Saturday, March 03, 2018

Aquinas for Lent XVI

Now the doctrine of the Old Testament was twofold. One was placed openly; the other was veiled under figures and mysteries. The first regarded the unity of God and the creation of the world; the second, the mystery of the Incarnation and reparation. Wherefore, just as they observed the Sabbath as a memorial of creation, so we keep Sunday as a memorial of the Resurrection.

[Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Baer, tr. St. Augustine's Press (South Bend, IN: 2006) p. 232.]

Friday, March 02, 2018

Deontic Logic is a Logic of Solution-Features (Re-Post)

This is a lightly revised post from 2013.

A deontic logic is a modal logic in which the strong modality operator (Box) is interpreted as obligation (or something similar) and the weak modality operator (Diamond) is interpreted as permission or acceptability; in standard deontic logic, the characteristic modal axiom is:

□p → ⋄p

That is, Box implies Diamond. In standard deontic logic, however, Box does not imply True; if X is an obligation, it does not follow that X is true.

I am inclined to think that we largely interpret deontic logics too narrowly. In reality, deontic logics are logics of solution-features for problems, and it is this, I think, that makes them suitable for handling obligation and the like, because these are also concerned with solutions to problems. I would like to note a few apparent puzzles of deontic logic that make a bit more sense when we recognize deontic logics as logics of solution-features for problems, in which Box consists of conditions that solutions have to meet and Diamond consists of features of solutions that are acceptable.

(1) Deontic Necessitation. Deontic necessitation says that if you can prove p as a logical theorem, you can conclude □p. People tend not to like this rule, but it is required to make standard deontic logic play nicely. It makes plenty of sense if we think about deontic logic as being concerned with the kinds of features that a solution to a problem must have. If you have proven p as a theorem, you have established that it is in some sense necessary; but solutions to problems have to take necessities into account. Therefore if something is proven to be necessary, it is a necessary constraint on solution, or, to put it in other words, the solution ought to take it as a fixed reference point.

Deontic necessitation has the further result that □⊤, where ⊤ is Top, and is usually taken to indicate tautology. And this makes sense as well: solutions have to take tautologies as fixed.

(2) Good Samaritan Paradox. Take the following proposition:

□(Jones helps Smith who was robbed)

It seems to follow that "Jones helps Smith who has been robbed" implies "Smith was robbed and Jones helps Smith". But then it follows:

□(Smith was robbed and Jones helps Smith)

But from this it seems to follow by conjunctive simplification:

□(Smith was robbed).

This seems to be a bit awkward, because it then seems that we are saying that it ought to be true that Smith was robbed. However, if we interpret □ as indicating something that a solution ought to take as a fixed reference point, is there a situation in which this makes sense? Yes, the situation in which the problem is that Smith was robbed. A solution to the problem that Smith was robbed has to take into account the fact that Smith was robbed. And given this interpretation of □ as something with which the solution necessarily has to be consistent, it's pretty clear that

□(Jones helps Smith who was robbed)

does imply

□(Smith was robbed).

(3) Penitent's Paradox. Consider the following proposition:

□~(John does wrong)

□~ usually is taken to mean that it is forbidden in some way. But this proposition implies

□~(John does wrong and John repents of his wrongdoing)

From which it follows:

□~(John repents of his wrongdoing).

But we see that, under the solutions interpretation, our first proposition indicated that we need to take as a fixed point for our solution "It is false that John does wrong". But given this it is surely not surprising that we should also require our solution not to include his repenting of having done wrong, which seems to imply that he has done wrong.

So we see that the interpretation has some force against puzzles and paradoxes. There are other puzzles and paradoxes that would be more difficult, the most important of which are "conflicting obligation" paradoxes. And it is is important to understand that I am not here saying that standard deontic logic is the only true logic of solutions. I think, in fact, that this is obviously false; there will be problems where the most appropriate solutions will be governed by nonstandard deontic logics. But deontic logics in general are logics of solution-features, and taking them as such clarifies a great deal.

This ties in with another important point, which I've argued before, and will not argue here: obligation or 'ought' in our ordinary sense is (at least in many circumstances) appropriately modeled by deontic logic not because deontic logic has only to do with obligation, but because our ordinary sense of 'ought' or obligation primarily concerns the problem of deciding what to do, and therefore indicates a constraint on solutions to this particular problem. But there is nothing hugely mysterious about it; it's just a special, and especially important, version of the general fact that solutions are logically constrained by the problems to which they are put forward. This helps clarify what one really wants in a truly deontic logic, i.e., a logic that really is about moral obligation or duty: one wants a deontic logic, i.e., a logic of solutions, that takes into account the distinctive features of problems concerned with deciding what to do. And almost all the puzzles people have over standard deontic logic concern distinctive features of this particular kind of problem.

