Saturday, April 06, 2013


In a couple of months we'll be at the ninth anniversary of this weblog, and I thought that I might do something a little different to mark the occasion this year, and do request posts here and there in the lead-up to it. Obviously I can't promise to do just any sort of request; I may find I have nothing to say (this has generally been true in fields like politics) or that it's a topic that I clearly should leave to others for whatever reason. And quite obviously I'm in no way an expert on everything, so even if I do have something to say, it may not be very important or earth-shattering or even more than an approximation. But I do tend to collect odds-and-ends, and I've had many years of collecting odds-and-ends, so it's very possible that I might have something relevant somehow to a topic, knocking around in my head or the endless notes that I take, that might conceivably be interesting to someone. And even if I don't have anything immediately on-hand, there are fields (especially concerning the history of philosophy) where I probably have something that would allow me to bridge to at least some basic ideas without killing myself in terms of research load.

So, again, any requests? I have interests ranging from sacramental theology to philosophical atheism to informal logic to feminist epistemology to literature to -- well, if you read the blog, you have at least a rough idea of the extent of my interests. What would you be interested in reading about?


One of my pet peeves is the abuse of the term 'hypergamy', which seems to be spreading like a parasite. A recent offender is James Taranto in the WSJ:

Why? People who go to Princeton or another elite university have a revealed preference for education and intellectual development. Because the female sex drive is hypergamous, Princeton women, as Patton asserts, will be attracted to men who are their cognitive or educational equals or superiors. Beyond the confines of the Ivy League such men certainly exist, but we are far less thick on the ground.

There are actually two senses of the term 'hypergamy' that are in use and whose conflation is making the problem worse. One of these senses is anthropological, and it is reasonably well-defined, useful, and established by evidence. Hypergamy in this sense is about marriage practices in the context of a society, and is the same thing we usually are talking about loosely and colloquially when we say that someone 'married up'. It does not have much to do with sex at all; many of the most clearly hypergamous societies are societies in which arranged marriages are standard: the usual hypergamous norm in such cases consists of parents marrying their daughters to the sons of families that have a higher social status than their own. You will notice immediately that it indicates a normative custom that is part of the structure of a society; it is the society that determines what counts as higher status and lower status, it is the social expectations and institutions that constitute its normative character. It is a genuine causal explanation; by saying that a society is hypergamous, one is saying that there is a fairly well-defined way of determining status in that society and that marriages tend to be status-asymmetric. In general by convention, we assume (where there is no other indication) that 'hypergamy' means that women marry into higher-status families, and 'hypogamy' means that women marry into lower-status families. (There are societies structured either way; and, for that matter, there are societies that where one group's norm will be hypergamous and another's hypogamous.) Societies structured on hypergamy for women tend to be somewhat more common than the reverse. The account of hypergamy is consistent, however, with the possibility of marriage tending to be hypergamous in both directions. All this requires is some standard or expectation by which one may compare the two directions; and this is, in fact, an extremely common situation, since many societies apportion status to men and women in different ways, so the expectation can be for a woman to end up marrying a man of higher status, as defined for men, and of a woman to end up marrying a woman of higher status, as defined for women. For instance, to take a toy example, a society may be structured in such a way that wealth is status for a man and breeding or education for a woman, and the marriage customs tend to drive men to try to marry women better-educated than they are while women try to marry men wealthier than they are. Hypergamy is the norm for both men and women in this society.

It does seem to be true that societies that are hypergamous for women are much more common than societies that are hypogamous; and that a large portion of societies tend to have stronger hypergamous expectations for women than they do for men. Hypergamy in the anthropological sense is capable of extremely diverse manifestations; there is no one way in which people are hypergamous, because (1) marriage customs vary from society to society; and (2) what counts as higher and lower status has to be defined relative to a given society. This ends up being extremely important when this sense is confused with the second sense, which comes from evolutionary psychology.

I said above that the anthropological sense was reasonably well-defined, useful for explanation, and established by evidence. It is also the literal sense of the term. The e-psych sense, on the other hand, is a metaphor that has never been fixed properly, is highly speculative, and whose explanatory usefulness is highly controversial. It applies, as Taranto's example above indicates, to sex, and thus is detachable from any particular custom. It would have to be biological in nature, it could not be relativized to a society, and would have to be descriptive of unconscious biological tendencies resulting from sexual selection rather than widely recognized social norms, many of which can be formed and disrupted on time scales much smaller than could possibly be useful for an explanation appealing to sexual selection. But this means immediately that we seem to be in the realm of occult causes, unless we can give a clear, precise definition of the 'hyper'. But this is not really forthcoming; the 'higher status mate' is defined in terms of any number of things like 'physical attractiveness', 'health' and 'intelligence', the last of which can be signaled by any of any infinite number of different cues, not always consistent with each other.

