Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Fundamental Principle of Civil Rights Protest

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Vincent Ferrer and the Antipope

Today is the feast of St. Vincent Ferrer, who is primarily known for his missionary work and work in logic. One of the interesting aspects of his missionary work is that a great deal of it was done for the Pope -- but a fact that is often glossed over is that it was the wrong pope. From 1378 to 1418 there was considerable confusion over who was actually Pope. The Popes had been in Avignon for some time, but Gregory XI had moved back to Rome. When he died, the people of Rome, tired of French interference in papal affairs, rioted and demanded a Roman pope; the College of Cardinals didn't really have a Roman who was a serious option, so they elected a Neapolitan instead, Urban VI. Urban was a very strongheaded and stubborn man. He was also a reform-minded man, and this meant that he was a ferocious kind of meddler. Most of the cardinals regretted having made him pope, so they, geniuses that they were, decided to elect another pope, Clement VII, who took residence in Avignon again. This worked out about as well for the Church as you would think. It also created an extraordinary diplomatic crisis across the entire European continent. The map below gives the main lines of division as different parts of Europe recognized either the Avignon pope (red) or the Roman pope (blue) as the true pope:

Western schism 1378-1417

The map, however, is somewhat simplified, since there were places that switched back and forth as they found it convenient to do so. The diplomatic divisions aggravated the problem, since people now had political interests that gave both sides incentive not to concede anything. When Urban died, the Rome-supporting cardinals elected Boniface IX; when Clement VII died, the Avignon-supporting cardinals elected Benedict XIII. When Boniface died, the Rome-supporting cardinals tried to make peace, on condition that Benedict XIII resign. Benedict refused, so they elected Innocent VII. The structural crisis led to a theological crisis as conciliarism, arguing that a general council would have superiority over any pope, began to look increasingly attractive. Conciliarism would increasingly dominate the scene, even after the overcoming of the Western schism, until it would more or less strangle itself to death through ever more extravagant claims. But while the idea was attractive in the abstract, in practice it just made things worse. Most of the cardinals got together in a council at Pisa to resolve the matter on conciliarist principles; the result was that they declared both candidates no longer pope and elected a new pope. Thus showing, if we needed more proof, that becoming cardinal does not cure stupidity, since all this did was repeat exactly the mistake that had caused the whole problem and turn a dispute between two claimant into a dispute among three claimants. This shifted all the diplomatic alliances again, of course.

One of the Pisan antipopes, John XXIII, convened another council at Constance (Konstanz) in 1414 to discuss how to handle this and other problems. This council ended up being recognized, starting in 1415, by the Roman Pope, Gregory XII. When the council concluded that the only way out was for all claimants to resign, Gregory resigned. And it is worth noting that through the entire process, while the Roman popes never backed down on their claim of being the legitimate pope, they were also the only ones consistently to make concessions for the good of the Church. Martin V was elected pope in 1417, and the Avignon papacy, while still going on, petered out until Clement VIII abdicated in favor of Martin V in 1429.

This is all relevant to Vincent Ferrer, a Spanish saint who lived from 1350 to 1419, and thus saw most of the Western Schism. He was a firm supporter of the antipope Clement VII, and continued to be loyal to the Avignon papacy through the reign of Benedict XIII. He did become disillusioned with Benedict XIII himself, whom he saw as stubbornly refusing to make any effort to repair the damage of the Western Schism, and started preaching against him in 1416. There is a lot of confusion about exactly what went on during this period of his life. I've never seen any actual evidence that Vincent ever regarded the Council of Constance as entirely legitimate; as far as I can tell, he simply seems to have regarded Benedict XIII to be acting in a way that relieved others of obedience to him. A lot of times the story is told in a way that makes it sound as if Vincent accepted Martin V as pope; but this doesn't seem to be the case. He seems to have thought Benedict XIII the legitimate pope to the very end; he just thought that, since Benedict XIII was acting so consistently contrary to the common good of the Church, he had no authority to require obedience.

He was canonized in 1455, after the Western Schism had ended.

Chrysologus for Lent XXXIII

Do you want to know, O man, what you owe to God? That you have been created is credit from God; that you are capable of reason is a loan from God; that you possess the ability to distinguish good from evil is something you have received; and that you pledged to follow completely the rule for living according to the bond of the Law as God drew it up, you are not able to deny.

