Saturday, April 09, 2016

A Quick Trip to Italy, Part X

No cameras are allowed in the Sistine Chapel, and the people who try to get around it are hunted down by the attendants and the tour guides! So we will have to rely on something other than my own pictures to talk about the Chapel.

The Sacellum Sixtina was originally just called the Larger Chapel, Capella Maggiore; it received its current name because it was rebuilt by Pope Sixtus IV in the fifteenth century. Its importance lies in the fact that it is the official chapel of the Capella Pontificia, which is one of the two bodies making up what is called the Papal Household -- the body of people whose responsibility is to assist the Pope in his day-to-day ceremonial duties. The Pontifical Chapel in particular is concerned with the Pope's liturgical duties.

The ceiling of the chapel was originally a blue sky with stars -- very expensive, actually, since pure heavenly blue required the use of lapis lazuli in the paint; this expensive work would be undone to make way for Michelangelo about two to three decades later. The side walls had paintings by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, and others, some of which still exist. They are in a band containing two cycles, the Life of Moses (to the south) and the Life of Christ (to the north); above these were painted a Gallery of Popes.

The most famous part of the Chapel, of course, is Michelangelo's painting, made between 1508 and 1512. He topped the Gallery of Popes with the Ancestors of Christ, put prophets and sibyls in the large pendentives, and painted panels on the ceiling itself of the Creation, the Fall, and the Deluge.

Much of the basic scheme would, however, be partially disrupted by the painting of the Last Judgment above the altar (by Michelangelo toward the end of his life), which ended up eliminating the Nativity of Jesus and the Finding of Moses, as well as several of the Popes and Ancestors.

Much of the work is excellent in its own right, but everyone comes for the ceiling:

CAPPELLA SISTINA Ceiling
(You can click to see more detail, and you can see a labeled version here.)

There are nine Central Stories, in three groups. I add the commentary of Giorgio Vasari from his Lives

1. The Separation of Light and Darkness
2. The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Earth
3. The Separation of Land and Water

...in order to display the perfection of art and also the greatness of God, he painted in a scene God dividing Light from Darkness, wherein may be seen His Majesty as He rests self-sustained with the arms outstretched, and reveals both love and power. In the second scene he depicted with most beautiful judgment and genius God creating the Sun and Moon, in which He is supported by many little Angels, in an attitude sublime and terrible by reason of the foreshortenings in the arms and legs. In the same scene Michelangelo depicted Him after the Blessing of the Earth and the Creation of the Animals, when He is seen on that vaulting as a figure flying in foreshortening; and wherever you go throughout the chapel, it turns constantly and faces in every direction. So, also, in the next scene, where He is dividing the Water from the Earth; and both these are very beautiful figures and refinements of genius such as could be produced only by the divine hands of Michelangelo.

4. The Creation of Adam
5. The Creation of Eve
6. The Temptation and Expulsion

He then went on, beyond that scene, to the Creation of Adam, wherein he figured God as borne by a group of nude Angels of tender age, which appear to be supporting not one figure only, but the whole weight of the world; this effect being produced by the venerable majesty of His form and by the manner of the movement with which He embraces some of the little Angels with one arm, as if to support Himself, and with the other extends the right hand towards Adam, a figure of such a kind in its beauty, in the attitude, and in the outlines, that it appears as if newly fashioned by the first and supreme Creator rather than by the brush and design of a mortal man. Beyond this, in another scene, he made God taking our mother Eve from Adam's side, in which may be seen those two nude figures, one as it were dead from his being the thrall of sleep, and the other become alive and filled with animation by the blessing of God. Very clearly do we see from the brush of this most gifted craftsman the difference that there is between sleep and wakefulness, and how firm and stable, speaking humanly, the Divine Majesty may appear.

Next to this there follows the scene when Adam, at the persuasion of a figure half woman and half serpent, brings death upon himself and upon us by the Forbidden Fruit; and there, also, are seen Adam and Eve driven from Paradise. In the figure of the Angel is shown with nobility and grandeur the execution of the mandate of a wrathful Lord, and in the attitude of Adam the sorrow for his sin together with the fear of death, as likewise in the woman may be seen shame, abasement, and the desire to implore pardon, as she presses the arms to the breast, clasps the hands palm to palm, and sinks the neck into the bosom, and also turns the head towards the Angel, having more fear of the justice of God than hope in His mercy.