Without precision -- which it never really gets -- the e-psych sense runs the obvious danger of collapsing into a tautology. To say that women are hypergamous, for instance, is not obviously different from saying that women tend to mate with the kind of men that women tend to mate with, unless we give some precise meaning to "kind of men" (i.e., status) that is not selected out by seeing what kinds of men women like to mate with. This can be done on a very small scale, point by point. The best and least problematic work of this sort is also the kind of research that returns results everyone knows: both men and women, for instance, tend to prefer mates who are symmetrical in shape and facial form; minor asymmetries like scars, however, tend to have no effect if they do not change the overall symmetry of the face and frame; and although I don't know if there has been any study, one could well imagine a study showing that men, or women, or both, showed a preference for mates with a more symmetrical human form than themselves, and thus a "hypergamous preference" etc. But notice that we are here relativizing, too, not talking about a general hypergamy concept; we're just identifying a feature that is statistically connected to sexual partnering. This is as far as you can get at present on science that is not obviously bad: not hypergamy, but a loose collection of tendencies that could be labeled, if one wanted, with the metaphor "hypergamy". Likewise, the fact that we're really just dealing with statistical associations means that any attempt to use these hypergamy claims as explanations of anything (rather than, say, byproducts or effects) is highly problematic. This is all quite clear if you actually read Buss and the literature critiquing his work.

When someone says, "The female sex drive is hypergamous," they cannot possibly be using it in the well-established anthropological sense. But the way in which Taranto uses it as an explanation requires that it have the kind of causal structure that is possessed by the anthropological sense, and it is (at most optimistic assessment) unclear and controversial whether the evolutionary-psychological sense even has a genuine causal structure at all, and its status as rising above tautology (the female sex drive tends toward things that females find more, rather than less, sexually attractive) is unclear. Now, tautologies are not necessarily useless in explanation, but they don't themselves explain anything; at most they provide limiting constraints. The actual structure of Taranto's explanation, without some precise account of sexual hypergamy, which doesn't exist, is really:

Women at elite schools show, by being at elite schools, that they think education and intellectual development important. Because women tend to have sex with the kind of men women tend to have sexual preferences for, women at elite schools will tend to be attracted to men who are their cognitive equals or superiors.

Saying that this is a complete non sequitur does not quite convey how moronic it is. The revealed preference of women at elite schools is for education at elite schools; it has no necessary connection with their sexual preferences, and if it did, it would have to be established on empirical evidence, not assumed. Likewise, in the reverse direction, we have no way, as long as hypergamy is left undefined, of saying that the kind of revealed preference involved in attending an elite school is itself the kind of thing that could link up with the biological tendencies that would have to make up "the female sex drive". Cognitive equality and superiority is also left undefined, and without a precise definition, there is no way to say how it links up to any supposed female hypergamy. This is a non-explanation masquerading as an explanation.

Incidentally, I can't get over the "we" in the last sentence. First person is completely gratuitous here, so it means that Taranto is going out of his way to classify himself as the "cognitive or educational equal or superior" of the women he's talking about, which is (1) so irrelevant even if true that one wonders what sort of person would even say such a thing; (2) certainly not true on the educational side, since Taranto does not have a top-tier education; and (3) seems a somewhat hasty assumption on the cognitive side without letting us know how cognitive equality, much less superiority, is determined (and in context it could not just be any kind of cognitive scale, but one that could have an effect on the female sex drive!).

The Cry of Modern Educationists

The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.

The exoteric teaching of the Kantian philosophy — that the understanding ought not to go beyond experience, else the cognitive faculty will become a theoretical reason which itself generates nothing but fantasies of the brain — this was a justification from a philosophical quarter for the renunciation of speculative thought. In support of this popular teaching came the cry of modern educationists that the needs of the time demanded attention to immediate requirements, that just as experience was the primary factor for knowledge, so for skill in public and private life, practice and practical training generally were essential and alone necessary, theoretical insight being harmful even. Philosophy [Wissenschaft] and ordinary common sense thus co-operating to bring about the downfall of metaphysics, there was seen the strange spectacle of a cultured nation without metaphysics – like a temple richly ornamented in other respects but without a holy of holies. Theology, which in former times was the guardian of the speculative mysteries and of metaphysics (although this was subordinate to it) had given up this science in exchange for feelings, for what was popularly matter-of-fact, and for historical erudition.