Meanwhile you act like a pig and wallow in mud through the vices of the flesh, and living like a beast on all fours, you are deprived of the reason with which you were endowed; in the raging waters of your sins you confuse good with evil because you have lost the ability to distinguish between them, and you squander the substance of the divine Law. Therefore, captivated by worldly pleasure you have become a lamentable debtor of a glorious loan. Regarding one who fails to reap any profit in the virtues, the interest compounded from sins is multiplied.

But although you have fallen in this matter, although you have fallen headlong into these calamities, take care that you do not lose hope, O man; you still have the means to make amends to your very merciful Creditor. Do you want to be absolved? Then love.

Sermon 94, sections 5-6.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Isidoro de Sevilla

Today is the feast day of St. Isidore of Seville, Doctor of the Church. Isidore is an interesting figure, in that he shows the genuine importance of synthesis and summary for both philosophy and theology -- his Etymologiae did more for philosophy and theology than many more original works, just by being a good reference work that could be used for centuries. It still is a very good resource, if you know how to read it; it just requires reading expectations different from what we usually bring to the table.

So one speaks of the vestiges of God, because now God is known by way of mirror, but in the completion is recognized as omnipotent when in the future he is presented face to face for all the chosen, so that they contemplate his beauty, whose vestiges they now strive to comprehend, that is, whom they are said to see by way of mirror. For position and vestment and place and time are not said properly of God, but are said metaphorically by way of similitude; thus 'sitting on the Cherubim' is said with relation to position, and 'abyss like a garment his clothing' is said with relation to vestment, and 'your years are not lacking' is said with relation to time, and 'if I ascend to heaven, you are there' is said with relation to place.

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae Liber VII, 38-39. Position (situs), vestment (habitus), place (locus), and time (tempus) are all Aristotelian categories; this is certainly not accidental. A vestige (vestigium), of course, is literally a footprint or track or trace; that is, it is something by means of which you track something, as in hunting.

Last year I noted my favorite etymology in the Etymologies, which I can't resist repeating:

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.

There's really no better way to top that summary of hope: hope is a foot moving forward, spes vocata quod sit pes progrediendi.

Chrysologus for Lent XXXII

And let us, brothers, who have not gained any merit from our will, acquire virtue at least out of necessity; lest we be judged, let us be our own judges; let us impose penance on ourselves so that we might be able to free ourselves from sentencing.

Sermon 167, section 6.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Constitutional Convention?

One of the interesting quieter developments in American politics has been the increasing demand among state legislatures for a Constitutional convention to establish budget constraints on the Federal government. Article V of the U.S. Constitution gives the two processes for modifying the Constitution itself:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

All Amendments so far have been achieved by the first process, in which it is proposed to the states by a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate and none by the second, in which the states propose them to themselves. However, Michigan recently may have triggered the process by becoming the thirty-fourth state to call for Constitutional convention. The tricky thing is how, exactly, one counts the two-thirds of the states. Thirty-four states have specifically called for a Constitutional convention on the matter now. However, roughly about a third of the states rescinded their resolutions for it. So one might think that they don't count. On the other hand, Article V only requires that the states apply for a Constitutional convention. Are they still counted as applying for one if they actually apply but then say that they take it back? Also, there are likely various differences in what states wanted a convention called for; does the mere calling for a convention suffice, or do the states have to agree on why? There are no established precedents. The closest we have come to one is with the Equal Rights Amendment, when the courts established in Idaho v. Freeman that, when an Amendment has been proposed, states have full right to rescind their ratifications as long as it is prior to its having achieved the two-thirds threshold. But in part that was a matter of deference to the states in a matter with no consequences; the real question here would be which way Congress moves. That, of course, will be determined on grounds of political expedience. When the Twenty-Seventh Amendment passed, there were ambiguities, and Congress simply recognized the Amendment, despite being blindsided with it and despite the fact that they didn't like it, for the obvious reason that they were all sufficiently intelligent to realize that Congress refusing to recognize an Amendment restricting their ability to give themselves pay raises would create a political storm they could not survive.

It's a little less clear what would happen here; balanced budget amendments are extremely popular with voters, but Congress has considerable room to maneuver politically. The most rational first move would be simply for Congress to make a formal request of the states to confirm their applications so that it can determine whether it is supposed to call a convention. It's a situation in which Congress has plenty of incentive to proceed at a leisurely pace. My suspicion is that it will require 34 clear and unambiguous cases, unless they get worried that it might be an election issue. It's unlikely to do so, but it may even then encourage Congress to propose a balanced budget Amendment on their own terms; that's what happened with the Seventeenth Amendment: the Senate fiercely opposed any Amendment to change how they were elected until it began to look likely that the reformers could force the convention route.