Rough Timeline of Scotland During the Jacobite Risings

Some dates approximate, as is the order of events for a given year.

1687 James VII and II issues the Declaration of Indulgence, first for Scotland, then for England, suspending laws requiring conformity to the Church of England, as well as those requiring religious tests for offices.

1688 James re-issues the Declaration of Indulgence; Anglicans attempt to argue that it is illegal.

A son is born to James in June, thus displacing the heir presumptive, Mary, a Protestant married to William of Orange, and raising the possibility of a Catholic dynasty. English parliamentarians conspire to put Mary, and thus William, on the throne. William invades in November and quickly achieves victory in England at the Battle of Reading.

Early 1689 William forces Parliament to make him joint monarch with Mary by threatening to withdraw his troops.

The Parliament of Scotland passes the CLAIM OF RIGHT, recognizing William and Mary as monarchs.

The Parliament of Ireland meets for its only session in the reign of James (the 'Patriot Parliament') and re-asserts James's right to the Crown of Ireland, thus leading to the War of Two Kings (the Williamite War).

Leisler's Rebellion: News of the Revolution reaches the Dominion of New England, and leads to the Puritans revolting and overthrowing the unpopular James-appointed government there. Leisler will for all practical purposes rule New England until he is executed for treason in 1691.

DUNDEE'S RISING (the first Jacobite Rising) in Scotland
27 July 1689 At the Battle of Killecrankie, Jacobite forces crush pro-William forces, but at heavy cost.
21 August 1689 Jacobites lose the Battle of Dunkeld to the Cameronian Regiment, an army of Convenanter volunteers.

Coode's Rebellion: Puritans in Maryland overthrow the government there and begin to take steps to outlaw Catholicism.

The English Parliament enacts the Declaration of Right (Bill of Rights), and it receives Royal Assent.

1690 Battle of the Boyne in the Williamite War: Jacobites and Williamites fight to a narrow victory for William's forces. The battle was far from decisive, but James flees to France, to the fury of his Irish supporters. The flight could have ended the war, but in the Declaration of Finglas, William demanded harsh terms for surrender, giving the Irish reasons to continue to fight.

1691 Treaty of Limerick in October ends the Williamite War in Ireland.

1692 Massacre of Glencoe: Williamite forces kill thirty-eight men of the Clan MacDonald of Glencoe, and about forty women and children die of exposure in the aftermath, due to the slowness of the MacDonalds of Glencoe to sign the oath of allegiance.

1696 THE JACOBITE PLOT: George Barclay plans an assassination attempt against William, but the plan is discovered before it can be carried out.

*****************

1 May 1707 The ACTS OF UNION unite the kingdoms into Great Britain.

1708 James Francis Edward Stuart (the Old Pretender) sails from Dunkirk with an army, planning to invade by landing somewhere along the Firth of Forth; it fails when the British Navy engages the fleet and the French admiral retreats despite Stuart begging him to land the army.

1714 Death of Queen Anne, the last English monarch of the House of Stuart; she is succeeded by the Elector of Hanover, George I. Power passes from the Tories to the Whigs, who begin presecuting the previous Tory politicians, and the Tory Lord Bolingbroke flees to France, becoming the Old Pretender's Secretary of State. They began planning an invasion of Scotland.

LORD MAR'S REVOLT (also known as the FIFTEEN)
27 August 1715 John Erskine, the Earl of Mar, independently of the Pretender, holds a council of war at Braemar.
6 September 1715 The Earl of Mar lifts the standard for James the Eighth and Third, and the revolt begins in earnest. In response, Parliament suspends Habeas Corpus and promises anti-Jacobite tenants in Scotland that if their landlords are Jacobite, they can have the forfeited property
2 October 1715 The English government manages to nip in the bud a sympathetic rising in western England.
6 October 1715 A sympathetic English rising begins in Northumberland.
22 October 1715 Having (in large measure through a good choice of subordinates) captured almost all of northern Scotland, the Earl of Mar receives a commission from the Pretender.
13 November 1715 Mar's army defeats the Duke of Argyll at Sherriffmuir, but Mar fails to press his advantage and falls back to Perth.
14 November 1715 After intense fighting, the sympathetic rising in Northumberland is defeated at the Battle of Preston.
22 December 1715 The Pretender lands at Peterhead and begins the march to Perth; by the time he reaches Perth on 9 January, the Duke of Argyll has begun to advance with heavy artillery, and the Jacobite army spends the rest of the month in retreat.
4 February 1716 The Pretender leaves Scotland and returns to France.

