Saturday, October 08, 2016

Some Scarlet Eve of Yore

In Lemuria
by Clark Ashton Smith


Rememberest thou? Enormous gongs of stone
Were stricken, and the storming trumpeteers
Acclaimed my deed to answering tides of spears,
And spoke the names of monsters overthrown—
Griffins whose angry gold, and fervid store
Of sapphires wrenched from mountain-plung├Ęd mines—
Carnelians, opals, agates, almandines,
I brought to thee some scarlet eve of yore.

In the wide fane that shrined thee Venus-wise,
The fallen clamors died... I heard the tune
Of tiny bells of pearl and melanite,
Hung at thy knees, and arms of dreamt delight;
And placed my wealth before thy fabled eyes,
Pallid and pure as jaspers from the moon.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Music Is a Joy

Music is a joy, an unavoidable human disposition. So, people cannot be without music; if they feel joy, they must express it in sound and give it shape in movement. The way of human beings is such that changes in the motions of their nature are completely contained in these sounds and movements.

Xunzi, "Discourse on Music", in Xunzi: The Complete Text, Eric L. Hutton, tr., Princeton University Press [Princeton, NJ: 2014] p. 218.

Thrasymachoi

I noted a while back a reasonably good discussion of Plato applied to modern politics in a journalistic venue, whether one agreed with the details or not; recently David Lay Williams has a similar attempt that is rather less fortunate.

One minor but representative issue sticks out at me immediately:

Were he to have access to Twitter, one could easily imagine Thrasymachus engaging furiously in late-night tweet battles.

But Thrasymachus is the person who literally demands that people pay him in order to hear his views; having erupted in incredulity, he then has to be pressed to to explain his outburst given that he is not receiving anything for it. This sort of doubtful claim would be just minor, except that the argument turns on what it means to be like Thrasymachus, the man who advocates that might makes right and that real justice is the will of the stronger, and so building up the similarities requires getting a plausible profile.

Williams notes that two claims in Trump's responses are similar to two claims in Thrasymachus's argument that injustice (in the usual sense of the word) is more beneficial to the one who can commit it than justice (in the usual sense of the word) is:

Thrasymachus defends the life of the unjust over that of the just because it is more profitable and pleasurable. Specifically, he cites two instances where the unjust life proves superior — and in ways strikingly similar to Trump’s own habits. First, “when there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income.” And second, “in private contracts . . . wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that, when the partnership is dissolved, the unjust man has always more and the just less.” Thus the “smart” person, as Trump might have it, would be wise to avoid paying taxes and fulfilling contractual agreements wherever it is possible to do so with impunity. It is not difficult to recognize the Thrasymachian echoes in last week’s debate.

But we have to be quite careful here. From the fact that Thrasymachus says that the unjust pay fewer taxes it's an illicit conversion to suggest that everyone who in fact pays fewer taxes is unjust, for instance; it's quite clear that Thrasymachus does not have in mind paying the minimum taxes required of you but not paying even that. A definition in the background here is the idea that justice might be paying what is owed (the definition of Simonides that was previously discussed in the Republic), and Thrasymachus is claiming that paying what you owe leaves you worse off (because you no longer have what you paid) if you could have gotten away with not paying. It would generally be absurd to suggest, for instance, that people can't be just unless they always pay more taxes than they are legally required to pay or let themselves be cheated in business dealings. The obvious question is what is the actual obligation, what is in fact owed -- and one cannot determine whether Trump's claims fit Thrasymachus's description unless one has determined this.

The greatest difficulty with Williams's argument, though, is that there is no candidate who is likely to be a serious contender for the Office of the President of the United States who shows up very well against Plato's standards. Williams puts a lot of emphasis on wealth, but presidential candidates in general are quite wealthy. Trump as a real estate billionaire is unusually so, with a net worth of about $5 billion. But Hillary Clinton has a net worth of about $30 million; Gary Johnson has a net worth of about $7 million; and Jill Stein, far and away the poorest of the most visible presidential candidates of 2016, has a net worth of around $2 or 3 million. (Estimates from here and here.) People who can run for a major office usually can do so because they already are making at least six figures. If wealth is the problem, it is so regardless of candidate.