Hegel, Logic, Preface to the First Edition, section 3. (The first volume of the first edition was published, I think, in 1812.)

Friday, April 05, 2013

Music on My Mind

Lauren O'Connell, "Dancing in the Dark". Sick of sitting 'round here trying to write this book.

It's a Springsteen song originally, of course; and while it takes a while to adjust to the sound of it being sung by someone other than The Boss, it grows on you.

The Lingering Western Sheen

Birchington Churchyard
by Christina Rossetti

A lowly hill which overlooks a flat,
Half sea, half country side;
A flat-shored sea of low-voiced creeping tide
Over a chalky, weedy mat.

A hill of hillocks, flowery and kept green
Round Crosses raised for hope,
With many-tinted sunsets where the slope
Faces the lingering western sheen.

A lowly hope, a height that is but low,
While Time sets solemnly,
While the tide rises of Eternity,
Silent and neither swift nor slow.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Isidore on Faith, Hope, and Love

Today is the Feast of St. Isidore of Seville, Doctor of the Church. From his most famous work:

And there are three things required in religion for worship of God, that is, faith, hope, charity. In faith, what must be believed; in hope, what must be hoped; in charity, what must be loved. Faith ("fides") is that whereby we truly believe what we are not able at all to see. For believing is of what we are not able to see. And 'faith' is said in the proper sense if everything is done ("fiat") that is said or promised. And it is called faith, from the fact that what has been done ("fit") is that which was agreed between two, as between God and man; therefore it is also covenant ("foedus"). That is called hope ("spes") which is a foot going forward ("pes progrediendi"), as in "It is a foot" ("est pes"). Thus also for the contrary desperation: the foot is lacking ("deest pes") there, and there is no ability to go forward, because as long as someone loves sin, he does not hope for glory. Caritas in Greek and love ("dilectio") is understood as that which binds two in itself ("duos in se liget"). Indeed, love begins from two, which are love of God and neighbor; as the Apostle says (Rm 13:10), "Love is the fullness of law." It is greater than all these, because who loves both believes and hopes. But who does not love, though he accomplish many good things, toils in vain. But no carnal love ("dilectio carnalis") is love ("dilectio"), but is only called desire ("amor"). We generally only apply the name of love ("nomen dilectionis") to better things.

St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book VIII, Section 2 (my very rough draft of a translation). The best of these etymologies, of course, is that of hope: without hope, spes, you have no foot, pes, to make progress with.

Although they often did attribute to the origin of words to them (and this is especially done by Isidore), we should be careful not to import all the associations 'etymology' has for us into ancient and medieval use of the term. While they did take it to uncover historical features, the medievals are often also frank that etymologies have a primarily logical function: namely, to define using the same letters or sounds. Nor is this quite so quixotic as we might assume, since it is quite clear that letters and sounds do have an influence on meaning. Consider the words 'parameter' and 'perimeter', for instance. If you defined a parameter as that which sets the perimeter for a practical endeavor or kind of behavior, this would certainly be a more accurate definition of how people actually use the term than any of the standard dictionary definitions. This is because those dictionary definitions treat the word as isolated; but in reality, when people talk about 'parameters', the word naturally also triggers an imaginative association with the better known 'perimeters'. Taking this into account gives us the meaning of the word not merely as abstracted from all context, but as it actually lives and breathes, so to speak, in the world. This is precisely what the medievals had in mind. Spes and pes do echo each other; it would actually be strange if the meaning of the more immediately obvious 'foot' never in any way influenced how people used the word 'hope', given their similarity in Latin. And even if it didn't, the medievals were not above correcting nature and sayiing that it should.

And on that point, who is to say they are wrong? It gave us medieval Latin, which is a language with a structure brilliantly suited for logic, in which every important abstract word can be defined in a memorably poetic way by an alliterative play on words. That's a pretty decent result for building a language.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Supersensuous within the Sensuous

I was interested to come across this passage in Feuerbach's Principles of the Philosophy of the Future:

The distinction between essence and appearance, cause and effect, substance and accident, necessity and contingency, speculative and empirical does not mean that there are two different realms or worlds – the supersensuous world which is essence, and the sensuous world which is appearance; rather, this distinction is internal to sensuousness itself. Let us take an example from the natural sciences. In Linnaeus's system of plants the first groups are determined according to the number of filaments. But in the eleventh group where twelve to twenty stamens occur – and more so in the group of twenty stamens and polystamens – the numerical determinations become irrelevant; counting is of no use any more. Here in one and the same area we have therefore, before us the difference between definite and indefinite, necessary and indifferent, rational and irrational multiplicity. This means that we need not go beyond sensuousness to arrive, in the sense of the Absolute Philosophy, at the limit of the merely sensuous and empirical; all we have to do is not separate the intellect from the senses in order to find the supersensuous – spirit and reason – within the sensuous.