In any case, the House of Representatives has been formally asked to investigate and determine whether and how to proceed.

Links of Note

* John Farrell has a good post on the lack of priests who are scientists. I'm inclined to think that O'Malley is conflating two different things: the problem that arose was not due to the definition of Modernism, which is actually quite precise, but the practical mechanisms Pius X put into place in the attempt to deal with the heresy, which, being easily subverted for partisan ends, led to the kinds of problems he noted. (I think it is notable that Benedict XV, who put an end to most of the heresy hunts, is actually much more vague, not less, about Modernism; this didn't aggravate the problem because he started changing the practical means for dealing with it.) But the general point, I think, is probably right.

* Sean Carroll discusses what physicists mean when they say a theory seems unnatural.

* George Weigel has a good post on Lent as an 'annual catechumenate'.

* The Syriac Orthodox Church recently elected a new patriarch. The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch is an Oriental Orthodox church, which means they accepted the first three ecumenical councils (Nicaea, First Constantinople, Ephesus) but not the Council of Chalcedon. By the official lists the new Patriarch, Aphrem II Karim, is 123rd Patriarch of Antioch in the Syriac Orthodox line.

* Ashok Karra discusses property and the pursuit of happiness in Xenophon's Cyropaedia.

* Heidi Howkins Lockwood has an excellent post on apologies at "Feminist Philosophers".


* Saudi Arabia has expanded its legal definition of terrorism to include advocacy of atheism. Saudi Arabia has been having difficulty with political unrest recently, so naturally anything seen as attacking Islam, on which the regime depends, is seen as a political attack on the government.

Chrysologus for Lent XXXI

The kingdom of heaven is the reward of the righteous, the judgment of sinners, and the punishment for the unrighteous.

Sermon 167, section 3.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Music on My Mind

Billy Joel, "No Man's Land". Sirius Radio has been doing a temporary 'Billy Joel Channel', so I've been giving the classic radio theater a rest during drives and listening to Billy Joel. It's rather interesting, since I've heard literally all of my life; his first hit predates my birth by half a decade. And while he's one of those musicians who is more good than great, he has a lot of songs of very different kinds and as a rule they're not awful, and some of them are very good. He tends to do best with simple melodies, like And So It Goes, which I think is probably his best song (although I am at heart a romantic sap), but sometimes he does very well with one which just lets loose and has fun with some genre or other, as with this one. When it came on I discovered that I knew all the words to it; I had the River of Dreams album (still have it somewhere -- on cassette tape!) from which it comes, and I listened to it quite a bit in college. Apparently some of it stuck.

Rosmini on Skepticism

Sceptics certainly have the right to subtle reasoning, but human society must be allowed its right over language, a right which cannot be taken away or violated with impunity. Human society, from the beginning of its existence until now, has always understood that, in affirming that it knows the truth of a proposition, it knows the final reason and element of the proposition. This is the only value human society has given to the word ‘truth’. Sceptics therefore cannot deny truth; they do not even attack it if they agree that human beings, on analysing every argument, reduce it to its ultimate element or reason of reasoning. To call this reason false is a misuse of words, because what we call truth is this very reason. Truth therefore is immune from the sceptics’ attacks, and the difference between the sceptics and common sense is simply this: common sense, once it has attained the truth, is satisfied, and acknowledges its satisfaction, whereas scepticism is unaware of the truth it has attained and continues its search for something more elevated, arbitrarily and misleadingly called ‘truth’.

Antonio Rosmini, New Essay Concerning the Origin of Ideas, Section 6, Part 1, Chapter 8, section 1063.

Chrysologus for Lent XXX

Let us do penance, brothers, let us do penance right away, because we no longer have any extended period of time, the very hour is quickly coming to an end for us, and the imminence of judgment is already preventing us from the opportunity to make amends. Let your penance get up and running, so that judgment may not outrun it, since the fact that the Lord has not yet come, that he still waits, and that he delays, means that his desire is for us to return to him and not to perish.

Sermon 167, section 5.