7. The Sacrifice of Noah
8. The Great Flood
9. The Drunkenness of Noah

[Vasari assumes, not surprisingly, that (7) is the Sacrifice of Cain and Abel, but it is usually thought today to be the sacrifice of Noah after the Flood, the sequence of stories being displaced in order to allow a greater amount of room for the Flood itself.]
Nor is there less beauty in the story of the sacrifice of Cain and Abel; wherein are some who are bringing up the wood, some who are bent down and blowing at the fire, and others who are cutting the throat of the victim; which certainly is all executed with not less consideration and attention than the others. He showed the same art and the same judgment in the story of the Deluge, wherein are seen various deaths of men, who, terrified by the horror of those days, are striving their [Pg 35] utmost in different ways to save their lives. For in the faces of those figures may be seen life a prey to death, not less than fear, terror, and disregard of everything; and compassion is visible in many that are assisting one another to climb to the summit of a rock in search of safety, among them one who, having embraced one half dead, is striving his utmost to save him, than which Nature herself could show nothing better. Nor can I tell how well expressed is the story of Noah, who, drunk with wine, is sleeping naked, and has before him one son who is laughing at him and two who are covering him up—a scene incomparable in the beauty of the artistry, and not to be surpassed save by himself alone.

Above the altar is the famous Last Judgment, in which all are stripped naked, having nothing but their souls, some falling to hell and others rising to heaven:

Last Judgement (Michelangelo)

Michelangelo's extensive use of nudes throughout his work stirred up quite a bit of controversy, and at least once almost led the ceiling being stripped entirely and redone.

After the Sistine Chapel we headed toward St. Peter's. Along the way there are statues in high niches. This one was particularly noticeable because it was right where we cam out:


The inscription on the base is in Latin and Armenian and identifies the statue as St. Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia. St. Gregory preached the gospel in Armenia, and in 301 he baptized the king and all his court, thus making Armenia the first officially Christian nation in the world. In 2001, Pope John Paul II was visiting Armenia for the 1700th anniversary, and agreed to a request by the Armenian Catholic patriarch to put up a statue of St. Gregory in the Vatican somewhere. A design contest was launched, and the winner was the Parisian Khachik Kazandjian, himself of Armenian background. The statue was put in the last niche that had not yet been filled, and that is where we saw it.

And so on to St. Peter's.

to be continued

Friday, April 08, 2016

Links of Note, Noted

I think I'll extend the Fortnightly Book another week so I can have time to get through all of The Return of Tarzan; last week was much, much busier than I was expecting.

* Thony Christie criticizes the tendency to inflate Galileo's achievements.

* Karl Ameriks on Kant and the historical turn

* Samuel Gregg on Benedict XVI's account of law

* How the ancient Greeks learned Latin

* An article at Aeon talks about the role of repetition in music, including the speech-to-song illusion, in which repetition of words begins to sound like singing. I'm inclined to think the phenomenon is entirely misnamed; there is no illusion at all. What is singing? Singing just is speaking with additional features like repetition, prolonging of vowels, and projection of voice, in various combinations. If you listen to Leonard Cohen, he's obviously singing, but it's also quite clear that what he is doing is not anything radically different from speaking.

* Peter Kwasniewski discusses an interesting instance of manuscript variation in the manuscript tradition for Thomas Aquinas.

And speaking of which, autograph manuscripts of Aquinas are now available at the Vatican Library website. Aquinas's handwriting is notoriously bad, so good luck to trying to read it without specializing in it.

* Elizabeth Lopatto discusses the many puzzles of lichen.

* Some half-joke philosophy articles:

David A. Horner, Whether Augustine’s Name Should Be Pronounced AW-gus-teen or aw-GUS-tin?, done in the spirit of a medieval disputation.

Garry DeWeese, Quid ergo Hipponium et Floridensis? Or, Does Horner Succeed in Referring? A Rejoinder, responding to the previous one in the style of Quine

I particularly like DeWeese's final footnote:

I want to thank David Horner, whose loyal friendship more than makes up for his locutionary failure; colleagues who tried but failed to teach me what is important to argue about; and the many students over the years whose well-intended “corrections” of my pronunciation filled much-needed voids.

