Saturday, February 14, 2015

Not Like Other Men

James Chastek has an excellent post on Pharisaism and religion:

These might be what Christ was speaking about with “if your hand offend you… if your eye offend you..etc.” The hand is the organ of manipulation of the world, and so speaks to the practical life, just as the eye speaks to the life of understanding. But both praxis and theoria have ways of insinuating themselves into religion so as to become substitutes for it. It’s hard to know when exactly the rot sets in, but presumably we know we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere when we find our religion defined by the way in which we are thankful that we are not like other men: like the liberals, the wingnuts, the clown-massers, the racist bigots, the America haters, Nominalists, the dry manual Scholastics, etc.

Go and read the whole thing.

Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes


Opening Passage:

He arrived at our home on a Sunday of November, 189-. I still say 'our home,' although the house no longer belogns to us. We left that part of the country nearly fifteen years ago and shall certainly never go back to it.

Summary: Le Grand Meaulnes is a nostalgic work; but this is perhaps not to convey entirely how thoroughly permeated with nostalgia it is. 'Wistful' is perhaps the best word for it. It is also a melancholy work, in which happiness is always somewhere else and our knowledge of it is never of happiness itself but only of a memory of a promise of it. At one point, Yvonne de Galais asks sadly, "can the past come to life again?" The answer given by Meaulnes is, "Who knows?" But the truth of the matter is that there is only one answer to that question, and it is No. The opportunity, once lost, stays lost; the day, once wasted, is wasted forever; our stumbling cannot be undone. It is a truth as obvious as the air we breathe, and yet sometimes as invisible.

Fran├žois Seurel, the narrator, tells us of his friend Augustin Meaulnes, a boy who had an adventure. He found himself at a strange party, thrown by a young wealthy man, Frantz de Galais, who has gone to bring back the woman he will marry and wants the house to be in celebration at his return. Alas, though, the fiance has fled, and Frantz will run away. At the party, Meaulnes meets Yvonne de Galais, and becomes obsessed with finding her again, but all for nothing, so that he will despair of finding her again. By chance, however, Seurel will find her years later, and now everything can be put to right and Meaulnes can marry Yvonne -- and yet, of course, years are not as they seem to be in a story, just splices between paragraphs and pages; the things that have happened in the meantime, out of Seurel's eye, change the texture of everything. Failure, ruin, attempted suicide, death, loss: they are around every turn.

This could have very well been an extremely brutal novel; the heavier hands of most novelists would likely have made it so. But it is saved from such coarseness by its innocence. It borders quite close to sentimentalism; but innocence again keeps it from falling into maudlin melodrama. Nothing is played for the mere drama of it. Events are not intensified for excitement. Sometimes we human beings just have impossible dreams. Sometimes our paths tangle up tragically with other paths. There is nothing much to be done about it. Sometimes the best we can do with our lives is shrug sadly and say, "If we had only known...." But it is these very things that make up the adventures of our lives. Like the house mentioned in the very first sentence of the story, our past is ours, though we will never go back to it again.

Favorite Passage:

But while I hope thus and am enraptured, I unexpectedly come out into a clearing, which is simply a meadow. Without giving it a thought, I have reached the other side of the Commons, which I had always imagined a very long way off. And there, on my right, in between stacks of logs, and astir with life in the shade, stands the forester's house. Two pairs of stockings are drying on the window-sill. In previous years, whenever we had reached the entrance of the wood, we used to point to a patch of light at the end of a long, dark avenue, and say: 'That house out there, that's the forester's cottage, Baladier's.' But we had never pushed on as far as that. We had often heard people say, as if referring to some extraordinary venture, 'He's been as far as the forester's cottage!...'

This time, I have been as far as Baladier's cottage, and I found nothing.

Recommendation: Recommended. But this is my first time reading it, and I suspect that this is also one of those novels that becomes better the more one reads it.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Mixing Ourselves with the World

In "Skepticism about the Internal World", Alex Byrne argues that there is a puzzle about the internal world parallel to common puzzles about how we know the external world exists, and, what is more, it is a more serious puzzle, since it avoids some of the weaknesses that arise in (some kinds of) arguments for skepticism about the external world. The basic template argument he gets is:

(1) If you know that you see something, you this solely on the basis of your evidence about your environment.
(2) This evidence does not favor the hypothesis that you see over the hypothesis that you do not have a mind at all, and so does not allow you to know that you see something.
(C) You do not know that you see something.

