Friday, August 02, 2013

Water Intoxication

There's an old medical saying, often attributed to the followers of the alchemist Paracelsus, that the dose makes the poison. Paracelsus had argued that there was no dividing line between poisonous and non-poisonous substances; every substance was a poison, and the what made the difference between a remedy and a poison was simply how much you took. Chemicals in a large enough dose can kill you. If you ate twenty pounds of spinach in one sitting, for instance, there is a good chance that you would die of oxalic acid poisoning. And you can poison yourself with water.

As you might expect, dying through being poisoned by water is a very rare phenomenon. In order to suffer water intoxication, you have to drink enough water in a short enough period of time to reduce your electrolytes to such a low level that bodily functions begin shutting down. People have died from water intoxication in water-drinking contests, under conditions of intense exercise (marathon runners have to be careful not to rehydrate too quickly), or under conditions of extreme heat. So now you know: hydrogen hydroxide is a poisonous substance that in sufficiently large amounts can disrupt the electrolyte balance of the body, leading to kidney failure and even death. And it is everywhere. In reality, of course 'sufficiently large amounts' are very large amounts indeed.

The dose-makes-the-poison maxim occasionally gets criticized in toxicology, by the way. Here are two examples:

Does 'the dose make the poison'?

The Dose Makes the Poison -- or Does It?

(The second one is especially good.) In reality, these criticisms seem to me mostly to be a symptom of a common problem in fields of research: claims are first associated with a very particular operational approach to discussing or applying them and then, over time, simply identified with them because it is simpler. This, however, often involves confusing a true general claim with a particular implication of the claim in a particular context, with the result that the latter is falsely generalized. Appropriate dose ranges for a chemical, like the Aristotelian mean for a passion, vary according to the circumstances, although in coherent ways; in practice one can easily lose sight of this, however, and switch into mechanical application of tests and rules.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Epigraph from Page 100

Serious posting probably will be sporadic at best, but how about some idea-games? Here's one I occasionally play myself, which has come to mind since I will be moving an extraordinary number of books over the next week or so. I take the first full sentence off a given page (in this case, I'll use page 100, but it has to be a page that is actually numbered with that number) of several different books, and if they are interesting, try to think of what kind of treatise, poem, short story, or novel they might be epigraphs to, either singly or by mixing and matching. Close or elaborate detail is not necessary, nor do you have to worry about the original context, although you can if you want. Here are a few from my library; if they were epigraphs, what might their works be like?

James Boswell, Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764. Pottle, tr. (Yale 1953).
I said, "Madame, if I had stayed here longer, I am sure you would have liked me better."

George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul. (Augsburg 1994).
Remember, Lord, Thou hast not made me good.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Kaufmann, tr. (Vintage 1966).
In short, moralities are also merely a sign language of the affects.

Haddon W. Robinson, What Jesus Said about Successful Living. (Discovery House 1988).
The mark of Palestinian cities is that they are always in view.

La Rouchefoucauld, Maxims. (Penguin 1959).
Young people making their début in society should be bashful or scatterbrained, for an efficient or assured manner usually looks like impertinence.

Lee Wyndham, Writing for Children & Teenagers. (Writer's Digest 1980).
While setting down chapter incidents, I try to think in terms of drama, scene interest, setting, action, emotion.

George MacDonald, Phantastes. (Eerdmans 1981).
"I will not wait to be willing," cried Cosimo, and sprang to the corner where the great sword stood.

Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock. (Harper Collins 1985).
When school started, Polly began training seriously to be a hero.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature. (Oxford 1978).
We shadow out the objects of our faith, say they, in sensible types and images, and render them more present to us by the immediate presence of these types, than 'tis possible for us to do, merely by an intellectual view and contemplation.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Poem Draft

Mountain Contemplations

As soaring stone the steeple of God,
the star-crowned seat of Zeus the Thunderer,
in glory grows from ground most fertile,
a tree for titans, timeless and sheer.
There holy with hallels I hold my vigil,
wordlessly wait for whispers of truth.
They whirl in the wind;
my mind is mesh to catch them.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Aquinas on the Evil of Rape

Scott Alexander (he gives links):

Did Thomas Aquinas really say that rape was less of a sin than masturbation? His text itself seems pretty darned clear and unambiguous, but commentators’ views range from “he didn’t really mean that”, to “well, it kind of is”. A parable on the danger of multi-step chains of abstract reasoning, and on how easy it is to reinterpret old texts after modernity has produced the right answer.