The sentiment is anti-Kantian, of course; and is broadly Hegelian. But it's an interesting way to put an interesting objection.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Begging the Doxastic Question

Ombhurbhuva points to a fascinating article by Jennifer Faust (PDF) on what she calls "begging the doxastic question" (Int J Philos Relig [2008] 63:71-86). The article is interesting, and discusses a topic that should be considered more widely, but it has a number of problems.

The very first and most obvious problem is the way in which Faust links argument and persuasion:

The primary purpose of an argument, understood in the philosophically orthodox sense, is to persuade someone of the truth of its conclusion. This aim of argumentation is so obviously and widely recognized that it is often written into the very definition of the term. A typical account of argument, found in a standard introductory logic textbook, defines one as “a group of statements, one or more of which (the premises) are claimed to provide support for, or reasons to believe, one of the others (the conclusion).” Now, typically we understand the arguer and his audience to be separate persons, such that the statements in an argument offered by person A aim to provide another person, B, with reasons for B to believe the conclusion of A’s argument. On this view (hereafter called “the standard view”), an argument’s primary purpose is to persuade an audience to accept its conclusion.

However, the primary purpose of an argument is not to persuade someone of its truth; the primary purpose of an argument is to relate a claim correctly to reasons indicating it. And we can see this immediately even in the very example Faust uses. The introductory logic textbook (Hurley's), defines an argument as "a group of statements, one or more of which...are claimed to provide support for, or reasons to believe, one of the others". But providing support for, or reasons to believe, is not the same as persuading, and if the aim of an argument is to provide support for a conclusion, this is distinct from persuading. Providing support depends on the facts of the case and the logical structure of the argument. Persuading depends, at least in addition, on the psychology of people presented with the argument. Further, Faust's conflation of the two is inconsistent with how people actually use arguments: many arguments only make their conclusion more probable (Faust herself later recognizes this), and have to be used in conjunction with other arguments, and in such a case, the individual arguments will not be expected to persuade on their own. So even if it were true (it is not) that argumentation generally speaking has persuasion as its primary purpose, this is completely different from saying that an argument has persuasion as its primary purpose.

The most longstanding and historically influential account of how argument relates to persuasion is the classical/neo-classical account based, essentially, on Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian. It is inconsistent with the idea that Faust presents here. The classical account recognized that persuasion requires the combination of three elements: ethos or character, movement of the pathoi or passions, and logos or rational account. All three are always operative in persuasion, which is why no one in the classical tradition holds that rhetorical arguments work exactly like demonstrative arguments: rhetorical arguments, arguments for the purpose of persuading, are modifications of the primary kinds of arguments (demonstrative and dialectical) in order to express more clearly the good aspects of the character of the persuader and to move more easily the passions of the audience. Among the most important post-classical accounts, Campbell holds that arguments to persuade have to appeal to all the major faculties of the mind, not just reason, and even Whately, who most thoroughly unites logic and rhetoric, does not hold that persuasion is the aim of argument generally.

Thus the 'standard account' is anything but standard. It's possible, of course, in this age of advertising and political spin, that it's making a comeback, but even Faust's paradigmatic example doesn't actually express the 'standard account'. It should be said that Faust's whole point in the article is to argue against the 'standard account', at least for religious arguments; she herself goes on to recognize that there are arguments that lack persuasive force despite being of sterling soundness, and that the capacity of an argument actually to persuade depends on things external to any argument. And she will later give a whole list of other possible purposes for argument.

Faust's own conditions for persuasiveness of arguments are somewhat interesting. In rough summary, she holds that the necessary conditions for an argument to persuade are that

(1) its premises are 'subjectively probable' for that person;
(2) these premises are recognized by that person as making the conclusion more probable;
(3) the premises are more 'acceptable' to that person than the conclusion, where 'acceptability' has a technical meaning.