Peter Chrysologus, Selected Sermons, Volume 3, Palardy, tr. Catholic University of America Press [Washington, DC: 2005]. On to the next volume, you see. Volume 2 had a lot more of the specifically Lent or fasting ones, so we'll be skipping around with some of the sermons with more Lent-like themes first, and then start looking at some of the Easter-related ones as Lent comes to a close, to the extent there is time.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Wolves or Gods

The Honest Shepherd
by Matthew Prior

When hungry wolves had trespass'd on the fold,
And the robb'd shepherd his sad story told,
'Call in Alcides,' said a crafty priest,
'Give him one half and he'll secure the rest.'
No, said the shepherd, if the Fates decree,
By ravaging my flock to ruin me,
To their commands I willingly resign,
Power is their character, and patience mine;
Though troth, to me there seems but little odds
Who prove the greatest robbers - wolves or gods.

Local Neighborhoods for Arguments

An extraordinary number of arguments, even those not originally in this form, can be summarized by a standard Aristotelian syllogism. Here would be a typical design argument summarized in this way, for instance:

What exhibits signs of design has a designer.
The world as a whole exhibits signs of design.
Therefore the world as a whole has a designer.

In practice, of course, you'd probably have all sorts of subordinate arguments attempting to support the premises, but we can strip them all away and see the general character of the argument.

So suppose we want to investigate variations on this argument. We could vary the middle term (exhibits signs of design); or we could vary the major term (has a designer) or we could vary the minor term (the world as a whole). It's natural to think of terms along the lines of classifications, however; for instance, classifications allow you to identify appropriate middle terms for arguments that are explanatory. And we can think of each term along Aristotelian lines again. Every term is a (logical) species in some kind of classification relating it to other terms; it consists in a (logical) genus with a specific difference distinguishing it from other terms that share the same genus. So one way we can vary a term in a regular way (i.e., in a way that does not involve arbitrarily replacing it with another term) is by making it more general. For instance, we can move from the term has a designer to has a cause, since having a designer is one way to have a cause. Likewise, terms can be divided into (logical) species. (It is important to keep in mind that we are talking about logical divisions of a term here. For instance, in a metaphysical classification, there is no subspecies of Brandon, since I am just me; but we could logically treat me as a species by dividing me up into Brandon yesterday, Brandon today, Brandon tomorrow, and so forth, or maybe Brandon happy, Brandon sad, Brandon irritated, and so forth. That these are not real subspecies of Brandon would make no difference in the context of logical terms.) So we can go downward by adding specifications.

Thus we have three terms in our argument, and each can be either generalized or specified. In practice, however, it makes sense to leave the minor term out when looking at this aspect of arguments, because the minor term is always the application, and in practice when looking at the general structure of argument, what kind of argument it is, we ignore the particular application. So, for instance, if I replaced the world as a whole with biological organisms, it's still the same kind of argument, it's just applied to a different context. So unlike the major and middle, we will let the minor term vary freely. (It can still, of course, vary by generalization or specification; we just won't require it.) Changing major terms or middle terms, however, can alter the argument drastically, so we will require that they be either generalized or specified.

There is another way an argument can be varied, however, and that is by playing with modalities. Modalities in the sense used here modifications of the way in which a predicate applies to its subject. For instance, we could turn "What exhibits signs of design has a designer" into "What exhibits signs of design may have a designer". Modality typically has a clear direction (those that don't are usually indistinguishable from specifications of terms), so that we can move to a stronger modality or to a weaker modality. In the example just given, for instance, we moved to a weaker modality. The weaker modality takes the same terms, but it applies the predicate term more weakly to the subject than the original premise. Let's call a shift to a stronger modality boxizing and the shift to a weaker modality diamondizing, after the usual way we represent these. Modalities can be any kind of modification -- time, space, possibility, permissibility, or what have you, as long as it affects the connection of the predicate term to the subject term. (The reason we treat these variations as different from variations of terms is that treating them as the latter causes complications when dealing with middle terms.)

So let's coin a phrase and say that any argument A is in the local n-neighborhood of any argument B if you can start with argument A and change it to argument B with n and no more than n of these allowed modifications: generalization of major term, specification of major term, generalization of middle term, specification of middle term, substitution of minor term, boxizing of major premise, diamondizing of major premise, boxizing of minor premise, diamondizing of minor premise. Since generalization/specification and boxizing/diamondizing are simply pairs of opposing logical directions, n is always less than or equal to 5.

So if we look at the following argument (just giving the premises):

Whatever exhibits signs of design must have a cause
Computers always exhibits signs of design.