And it's not just wealth that is an issue. Anyone who is actively seeking office comes under some kind of suspicion in Plato's account. In a society of perfectly just people, Plato's Socrates says only half-jokingly, people would compete not to rule. We would have to go about forcing the best of us to rule us, Cincinnatus-style, and politicians would run reluctantly because they didn't see any other course available that would preserve justice. In reality, of course, this is not what we get; we get the people most eager for rule, and it's mostly a contest between people whose thirst for rule is based on a craving for power and those for whom it is based on a craving for something else, like attention. The Athenian politician who was most like a modern politician was Themistocles, and Themistocles is treated very dismissively throughout Plato's work, as the kind of politician who panders to the people and feeds them with junk.

One can also see the oddness by stepping back a moment and recognizing that Williams's argument involves a pre-selection of what will count for the similarity. For instance, you can imagine another article just like this one, pointing out that Hillary Clinton makes almost all of her rather considerable income from speeches, which is exactly the sort of thing Thrasymachus does, and that in a national security scandal she has escaped all and any punishments for actions that would get civil servants or soldiers in very serious trouble despite the fact that she in principle had greater official responsibilities on precisely those points, and that she has been dogged continually by suggestions that she indulged in pay-to-play politics, which is very much like one of the other things that Thrasymachus attributes to the unjust. One could then point out that Plato thinks all of these things tend toward tyranny, which he certainly does, and finish exactly as Williams does, with just a change of pronouns: "This is the Thrasymachian worldview. In choosing a president, Americans are now confronted with either embracing a Thrasymachus for our times or rejecting her." The same general problems would still be true, but the root of the argument, the apparent similarity, is easy to create for most politicians -- you just have to pick what to emphasize. This ties back to what I've already noted, that pretty much all modern politicians will come out looking bad, in at least some ways, on Plato's analysis of good and bad politics. One could equally turn Williams's argument into an argument not to vote; if we should be wary of voting for a Thrasymachus, what should we do when pretty much every choice is a Thrasymachus?

The argument isn't awful in every respect -- the brief discussion of pleonexia in Plato's philosophy is quite nicely done -- but the basic core of the argument simply doesn't work; it is wax-nose reasoning.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The Wizard of Wisecombe, Part II

This is the second part of a short story draft. Part I

Nobody knows why Richard Shay was so vehemently against the Casters. I have heard perhaps a dozen different stories, all probably wrong. Some say that he and Simon Caster's father had a falling out over a woman. A common story is that it all began a generation back, when Simon Caster's great-uncle, Saul Caster, kept letting his pigs roam onto Shay's property, and they broke in one day and began to destroy everything in the house, thus starting a family feud that compounded over time. My grandfather swore up and down that it was due to the time when it rained frogs for an entire day on the Shay farm, shortly after an altercation with some Caster boys, and everyone superstitiously assumed that the Casters had hired a witch. Whatever the cause, the hatred was a fact. And it was inevitable that rumors would spread about Jenny and Simon being sweet on each other, and just as inevitable that it would eventually come to Richard Shay's ears.

He stormed around the house and forbade Jenny to have anything to do with the boy. Do I need to say how ineffectual this was? The two would sneak off together every moment they thought they could do so without Richard knowing it. In most cases, perhaps, this would have been easily discovered, since young people in love are rarely intelligent in their actions, but in this case, both were careful, and luck was mostly on their side. This went on for some months without any serious explosion. But perfection is not to be expected in human affairs, and there came a day when the luck was just a little less good, and word of it came again to Richard Shay.

