Saturday, October 11, 2014

For the Sake of Argument

Bret Harte, Tales of the Gold Rush

Introduction

Opening Passage: (From the story, "The Luck of Roaring Camp")

There was commotion in Roaring Camp. It could not have been a fight, for in 1850 that was not novel enough to have called together the entire settlement. The ditches and claims were not only deserted, but "Tuttle's grocery" had contributed its gamblers, who, it will be remembered, calmly continued their game the day that French Pete and Kanaka Joe shot each other to death over the bar in the front room. The whole camp was collected before a rude cabin on the outer edge of the clearing. Conversation was carried on in a low tone, but the name of a woman was frequently repeated. It was a name familiar enough in the camp,—"Cherokee Sal."

Summary: Harte's short stories are humorous tales, but there are different kinds of humor. For instance, some kinds of humor are based on the disruption of expectation, while others are based on seeing the imperfection in the good. But Harte's humor is different from either of these. The humor in Harte's tales is that which is less funny -- although sometimes, as in "Prosper's 'Old Mother'", it becomes hilarious -- than good humored, is that of seeing the good in the hopelessly flawed. It is a form of humor that is at once frankly realistic and yet romantically optimistic. Wrongdoers cannot evade the consequences of their sins, but they receive any respect their good works can get them. An impenitent sinner can never be a saint, and the disreputable and rough-hewn can never fit the role of social exemplar -- but they have all the nobility of being human and can have all the honor of doing even just one thing that breaks them out of type.

All of the stories in this collection concern this aspect of human life. In particular, we see again and again how even unsavory and dubious characters can be ennobled by acting in a way that thoroughly respects one good thing -- the four that come up in the tales, in various combinations, are friendship, parenthood, marriage, and innocence -- and how human civilization is built of this. Our civilization is not built by saints. It is built by sinners, often thoroughly impenitent sinners, who nonetheless have at least one clear point of honor, which leads them to respect one good thing enough to make some genuine sacrifices for it. The tale that highlights this most explicitly, I think, is "A Protegee of Jack Hamlin", in which Jack Hamlin, a recurring character throughout the stories, and a cool-headed womanizing gambler, befriends a young lady when he prevents her from committing suicide. Hamlin's chosen lifestyle locks him in a bind; he cannot help her honestly. His reputation is such that he can barely be seen in the company of a woman without people assuming some fooling around is going on, so helping her openly would hurt her reputation. The good an innocent could do openly, the guilty must sometimes lie to do, and without any of the experience required to do it completely as it should be done. But he does it anyway, as best he knows how, and for a simple reason: though his morality is more than slightly hazy, he has one or two sharp, clear points of honor.

One of the things that helps make Harte's approach work is his clear recognition of this heroism of the hopelessly flawed. We see this in part in his repeated tendency to see his flawed characters as Argonauts, that is, in terms of Greek hero tale. We tend to read the Iliad and the Odyssey schoolishly, with somber faces and no regard for humor, but after all, what was the Trojan war but a camp of rough, flawed, over-the-top young men who made a few great sacrifices and sometimes were lucky, just as in a tale of the frontier, the Wild West, the cattle drive, or the gold rush? The social structures are somewhat different, and the background religion especially so, but the characters are much the same; you can see devious Odysseus in the cool-headed gamblers and sulky Achilles in the hot-headed young outlaws and the blunt Ajax in the dogged prospectors. The heroism of the one shows clearly the possibility of heroism in the other, and Harte takes full advantage of the parallels.

Favorite Passage: (From "A Protegee of Jack Hamlin")

They had luckily entered a narrow side street, and the sobs which shook the young girl's frame were unnoticed. For a few moments Jack felt a horrible conviction stealing over him, that in his present attitude towards her he was not unlike that hound Stratton, and that, however innocent his own intent, there was a sickening resemblance to the situation on the boat in the base advantage he had taken of her friendlessness. He had never told her that he was a gambler like Stratton, and that his peculiarly infelix reputation among women made it impossible for him to assist her, except by a stealth or the deception he had practiced, without compromising her. He who had for years faced the sneers and half-frightened opposition of the world dared not tell the truth to this girl, from whom he expected nothing and who did not interest him. He felt he was almost slinking at her side.