This is in the local 4-neighborhood of our original argument: you can get it from the first by generalizing the major term, substituting the minor term, boxizing the major premise, and boxizing the minor premise.

Here's another argument:

Whatever is an effect has a cause.
Biological organisms are effects.

This is in the local 3-neighborhood of the original argument: you can get it by generalizing the major, generalizing the middle, and substituting the minor. It is in the local 4-neighborhood of the argument we just gave, since you'd have to generalize the major term, diamondize the major premise, diamondize the minor premise, and substitute the minor term. In both these last two we are seeing the connection between design arguments and causal arguments more generally.

Another argument:

Whatever outside of me that exhibits signs of intelligence has a mind other than my own as one of its causes.
Other people's faces are things outside of me that exhibit signs of intelligence.

This is in the local 3-neighborhood of the original argument, in the local 5-neighborhood of the second, and in the local 3-neighborhood of the third. And we could go on, of course.

There's obviously a sense in which this is a crude measure of the 'neighborhood' of an argument; we often treat arguments differingly only by modality as much more similar than arguments with different terms, and arguments with specified terms to be in some way 'closer' to the original argument than arguments with generalized terms, and so forth. But part of the reason for this is the reason why we would be interested in talking about the neighborhood of an argument at all. One context in which neighborhoods of an argument play an important role in our reasoning is when we are dealing with refutations or possible refutations. For instance, if I refute argument A, this may have implications for other arguments in the neighborhood -- refuting one argument is a fortiori refuting another. But this is not an uncontrolled chain reaction: refuting an argument only refutes other arguments a fortiori in a few neighborhoods at most. The reason, of course, is that a fortiori reasoning is often a form of reasoning using genus and species or a form of reasoning between modalities, both of which are captured by the concept of the local n-neighborhood. On the other side, if an argument is refuted, the obvious question is: is there an argument in the neighborhood that is not refuted? And one way we could answer this question is by determining arguments that are unrefuted by the refutation that are in the local n-neighborhood with the lowest n. This is actually a form of analysis all reasonable people already engage in to some extent: local n-neighborhood is just one way of thinking about the way in which arguments are similar to each other in non-superficial and non-arbitrary ways.

There is another way in which this is relevant. If we look at the last example that we showed above, for instance, it is not a design argument but what would be called an argument about other minds, which is often treated as a distinct philosophical problem. We can obviously distinguish the two kinds of problems, design and other minds, but they are distinguishable in ways that nonetheless don't make them easy to separate. The two are connected historically; ever since Berkeley, other mind arguments and design arguments are mutually spawning -- if a particular kind of other mind argument develops, it is often followed by a design argument working in a similar way, and if a particular kind of design argument develops it is often followed historically by someone developing an other mind argument along similar lines. Even taking the history out of the question, we can easily see that there are lots of similarities, and when we're dealing with different kinds of arguments, we can often use the same classification system to classify either. And it's an interesting exercise to pick some random design argument and turn it into an argument for other minds and vice versa: the arguments won't always be equally plausible, and the design arguments, like the computer one above, won't always be theologically suggestive (they usually won't, in fact) but you can always do it very easily. They are in each other's neighborhoods. Indeed, I think that every possible design argument has some other minds argument in its local 1-neighborhood, and vice versa. When we're dealing with summary-syllogisms of the sort we're considering, the existence of a designing cause would have to be in the major term of the design argument, so all you actually need is a generalization of the major term, going from minds causing as designers to someone else's mind causing somehow; starting with other minds it's just the reverse.

It's worth noting that both design arguments and other mind arguments are related in a similar way to causal arguments for the existence of one's own mind, which tend not to get the same philosophical press. But one thing this means is that a causal argument for the simpler case of how one knows one's own mind exists could potentially shed light on possible arguments for other minds. This is another potential use of thinking along these lines.

There are no doubt other things one could mean by one argument being in the neighborhood of another; they too are worth developing, but this one seems a fairly easy concept to explore, and whose exploration seems to have some possibility of leading to new discoveries about arguments.

Chrysologus for Lent XXIX

When God was about to give the Law he ordered the people to wash their clothes, to wash their bodies, and to cleanse themselves entirely from every contagion of the flesh, since the human being cannot draw near to God if he is polluted with bodily impurity or earthly filth. And if the Law, which contained a shadow and figure of grace, was right to require such purification and to demand such purity for those who are about to hear the entire mystery of divinity, how great must be their purity in both mind and body? So let us cleanse our hearts, let us purify our bodies, let us open our eyes, let us unlock our understanding, let us open wide all the doors of our soul, so that we can listen to, grasp, retain, and always preserve in the very depths of our heart the Creed, which is the pact of faith.