They say he raged for half a day without stopping. Richard could be guaranteed never to harm a woman physically, but his rages were always impressive displays of fury. He threatened to lock Jenny in the house and never let her leave. It was certainly an idle threat, of the kind people make without thinking in towering rages, but fury lends a sort of credibility to any kind of threat at the time. More seriously, he threatened to shoot Simon Caster, and I cannot say for certain that he would not have done so. And then and there, in the face of her father's storm, Jenny decided that she and Simon should run away together.

Jenny went out her bedroom window one dark night and went to the Mablethrop orchard to meet Simon, who brought his horse, and together they headed out Wisecombe way. As they got to the big hill near the Shay farm, Jenny looked back and saw in the distance lanterns, and what, despite the dark night, could not possibly be anything other than Richard Shay on his prize bay. Simon spurred the horse and soon they came to the house of the Wizard of Wisecombe, and banged frantically on the door.

The old charlatan listened a moment as they explained, confusedly as people in a hurry always do, what was happening, and then held up a hand imperiously to silence them. He disappeared in a moment in the back and soon returned, gingerly holding a squarish black bottle with the word LINIMENT on the side.

"You must follow these instructions very carefully," he said. "You'll want to do this at Wisecombe Hill near the old village. That's the big hill right before it forks off, with one path to the village and the other to the highway; you'll be heading that direction anyway. When you get to the hill, pour out this bottle at the bottom, then ride like mad over the hill and do not stop or slow down until you get to the highway, and not even then if you can avoid it. Keep the bottle corked tight until you get there, and don't get any on yourself when pouring, and throw the bottle back down the road when you are done. Now go before they catch up to you."

They thanked him hurriedly, and sped off on Simon's horse. Now, the Casters have some good horses, but Simon's was more reliable than swift, and there is not a horse in the entire area that has ever been as fast as that sleek bay horse that Richard Shay was riding. So by the time the two lovebirds got to Wisecombe Hill, Richard Shay was nearly caught up to them. As Jenny carefully poured the bottle out, they could see him in the distance, riding like a madman, well ahead of the rest of the other horses. Jenny threw the bottle in his direction and Simon spurred his horse again.

They had just taken two steps up the hill when a flash of lightning crossed the whole sky like a sheet and thunder roared out so loudly the earth shook beneath them. Halfway up the hill the stormwind began to blow, first in puffing gusts, then steadily, and with ever-increasing force, bending the boughs of the trees. At the top of the hill, it began to rain, and by the time they went down the other side and were heading down the fork to the highway, the rain was coming down in sheets, as if some angel way up high was pouring out a bottomless bucket.

The brunt of the storm, however, was on the other side of the hill. The entire side of Wisecombe hill became like a liquid and started sliding down the road toward the pursuers, a sudden river of mud. The wind picked up harder and harder, more and more violent, until trees were uprooted and flying through the air.

The old con man had brewed the storm too strong. It was made even worse by the fact that the bottle-storm just happened to interact with some light rain clouds blowing in from the West and magnified them a thousandfold.

Fortunately, there is only so much storm you can fit into a bottle, and the worst storm in our history lasted less than half an hour before it gave way to clear sky. It was also fantastically lucky that nobody died. Jenny and Simon made it to the highway and eventually opened a shop in the city; I still get Christmas cards from her. When the pursuers managed to extricate themselves from the mud-river, they were all alive. A horse was missing, but it was rediscovered within the day. Old Joe Crabbe, who had slept like a stone through the entire night, woke up that morning and wondered why he kept hearing a horse neighing. He was somewhat surprised when he went out and saw that the reason was that there was a horse perched precariously on the slanted roof of his guest house. Getting the horse down was something of an operation, but nobody was hurt, even the horse.