This basic template can be extended to believing something, liking something, feeling something, and so forth.

Berkeley correctly diagnosed the primary flaw with most arguments for external world skepticism as the positing of two external worlds -- what everyone in fact calls the external world and an external world arbitrarily designated as the real one, if it exists. Obviously, if there is any real danger of skepticism about the external world, it has to be skepticism about what people take to be the external world, and not some other 'external world' concocted to make skeptical arguments work. If we start with the former, it then becomes much more difficult to run any kind of argument for external world skepticism at all -- a fact that Berkeley uses to his advantage.

A similar sort of problem can easily be seen to arise for Byrne's argument for internal world skepticism. This becomes quite clear if we look at how he argues that the template above can be extended to liking:

Now take the liking hypotheses. Why do you think you like chocolate? Isn't the answer something about the chocolate? You like chocolate because it tastes good. This is a fact about the chocolate, not about you. When you savor a piece of chocolate on your tongue, your sensory systems are detecting features of the chocolate, in particular its agreeable sweet taste. On the basis of this evidence about the chocolate you conclude that you like it.

It's quite clear here that the argument is working by positing some internal world other than what anyone actually means by 'internal world' and then, unsurprisingly, finding no evidence that this made-up substitute for an internal world exists. Nobody would in fact take 'tasting good' or 'having an agreeable sweet taste' to be a fact about chocolate and not about the liking. It is not even really correct to say that 'tasting good' is 'evidence' for liking chocolate; this is precisely a positing of a distinction between what everyone treats as the internal world and some made-up thing. In the tasting of the chocolate, liking chocolate you taste and the good taste of chocolate are the same thing. Sweet taste is not something that people take to attach to chocolate simply in itself; they take it to be what chocolate has when being tasted. The good taste of chocolate is a fact about chocolate and about you; which is, indeed, how everyone in fact takes it. This point extends to all sensation, and all mental activities closely associated with sensation. As Lady Mary Shepherd might put it, sensing involves mixing ourselves with the world, and the sensation is the mix of the world and ourselves both. And, indeed, there is a problem with talking about this matter in terms of 'evidence', as well, since calling something in the external world 'evidence' locates it in the internal world, as well.

There are other things that could be said. (For instance, Byrne gives an objection to the external world counterpart of (1) that he calls the 'animals objection', and says that (1) is immune to it. This is one of the reasons for his claim that the argument is not as weak as the external world version. But if we formulate the argument in terms of liking, I think it is much less clear that (1) is immune to the animals objection.) But it's a salutary exercise, since it shows the importance of recognizing that minds are not hermetically sealed from the world around them.

Quotation from Alex Byrne, "Skepticism about the Internal World", The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, Rosen, Byrne, Cohen, and Shiffrin, eds., Norton (New York: 2015) pp. 288-289.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Two Poem Re-Drafts and a New Poem Draft

A Week

By Monday I'll have flown away,
the stars will be my home;
the light at night will carry me
through rubor and through gloam.
By Tuesday I'll have sailed away
as seas will carry me
from age to age, from world to world,
through hope's eternity.
By Wednesday all the world will fade,
this whisp that I have dreamed,
and I will seek the things themselves
with one small candle-gleam.
By Thursday I will catch the wind,
and heart to glory lift;
but I am also but a shade
lost in some shadow's rift.
By Friday I will fall asleep
upon death's farther shore
to taste the tears of sorrow's shame
and live my life once more.
By Saturday I will have built
a tomb of thought and stone
and take my supper with the gods,
then break my fast alone.
But Sunday -- ah, what can I say
of Sunday's sunrise red?
Like a door I pass it through
to Monday with the dead.

How Strange Is That?

I felt I fell in love with you today; how strange is that?
Waiting for the bus you stopped and stayed to chat
and suddenly and subito my head was overturned,
unbalancing my body, making blood to burn.
Who can love a woman and not even know her name?
Some mischief-vested cupid clearly plays a little game;
uncanny things, ungrounded, maddening, and swift,
throw the world off kilter, make the earth to shift!
Meeting you but once, but for a little while,
I am haunted by your eyes, the flashing of your smile;
and though I hardly know you, nonetheless my brain
spins out imaginations of pleasures earned and gained.