Such half-joke articles, I think, serve an important function, since they pull back a bit from questions of material content to look at form, function, and method, which is something that needs to be done anyway, but is sometimes difficult to do properly in serious matters precisely because we take them seriously. That, I think, is one strand of the need for a sense of humor in intellectual life.

People have been talking about these things recently in part because of Tyron Goldschmidt's recent article, "A Demonstration of the Causal Power of Absences", which is one of the few Dialectica articles you can get complete and for free.

* Speaking of which, Goldschmidt has an interesting paper on "The Argument from Numbers"; Plantinga had suggested you could argue for God's existence from the nature of numbers, and Goldschmidt explores the strengths and weaknesses of one possible way someone might go about doing that. He doesn't really get very far, but he does rightly note the modal parallels between mathematical truths and moral truths, and the relevance of the Euthyphro problem to both.

* Andrew Ayers argues that Atticus Finch was never the sterling hero some readers made him out to be. (PDF)

* Janice Nadler, Expressive Law, Social Norms, and Social Groups (PDF)

* Cases in which King Arthur shows up in various medieval Lives of Saints.

* Nicholas Stan, Kant's Transcendental Idealism, at the SEP

* A brief debate between Bertrand Russell and G. K. Chesterton.

* MrsD on human restlessness

* An article on Henry Clay Brockmeyer, America's Hands-On Hegelian.

* Samuel Gregg on Benedict XVI's Regensburg Address

* A relatively recent blog: Medieval Logic and Semantics. It has already entirely justified its existence with a discovery of this musical version of the famous syllogistic mnemonic:



Disamis, Datisi, Disamis, Datisi, Bocardo, Bocardo, Ferison, Ferison, Ferison...

* A handy site on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

* Why Medieval Torture Devices are Not Medieval. Like a very large number of bad things pinned on the Middle Ages, they were usually invented in the modern period, although occasionally they were ancient devices of which we have no record of being used in the medieval period. Medievals did have torture -- they did not, as we have a weird tendency to do, think of it as a method of investigation, but they did regard it as sometimes justified as a punishment when the evidence against someone was considered conclusive and the person was refusing to confess in a situation in which it was important to get a confession. As the article notes, medieval torture generally consisted of unimaginative things like binding you tightly with ropes or making you stand out in the sun all day; really imaginative torture is almost always very ancient or very modern.

* And a brief article on medieval eyeglass technology.

* Researchers have discovered evidence that stories told in hagiography about how St. Eric of Sweden died have at least some truth to them.

* S. Adam Seagrave, The National Parks: 'America's Best Idea'

* Christopher Kaczor, Is Speciesism like Racism and Sexism?

* Eugene Marshall, How — and why — should we teach modern philosophy surveys to undergrads?

* An online course for learning basic Classical Chinese.

* An interesting article on recent work discovering otherwise unknown species in natural history museum collections.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

A Quick Trip to Italy, Part IX

After the Hall of Muses, we passed into the Round Hall. It was quite crowded, so I didn't get a good picture of the whole hall, but you can see a picture here. The most famous sculpture in the room is the Braschi Antinous, of which I didn't get a picture. The room itself is indeed round; it's actually an homage to the Pantheon and was finished in 1779 by Michelangelo Simonetti. There is a striking basin, made of red porphyry, in the center of the room. The most remarkable thing is the floor, however. While the floor as it exists is entirely eighteenth century, it is pieced together out of 3rd century mosaics that were discovered in various parts of Italy.


Here is a detail of one of the horse's heads:


From the Round Hall we moved to the Greek Cross Hall, also designed in the 18th century by the architect Michelangelo Simonetti; it happened at the time to be the entrance to the Pio-Clementine Museum. It was also quite crowded. On each side of the hall is a massive red porphyry sarcophagus. Here is the one that is thought to have been the sarcophagus for St. Helena:


The other sarcophagus is that of one of the Emperor Constantine's daughters, probably Constantia.