Richard Shay was nowhere to be seen. Nobody knew what to make of that, and some people thought he was dead, but, despite a long search, no body could be found. The mystery was solved when he showed up two years later; the wind had picked him up off his course and launched him high up in the air in a southward direction, where he came down, half frozen, into a big, bushy tree six counties away. He must have hit his head coming down, or else his flight through the air was a tad traumatic, because he had amnesia. Except for that and a few scratches, he was none the worse for the incident, and he was taken in by a local pigherder who had been somewhat surprised to see a man falling from the sky. When he came back, he was by all accounts a nicer man.

All the good results, of course, were attributed to the Wizard of Wisecombe, but that is nothing but superstitious nonsense. It was all just incompetence and coincidence. There wasn't any magic involved at all.

Plato and Xenophon

Updating this post. I'm planning on starting either the Anabasis or Hellenica at some point this month.

Plato: Widely Recognized as Authentic

Charmides
Phaedrus: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
Ion
Hippias Minor
Gorgias: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
Lysis
Timaeus: Part I, Part II
Critias
Euthydemus
Meno
Menexenus: Part I, Part II
Theaetetus
Euthyphro
Cratylus
Sophist
Statesman
Apology
Crito
Phaedo: Part I, Part II
Symposium
Republic: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
Parmenides
Protagoras: Part I, Part II
Philebus
Laws: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV


Plato: Heavily Disputed

Alcibiades Major
Clitophon
The Platonic Letters: 7,8
Hippias Major


Plato: Usually Regarded as Spurious

The Platonic Definitions
Halcyon
Sisyphus
Demodocus
Eryxias
Axiochus
Rival Lovers
Theages
De Justo
De Virtute
Hipparchus
Alcibiades Minor
The Platonic Letters: 1,5,9,12 ; 2,4,10,13 ; 3,6,11
The Platonic Epigrams
Minos
Epinomis


Xenophon

Memorabilia: Book I, Book II, Book III, Book IV
Apology
Symposium
Oeconomicus
Cyropaedia: Part I, Part II
Hiero
Cynegeticus
Hipparchikos and Peri Hippike
Agesilaus: Books I-II; Books III-IX; Books X-XI

Aristophanes

The Clouds

Plutarch

On Socrates' Daimonion: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

Related Posts

Some Thoughts Toward Reading Plato's Dialogues
The Golden Villain of Athens
Sydenham's Scheme for the Platonic Dialogues
Hermocrates: A Non-Reading
The Last Days of Socrates
Philosophos: A Non-Reading
A Philosophical Bendideia
Life in This Present Hades
Socrates in the Anabasis
The Aftermath of Arginusae
Themistocles in the Gorgias
Soma Sema


Saved for Later

Xenophon: Anabasis, Constitution of Sparta, Hellenica, Poroi

Plutarch: Life of Alcibiades, A Discourse Concerning Socrates's Daemon, What, as Xenophon intimates, are the Most Agreeable Questions and Most Pleasant Raillery at an Entertainment?, What is Plato’s Meaning, when he says that God always plays the Geometer?, Platonic Questions

Apuleius: The God of Socrates

Libanius: Defense of Socrates

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Xenophon's Agesilaus, Books X-XI

Book X

On the basis of the prior listing of Agesilaus's qualities, Xenophon argues that Agesilaus's victories were not incidental, but tied to his excelling in perseverance (karteria), strength (alke), and judgment (gnome) at the right times. Because of this, he serves as a fit model for those who wish to be good -- for can someone imitating someone who is pious (theosebes), just (dikaios), temperate (sophron), self-controlled (enkrates) become profane (anosios), unjust (adikos), outrageous (hubristos), or weak (akrates)? Agesilaus sums up what it is to be successful:

Justly may the man be counted blessed who was in love with glory from early youth and won more of it than any man of his age; who, being by nature very covetous of honour, never once knew defeat from the day that he became a king; who, after living to the utmost limit of human life, died without one blunder to his account, either concerning the men whom he led or in dealing with those on whom he made war.