But swiftly comes its death as swiftly came its birth.
If it swiftly falls away, what is such feeling worth?
The merest little fizzle, a frenzy in the brain,
and after sudden torrent nothing will remain
but cynic's self-suspicion, memories that fade,
a wry and quiet gravestone where madness has been laid.

So It Goes

There is love,
there are lies,
there is lying in love,
there is living a lie
(and loving it too),
there is love like to hate
and hate like to love,
there is lying in wait,
surprise in their eyes
when shots ring out.

She hates him,
he hates her,
she loves him,
he loves her,
at times all the same in a jumbling game
where the prize is a heart,
or a life,
or a death,
and the sudden exhaling of everyone's breath
when shots ring out.

And so --
the gun's in her hand
and the shots ring out,
and how it ends who can tell?
I suppose no one knows
who has not been there
at some point.
So it goes.

And so --
the gun's in her hand
and the life-lines are tangled with lies
and soon somebody dies,
and death is an untensing of breath.
And so it goes.

The dark is a friend,
the dark is a foe,
the tears on her cheek cannot recall
even a memory tracing the path she has gone,
wandering in darkness
before hint of dawn;
just the sound stays
as shots ring out.

He is dead.
There -- it's said.
He lied;
let him lie.
It cannot be recalled.
So it goes.

And so --
the gun's in her hand;
who can tell
who it is
who suffers the more?
I guess to understand
we would need to be there
at some point.
So it goes.

And so --
the gun's in her hand,
and when love is a lie,
or a lie is a love,
there is lying in wait a doom and a fate
that cannot end well.
And so it goes.

We are fools for our loves,
we fall for their lies,
and so --
the gun's in her hand:
like spilled milk spilled blood
is not a thing to cry over;
the tears were already shed,
and she works out a fate
she chose long ago.
So it goes.

And so --
the gun's in her hand;
what's past has passed --
and yet we would love to recall
the lies of the past
and not let them lie.
It makes no sense;
but it cannot be reasoned away.
And so it goes.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Links of Note, Notably Noted

A number of these are older things that need to be cleared out of my tabs. This week will likely be fairly busy, so posting may continue to be light (for me, anyway), and more on the less substantive side.

* Whewell's Gazette #34 has history of science links.

* Amy Welborn on Septuagesima.

* Matt Fradd lays out the basics of 50 Shades of Grey (ht: Hell Burns):

* Edmund Waldstein on the Thomistic account of the good.

* Jimmy Akin, St. Paul and the Cretan Liar Paradox

* Anthony Grafton on the revival of Latin

* Gene Buonaccorsi summarizes in a fairly accessible way the major theories of humor

* D. G. D. Davidson reviews the anime Princess Tutu, which I have recommended here before.

* A list of edible flowers

* How the crime of jaywalking developed through pressure by the automotive lobby.

* Mike Loukides thinks through different ways to approach lab practice, as well as how they might need to change.

* Terence Blake's 12 theses on eliminativism

* The Eritrean Catholic Church has become the 23rd sui juris Church in the Catholic communion.

Therefore They Rather Put Away Desire

Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration
by Ernest Dowson

Calm, sad, secure; behind high convent walls,
These watch the sacred lamp, these watch and pray:
And it is one with them when evening falls,
And one with them the cold return of day.

These heed not time; their nights and days they make
Into a long, returning rosary,
Whereon their lives are threaded for Christ’s sake;
Meekness and vigilance and chastity.

A vowed patrol, in silent companies,
Life-long they keep before the living Christ.
In the dim church, their prayers and penances
Are fragrant incense to the Sacrificed.

Outside, the world is wild and passionate;
Man’s weary laughter and his sick despair
Entreat at their impenetrable gate:
They heed no voices in their dream of prayer.

They saw the glory of the world displayed;
They saw the bitter of it, and the sweet;
They knew the roses of the world should fade,
And be trod under by the hurrying feet.

Therefore they rather put away desire,
And crossed their hands and came to sanctuary
And veiled their heads and put on coarse attire:
Because their comeliness was vanity.

And there they rest; they have serene insight
Of the illuminating dawn to be:
Mary’s sweet Star dispels for them the night,
The proper darkness of humanity.

Calm, sad, secure; with faces worn and mild:
Surely their choice of vigil is the best?
Yea! for our roses fade, the world is wild;
But there, beside the altar, there, is rest.

Monday, February 09, 2015

A Poem Draft


Cast through my heart some thin, pallid light
tangled in shadows that flow in the night,
ocean of darkness, with eddying black
muddled with motion, like spidering crack,
O moon, bright phantom.