Through all of this we were heading slowly to the Sistine Chapel; but as you get closer and closer to the Sistine Chapel, the crowds get thicker. Outside, it's quite noisy, while inside you're not allowed to talk more than a bare minimum. So our guide had us duck briefly into the Gregorian Etruscan Museum to talk about the Sistine Chapel. The Etruscan Museum was largely empty. Poor Etruscans! The archeological museum in Florence, which was, like the Gregorian, mostly focused on Egyptian and Etruscan exhibits, was also sparsely visited. Nobody goes sightseeing for Etruscan artifacts, apparently.

The Gregorian Etruscan Museum was founded by Pope Gregory XVI in 1837; there had begun to be a bit of a resurgence in excavation for ancient remains, and a large number of Etruscan artifacts had come into the Vatican and Lateran collections, largely from ancient Etruria (modern-day Latium), which was part of the Papal States. With the destruction of the Papal States in 1870 that flow more or less stopped, except for occasional donations and purchases. We never went further than Room I, which is concerned with the remnants of early Etruscan history (6th century BC and before). But there was a very nice piece that showed that even at that period the Etruscans could do serious artwork:


The little knobs on the bottom part are actually rows of tiny birds; they are so finely done that I could not get a good picture of them, because the camera had a difficult time focusing on them. But I did get some detail of the top part:


Having had some prior discussion of the Chapel, we then headed down that way. But as this was the Vatican, even walking in the direction of the Sistine Chapel was quite scenic. We saw some interesting ceiling paintings; there were two that were Thomas Aquinas-themed. Here is St. Thomas presenting his theological works to the Virgin Mary:


And here (my favorite) is a painting of St. Thomas's Summa Contra Gentiles, Summa Theologiae, and commentaries on Scripture defeating the philosophers of the world:


The physical representation of philosophical refutation is priceless; it almost looks at first glance like the angels have been hitting the philosophers upside the head with the books. The theme of the Triumph of St. Thomas over philosophers and heretics is a fairly common theme in paintings of the Common Doctor, but this one is interesting because it doesn't actually depict St. Thomas; it is the books themselves that are subjugating the philosophers.

We then passed by a long series of beautiful tapestries. The detail work on some of these tapestries was truly incredible, and confirms my view that tapestry should be considered one of the great fine arts:


The second of the two is almost indistinguishable from a painting if you are just glancing at it. And a very good painting, for that matter. You walk by it, and Christ's eyes follow you. What is more, wherever you are standing, no matter the angle from which you view the tapestry, Christ seems to be coming directly toward you.

After the tapestries, we came to the Gallery of Maps:


The maps along the hall show by parts the entire peninsula of Italy, with special focus on the Papal States as they existed in the sixteenth century. They should seem somewhat familiar; they were painted by Ignazio Danti, O.P., and we've come across his work before -- it was he who painted the maps in the Stanza delle Mappe geografiche in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The Palazzo Vecchio maps were painted in the very early 1570s, while the Vatican maps were painted in the early 1580s. Danti had left Florence to become a professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna; Pope Gregory XIII invited him to Rome to serve on the commission for calendar reform and making him the pontifical mathematician, and while he was serving in that capacity, he painted the maps.

And so we came to the Sistine Chapel itself.

to be continued

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Travel Through the Land

The disposition which is fond of learning is inquisitive and exceedingly curious by nature, going everywhere without fear or hesitation and prying into every place, and not choosing to leave anything in existence, whether person or thing, not thoroughly investigated; for it is by nature extraordinarily greedy of everything that can be seen or heard, so as not only not to be satisfied with the things of its own country, but even to desire foreign things which are established at a great distance. At all events, they say that it is an absurd thing for merchants and dealers to cross the seas for the sake of gain, and to travel all round the habitable world, not allowing any considerations of summer, or winter, or violent gales, or contrary winds, or old age, or bodily sickness, or the society of friends, or the unspeakable pleasures arising from wife, or children, or one's other relations, or love of one's country, or the enjoyment of political connections, or the safe fruition of one's money and other possessions, or, in fact, anything whatever, whether great or small, to be any hindrance to them; and yet for men, for the sake of that most beautiful and desirable of all possessions, the only one which is peculiar to the human race, namely, wisdom, to be unwilling to cross over every sea and to penetrate every recess of the earth, inquiring whenever they can find anything beautiful either to see or to hear, and tracing out such things with all imaginable zeal and earnestness, until they arrive at the enjoyment of the things which are thus sought for and desired. Do thou then, O my soul, travel through the land....