The actual question explicitly under discussion is whether one sin is less gravely lustful than another; since Aquinas explicitly says that masturbation is one kind of mortal sin but rape is two kinds of mortal sin, one has to ask what the conditions are under which something is "less of a sin" by being doubly sinful. And a little common sense and critical thought shows that the interpretation that has the Catholic moral theologian saying explicitly that masturbation is worse than raping nuns is, far from being "pretty darned clear and unambiguous", quite as dubious as it sounds. There's no actual way to read the structure of the question as being "clear and unambiguous" in the way proposed; Aquinas very clearly specifies that the vices against nature are the gravest "in tali materia", which is a technical term that restricts the topic under discussion, and this technical restriction has been explicitly operative throughout the entire discussion prior to this article, so it's not like it's out of nowhere to anyone who has actually bothered to read the context. This is all quite easily confirmed when we look at the grounds for ranking the second class of sins of lust, the ones proceeding on natural principles: simple fornication is the least because it involves no injustice, adultery is worse because it is also an act of injustice, rape is worse because it is not just an act of lust and injustice but is also violent (violence is not an additional vice but something that makes injustice worse than it would otherwise be -- violent injustices are injustices committed against someone's will), and that each of these can be made even worse by also being an act of sacrilege. And as Bolin notes, injustice is recognized elsewhere as (considered properly in itself) a worse vice than lust. (Also, as Bolin points out in the comments, Aquinas asks this kind of question of a lot of sins, and in every other case his answer is restricted to the particular feature of the act relevant to the particular species of sin under discussion, so why it should suddenly not be the case here would be quite the mystery, and would need to be addressed.)

Thus there's only one way to read the structure of the article. There are two species of lust:

(1) Lust against the principles of nature
(2) Lust consistent with the principles of nature

The first is according to Aquinas the worst species of sexual deformity or deficiency, which is the matter of lust; that is to say, the relevant acts are, when deliberately chosen, most thoroughly expressive of lust as such. Particular acts of each species, however, may by circumstances also become acts of even worse vices, which Aquinas again is very clear about elsewhere (even in other articles of this very question), and within each species the worst acts are those that are also the acts of the worst other vices. It is worth pointing out that the Kainz article also recognizes this. The only issue is that Kainz reads the ordering as strictly linear. But given the specification is in terms of gravity in the matter of the action, the strictly linear ordering can't be maintained; it depends crucially on taking the passage to be concerned with gravity in the form of the action. Also, contrary to what Kainz suggests, sacrilege is stated to be an aggravating circumstance for each of the sexual sins consistent with the principles of nature, and thus the ordering Kainz gives is not quite right even on his own assumptions. Given the fact that there is a sacrilegious version of each sexual sin and a violent version of each sexual sin, the strictly linear interpretation is already in trouble: there's no clear line in this linear order, and sacrilege can't in any case have the place it's given by Kainz. But even Kainz explicitly recognizes that "the extraneous factors of violence and injustice...can magnify the overall sinfulness of the action"; given the way Aquinas characterizes rape, violence and injustice are not strictly extraneous to it, so either this is where Kainz is actually misstepping or he is simply not being clear.

So, in short, no, you can't ignore technical terms explicitly in the text or the broader context which sets the universe of discourse and approach, and what we really learn from this case is how easy it is to misinterpret philosophical texts if you miss or ignore technical distinctions or broader context. Interpretation of an argument is a rational activity accountable to evidence; there is no "clear and unambiguous" except "clear and unambiguous in light of all the relevant evidence".

