half of (10), at least as Hume would understand it: Maxwell famously insists that it is only true when the system is such that small initial variations only produce small final variations (what we would call a non-chaotic system). So we see something of how a Maxwellian account of Newtonian physics would diverge from a Humean account of Newtonian physics.

The second reason, of course, why one would do this is simply to get a better sense of Hume's philosophy itself, in much the same way that, while Heyting's logic is not the same as Brouwer's intuitionism, it gives one a better sense of what the latter implies.

ADDED LATER: Another one of note (from T 1.1.5 (SBN 14-15)):

(15) No objects will admit of comparison, but what have some degree of resemblance.

And another possibility (from T 1.3.2 (SBN 75)):

(16) There is nothing existent, either externally or internally, which is not to be consider'd either as a cause or an effect.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Music on My Mind

Club for Five, "Brothers in Arms". Originally a Dire Straits song, of course.

Two Poem Drafts

New Helen

Your beauty is disastrous, dear,
as when a man sleeps, dreaming,
and visions come, inspiring fear
and setting cities screaming --

so lovely is your brilliant eye,
so full of angel-weather,
their hurricanes can make men die
or run in fear forever.

Herdsman's Song

My joy has journeyed on this path;
my loved one set her foot here;
my dear one has walked this road.
In the glade, a print: she stepped here,
there she sat on rising stone.
This stone is better than the next stone,
this glade is brighter than the last glade,
that grove is sparkling, its honey sweeter,
all the forest fairer she has made
by walking on this road, my dear one.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Something I Learned Today

There are quite a few people who do not recognize the words 'magnanimity' or 'teetotaller'. At least, nobody in my Ethics class today recognized either word. Magnanimity actually doesn't surprise me; but I was utterly surprised by 'teetotaller'. Has it really ceased to be a recognizable word? And if so, does it say anything about our society that the word is no longer part of the general vocabulary? I mean, besides the fact that Methodist progressivism is no longer a big influence on politics. In any case, I found it quite surprising. One learns something new everyday.

In any case, it inspired me to look at the Google N-gram for 'teetotaller'.

ADDED LATER: Equally interesting is the N-gram for magnanimity.

Freddoso on Philosophical Problems

Alfred Freddoso, in "Oh My Soul, There’s Animals and Animals" (PDF):

The history of philosophy teaches us that the way in which important philosophical problems are formulated is highly contingent and deserving of scrutiny. The very setting up of a philosophical problem, along with its range of possible solutions, is itself an important philosophical task, and it can be done either well or badly, in a way that illuminates a particular philosophical landscape or in a way that obscures it and leads the unwary into research projects that bear little fruit per se and might even do intellectual damage.

I've previously called this the 'problem of the problem' (I'm sure I've discussed it elsewhere, but this is the post I can find offhand), and discerning problems, and their assumptions, and their changes is one of the more important philosophical tasks of the historian of philosophy.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Shipwreck of David Hume

For some reason I was today reminded of this poem that I wrote in graduate school. It is based on Hume's Treatise 1.4.7, where Hume sums up where his skepticism leaves him. It's a section of the book that has considerable literary potential; but as far as I can tell, only I in my doggerel and Johann Georg Hamann in his "Night Thoughts of a Skeptic" (Nachtgedanken eines Skeptikers), which is basically just a paraphrastic translation into German of most of 1.4.7, have ever really made use of it in such a way.

The Shipwreck of David Hume

I am a wayward thinker; I have journeyed on the sea;
I have traversed all the systems of rationality.
In my weather-beaten vessel I have sailed from Firth of Forth,
Diffident for my future in this melancholy north.
I have crashed upon this rock of forlorn solitude;
How can I journey ocean-sea, that vast infinitude,
When all my former errors crowd about the air
And I, with every breath I take, feed my mind's despair?
I am an uncouth monster; Prospero's island knows
Such barren isolation as reason to me shows.
O disconsolate exile! Foe of all who feed
At any system's table with any system's need!
On every side detraction, inside I have but doubt,
The world conspires against me and seeks to catch me out;
And I, my closest enemy, at every reason's move
Induce new hesitation lest I new error prove.
How can I venture onward in this boldest enterprise?
For I am only human, tho' in more prodigious guise,
And all of human error and all error of my own
Haunts my resolution and chills my very bones.
In leaving received opinion do I still follow truth?
Finding her, shall I know her, and by what sterling proof?
All my best conclusions I only do believe
Because it strongly seems to me; could I be deceived?
Experience only guides me and habit is what persuades;
And I have but concluded as imagination bade.
Inconstant, yes, fallacious! It lies and cheats our mind,
And when we reason justly we contradictions find.
Reason shows us rightly from the rule of effect and cause
No continued being, external, can be reached by reason's laws;
And if there are no bodies, 'tis a truth we must not opine;
Yet these contradicting reasons are wholly intertwined.
The gods of inquiry mock me. When I trace the roots of mind
It ends in laugh, their smirking, after painful paths that wind.
Shall I, complacent in illusion, sit, as in common life,
Or shall I correct through reason, find philosophic strife?
Shall I take up wings with fancy and blind myself in flight
Or adhere to understanding and fall to fatal night?
I am confounded in all questions, blind and deaf and dumb,
Environed in the darkness where beats the dooming drum,
Wracked in imagination with a fever fed by pain
And faced with contradictions in my illness-heated brain.
But as the wind breaks storms in heaven's empyreum,
So nature breaks despair and reason's delirium,
And melancholy scatters at the breaking of the rain
As I go and play backgammon once again among the sane.
But shall I venture ever again upon the stormy sea?
Yea, I shall there be driven by my curiosity,
When I have yet grown tired of all friendly company,
When my mind will be collected into quiet reverie,
Then I shall again out-journey, unable to forebear
The lure of the quaint and curious, the sea-wind in the air,
The chance for high adventures and the making of a name
Beyond all mere amusement and the playing of these games.