Sing with a melody argent and fine,
higher than bell and as tinny as tine,
thin as a reed and yet rich as the spray,
angel-like mists that aeolian play,
O moon, sweet cantor.

Dream me a dream, my alchemist sprite,
manic with madness from unction of light,
pure as a potion, a medicine deep,
thick as forever and stringent as sleep,
O moon, cold curer.

Music on My Mind

Kate Miller-Heidke ft. Emma Dean, "Rock This Baby to Sleep".

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Cicero, Laelius on Friendship (Part II: The Foundation of Friendship)

Laelius's Second Discourse

Reluctantly, Laelius continues his discussion of friendship at the behest of his sons-in-law. The next topic of discussion is why we make friends. Two options present themselves immediately: either friendship arises from need seeking out mutual benefit or it arises directly from human nature itself. The fact that we name friendship (amicitia) from love (amor) suggests the latter; friendship does not arise from a calculation of benefits but from an internal inclination of love. We see this even with other animals, in how parents show affection to their offspring and vice versa; this affection is taken to a very high degree in human beings because of our ability to understand things like betrayal, and is found as well in the relation we have with those whom we admire for their virtue. Indeed, a remarkable feature of this natural inclination is that we are inclined to love those whom we have never met, if we hear of their virtue and integrity, and we can even love our enemies if we can see the excellences of their character.

But it's not as if this affection were itself friendship; friendship does seem to have some relation to mutual benefit. The combination of natural inclination to love with the actual services and favors performed for each other is what fully develops a strong friendship. This mutual benefit, however, is not based on need, and we see this in the fact that people who are most confident, virtuous, and wise are most able to form friendships, despite the fact that they are precisely the ones who have least need for anything else. Scipio himself was a case in point; his friendship with Laelius was not because Scipio had any need for Laelius, but because of a mutual regard for character intensified by close association. We see this as well in the reverse -- the more mercenary a person is, the less they are able to form genuine friendships because of the ignobility of their character. And this establishes one of the key properties of friendship. Were friendship based on need, friendship would necessarily change with need; but because it is not, it can last forever.

Laelius's Third Discourse

Pressed further by his sons-in-law, Laelius talks about discussions he had with Scipio on the subject of friendship. Scipio had noted the difficulty of forming these undying friendships -- there are so many ways in which people can come into conflict. It takes wisdom to negotiate these, but even this is perhaps not sufficient to overcome all the obstacles; one also needs good fortune.

And it is true, too, that it is in some cases unnatural for friendship to continue. Even friendship has its limit, at the point at which one person falls away from virtue. Friendship is not an excuse for wrongdoing, and a person who, out of friendship, determined to stick with a friend literally no matter what, is in effect demanding that both he and his friend be perfectly wise; and, as Laelius notes, they already agreed to talk about real friendship that can be had in the real world, not hypothetical friendships assumed to be in-principle possible based on abstract theories. Thus we find that there is a sort of law of genuine friendship: we are not to ask a friend to do what is wrong, nor are we to do what is wrong using the friendship as our excuse. It is an interesting part of Laelius's discussion of this point that he emphasize the political importance of this throughout; Rome, as he sees it, was slowly degenerating it because people in power were not genuine statesmen and friends like Scipio, but false friends, doing wrong and demanding that their friends do wrong in turn. The result was violence, war, loss of faith in the Senate, contempt for traditions.

It follows from this law that friends must not be hesitant to advise, even sharply, if necessary. The law also suggests that a number of common assumptions about friendship, especially those held by the abstract-minded and men with systems, ring hollow, particularly those that downplay the profound importance of friendship for human life. Friendship founded on virtue concerns the whole community, because virtue by its nature looks after the good of the whole community.

If we look at the question of the limits of friendship, three common ideas suggest themselves immediately, but all three are wrong: first, that we should do for our friends only those things we do for ourselves; second, that we should match the good we do for our friends to the good they do for us; and third, that our friends should value us as we value ourselves. In a genuine friendship, we will in fact do many things for our friends that we will not do for ourselves, so the first is wrong. The second is wrong because friendship is not based on calculation. But the third is the worst, and the problems with it can be seen if we think of how things stand when one friend is melancholy and feeling like a failure. Scipio in addition insisted that the old adage attribute to Bias, that we should love all friends as if we would eventually be enemies, was atrocious; we should instead be cautious enough in making friends that we can reasonably say that we are only friends with those with whom we will never be enemies.