Since evidence can be overlooked or misclassified, there is no particular problem with reinterpreting a text when a better assessment of the evidence comes in, and this not uncommonly happens through rediscovery (old logical texts, for instance, are constantly having to be interpreted in light of new discoveries, since sometimes the only way to identify a forgotten logical discovery is by rediscovering it independently and discovering that it's a rediscovery); but we see in any case that it's not so clear that "modernity" has "produced the right answer" in the case of rape: any pretense that "modernity" has a particularly good handle on rape ignores the very long list of problems modern conceptions of rape are known to have. The assumption that has to be made in the passage quoted above, for it actually to work given that Aquinas is talking about lust, is that rape is especially evil either because it is really lustful or because it is a really perverse form of lust. But as Aquinas quite explicitly says, rape is especially grave because it is a sexual act of injustice involving the violation of another person, and clearly this is a far superior account of the evil of rape. Rape is undeniably a rationally defective act in sexual matter, which is what makes it an act of lust; but no one in their right mind should conclude that its evil is summed up in its being very unrestrained or inappropriate sex -- or one would hope, although in practice our society, despite some unconvincing lip service to the importance of consent to kinda-sorta get the notion of 'violation' in, does often seem to treat rape as if it were precisely that. I think it's certainly possible to progress beyond Aquinas in the discussion of the subject, but assuming that lust is the only vice relevant to the evil of rape, or that rape's wrongness consists in its being especially lustful, is regress, not progress.

I'm somewhat amused, incidentally, that this is supposed to be a parable about "the danger of multi-step chains of abstract reasoning" given that the argument, even if it could be interpreted in the way suggested, is less than fifteen sentences long and has only a few steps; if there's any problem with it, it shows the danger of not putting in enough steps.

Also incidentally, I remember actually intending to criticize Kainz's interpretation when it first came out, but apparently never got around to it. Apparently this misreading needs to be nipped in the bud, though.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Mark Twain, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte


Opening Passage: This is one of those books that has no strict opening passage, since it purports to be a translation of a historical work, and thus has its fictional translator's preface, plus the prefatory material of the quasi-fictional narrator, as well as the work itself. But this is the first paragraph of Book I, Chapter I:

I, the Sieur Louis de Conte, was born in Neufchateau, on the 6th of January, 1410; that is to say, exactly two years before Joan of Arc was born in Domremy. My family had fled to those distant regions from the neighborhood of Paris in the first years of the century. In politics they were Armagnacs—-patriots; they were for our own French King, crazy and impotent as he was. The Burgundian party, who were for the English, had stripped them, and done it well. They took everything but my father's small nobility, and when he reached Neufchateau he reached it in poverty and with a broken spirit. But the political atmosphere there was the sort he liked, and that was something. He came to a region of comparative quiet; he left behind him a region peopled with furies, madmen, devils, where slaughter was a daily pastime and no man's life safe for a moment. In Paris, mobs roared through the streets nightly, sacking, burning, killing, unmolested, uninterrupted. The sun rose upon wrecked and smoking buildings, and upon mutilated corpses lying here, there, and yonder about the streets, just as they fell, and stripped naked by thieves, the unholy gleaners after the mob. None had the courage to gather these dead for burial; they were left there to rot and create plagues.

Summary: Personal Recollections is the story of Louis de Conte, a quasi-fictional character based on occasional mentions in historical documents of Joan's page. He is, in effect, country gentry who grows up with Joan in Domremy, as the above opening suggests. He, along with two others, Edmond Aubrey, usually called by his satirical nickname, "the Paladin", and Noel Rainguesson, end up attending Joan on her incredible journey first to the King then to victory, then to her capture and trial. Especially with regard to the latter, Twain makes an effort at sticking to the evidence, but this is not a cut-Joan-down-to-size exercise; for one thing, Twain himself actually admires Joan, and his narrator adores her (Twain occasionally has to bring in the fictional translator to defend Louis's accuracy), and for another, we're talking about a seventeen-year-old girl who took control of the armies of France and turned a losing war into a winning one, despite having no military background, so trying to treat her as unremarkable is going to fail, regardless. But Twain's Joan is also in many ways a plausible seventeen-year-old girl. She hates fighting; she's just not afraid to do it. She weeps for the deaths of enemies as well as the deaths of friends. She doesn't want to fight wars; she wants to be done with it and go home, and is sometimes impatient with the fact that people keep delaying her. The only reason she is there is because the Archangel Michael, and Sts. Catherine and Margaret, told her to do it. It turns out that she has a natural talent for it: she has the 'seeing eye' and can thus estimate very well what a man can do in battle or where the weaknesses of an enemy are. And much of her success is purely military in nature. One of France's problems was that its command was highly disunified, and she suddenly brings a unified command. Her popularity with ordinary people increases military recruitment massively, and sometimes additional funds. Other aspects of her success lie simply in the fact that she is a peasant girl: she sees immediately what the nobles, whether French, Burgundian, or English, miss, namely, that as far as the majority of people are concerned, what really matters is legitimacy. All the nobles on both sides are so concerned with territory that they simply don't realize until after the fact the sheer devastation to the English cause of Charles being anointed King of France in the right place and in the right way, because until that point they were fighting merely one possible contender for the throne, and after that point they are fighting a person widely recognized by the peasantry as the legitimate King of France. Most of what Joan does is not miraculous, but just talent and shrewdness. But she never claimed to be performing miracles; from her perspective, she was just following the advice of her Voices who, being saints in heaven, could be counted on to know what to do. And Twain captures this very well.