Sermon 59, section 2. It is a common theme in Chrysologus's sermons on the Creed to insist that the Creed can only be understood properly if those who approach it prepare by ascetic discipline and repentance.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Onion on Noah

The Onion manages a near-perfect satire of film critics with its review of Noah:

Three Poem Re-Drafts

Iliad V, 770ff

As far as man can see,
eyes to hazy distance,
seated on mountain peak
overlooking wine-dark sea,

so far their lordly leap,
god-steeds loudly neighing.

Gray Skies

Skies are gray today; what of it?
Every gray sky has blue above it,
warm with light;
when gray clouds are done
out springs the sun,
clear and bright.


A cathedral hewn of a single stone
holds a golden cross and an ancient throne
where the glory sat above cherubim
in the holiest holy.

The Geez prayers of an ancient rite
softly rise into a velvet night
and Ezana's children pray by the wall
of the holiest holy.

I dreamed of Adsum where angels rest
on every tabot and stars are guest
at revels of hope and undying light
near the holiest holy.

Maryam Ts'iyon walks a path alone
with cherubim that make the throne
for the Highest High and His glorious gift,
holiest of all holies.

Chrysologus for Lent XXVIII

When the Judge wants to forgive, he regards the human being, not the offense. When the Father wants to show mercy to the son, he considers his affection, not the sin. So in the case of the human being, God is mindful of his own work so as to forget the human being's work. So you who criticize and murmur about why Christ altered his course for a sinner, come in and grasp from this the way to salvation, an example of pardon, and the hope for mercy; and be on your guard against your making a matter of blasphemy out of an opportunity for your salvation.

Sermon 54, section 6. I suspect that 'Judge' and 'Father' should not be capitalized in the first two sentences.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fortnightly Book, March 30

The fortnightly book this time around will be Willa Cather's My Ántonia. When it was published in 1918, it was widely hailed as a promising candidate for the top tier of American novels, and certainly one of the great American novels about American life. I found Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop extraordinarily beautiful when I did it for the fortnightly book, so I am expecting good things from this one, particularly since this is often considered Cather's most important novel.

From Cather's essay on the art of fiction:

Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page. Millet had done hundreds of sketches of peasants sowing grain, some of them very complicated and interesting, but when he came to paint the spirit of them all into one picture, “The Sower,” the composition is so simple that it seems inevitable. All the discarded sketches that went before made the picture what it finally became, and the process was all the time one of simplifying, of sacrificing many conceptions good in themselves for one that was better and more universal.

The Proper Study of Man as Artist

We must not listen to Pope's maxim about the proper study of mankind. The proper study of man is everything. The proper study of man as artist is everything which gives a foothold to the imagination and the passions.

From C. S. Lewis, "On Science Fiction"

Goethe, Faust


Opening Passage: The work has a dedication and two prologues, but the story proper, of course, has to begin with Faust:
FAUST. I've studied all Philosophy,
Medicine, Jurisprudence too,
Also, to my grief, Theology,
With fervent efforts through and through;
Yet here I stand, poor fool! what's more
Not one whit wiser than before!
I'm Master, Doctor, and I've found
For ten long years, that as I chose
I've led my students by the nose,
First up, then down, then all around,
To see that nothing can be known!

Summary: Faust is a highly episodic work. Rather than attempting to build a clear continuity, Goethe's method is to build carefully wrought scenes, each one in some ways sharply divided from the others, whose unity of characters and themes makes it possible for them to suggest by juxtaposition, rather than fully state, the course of the story. In addition, the story as we have it is layered. We start with a prologue scene in which the theatrical troupe discuss how they should handle the play, ending with our first definite indication of the story:

Thus in our narrow booth to-day,
Creation's ample scope display,
And wander swiftly, yet observing well,
From Heaven through the world to Hell.

And, indeed, the very next scene is another prologue scene taking place in Heaven. The sons of God are gathered in joy before the Almighty, and Mephistopheles comes among them. Mephistopheles is beginning to be bored of the earth, so the Almighty points out Faust, and a wager is struck up between them for Faust's soul:

Divert this spirit from its primal source,
And, if you can attract him, drag him where
You go upon your downward course;
Then stand ashamed, forced to admit, contrite,
That Man, through all his obscure, striving urge,
Is ever conscious of the path to right.