As she notes, (3) is controversial if taken as a general requirement. She argues, however, that it holds in dialectical contexts. This can be conceded for the sake of argument, but it's worth pointing out that this is another point on which Faust is inconsistent with the classical tradition, which takes dialectical contexts as precisely those where (3) cannot be assumed. For instance, Aristotle's counterpart to (3), which is actually in terms of knowledge rather than acceptability, only applies to demonstration; in dialectic (which concerns inquiry) and rhetoric (which concerns persuasion) it does not necessarily apply. This is quite clear in dialectic, where it is sometimes necessary to show that better-known (or more acceptable) claims are implied by less-known (or less acceptable) premises, and also in rhetoric, which has so many additional factors (what people can accept in public, the passions, character, etc.) that can interfere with acceptability as understood in (3) without actually affecting an argument's ability to persuade.

This allows Faust to formulate an account of what she calls 'begging the doxastic question'. Unfortunately, she gives two different accounts and treats them as if they were the same. The first account is

An argument begs the doxastic question, on my account, when a subject would find the argument persuasive only if she antecedently believes the argument’s conclusion.

The second account is,

If an argument begs the doxastic question, then the assignment of some positive degree of probability to at least one premise relies on acceptance of the argument’s conclusion. But in so fulfilling condition (i) on persuasion, the argument violates condition (iii).

These are not equivalent. (1) The persuasiveness of an argument, which is the key feature in the first account, is by Faust's own account not dependent only on the acceptability of the premises, which is the key feature in the second account. (2) Faust herself distinguishes acceptability from belief. (3) The first account applies to all arguments whatsoever, because the persuasiveness of any argument always presupposes that we do not think its conclusion is false. In order to accept an argument we have to have reason to think that it has not become an unintentional reductio, whether to absurdity or definite falsehood, and that the argument is not even put into doubt by the doubtfulness of its conclusion. Conclusions are assessed in terms of reasons, and the combination of reasons and conclusions is an argument, but an argument has to be assessed holistically. This contrasts with the second account, which does not obviously apply to all arguments, but only to arguments insofar as they can be used in contexts in which a certain psychological fact (about about the relation between 'subjective probabilities' of the premises and that of the conclusion) are true.

Since it's quite clear that Faust does not intend to argue that all arguments beg the doxastic question, which the first account requires (since you can't find a whole argument persuasive until you've come to believe the conclusion) we'll set aside the first account and simply focus on the second: fulfilling condition (1) involves violating condition (3). We can take this as simply definitional, whether we accept (3) as a necessary condition or not. Now, the first thing to note is that whether an argument begs the doxastic question in this sense does not depend on anything to do with the argument itself, but on a counterfactual claim about the psychology of possible audiences for the argument: it would require some general evidence about psychology to support. And here we run up against a problem. When Faust argues that religious arguments (she includes both atheistic as well as theistic arguments in the mix) beg the doxastic question, she repeatedly uses the fact that someone who accepts the opposing position will likely reject one of the premises. But if we take it this way, it will create the same problem for the second account that we saw with the first account: It is true of every possible argument, regardless of subject. That is, we can say of any argument that "in certain dialectical contexts in which the audience is assumed to believe not-C prior to the reception of [an] argument concluding that C, such...arguments are unlikely to provide such an audience with reasons to believe that C". This is due to the very same fact that I previously noted, and is confirmed by experience: people who disagree with conclusions don't generally change their minds simply on being presented with arguments for the conclusions, because even with rigorous arguments they look first to see if they can consistently get away with rejecting the premises. Faust's argument, if correct and taken in the way she applies it, would be a reason to disagree with the 'standard account'; but it doesn't say anything about religious arguments in particular. It's not necessary to go as long a way around as Faust in order to reject the 'standard account', however; any serious look at argumentative practice of almost any kind shows that it is false. It is likely, though, that she is still conflating the first and second account, and thus persuasiveness of argument with subjective 'probability' of claims.

It should be noted, however, that Faust's manner of proceeding is faulty, even if we don't understand it in the way she has to for her method. Setting aside the controversial move of taking facts about 'reasons to believe' to be facts about 'subjective probabilities', the mere fact that "in certain dialectical contexts" the argument would not persuade is not strong enough to support the conclusion that the argument can only fulfill condition (1) by violating condition (3). For that to be true, there would have to be no dialectical contexts in which it could fulfill condition (1) without violating condition (3). In order to determine this, for instance, we have to consider not only cases where people already disagree with the conclusion, but also cases where they are open either way, and in addition cases where people are already leaning to the conclusion, although they still regard the premises as more probable than the conclusion. If people are persuaded in any such cases, then the fulfillment of condition (1) does not in those cases violate condition (3), and one cannot argue on Faust's account that the argument begs the doxastic question. Thus these kinds of cases would need to be considered; all of Faust's arguments that given arguments beg the doxastic question are incomplete.