Recommendation: If you've read much in the way of short stories, you've probably already read a few. They are all worth reading at least once, and several of them are quite enjoyable. Recommended.

Only the Containers of Things

All experimental finding is reduced, in the end, to confining within as close limits as possible the value of the measurable element of phenomena. We never reach the exact points at which the phenomenon really begins and ends. Moreover, we cannot affirm that such points exist, except, perhaps, in indivisible instants; a hypothesis which, in all probability, is contrary to the nature of time itself. Thus we see, as it were, only the containers of things, not the things themselves. We do not know if things occupy, in their containers, an assignable place. Supposing that phenomena were indeterminate, though only in a certain measure insuperably transcending the range of our rough methods of reckoning, appearances would none the less be exactly as we see them.

Emile Boutroux, The Contingency of the Laws of Nature, Fred Rothwell, tr., p. 28. This work is from 1874, although the English translation is quite a bit later.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Out of Our Depth

Creation is absolutely and entirely out of our depth, and beyond the extent of our utmost reach. And yet it is as certain that God made the world, as it is certain that effects must have a cause. It is indeed in general no more than effects, that the most knowing are acquainted with: for as to causes, they are as entirely in the dark as the most ignorant.

Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons, Sermon XV: Upon the Ignorance of Man.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Knowledge, Discernment, Prudence, and Love

Today is the memorial for Bl. John Henry Newman. From the Discourses to Mixed Congregations:

Be convinced in your reason that the Catholic Church is a teacher sent to you from God, and it is enough. I do not wish you to join her, till you are. If you are half convinced, pray for a full conviction, and wait till you have it. It is better indeed to come quickly, but better slowly than carelessly; and sometimes, as the proverb goes, the more haste, the worse speed. Only make yourselves sure that the delay is not from any fault of yours, which you can remedy. God deals with us very differently; conviction comes slowly to some men, quickly to others; in some it is the result of much thought and many reasonings, in others of a sudden illumination.

And a prayer from the posthumous Meditations and Devotions:

O Lord, who art called the Branch, the Orient, the Splendour of the eternal light, and the Sun of Justice, who art that Tree, of whom Thy beloved disciple speaks as the Tree of life, bearing twelve fruits, and its leaves for the healing of the nations, give Thy grace and blessing on all those various states and conditions in Thy Holy Church, which have sprung from Thee and live in Thy Life. Give to all Bishops the gifts of knowledge, discernment, prudence, and love. Give to all priests to be humble, tender, and pure; give to all pastors of Thy flock to be zealous, vigilant, and unworldly; give to all religious bodies to act up to their rule, to be simple and without guile, and to set their hearts upon invisible things and them only. Grant to fathers of families to recollect that they will have hereafter to give account of the souls of their children; grant to all husbands to be tender and true; to all wives to be obedient and patient; grant to all children to be docile; to all young people to be chaste; to all the aged to be fervent in spirit; to all who are engaged in business, to be honest and unselfish; and to all of us the necessary graces of faith, hope, charity, and contrition.

Xenophon's Hipparchikos and Peri Hippike

A hipparchos is a cavalry commander, so it is unsurprising that Xenophon's treatise, Hipparchikos, is about being cavalry commander. Along with the Peri hippike (which means 'On horsemanship') it is the oldest extant discussion of horsemanship in the Western world (to find an older text on the subject, you have to go to tablets from the Hittite empire). In Peri hippike Xenophon mentions another work, which is survives only in fragments, by a certain Simon, but it seems that Simon and Xenophon were the first people to write specifically on the subject of horsemanship in ancient Greece, and, as far as we know, Xenophon was the first to write on cavalry command. It was a subject he knew well; he fought in the Athenian cavalry toward the end of the Peloponnesian war; he may have also fought against Athens for Sparta at Coronea.