Philo of Alexandria, On the Migration of Abraham, XXXIX.216-219.

A Quick Trip to Italy, Part VIII

On Thursday we headed off to meet our guide at another major attraction, one that is both in the city of Rome and in another country.


The Vatican Museums owe their existence to the fact that Pope Julius II, mostly famous for being a very arrogant leader and a very bellicose ruler, nonetheless also had excellent artistic taste. As Cardinal della Rovere, Julius had begun developing a collection of sculptures; when he became Pope, he moved his collection to the courtyard of the Villa Belvedere, a small papal summer house that had been built by Antonio del Pollaiuolo for Innocent VIII. As Pope, Julius recognized the genius of a number of the major artists whose works practically define Renaissance art at its height -- Michelangelo, Raphael, Bramante.


We can see the dome of St. Peter's rising above it all. When Julius became pope, he brought with him the best architect he had discovered when he had been cardinal, Donato Bramante, and commissioned him to design a new St. Peter's, which had fallen into some decay.

Soon we came to the Cortile della Pigna. Here we are looking across the courtyard toward the dome of St. Peter's and can see a bit of modern sculpture, as well, one of the versions of Arnaldo Pomodoro's Sfera con sfera:


The Cortile della Pigna is, of course, most famous for the Fontana della Pigna:


The Pigna was originally a sculpture set near the Pantheon as part of a fountain (it was designed so that water would come out of the top). It was at some point moved in front of the old St. Peter's Basilica, and was moved to its current location in 1608. It stands in an immense niche, the nicchione, designed by Pirro Ligorio, which was the largest niche that had ever been built. The peacocks on each side of the pinecone were copied from examples found at Hadrian's tomb the Castel Sant'Angelo). The pinecone, famous in its own right, was granted immortality in Dante's Inferno, Canto XXXI, in which Dante, who had seen it while it was in front of the old St. Peter's, refers to it in order to explain how large the giant Nimrod is:

La faccia sua mi parea lunga e grossa
come la pina di San Pietro a Roma,
e a sua proporzione eran l'altre ossa....

The Courtyard of the Pinecone is a part of what once was a much larger courtyard. While the new St. Peter's was being built, Julius also asked Bramante to design a way of connecting the Villa Belvedere with the Vatican Palace, and the Cortile del Belvedere was born. It was not a minor project, since the sides of the Vatican Palace and the Villa Belvedere were out of parallel and were separated by a steep slope; and thus the relatively regular appearance was quite an achievement. Bramante himself did not live to see the completion of it; that was done by Pirro Ligorio. Pope Sixtus V, however, would break up the unity of the courtyard and the general integrity of the design by running a wing of the Vatican Library across the middle of the courtyard. (It is widely said that he did so deliberately in order to shield the pagan statues from view.) The upper terrace is the current Cortile della Pigna, and the lower terrace retains the name of the Cortile del Belvedere. The main Vatican Museums are along the wings of the original courtyard.

We only saw part of the Vatican Museums, but we did get a good look at parts of the Museo Pio-Clementino, which is focused on sculpture. Here, for instance, are a great many classical busts:


The primary attraction of the Pio-Clementine, however, is the Octagonal Court, formerly known as the Cortile delle Statue. In this one space we have some of the purest typical expressions of classical and neo-classical sculpture. Two of these are especially important. The first is the Apollo Belvedere:


The history of this statue is a bit murky. We know that it was already in Julius II's possession when he became pope, but we don't know how he got it. It is usually thought to be an AD second-century Roman copy of a fourth-century BC Greek statue by the great Greek sculptor Leochares (whose patron was Alexander the Great). The left hand and part of the right arm had been lost through the centuries, and the ones currently in place were added by a student of Michelangelo. Once Julius II put it on display in the courtyard, it became widely copied by Renaissance artists, and it would become the exemplar work for neo-classical sculpture. Napoleon stole it during his 1796 campaign, where it was housed in the Louvre; Rome got it back in 1815 after Napoleon's exile.