The upshot, in any case, whether you accept Faust's argument or reject it, is that the 'standard account' is untenable: it's absurd to evaluate arguments based on persuasiveness, because (1) this is not the primary use of argument for any rational person, since even accepting the conclusion of an argument requires more than just being presented with the argument (you have to evaluate whether it is better to accept the conclusion or reject the argument, which requires higher-order reasoning and will often depend on many things other than an argument, much less the argument itself); (2) anything can persuade somebody, so it would vary considerably from person to person and from group to group; and (3) almost all major accounts of the relation between argument and persuasion regard arguments as having a role in persuasion but not the only, or even always the definitive, role. The primary value of argument in persuasive contexts, in fact, seems to be not that the argument as such persuades, but that it contributes to persuasion by establishing the cost of not being persuaded. This in itself can persuade, when an argument shows that you have to give up or accept too much in order to reject the conclusion; but this is not written on the face of an argument. The 'standard account', which takes arguments as existing for the purpose of persuading, shows an egregious lack of understanding about what rational arguments are, or how they function in inquiry. Arguments are often preconditions for persuasion (depending on the kind of persuasion); they often can persuade, when taken in their full actual context; however, they do not exist because of it, nor are they always well-suited for it. As far as arguments themselves are concerned, persuasion is irrelevant: they identify what is consistent and inconsistent, and to this extent what is rational and irrational, neither of which depends on whether anyone is persuaded at all. If you are not persuaded by an argument, that is a fact about you, not about the argument. The argument is good or bad, right or wrong, on its own terms, and it is the argument that shows whether and why you are right (or wrong) to be persuaded -- your persuadability doesn't say anything on its own about whether the argument is good or bad, right or wrong. Your being unpersuaded could be because the argument is bad, or it could be because you are being irrational, stubborn, or perverse, or it could be because the argument, despite being right, conflicts with too many of your prior commitments, or it could be because I have presented the argument badly and in a way that your initial impulse would be against it no matter the argument. We simply don't know without further investigation.

And, what is more important, this is the rational way of handling arguments. It would be rationally absurd to accept a conclusion just because an argument was given for it, no matter how good the argument; at the very least you always have to ask whether it is better to accept the conclusion or reject the argument, and why. Rational people accept arguments not on their own but as they fit into the broader context of our rational lives, one in which all the elements noted by the classical tradition -- ethos and pathos and logos -- are always operative. It is not possible to turn any of them off; if anyone thinks that any one of them was not operative in any given case of persuasion, he is only deceiving himself. Rationally being persuaded involves the harmony of these elements. But arguments do not exist for persuasion; they are relevant to persuasion because of the way our minds work, and for no other reason. Arguments can be for nothing more than showing that reasons can be given, or what kinds of reasons might be given, for instance; or they could be for connecting different fields of thought; or they could be just for showing what's consistent and what's not. None of these are persuasion, although any of them can be relevant to persuasion.

Monday, April 01, 2013

A Poem Re-Draft and Two New Poem Drafts

Seneca Ponders Death

The dead inside the tomb is laid,
the final rites are brought to close,
the eyes no more behold the day,
now shut in endless night's repose.
Thus falls the end of endless might,
thus ends the tally of the tale.
What worth is it to leave the light
when on the threshold life will fail,
if yet unfailing strife we keep
and no surcease from life receive,
no warming poultice born of sleep,
and nothing left when flesh we leave?
When body to a corpse has turned
and spirit flees its living role,
is soul by life then also spurned
dissolving like our breath the soul?
What morning sunlight, morrow's morn,
will shatter sky in reddening dawn,
what sunset scatter drops forlorn
on all that Ocean holds in bond?
It all will, like the sons of Time,
be snatched and eaten straight away.
Too swiftly course the stars sublime,
too swiftly moon will flee the day,
too swiftly spring to winter tends,
as all things hurry on the track;
but swifter far than to these ends
will race our hearts to loss and lack.

When we are laid in fatal tomb,
perhaps no shade will be our doom?