Twain does not stint on the arts of storytelling here; he pulls out at one point or another almost every tool in the toolbox. We have brutal, ghastly description, like the opening scene of Paris with rotting corpses. We have hilarity, in the form of the buffoonery of the Paladin, the perpetual exaggerator, who can never tell a story again without making it even bigger than it was previously. The story is structured not just by plot, but also by narrative voice, by recurring themes, by symbolic images. One of the more interesting cases is Twain's use of the Fairy Tree, which we know of from Joan's trial. It is used to capture her childlikeness, and her peasant roots, and also her ability to be somehow ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. It gets a lot of discussion at the beginning, and only occasional mentions afterward, but it is not a minor feature, even later: whenever it is mentioned something very significant is happening. It is a sign of the Something More, the Legendary in Real Life, of which the common people have always had a sense, however much courts and scholars may try to exorcise it.

Twain's book seems to me to be a model of how to do historical fiction well. His fictionalizations and historical details are both carefully chosen, he adapts his language to the occasion without jarring shifts, he knows when to tell and knows when to show, he is profoundly aware of the importance and dangers of the particular narrative voice one uses, he gives the reader more to look at than museum pieces while not turning the history into mere background, and, perhaps most important of all, he genuinely loves the story he's telling. George Bernard Shaw accused Twain of being infatuated with Joan, but this is not definitely the flaw he assumes it is (how flawed the storyteller who can only tell of things he does not profoundly love, and how flawed the reader who cannot stand to read of things that are so loved!), and even Shaw was forced to concede that, however he might dislike the goody-goodiness of Twain's Joan (which he exaggerates), she shows the marks of having been written by a storytelling genius, someone capable of taking a character who could easily have been implausible and making her very credible. But, of course, it is Twain's love of Joan that makes her story so vivid, and makes him take such care in writing it. This is a crafted story, and it is told in a way that gives us the illusion of having the full experience of those who were there, from the brutality of war to the humor of the pub to the piety and blasphemy of the camp to the smooth unreliability of the court. Sometimes this diversity gives us a bit of a disjointed picture, it should be said -- but this is inherited from the material, and the disjointed character of France itself in the fifteenth century.

Where Twain most succeeds, I think, is that he gives us a Joan of Arc capable of becoming JOAN OF ARC. It is clear from things that Louis says that Twain realizes fully that this is the standard a tale of Joan of Arc must achieve. It is one that is rarely achieved, due to modern flaws. Despite modern contempt and dismissal of hagiography, historical figures don't get hagiographies for no reason. Twain's tale is not a hagiography, but his Joan is one that someone might write hagiographies about. Despite the modern love of characters stuck in the banal, a banal Joan would not have taken charge of the armies of France; Twain's very plausibly could. Many modern portrayals make her too bland to lead, or too hardened to be loved, or too delusional to be shrewd; Twain avoids them all, because, wonder of wonders, he actually likes Joan and is not out to 'uncover' her dark secrets or hidden flaws. And the inevitable result is that Twain's Joan makes much more sense as a character, and seems much more vivid and real, like a real person, however extraordinary, than all these supposedly knowing portrayals. Perhaps the ultimate sin of the historical novelist is thinking that there is no mystery to history, that he has it all figured out, that extraordinary people don't exist and astounding events never happen. Even if this were true in fact (which it is not), it is not what historical evidence, layered and multifaceted as it is, actually gives us; it is not the way anyone actually approaches their own history or the history of their nation; and it is not what makes us think that history has stories worth telling. The inevitable result of approaching historical fiction this way is that you lose the richness that makes historical fiction worth writing and reading in the first place: instead of full-bodied history, such a novelist gives us a cardboard diagram of it, and, even worse, tries to pretend that this flat diagram was all there ever was to the matter, when we know that even our own lives are not that flat and one-note. The historical novelist who is worth his or her salt gives us characters and events that can deliver as promised, gives us a story that is as rich as history must be to be the kind of thing making all the stories possible, does not confuse 'historical novel' and 'hatchet job'. Twain manages it, and he manages it because he loves the story he's telling and is out to convey what he loves about it; but he loves it enough that he's honestly trying to let it speak for itself, to show its wonderfulness on its own, which is what we do when we truly love something and are trying to tell others about it. God have mercy on historical novelists if they ever forget such a thing; and God have mercy on us if we ever lose the ability to appreciate it.