Book XI

Book XI summarizes the essential features of Agesilaus's life. He reverenced holy things, was kind to true friends, sought to make justice more profitable than injustice, was lenient to private persons but firm with the failings of rulers, was generous with money, and sought virtue as a good rather than as a burden. He was temperate in times of plenty and courageous in times of trouble. He was gracious not artificially but naturally, high-minded without arrogance, more inclined to be proud of what he could do for others than of what he himself had. As an enemy, he was ruthless, but as a conqueror he was gentle, and as a friend he was generous. Everyone who knew him had some kind of compliment for him:

By his relatives he was described as “devoted to his family,” by his intimates as “an unfailing friend,”1 by those who served him as “unforgetful,” by the oppressed as “a champion,” by his comrades in danger as “a saviour second to the gods.”

And no matter how old he became, he never stopped pursuing the glory worth having, so that his old age seemed more impressive than the youth of many others. And so effective was he that he did not stop benefiting his city even after his death, since the wealth he brought to it allowed it to continue doing many great things. (It is perhaps notable that it is with this, love of city that brings benefits even after death, that the work ends.)

Additional Comments

* The Agesilaus is sometimes thought to have been one of the works read by Alexander the Great before his expedition to Persia, particularly in its repeated emphasis on how to consolidate rule over a conquered people by mildness. We don't know for sure, but if so it may have provided some inspiration for Alexander in building his empire.

* As noted before, Book XI is stylistically rather different from what one usually finds in Xenophon, which has occasionally led some scholars to conclude it may be inauthentic. But much of the difference could be due to the fact that Book XI merely summarizes the entire work, and scholars in general have tended to conclude that it is likely Xenophontic.

__________

Quotations from Xenophon, Agesilaus, Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 7. E. C. Marchant, G. W. Bowersock, tr. Constitution of the Athenians. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. 1925.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Just War and Business

Nathaniel B. Davis has a nice article at The Stone, If War Can Have Ethics, Wall Street Can, Too, in which he draws an analogy with just war theory to argue that we should have similar principles of moral economy.

Indeed, one can draw this analogy even closer than Davis does. I have noted previously that the criteria of just war theory derive from the basic structure of deliberate action, so we can actually derive criteria for just business dealings in a similar way. Practical reason concerns means to ends from the perspective of an agent, so the moral concerns in business cluster around just agency, just means, and just ends, just as they do with war.

If we are focusing on agency, we get proper authority, just as we do with war -- and, indeed, we find business, and business law, full of moral considerations about who has the right or authority to do what. Likewise, one needs legally recognizable transaction, or something like it, to be the business counterpart to public declaration of war. If we are focusing on end, we have just cause, just as in war, although we see some of the differences here, too: just cause is one of the hardest criteria to meet in war, while it is a fairly forgiving criterion in business -- you usually just have to be aiming at genuine good. These serve as the basic background for any fair and just business at all.

When we are considering means and how they relate to their ends, we consider a number of different things: first, possibility; second, necessity; third, appropriateness; and fourth, disposition in use. Here we get onto much more familiar ground, and the day-to-day ethics of running a business. Many of the things that are relevant here are not things we often think of ethical, but certainly are. For instance, being able to deliver on what you promise, not wasting time and money on marginal matters, having an actual plan, having a useful plan rather than merely having administrative busy-work -- these are all things that are important for ensuring the possibility, necessity, and appropriateness of means in just business. If you are engaged in business dealings, making an honest and reasonable attempt at doing them well, qua business dealings, is a big part of ethics in business that often tends to be overlooked. Good business practice, or at least the reasonable attempt at it, is a moral matter. As for disposition in use, of course, this is much more obviously ethical, since it is essentially the honest effort to do well by all parties involved in any given transaction, which we could perhaps sum up as attempt at mutual benefit.