You can find Hipparchikos and Peri hippike online in English at the Perseus Project.

Hipparchikos

The first duty of a cavalry commander, says Xenophon, is to sacrifice to the gods. Then you must recruit, see to it that the horses are properly taken care of, and train and arm your men. You should have high standards, focusing on excellence of horsemanship, and if you do this will actually inspire young men to join you. He gives a number of practical tips on all of these things, including formations.

Having talked about the general matters, he passes to talking about what a cavalry commander himself must first do. His first duty is to fulfill his religious responsibilities, making the sacrifices to the gods for the cavalry, participating in the religious festivals, and the like. He gives some tips on the best way to do these things. In Chapter 4, we learn how to handle a march and how to position oneself to have an advantage over the enemy. In Chapter 5, he covers the things a cavalry commander must be able easily to estimate -- how quickly a horse can catch a man on foot or another horse, as well as the best tactic to use against an opponent doing different things. These estimations require a great deal of experience with horses, and close attention to their condition under different circumstances. A cavalry commander also has a responsibility to make sure that the city understands that a cavalry needs an effective infantry if it is itself to be fully effective. (Given Greek weaponry, cavalry was highly vulnerable to infantry attack, and so needed a counter-infantry for defense.)

Xenophon then talks about the importance of morale and moral authority; the men need to think of their officers as wiser than they are and worthy of respect. Cultivating loyalty requires kindness and, just as important, care for men in the practical sense of making sure they are properly fed and equipped, as well as letting them share any benefits the officers themselves might have. The basic rule is straightforward: "To put it shortly, a commander is least likely to incur the contempt of his men if he shows himself more capable than they of doing whatever he requires of them" (6.4). And, of course, Xenophon notes the most important thing to getting the loyalty of your men: they need to be confident that if they obey you they will not needlessly die. The commander must exercise prudence.

All of this is especially important to the Athenians, who are surrounded by cities that also have good cavalry and also are capable of fielding large armies. This guarantees that the cavalry commander will sometimes be required to enter hostile territory under less than ideal conditions, and he needs to be ready to handle such situations.

The key to handling battle is training, training, training; your men must be so good at handling a horse that it comes practically naturally. The horses, too, must be properly trained, fed, and exercised, so that they will respond optimally. (In an interesting comment, he notes that training in horsemanship is pleasant work, because it is the closest a human being can ever get to flying.) He notes some common errors in the use of cavalry that men need to be trained against.

The final chapter notes that it is impossible to cover everything required for cavalry command in a single treatise:

To read these suggestions a few times is enough; but it is always necessary for the commander to hit on the right thing at the right moment, to think of the present situation and to carry out what is expedient in view of it. To write out all that he ought to do is no more possible than to know everything that is going to happen. The most important of all my hints, I think, is this: Whatever you decide to be best, see that it gets done. Whether you are a farmer, a skipper or a commander, sound decisions bear no fruit unless you see to it that, with heaven's help, they are duly carried out. (9.1-2)

He makes some additional comments on raising a cavalry force and ends the work by reiterating the importance of piety to the gods:

All these things are feasible provided the gods give their consent. If anyone is surprised at my frequent repetition of the exhortation to work with God, I can assure him that his surprise will diminish, if he is often in peril, and if he considers that in time of war foemen plot and counterplot, but seldom know what will come of their plots. Therefore there is none other that can give counsel in such a case but the gods. They know all things, and warn whomsoever they will in sacrifices, in omens, in voices, and in dreams. And we may suppose that they are more ready to counsel those who not only ask what they ought to do in the hour of need, but also serve the gods in the days of their prosperity with all their might. (9.7-9)

Peri Hippike

The treatise on the correct method of handling horses opens, naturally enough, with advice on how not to get cheated in buying a horse. He chooses not to discuss the breaking of horses, because riding is far more important to cavalry -- certainly young men should focus on riding, and leave breaking horses to their elders. Nonetheless, a horseman must take care that the one who breaks in a colt does his job properly. He then moves on, in chapter 4, to discuss how to take care of horses, by having a proper stable, food, and cleaning procedures, and taking appropriate thought to their hooves. The horseman must also make sure his groom knows what he is doing (Chapter 5).