Favorite Passage: There are a lot of good ones, especially humorous ones with the Paladin or serious in some of the descriptions of battles, but most are too long to put here. This (somewhat brutal) one gives a good sense of the better serious ones, in which we are fully confronted with the fact that we are actually in a war that is often taking place in and around the homes and farms that surround the cities:

At eight o'clock all movement ceased, and with it all sounds, all noise. A mute expectancy reigned. The stillness was something awful—because it meant so much. There was no air stirring. The flags on the towers and ramparts hung straight down like tassels. Wherever one saw a person, that person had stopped what he was doing, and was in a waiting attitude, a listening attitude. We were on a commanding spot, clustered around Joan. Not far from us, on every hand, were the lanes and humble dwellings of these outlying suburbs. Many people were visible-—all were listening, not one was moving. A man had placed a nail; he was about to fasten something with it to the door-post of his shop-—but he had stopped. There was his hand reaching up holding the nail; and there was his other hand in the act of striking with the hammer; but he had forgotten everything—his head was turned aside listening. Even children unconsciously stopped in their play; I saw a little boy with his hoop-stick pointed slanting toward the ground in the act of steering the hoop around the corner; and so he had stopped and was listening—-the hoop was rolling away, doing its own steering. I saw a young girl prettily framed in an open window, a watering-pot in her hand and window-boxes of red flowers under its spout—but the water had ceased to flow; the girl was listening. Everywhere were these impressive petrified forms; and everywhere was suspended movement and that awful stillness.

Joan of Arc raised her sword in the air. At the signal, the silence was torn to rags; cannon after cannon vomited flames and smoke and delivered its quaking thunders; and we saw answering tongues of fire dart from the towers and walls of the city, accompanied by answering deep thunders, and in a minute the walls and the towers disappeared, and in their place stood vast banks and pyramids of snowy smoke, motionless in the dead air. The startled girl dropped her watering-pot and clasped her hands together, and at that moment a stone cannon-ball crashed through her fair body.

Recommendation: An underappreciated bit of Mark Twain at the top of his writing game. You cannot go into it, however, expecting uproarious humor -- it is a very serious work, although attempts to treat it as completely atypical Twain are unconvincing (it is notable that in Twain's lifetime it was attacked both for not having enough of Twain's humor and for having too much of it), and the interactions between the Paladin and Noel are sometimes hilarious. For the most part it's more along the lines of what one gets in The Prince and the Pauper, but less whimsical, and the humor occurs largely in the side-lanes of the story. Most of the criticisms of this work, which has nonetheless always had its fans, are due, I think, to readers who cannot reconcile it with their preferred images of Mark Twain, not because of anything in the book itself; and, frankly, having read more of these criticisms in the past two weeks than I would ever bother with otherwise, they largely show the general stupidity and incompetence of critics and scholars discussing Twain, since they often seem to be incapable of grasping very elementary points of symbolism, theme, or plot, and in particular those that are involved in serious historical fiction. I don't recommend the critics, in general; if you haven't noticed, they've done very little more than stir up my impatience and make me roll my eyes. But the book itself is definitely recommended.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


My desktop was apparently fried in a thunderstorm Friday night. I still have internet and my laptop, but my laptop's not really handy for writing any kind of extensive post, so things will be light for a few days. I should have the finishing post of the fortnightly book, Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte, at some point in the next day or two, though.