As an incidental side note, Davis makes a conflation that is quite common that I think needs to be avoided, although it does not radically affect the argument -- when we talk about 'war' we often slide easily between 'war' as a situation in which people find themselves and 'war' as a thing people do. Just war theory began, for the most part, as an account of the latter, and its basic principle is that it is not true that war is inherently unjust; one can do war and still be just, although this is not easy. It later expanded into the former, and this is where it begins to touch on matters like the international law of war. If we are talking about 'war' as a situation, we can make sense of the claim that it is 'inherently unjust' -- i.e., if you are in a war it is due to some injustice somewhere. This also has tended to be held by just war theorists, and there are ways to move from one to the other, but the two ways of talking about war are not the same, and it is best not to mix and match them in discussion of ethical questions.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Fortnightly Book, October 2

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was the son of a Roman tribune who served under Otho in his battles against Vitulius; through his friendship with Pliny the Younger, he became a part of the courts of Trajan and Hadrian, and, among other things, was put in charge of the imperial archives. He would later write his most famous work, De vita Caesarum, or The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, covering the Caesars from Julius to Domitian:

Julius Caesar
Augustus Caesar
Tiberius
Caligula
Claudius
Nero
Galba
Otho
Vitellius
Vespasian
Titus
Domitian

In several cases, such as the reigns of Caligula and Claudius, he is one of our very sources for the reign at all. While he's not at all hesitant to give us the court gossip, some of it quite racy, he was Hadrian's secretary when he was writing it, about AD 121, and had access to sources that are no longer extant. He is also famous for his care in flagging when there are different accounts or when the common report is difficult to substantiate.

I'll be reading it in the Heritage Press (New York) edition. It has an introduction to Moses Hadas, and is the Philemon Holland translation. (Holland was a contemporary of Shakespeare.) Hadas also modernizes the translation. The illustrations are by Salvatore Fiume; there are twelve monochrome medallion portraits and twelve color reproductions based on paintings. The color illustrations are unusual -- they are, as the Sandglass for the work notes, 'tipped on', which means that they were actually printed on a higher quality paper, which was then glued by hand to the bookpage. The type is 14-point Bembo, and the binding is linen with a lithographed pattern.

George Eliot, Romola

Introduction

Opening Passage:

The Loggia de’ Cerchi stood in the heart of old Florence, within a labyrinth of narrow streets behind the Badia, now rarely threaded by the stranger, unless in a dubious search for a certain severely simple doorplace, bearing this inscription:

Qui Nacque Il Divino Poeta.

To the ear of Dante, the same streets rang with the shout and clash of fierce battle between rival families; but in the fifteenth century, they were only noisy with the unhistorical quarrels and broad jests of woolcarders in the cloth-producing quarters of San Martino and Garbo.

Under this loggia, in the early morning of the 9th of April 1492, two men had their eyes fixed on each other: one was stooping slightly, and looking downward with the scrutiny of curiosity; the other, lying on the pavement, was looking upward with the startled gaze of a suddenly-awakened dreamer.

Summary: The tale opens with Tito Melema, a Greek-speaker from Southern Italy, coming to Florence after having been shipwrecked. Being handsome and charming and easy-going he quickly makes friends and, to find a way to pay his bills, meets Bardo de'Bardi -- a blind and increasingly poor aristocrat-scholar living on a dwindling legacy, but precisely because of that well informed about where Tito might sell his valuables in order to pay his bills and about who might have paying need for a scholar fluent in Latin and Greek. He also meets Romola, Bardo's beautiful daughter, who has spent her life taking care of him and thus has lived in an isolated bubble of Renaissance humanism -- nonreligious, academic and pedantic, and knowing very little of people, having never known any except those who operate within Bardo's tight little scholarly circle. Tito's entry into her narrow little ivory-tower world comes like a thunderbolt, particularly given that he turns out to be exceptionally good at interacting with her father, as he is at interacting with everyone else.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: Tito Melema is one of the great villains of English literature. We meet him in the beginning and are as charmed by him as everyone else -- but when we meet him he has already betrayed his foster father, and by the end of the work he has betrayed literally everyone in one way or another: his wife, his wife's father, his wife's godfather, both major political parties of Florence, the young peasant girl Tessa, and Florence itself. And the reason is that he is a talented, charming person who will not do what is hard and painful. Avoiding what seems difficult is the root of all treachery.