After a number of other tips on the care of horses, Xenophon turns to advice on riding. Riding he sees as pedagogical in character: the rider must teach his horse. The art of horsemanship is a teaching art:

Now, whereas the gods have given to men the power of instructing one another in their duty by word of mouth, it is obvious that you can teach a horse nothing by word of mouth. If, however, you reward him when he behaves as you wish, and punish him when he is disobedient, he will best learn to do his duty. This rule can be stated in few words, but is applies to the whole art of horsemanship. He will receive the bit, for example, more willingly if something good happens to him as soon as he takes it. He will also leap over and jump out of anything, and perform all his actions duly if he can expect a rest as soon as he has done what is required of him. (8.13-14)

Since horsemanship is a form of teaching, it requires taking into consideration the character of the horse. Like human beings, horses have thymos, spirit or drive, and thus it is possible that you have a very spirited horse, and handling a spirited horse is exactly like handling a spirited man -- you avoid unnecessarily annoying him, and focus on gentle guidance. He vehemently rejects any thought of trying to handle the spirited horse by tiring him out -- by its very nature a spirited horse will take this as a challenge, and will likely harm himself trying to do more than he can do. Like a spirited man, a spirited horse likes victory; he must be held back by the rider from running his top speed or racing other horses, because he will not hold himself back if he is given a challenge. Likewise, the rider himself must remain calm, or the horse will get too excited. But, says Xenophon, if you are going to war, it's probably best to avoid spirited horses. If the horse is not spirited but sluggish, however, you must do everything in exactly the opposite way.

Xenophon then sharply criticizes common practices when it comes to displaying horses. If you want to show off a horse, you have to teach him in such a way that he likes to show off: "But if you teach the horse to go with a slack bridle, to hold his neck up and to arch it towards the head, you will cause the horse to do the very things in which he himself delights and takes the greatest pleasure" (10.3). He gives some tips on how to do this, but notes that only particular kinds of horses are good for parade: they need to be strong and spirited. The key principle in all of this is that horses are most beautiful and graceful when they are not coerced, so the rider has to develop a sense of how to guide the horse without making the horse feel like it's being forced to do something.

The last chapter ends with a discussion of how man and horse should be armed for battle, but ends by noting that all his comments in this work are for the private person, not cavalry commanders, and refers the reader to the appropriate treatise for that subject.

The astute reader will note that Xenophon's treatise on cavalry command is structured so as to be also a treatise on leadership, and his treatise on horsemanship is structured so as also to be a treatise on teaching, just as his treatise on hunting with dogs was structured so as also to be a treatise on learning how to be virtuous. This is a typically Xenophontic theme. Each specific domain has its own quirks, but they all require certain general virtues. The prudent person will understand how to take the specific case and properly generalize it.

****

Quotations are from the Marchant translation at the Perseus Project.


Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Violations of Remotion II

The principle of remotion, again, is approximately:

(R) God is known only by causal inference from effects, in such a way as not to fall under a genus.

Another good example of an argument in analytic philosophy of religion that appears to violate remotion is given by certain accounts of the 'problem of hell'. Take the version in Rangland's good IEP article on the philosophical implications of hell:

(1) An omniperfect God would not damn anyone to hell without having a morally sufficient reason (that is, a very good reason based on moral considerations) to do so.
(2) It is not possible for God to have a morally sufficient reason to damn anyone.
(3) Therefore, it is not possible for God to damn anyone to hell.

Nothing about this, on its own, need violate (R), but we can ask why one would think (1) true (most responses to this argument concern (2); but it's (1) that interests us here because it's clearly about God). And if we look at Rangland's summary of the common reason, it raises all sorts of warning flags if we are wondering whether it violates remotion:

The argument’s first premise seems to follow from the nature of the relevant divine attributes. To say that a being is morally perfect is (in part) to say that such a being would not want any suffering to occur unless there were a morally sufficient reason for it to occur. God’s omnipotence and omniscience imply that God has knowledge and power sufficient to ensure that things happen only if God wants them to happen. So it seems that a perfectly good, omnipotent, and omniscient being would not allow suffering – particularly of the extreme sort associated with damnation – unless there was a very good moral justification for allowing it.