Like smoke that curls from smoldered coal,
like cloud before the forceful wind,
our body's life will upward roll
and pass, and fade, and come to end.
Shall then we quiver for our fate?
Shall then we flee with fleeing breath?
Not once will fear our lot abate,
not once will worry stave off death.
But reason, still, and calm, and pure,
may rise in might, unharmed by wave,
and see for fear the flawless cure:
all fear is buried in the grave.
Inside our minds we cities build
of torment, shade, Tartarus-hell;
but these are rumors fear has filled,
all stories that our passions tell.
Who of our spirit's fate is sure?
Ask those who never lived nor were.

When we are laid in fatal tomb,
perhaps no shade will be our doom?

The One

Dividing possibilities: this is the mind.
Dividing perfectly, the One it will find.

Breaking the world, thought learns all things.
All being broken, the One it will find.

Eye loving beauty, the world is in hues.
Eye looking closer, the One it will find.

Look in your heart, unveil many things;
Mirror your heart, the One it will find.

Those who are lost will walk many ways,
wander unknowing. The One, it will find.

Maundy Thursday 2013

As we are here in flurry waiting
King who will bring victory,
our God another course is fating
through the road to Calvary.
Hail the hero overcoming
things beyond our minds to know,
not through beat of martial drumming,
walls that crash like Jericho,
but only gift, like servant lowly,
stooping down to wash the feet,
or man made sacrifice most holy
who, dying, will our death defeat!


I've often been struck by the fact that the Eastern name for the sacrament of Matrimony is 'coronation' or 'crowning'. In a Maronite wedding ceremony, bride and groom are literally crowned. The priest says:

Like a crown, God has adorned the earth with flowers, the heavens with stars, and the land with the sea. With a crown he has shown the special calling given to the holy kings, priests, prophets and apostles. In his bountiful mercy may he bless + these crowns through the prayers of the Mother of God and all the saints.

Then the groom is crowned with a wreath as the cantor sings from Psalm 21:2-5, and the priest continues:

May the Lord who crowned our holy fathers with justice look upon you with love. You have come to the holy Church seeking assistance, may the Lord bless you, protect you always, and lead you to everlasting life.

Then the bride is also crowned as the cantor sings from Psalm 45:11-14, and the priest continues:

May God who crowned all the holy women and blessed Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, bless you, be merciful to you, and exalt you with the crown of glory. Adorned with fruits of the Spirit may you flourish as a blessed vine in the midst of the Church may the Lord God fill you with joy as you dwell with your husband in love and abiding peace; may you bring forth children pleasing to God; through the intercession of Mary, the Mother of God, and all the saints.

The specially designated witnesses are crowned as well.

The Melkites and Byzantine Catholics, about whom I know less, also do the same thing, with different ceremony, and I particularly like the Melkite hymn that is often sung: "O Lord our God, crown them with glory and honor, and grant them dominion over the works of your hands."

This sort of symbolism looks both ways, and are seen in quotations above. On the one hand, these are crowns of victory. As Chrysostom somewhat amusingly says in passing,

Youth is wild, and requires many governors, teachers, directors, attendants, and tutors; and after all these, it is a happiness if it be restrained. For as a horse not broken in, or a wild beast untamed, such is youth. But if from the beginning, from the earliest age, we fix it in good rules, much pains will not be required afterwards; for good habits formed will be to them as a law. Let us not suffer them to do anything which is agreeable but injurious; nor let us indulge them, as forsooth but children. Especially let us train them in chastity, for there is the very bane of youth. For this many struggles, much attention will be necessary. Let us take wives for them early, so that their brides may receive their bodies pure and unpolluted, so their loves will be more ardent. He that is chaste before marriage, much more will he be chaste after it; and he that practiced fornication before, will practice it after marriage. "All bread," it is said, "is sweet to the fornicator." Garlands are wont to be worn on the heads of bridegrooms, as a symbol of victory, betokening that they approach the marriage bed unconquered by pleasure. But if captivated by pleasure he has given himself up to harlots, why does he wear the garland, since he has been subdued?

Chrysostom's primary concern in context is completely elsewhere, but even in this passing reference we see the assumption of that the crown is "a symbol of victory". This past-looking element, that marriage is a state one wins through to is important, and I think increasingly overlooked in many discussions of 'singlehood' (which is not, as such, a state you win through to in any sense at all). And it is part of the dignity of marriage that you don't just fall into it: even to get there you have to win the privilege of the other person's consent. In turn, the point reflects on the dignity of human nature itself: the privilege of your consent is something worthy of being won.