The second major work in the Octagonal Court is the Laocoön:


Laocoön was a priest of Poseidon; there are a large number of different stories about why Poseidon punished him by having him and his sons destroyed by great serpents. Sophocles says it was because Laocoön married; Virgil says it was because he tried to prove that the Trojan Horse was a trap. This group of figures is usually thought, on the authority of Pliny the Elder, to have been the work of three sculptors from Rhodes, assuming that we have the same statue (Natural History, XXXVII, 4):

Beyond these, there are not many sculptors of high repute; for, in the case of several works of very great excellence, the number of artists that have been engaged upon them has proved a considerable obstacle to the fame of each, no individual being able to engross the whole of the credit, and it being impossible to award it in due proportion to the names of the several artists combined. Such is the case with the Laocoön, for example, in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or of statuary. It is sculptured from a single block, both the main figure as well as the children, and the serpents with their marvellous folds. This group was made in concert by three most eminent artists, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, natives of Rhodes.

The group we have is not, in fact, sculpted from a single block, but consists of seven interlocking pieces, but it could very well be that Pliny was simply mistaken. In any case, the association with the one described by Pliny has lingered with the statue since it was rediscovered in a vineyard near St. Mary Major in 1506; Julius II, hearing about it, sent Michelangelo and Giuliano da Sangallo to see if it was worth buying. Since it obviously was, Julius II bought it, and it was his putting it on display along with the Apollo that is the first step in the creation of the Vatican Museums. Like the Apollo, the Laocoön was taken to France by Napoleon and returned to Rome after Napoleon's defeat.

A third sculpture is also of note, the Peseus Triumphant, which was sculpted at the turn of the nineteenth century by Antonio Canova, and which shows what neoclassical sculpture was able to accomplish on the basis of its inspiration by these works:


From the Octagonal Court we moved to the Hall of Muses, where one can find the Belvedere Torso:


According to legend, Julius II asked Michelangelo to complete the fragment, but Michelangelo refused because it was too beautiful to modify. And it is arguably the only classical sculpture that has been even more influential and important than the Apollo and the Laocoön.

All of this was great indeed, but we were hardly begun.

to be continued

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

A New Poem Draft and a Poem Re-Draft

This World of Woe, So Wonderless, So Bland, So Sad

This world of woe, so wonderless, so bland, so sad,
blasé in worldly wisdom, yet unwise,
will blather words of love, for words are all it's had,
and never will have else, for love it does despise.

The worldly sages sigh in unfulfilling dreams;
they build up vanities to light a raging blaze.
Their meanings are banal, no matter how they seem,
for love is flame so bright it would their vision daze.

Amen, I say to you, they have their one reward.
The only love they have is symbol of their hearts,
a snake that eats its tail, a self-inflicting sword,
a legacy soon lost to folly, part by part.

And you -- take care to love, not love as madmen rave,
but love that seeks the good, that by the good can save.


Angels with Their Feline Faces

Angels with their feline faces
soaring through the empty spaces
meow a song like godly graces;
they sport in ecstasy.

Every wing like wild flowers
sparkles with some hidden power,
turning minute into hour
and aeviternity.

   Play the tambrel and the drum;
   Juda's lion is now come.


Whiskers white with zeal are burning
in the wheels of love now turning,
emblems of some endless yearning,
in spheres most heavenly.

Eyes like slits of searing fire,
sparks of infinite desire,
pour out light in swaying gyre
of cosmic liturgy.

   Lions roar above my head,
   praising Zion newly wed.


Like a shawm for holy masses
like wind through spiring garden grasses,
prayer of the saints now passes
through angelic harmonies.

Every halo like a story
wraps around the world with glory,
burning like the heavens hoary
with frosty dignity.

   Send the message far and wide:
   the Lion-Lamb has wed his Bride!


These ministers of wind and flame,
moving in their spirit-game,
praise the everlasting name
of true divinity.

A purr goes out throughout the ages:
though the dragon shouts and rages
his doom is writ in sacred pages
of God's vitality.

   Rejoice, for they have slain the Beast;
   rejoice and join the wedding feast!

Making a Peaceful and Decent Future a Little More Probable

If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia? What will he do with the leisure that the machine will give him? I have always suspected that if our economic and political problems are ever really solved, life will become simpler instead of more complex, and that the sort of pleasure one gets from finding the first primrose will loom larger than the sort of pleasure one gets from eating an ice to the tune of a Wurlitzer. I think that by retaining one's childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and — to return to my first instance — toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.