So we are dealing with very strong modalities here -- if we justify the first premise in this way we seem to be taking (1) to be a necessary truth about the actually existing God, assuming any actually existing God exists; and indeed, if we don't take (1) to be a necessary truths, we could evade getting the conclusion (3) in a number of ways. There is no sign of any causal inference that specifically gets us to saying God is 'omniperfect' (which is glossed as 'necessarily perfect in goodness') in precisely the sense required by the argument. The premises can't be merely stipulative if it's to be any kind of actual problem at all. It seems to require that the attributes in question are part of the real definition of God's actual nature. There's no smoking gun, strictly speaking, but without an actual causal inference actually fixing the meaning of the key terms of the argument, there appears to be no other ways to get the strong premise required to yield the strong conclusion.

To know (1), we have to know a lot about God, or about what God must be. If this knowledge is not precisely fixed by a causal inference to the attributes in question, it violates remotion. And while a causal inference might possibly be provided, the premise is still so strong that we'd have to check that the causal inference didn't involve doing anything that treats God as if we were capable of defining the divine nature itself, which is to put it under a genus. Modalities this strong require a powerful foundation; the causal inference that leads us to attribute 'omniperfection' to God would have to be a very good one to get us modalities this strong without assuming that the inference is giving us 'omniperfection' as one defining characteristic of the divine nature itself. Rangland doesn't give us any such causal inference, or any causal inference at all, that God is 'necessarily perfect in goodness' in precisely that sense required by the argument, for the obvious reason that the sources he is summarizing don't generally do so.

As I noted before, there are quite a few views on which remotion is not a concern -- the inconsistency with remotion is deliberate. Most perfect being theology is based on assumptions inconsistent with remotion, for instance. So in that sense one can find plenty of respectable work done that violates remotion. But it is important, I think, to recognize that remotion is an immensely important division here, and that arguments don't easily move across the divide. Arguments from the non-remotion regions have to be taken apart and reconstructed entirely on the basis of the appropriate kinds of causal inference if they are to have any purchase in the remotion regions of philosophical theology.

Xenophon's Kynegetikos

The Kynegetikos, or Cynegeticus, as it is in the more common common latinized version of the name, is Xenophon's treatise on hunting (the name literally means 'what has to do with hunting using dogs'). That it is more than a practical skills manual, however, is clear from the fact that it also contains an intense attack on sophists.

You can read the Cynegeticus online in English at the Perseus Project.

The Argument

Xenophon opens the treatise by noting that hunting is a gift of the gods, having its divine patrons (Apollo and Artemis), who gave the art to Cheiron the centaur, who then taught the great heroes of Greece: "Through the heed they paid to hounds and hunting and the rest of their scholarship they excelled greatly and were admired for their virtue" (1.5). Xenophon thus thinks of hunting as a form of education, one "by which men become good in war and in all things out of which must come excellence in thought and word and deed" (1.18).

Indeed, we find in Chapter 2 that he takes hunting to be a sort of foundational education, the kind of thing one should start a boy out with before branching into other things. He then gives practical advice on the kind of outfit and equipment one should have (Chapter 2), the kind of dogs one should look for (Chapters 3 and 4), how to go about hunting rabbits (Chapters 5 and 6), how to breed and name dogs (Chapter 7), how to track rabbits (Chapter 8). He then moves on to deer (Chapter 9), boar (Chapter 10), and then big predators like lions and bears (Chapter 11).

Having given practical tips, he looks at the advantages of hunting: "it makes the body healthy, improves the sight and hearing, and keeps men from growing old; and it affords the best training for war" (12.1). It is a kind of training in truth, as well, requiring restraint and fairness, and at least occasional self-denial. This is not a sufficient condition for virtue, but it is necessary; people who are driven to indulge in pleasures cannot achieve virtue.