The crowns are not merely victor's crowns, though; they look forward as well. We see this in the Melkite hymn quoted above: "crown them with glory and honor, and grant them dominion". I find the subtle insight of the second point particularly interesting. It's a reference to the story in Genesis 1, of course, and makes the point, often forgotten, that when God commands humanity to rule over fish and bird and living creature, it is to humanity as "male and female" who are to "be fruitful and multiply". All marriages are royal marriages.

I took a class once in college, years ago, on Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament, and one of the books required for the class used one of these deconstruction-reconstruction approaches to the text, or, rather, what some theologians today call 'deconstruction' and reconstruction, since it has only the loosest connection with serious deconstruction. In any case, it involves "exploring the problematics of the text", i.e., going out of your way to find something, anything, that could be regarded as a sign of bias in the text, regardless of how strained it may be. And in the discussion of the Song of Songs, the author pinned down one of the biases of the text as "crypto-monarchist" in its evaluational vocabulary. I've always thought that was rather laughably absurd; there is no "crypto" about it. You have only to read the book to see that it is explicitly using language for royalty and royal courts to evaluate the love between the Shulamite and her lover positively. And this is even more clear when you think through many of the metaphors by which the lover and the beloved describe each other: they are metaphors of military power, great wealth, vast territory, and courtly accompaniment. And how could it be otherwise? The whole point of a love song like this is that the crown of love is a more splendid wealth and dominion than any material kingdom. And this is a sense of things found throughout the world, among men and women alike: There is a royal dignity in such things.

If this is true in some degree of every marriage, then it is especially true of that marriage that serves as sign and symbol of the union of Christ and His Church, which is what the sacrament of Matrimony or mystery of Crowning designates. Christian marriage is always a sign of the Kingdom of God; even the botched ones that are at best defective signs of it. Marriage is a coronation.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fortnightly Books, March 31

It is a remarkable feature of the nineteenth century that it managed to produce journalism as great literature. This was, of course, amidst a sea of journalism that was not great, but such is literature generally. In various ways we have been trying to imitate them since, for the most part unsuccessfully, although late blossoms like George Orwell or Myles na gCopaleen (Brian O'Nolan) have emerged. But, controversial although it may be, I think we can date the height of opinion journalism to Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, in large part because we have at this point a large number of brilliant writers who deal with deep ideas on the democratic principle that they don't need to be watered down to be popular. When we look at this period and place, the list of greats actively involved in some form of it is considerable: G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, J. M. Barrie, and many others. Among these greats was George Bernard Shaw, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1925 (although he received the Prize in 1926); according to the committee in one of its very occasional moments of genuine literary discernment, it was given "for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty".

The fortnightly book this time around will be Two Plays for Puritans, in a nice Heritage Press edition. This consists of two (as you might imagine) plays, The Devil's Disciple, subtitled "A Melodrama", and Caesar and Cleopatra, subtitled "A Page of History". These were originally published with another play, Captain Brassbound's Conversion, subtitled "A Play of Adventure", as Three Plays for Puritans. I have no idea why Heritage Press decided not to do a three-play version; the Sandglass merely says briefly of the third, "But unlike the ffirst two, the third play has never enjoyed continued acclaim." The edition includes line-and-wash illustrations by George Him and has a somewhat unusual twelve-point Plantin typeface, specified by Him himself, which apparently led to some difficulty in finding a printer who had the type.

Since I lack any edition of Captain Brassbound's Conversion, I have decided to make it up by adding another play in a different edition, Man and Superman, this edition being an earlier edition also by Heritage Press. It has illustrations by Charles Mozley. Included with this edition is a little booklet in red wrappers called The Revolutionist's Handbook & Pocket Companion, which is, of course, mentioned in the play itself and written by Shaw.

Shaw's plays, of course, are dramas of ideas, discussion plays, and between their Shavian prefaces and notes and stage directions that say things like "For at this time, remember, Mary Wollstonecraft is as yet only a girl of eighteen, and her Vindication of the Rights of Women is still fourteen years off", border on being novelettes. They dramatize well, but they are plays not merely for the stage but for the book.

And All Alone, Alone, Alone

Easter Night
by Alice Meynell

All night had shout of men, and cry
Of woeful women filled His way;
Until that noon of sombre sky
On Friday, clamour and display
Smote Him; no solitude had He,
No silence, since Gethsemane.

Public was Death; but Power, but Might,
But Life again, but Victory,
Were hushed within the dead of night,
The shutter’d dark, the secrecy.
And all alone, alone, alone,
He rose again behind the stone.