George Orwell, "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad"

Monday, April 04, 2016

Feast of the Incarnation

The Feast of the Annunciation is unusually late this year for everyone on the Gregorian calendar, because March 25 fell across Easter Triduum, which are the most holy days of the year and thus capable of displacing even so ancient and important a feast as Annunciation. The Annunciation then gets displaced to the next appropriate day. It was last Tuesday for the Maronites, but the Latin Church only gets to it today. The reason for the difference is the Easter Octave. Venerable feasts of especially great importance were extended out, so to speak, as eight-day feasts. Thus the full week after a feast takes on something of the importance of the feast starting the octave. The custom became especially popular in the West, which began to have so many octaves that it became quite unruly, which led to attempts at organization in the nineteenth century (which were not especially successful) and finally, in 1955 Pius XII eliminated all octaves except for three: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. [In the Ordinary Form, the Pentecost Octave was also eventually eliminated (which was arguably a mistake, since it included some of the most venerable and influential prayers in the calendar).] So we have been in Easter Octave, with each day its own solemnity and extension of Easter itself, with the result that, in the Latin Church, today was the first day that could take the Feast of the Annunciation.

Feast of the Annunciation
by Christina Rossetti


Whereto shall we liken this Blessed Mary Virgin,
Faithful shoot from Jesse's root graciously emerging?
Lily we might call her, but Christ alone is white;
Rose delicious, but that Jesus is the one Delight;
Flower of women, but her Firstborn is mankind's one flower:
He the Sun lights up all moons thro' their radiant hour.
'Blessed among women, highly favoured,' thus
Glorious Gabriel hailed her, teaching words to us:
Whom devoutly copying we too cry 'All hail!'
Echoing on the music of glorious Gabriel.

Edmund Duncan Montgomery

Last week I happened to go to the Elisabet Ney Museum here in Austin. Elisabet Ney (1833-1907), who was grandniece of Marshal Ney of the Napoleonic Wars fame, was a German sculptor. She had wanted to be a sculptor since she was young (perhaps because her father was a stonecarver himself); her parents opposed it, so she went on a hunger strike, and was serious enough about it that her parents finally sent her to the Munich Academy of Art. She opened a studio in Berlin in 1857 and began to have various important men sit for her. One of the museum's important pieces is a bust of Arthur Schopenhauer. Elisabet married (reluctantly, because she was opposed to marriage as an institution, and while the marriage seems largely to have been a happy one, she continued to treat the fact of being married as a legal technicality and nothing more) a Scottish philosopher and doctor named Edmund Montgomery, and Montgomery, who saw Schopenhauer and his poodles regularly, convinced the pessimist to have his features sculpted. Among her other commissions were busts of Jacob Grimm, Otto Bismarck, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Richard Wagner. She eventually emigrated with her husband to Texas, where the Texas state legislature eventually began paying her for various sculpted portraits. Her works are found throughout the world, and there are a fair number in the Texas State Capitol and the U.S. Capitol, but the Elisabet Ney Museum has the largest collection. The Museum itself was the studio she set up in Austin, which she called Formosa.

Obviously, one of the things I found interesting was the philosopher Edmund Montgomery (1835-1911), about whom I don't think I had heard before. It turns out he was well respected and rather prolific, with a large number of articles in Mind, The Monist, and the International Journal of Ethics. There was a brief resurgence of interest in him in the 1950s, but other than that he seems to have faded completely from view (as many respected philosophers at that time have). He continued his scientific work to the end (at one point studying protoplasm and one-celled organisms every day for five years straight). He was a sort of vitalist, and so one of the running themes in his scientific work is that it is impossible for life to be nothing but an interaction of cells. One of his usual points, found, for instance, in "Are we 'Cell Aggregates'?" (Mind 7.25 (1882): 100–107), is that by definition a cell is a relatively autonomous unit, so the claim amounts to saying that all activities of living organism consist of nutrition and very limited cell-to-cell stimulations, which leaves mysterious how any of it gets coordinated at all. One of the things he was particularly interested in, on this point, was the capacity of complex organisms to rebuild and reconstitute themselves. His conclusion was that organisms are in fact relatively fundamental unities; composed of many molecules, they nonetheless in some ways function as if they were single molecules. His position seems to me to be sometimes misrepresented -- his claim is not that there weren't biological units we could call cells, but that it is not possible to understand cells fully except as parts of living organisms -- even with unicellular organisms, it is their integrative activity as organisms, not their relative autonomy as cells, that is the primary principle of explanation. His own view was that biological phenomena strongly indicated that life consisted in an "identical, indivisible, perdurable, and self-sustaining substance" (“The Substantiality of Life”. Mind 6.23 (1881): 321–349), a sort of monad integrating the various phenomena we associate with living things. He often calls this the vital organization, thus leading to the name occasionally given to his philosophy -- the Philosophy of Organization.