This principle, and the art of hunting, is inconsistent with the education given by the sophists:

We have never seen anywhere the man whose goodness was due to the sophists of our generation. Neither do their contributions to literature tend to make men good: but they have written many books on frivolous subjects, books that offer the young empty pleasures, but put no virtue into them. To read them in the hope of learning something from them is mere waste of time, and they keep one from useful occupations and teach what is bad. Therefore their grave faults incur my graver censure.

Xenophon says that, unlike the sophists, his intent is to write a good book on a good subject that helps to make men good, advising everyone to avoid the sophists, who are hunters of the rich and young and not, like philosophers, friends to all. True hunters will hunt wild beasts, but sophists and wicked men hunt their friends; true hunters hunt for necessity or the good of others, but sophists and the like hunt for private gain. And Xenophon ends with a comment that shows him to be a true inheritor of the Socratic concept of education:

For all men who have loved hunting have been good: and not men only, but those women also to whom the goddess has given this blessing, Atalanta and Procris and others like them.

*****

Quotations are from Marchant's translation at the Perseus Project.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Three Inseparable Elements of Higher Life

Properly, the three elements of higher life are inseparable; and it is therefore extremely difficult to propound any invariable law applying to individual cases, as to the order in which these three grades of internal development must or ought always to succeed one another. Essentially they are one and indissoluble. As faith and hope are based upon love, so is love dependent on both the former; and this is as true of genuine love on earth as it is of that which lives in a higher domain. If its faith be hostilely disturbed, then it loses its hope also, and the very root of its existence. If hope is entirely cut off, it does not, indeed, lose thereby faith itself, and its object, but it preys on itself.

Friedrich von Schlegel, Philosophy of Language, Morrison, tr., pp. 478-479.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Reaching into the Infinite

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within. I have not to search for them and conjecture them as though they were veiled in darkness or were in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them directly with the consciousness of my existence. The former begins from the place I occupy in the external world of sense, and enlarges my connection therein to an unbounded extent with worlds upon worlds and systems of systems, and moreover into limitless times of their periodic motion, its beginning and continuance. The second begins from my invisible self, my personality, and exhibits me in a world which has true infinity, but which is traceable only by the understanding, and with which I discern that I am not in a merely contingent but in a universal and necessary connection, as I am also thereby with all those visible worlds. The former view of a countless multitude of worlds annihilates as it were my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital power, one knows not how, must again give back the matter of which it was formed to the planet it inhabits (a mere speck in the universe). The second, on the contrary, infinitely elevates my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world, at least so far as may be inferred from the destination assigned to my existence by this law, a destination not restricted to conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.

Kant in the conclusion to the Critique of Practical Reason, of course. Currently busy working out a lecture on sublimity and ethical monotheism in Kant's ethics. Of course, what's often not remembered is that this passage is followed immediately by the claim that while awe might incite to inquiry, it cannot make up for its lack. The sublimity of either the heavens or the moral law opens the inquiry, but it does not close it.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

I Have Old Views

Ballade of Capital
by G. K. Chesterton


The Earth is full of mud and meat,
And malt and salt and sand and spice,
And ships and shells and sugar-beet,
And bread at the Imperial price,
And glass and brass and rum and rice,
And oak and talc and turtle-fat,
And fire and snow and sea and ice,
And lots of little things like that.

And all these things we meet –
Are capital: and should suffice
(You say) to do us quite a treat –
As if you and I have each a slice –
… But one whose clothes could scarce entice
Held recently a ragged hat
In which you put the best advice
And lots of little things like that.

I own the scheme is very neat,
I do not think it very nice
That we should own the blooming street
With all the people poor as mice.
I have old views: that loaded dice
Are “wrong”, and even Tit-for-tat
“Heathen”, that virtue is not vice –
And lots of little things like that.

Envoi

Prince, Pharoah trounced them in a trice,
The poor that groaned at him: whereat
God sent him flies and frogs and lice
And lots of little things like that.