And in a parting comment the Almighty gives a crucial indication of why he's striking up wagers with devils in the first place:

Too quickly stilled is man's activity,
Too soon he longs for unconditioned rest;
Hence I bestowed this comrade willingly,
Who goads, and as a devil, creates best.

This will be perhaps the fundamental moral theme of the work: Human beings naturally tend toward the good if thy strive to act; our great temptation is never evil as such, nor even error (since we err as long as we strive), but stagnation. Those who struggle forward are being drawn upward to Heaven; the ones who sink to Hell are those who rest too soon. And in this light it becomes clear that Goethe manages to accomplish something that many fail to do: he has made his God more clever than his Devil. The Almighty is not just betting Mephistopheles that Faust tends toward good; He is using Mephistopheles to guarantee that he does.

From Heaven we descend to earth and discover Heinrich Faust on the Eve of Easter (the time is not arbitrary), sitting in his chambers in full academic angst, fretting and restless. He's studied and studied and taught and taught, and it doesn't seem to be worth much. He is not satisfied with the limits of human knowledge and does not find much good resulting from what he does know. Thus Mephistopheles is able to tempt him with an offer of a life of experiences beyond what he had ever experienced. They strike up a bargain: Mephistopheles will serve Faust and do what he wills, but if Faust ever has a moment that stills his restlessness, he will die and serve the devil forever. The devil, of course, is a lying spirit, and it has been noted that, with the possible exception of returning to Faust his youth, Mephistopheles never actually does anything for Faust that Faust himself could not have done. The devil repeatedly insists throughout the work that he cannot do this or that, and thus while never technically breaking the bargain, provides only a useless service.

With the introduction of the character of the beautiful and innocent Margarete, or Gretchen, we are done with the preliminaries and begin the main action of the story. Faust, having been made youthful, sees her on the street and demands to have her; Mephistopheles merely sets up a situation in which he can exercise his own charms. Gretchen falls in love with him. Throughout Faust is ruled by two impulses: his primary attitude to Gretchen is one of lust, but he is really falling in love with her. They have sex and Gretchen becomes pregnant, but Faust, goaded by Mephistopheles into killing a man who happens to be Gretchen's brother, is convinced by Mephistopheles to flee.

In particular, Mephistopheles is drawing Faust on to the climax of Walpurgisnacht (the evening before May 1), when the witches have their sabbath. Thus Faust, and we who have been following him, have completed the trip to Hell. Walpurgisnacht reminds me a great deal of Vanity Fair in Pilgrim's Progress, and they have, functionally, a number of similarities, although Vanity Fair shows the fair side of things, whereas we get a truer representation here. What we are actually seeing is an account of Faust's soul, since a number of things that happen at Walpurgisnacht suggest, by a kind of nightmare symbolism, what has already happened in the story. As Walpurgisnacht unfolds, however, Faust finds himself unable to forget Gretchen, and thus begins to pull back from Hell. Soon after Faust discovers that Gretchen is in prison, and demands that Mephistopheles rescue her. The devil refuses, and when Faust keeps insisting, begs him to remember that he cannot go back to the town because avenging spirits await the murderer of Gretchen's brother. Faust, however, in the first definite sign of his improvement (but it is a natural improvement, a correction of error, not a moral redemption -- Goethe, unlike Hollywood, understands that much more is required for the latter), no longer cares about himself, and so they go.

They find Gretchen insane in prison, having drowned her baby. Her mind becomes clear enough to recognize Faust, but when he tries to rescue her, she refuses, accepting the consequences of her action. When Mephistopheles enters the cell, she recognizes him as the devil, and terrified that he has come for her soul, throws herself on the mercy of God. The devil dismisses her as condemned -- a Voice from above insists that she is redeemed -- and Mephistopheles manages, again, to get Faust to abandon her, showing once more that Faust himself is not yet redeemed. The play ends with her calling his name. Faust still has a long way to go.

Favorite Passage:

FAUST. Mephisto do you see...there--
Far off stands a child alone, so pale, so sweet!
She drags herself quite slowly from the place,
As if--as if she walked with fettered feet.
I must confess I seem to see
A likeness to my little Gretchen's face.

Recommendation: It is Goethe's masterpiece; of course you have to read it. But it can be recommended as well for being a rather heart-rending story, wrought well and moving with a crisp, dramatic pace.