Standing over against Tito in Romola's life is the controversial Dominican, Girolamo Savonarola, who is also masterfully drawn. It is Savonarola who calls Romola's mind out of its greatness into recognizing that a person must not shirk the difficult duty merely because it is difficult; it is he who shows her that there is a world of people outside of what she has known, people in need of help. Romola will never sign on to all of Savonarola's piety, but it in fact serves as a necessary step for her -- it is only by his vision of the world, made grand and great by his religious views, that she is able to break out of the narrow and petty mental prison within which her skeptical, scholarly, humanist upbringing had raised her.

But Savonarola himself is flawed. A great man of great talents, with a great vision of reform and justice, he is too tempted by power, and the temptations of power will eventually catch him in a contradiction from which he cannot escape. Just as Tito's ever-compounding villainy is a result of precisely that which makes him sociable and able to put people at ease, so too Savonarola's downfall is the outgrowth of the very thing that made it possible for him to rise. Like Romola, George Eliot, an atheist, has little sympathy with Savonarola's piety in itself -- but, like Romola, she can see greatness and splendor through the flaws.

All of the evidence we have of the precise nature of George Eliot's atheism suggests that she is highly influenced by both Comte and Feuerbach, and one of the things that both have in common is the notion that religion, while based on error, is a necessary step in genuine intellectual progress. This is in fact how it functions in the course of Romola's life. Her move from humanist skepticism to being a follower of Savonarola is an improvement, one that shows her that even a life of difficulty can have meaning for one who devotes herself to helping others. But she must also in the end overcome the contradictions in Savonarola's own view, and, perhaps even more importantly, she must find a way to make sense of her life once she recognizes that Savonarola's views are not coherent, but are instead in the grip of his ambition to be an influencer of men.

Eliot is a very morally focused author, but she lacks the moral range of, say, Austen. The moral psychology of her characters can be splendidly complex -- she is second to none in being able to depict how people may do evil with the best of intentions -- but her ethics is always quite simple: pain and difficulty should not be avoided, indeed, must often be deliberately taken on, that we may find meaning through doing good to others. What makes moral integrity? Precisely being happy to suffer in the doing of good. What makes moral greatness? Precisely being willing to struggle against wrong. And it is the reverse that leads to the basest betrayals. As Romola herself says in diagnosing Tito's moral failing:

I believe, when I first knew him, he never thought of doing anything cruel or base. But because he tried to slip away from everything that was unpleasant, and cared for nothing else so much as his own safety, he came at last to commit some of the basest deeds—such as make men infamous.

Favorite Passage: Eliot's quite good at striking passages, but this one especially caught my attention this time around.

In Savonarola’s preaching there were strains that appealed to the very finest susceptibilities of men’s natures, and there were elements that gratified low egoism, tickled gossiping curiosity, and fascinated timorous superstition. His need of personal predominance, his labyrinthine allegorical interpretations of the Scriptures, his enigmatic visions, and his false certitude about the Divine intentions, never ceased, in his own large soul, to be ennobled by that fervid piety, that passionate sense of the infinite, that active sympathy, that clear-sighted demand for the subjection of selfish interests to the general good, which he had in common with the greatest of mankind. But for the mass of his audience all the pregnancy of his preaching lay in his strong assertion of supernatural claims, in his denunciatory visions, in the false certitude which gave his sermons the interest of a political bulletin; and having once held that audience in his mastery, it was necessary to his nature—it was necessary for their welfare—that he should keep the mastery. The effect was inevitable. No man ever struggled to retain power over a mixed multitude without suffering vitiation; his standard must be their lower needs and not his own best insight.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.