Thus we can say that when friendship is based on virtue, friends have such a complete community of interests and goods that they will stand with each other even if there is a deviation of one from right, as long as it does no harm virtue itself. We need people as our friends who are steady and constant, but such people are not found everywhere, and we often cannot discover that they are until we are actually friends with them. In addition we need faithfulness (fides), which in practice also requires that they be people with whom we share interests. And friendship requires that the friends not tolerate lying or dishonesty among each other, nor on the other hand give easy credit to things about each other that might be false. There is also a need for geniality, since rigidity is not easily made consistent with the mildness that best adorns friendship.

Older friendships, like good wine, should be treated as more precious the older they are. We should make new friends, but keep the old. Superiors should equalize themselves with their inferiors by raising the latter up, as Scipio, the most eminent of his circle, constantly treated others not so eminent as equals, and, on the other side, inferiors should not resent the fact that they are surpassed by their friends. At the same time, we must be careful not to let affection become the enemy of the friendship itself, as sometimes happen when friends try to discourage each other from good deeds out of fear for the other, or when friends refuse to be separated despite the appropriateness of it.

In bringing friendships to an end, cases where a friend has done some public wrong should be ended by being 'unstitched' rather than severed -- that is, interaction should be suspended without gradually, if possible. And even if there is some egregious change of character on the part of the friend, one should try to undo the friendship in such a way that no enmity arises, because there is dishonor in contending against one who has been one's close friend. All of this is best handled by simply forming friendships in the right way in the first place, being cautious and careful about them and trying to find those of good character, and making sure that friendships are formed so that the love is like that we have for ourselves: we do not love ourselves for any usefulness but because we regard ourselves as precious in our own right. Friends are other selves. Most of all, then, we should begin by being good ourselves and taking care to regard the virtue of our friends because it is virtue, rather than treating the qualities of our friends as virtues simply because they are our friends.

A true friendship will have a regard for the truth, and thus friends will admonish and let themselves be admonished. It follows from this that one of the great enemies of friendship of friendship is flattery. Flattery is insincere, but without sincerity people cannot be of one mind, which is what friendship is. But flatterers can be distinguished from the sincere; even the masses can often distinguish between the person of real substance and the one who is primarily governed by a thirst for popularity. Many of Scipio's own greatest achievements arose from the fact that, even in cases in which they originally inclined the other way, people recognized that he, unlike his opponents, was not pandering.

It is virtue that makes and preserves friendships:

In it is found all harmony, stability, and trust. Whenever it rises up and shows forth its light, and recognises the same thing in another, it moves out towards it and in turn receives what the other has to give. Thence love, or friendship (for both have their origin in loving) blazes forth; and loving is nothing other than showing affection for the object of love for his own sake, not because of any lack in oneself, or the prospect of any advantage; though advantage does indeed flower from friendship even if one was not particularly aiming at it. (XXVIII/100)

Scipio may have been snatched away, but for Laelius he lives and always will; his virtues are not extinct, but are constantly before Laelius's eyes, and will shine through the generations. Nothing Laelius has ever had matches in importance and value his friendship with Scipio. And thus Laelius concludes his discourse, and the dialogue, with his moral: virtue being that without which friendship cannot truly exist, we should all regard it in such a way that it alone is treated as more important than friendship.

  Additional Notes

* The third discourse covers an immense number of topics, but it can be seen as going through many of the commonplaces on friendship, from Aristotle and others, and showing how they are unified by the recognition of virtue as the fundamental precondition of true friendship.

* Fides, which keeps coming up in the discussion of friendship, is to be understood in its political sense: a magistrate shows fides by doing what he is supposed to do and not shirking his duty, and so too a friend.

* Cicero gives several different kinds of flattery: adulatio, which is the kind of fawning dogs do with their masters; blanditia, which is oily ingratiation; and assentatio, which is yes-man-ship. All three of these are counterfeiters of friendship.

* Three effects of friendship are noted at XXVII/100: harmony (convenientia rerum), stability (stabilitas), and trust (constantia). All three of these have been the threads of the main arguments of each of the three discourses.


Quotations are from Cicero, Laelius on Friendship & The Dream of Scipio, J. G. F. Powell, tr., Oxbow Books (Oxford: 1990).