Another of his ideas, closely related to this, was that psychology was the purest science, because it was the only one in which the phenomena are directly observed -- all other sciences are built entirely on psychological phenomena and our assumptions about them. (See on this point, for instance, “The Unity of the Organic Individual”. Mind 5.20 (1880): 465–489, particularly 488-489.) He was also firmly opposed throughout his philosophical career to the notion that we could have any kind of a priori knowledge, so he thought that psychology could only serve in this role if it recognized that consciousness was interacting with a real world:

I am confident that positive proof of the existence of a world of efficient powers beyond our conscious content -- a world to which our own efficient Subject belongs -- can be readily given to all who admit the existence of other beings like themselves. For it is incontestable, and in keeping with the forceless character of psychical occurrences, that we become conscious of the existence of other beings, not in the least through awareness of anything forming part of their conscious content. When we perceive another human being, this perception does not contain any of his conscious states.
[“Mental Activity”. Mind 14.56 (1889): 501-502; emphasis in original]

In a sense, he can be seen as trying to find a middle way between idealism on the one side and mechanical materialism on the other; this aspect of his view he often calls Naturalism.

Despite his prolific publication, Montgomery was relatively isolated from the main streams of intellectual activity, and has occasionally been given the epithet 'the Hermit Philosopher of Liendo', Liendo being the name of his plantation in Hempstead, Texas.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

A Sort of Translation

Reason itself was there in the beginning, and Reason was with God, and Reason was God; he was with God in the very beginning. Everything was made through him, and nothing that was made, was made without him. There was life in him, and that life was light to the human race. That light shines in darkness; darkness could not swallow him. A man named John, sent from God, came for testimony, to testify about the light, so that through him everyone might believe. That man was not the light, but he did testify about the light.

The true light enlightens everyone born into the world. He was in this world, which was made through him, but the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his; what was his did not accept him. But those who did accept him, who believed in who he was, received from him the authority to become God's children, not by blood, not by physical impulse, not by voluntary choice, but by God. So Reason itself was made physical, living among us; indeed, we saw his splendor, a splendor belonging to the Father's one offspring, full of blessing and truth. About him, John testifies out loud, 'Here is the one about whom I said that the one after me came before me, for this man was before me.'

We have received blessing upon blessing from his abundance. Torah was given through Moses, but blessing and truth come from Jesus Christ: No human eye has ever seen God, but the Father's one offspring, who is in his Father's heart, has told of him.

(John 1:1-14)

Maronite Year XL

The Second Sunday of the Resurrection is usually called New Sunday in the Maronite Church, although in typical Maronite fashion, they also use the Latin Church name of Divine Mercy Sunday. The focus of the Sunday is on the appearance of Christ to the disciples after the Resurrection.

New Sunday
2 Corinthians 5:11-21; John 20:26-31

When the goodness of our Savior God appeared,
not by our justice but by His mercy He saved,
washing us clean with the baptismal waters,
anointing us with the renewal of the Spirit
who pours forth with glory from Christ our Savior,
adopting us heirs to a life everlasting.

Who is in Christ, a new creation becomes;
the old man is vanished in rebirth of new life,
as God, who has justified us through His grace,
is reconciling us to Himself through Jesus.
For the kindness of our Savior God has come,
bringing us resurrection of soul and body.

By Your resurrection, Lord, You joined all things,
uniting heaven and earth into one great choir.
In the Upper Room You manifested truth,
bringing peace and consolation from Your rising.
Therefore we confess Your true divinity,
Your humanity, and Your generosity.