1 November 1716 The Disarming Act makes it illegal to carry unauthorized weapons in Scotland.

1716 An Anglo-French alliance requires the Stuarts to leave France; they eventually settle in Rome at the invitation of Pope Benedict XIII.

July 1717 The Indemnity Act pardons those who took part in Lord Mar's Revolt except for the MacGregors (including Rob Roy MacGregor).

22 August 1717 The War of the Quadruple Alliance begins, pitting Spain against Britain, France, Austria, and the Dutch Republic. The Spanish begin considering a diversionary invasion of Scotland to draw the powerful British fleet away from the Mediterranean.

THE NINETEEN
11 April 1719 George Keith lands with 300 Spanish soldiers at Loch Alsh, and with the help of the Mackenzies raises a local army. They garrison at Eilean Donan Castle and march on Inverness.
10 May 1719 Three major English warships anchor off Eilean Donan and, after an attempt at negotiation, capture the castle and then shell it into ruins.
5 June 1719 General Joseph Wightman meets the Jacobite army at Glen Shiel, and defeats them with overwhelming firepower. Lord Carpenter recommends that it is not worth the time and effort to hunt down the rebels in the Highlands, on the ground that the swift and conclusive defeat had damaged the Jacobite cause far more than the British government could possibly do.

1721 The Rosses, who had been appointed factors for the forfeited estates of the Mackenzies, try to collect rents, which had not been paid (the Mackenzies had instead continued to send their rents overseas to the clan chief). They are ambushed near Glen Affric, soundly defeated, and agree to give up all claim to the rents. The British government, hearing of the matter, attempts to press the issue by sending a regiment from Inverness; the regiment, under Captain McNeil, is ambushed at Coille Bhan. They win the battle, but, hearing of approaching Mackenzie reinforcements, recognize the futility of the attempt and return to Inverness.

1744 The French back an invasion plan, but it is aborted due to hostile weather; however, war between France and Britain gives Charles Stuart, "Bonnie Prince Charlie", a reason to think conditions still may be favorable.

THE FORTY-FIVE (also known as the YEAR OF CHARLES)
23 July 1745 Charles lands at Eriskay with Irish volunteers and begins gathering local Scottish support.
19 August 1745 Charles raises the standard at Glenfinnan and the uprising begins in earnest.
17 September 1745 Charles and his army enter Edinburgh unopposed, although Edinburgh Castle remains under British control.
21 September 1745 Jacobite army wins the Battle of Prestonpans.
8 November 1745 The Jacobites begin an invasion of England, but disputes about the appropriate policy are already beginning to cause discord in the Jacobite leadership, and support from English Jacobites and the French turns out to be far less than expected.
20 December 1745 The Jacobites return to Scotland. Despite the failure of the expedition, the fact that the army had invaded England raises morale considerably, and volunteers begin to increase.
4 January 1746 Charles reaches Stirling.
17 January 1746 The Jacobites win the Battle of Falkirk Muir but fail to press their advantage.
1 February 1746 The Jacobites are forced to withdraw from the Siege of Stirling Castle.
16 April 1746 The Jacobites lose at the Battle of Culloden.
20 April 1746 Given divisions between Charles and his advisors, and the low level of French support, Charles disbands the army.
27 June 1746 Flora MacDonald helps Charles escape British troops.

1 August 1746 In the aftermath of the Forty-Five, Parliament passes: the Heritable Jurisdictions Act, stripping clan chiefs and hereditary sheriffs of their judicial powers; and the ACT OF PROSCRIPTION, which increases the punishments for unauthorized weapons and makes tartan and kilt illegal.

20 September 1746 Charles returns to France.

June 1747 Henry Stuart becomes a Cardinal in the Catholic Church, widely seen as being an admission of the end of the Stuart cause.

Aquinas for Lent XV

Many human beings are stirred to spiritual deeds for the sake of some temporal goods, but the disordered covetousness of temporal goods is not on that account sinless. So also although many perform virtuous deeds for the sake of glory, the disordered desire for glory is not on that account sinless, since we should perform virtuous deeds for their own sake, or rather for God's sake, not for the sake of glory.

[Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, Regan, tr. Oxford University Press (New York: 2003) p. 344 (DM 9.1 ad 6).]

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Princess Elisabeth's Last Name

I'm somewhat amused at this post at the APA Blog. I want to be sympathetic to the general point, but it's difficult to take seriously when the author keeps referring to Princess Elisabeth of the Palatinate as "Bohemia". When we call her Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, "Bohemia" is not her name; it's the name of a kingdom and part of her royal style. We call her Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia because her father, the Elector Palatine, was for a very short period the reigning King of Bohemia. It's as if someone in the future were to insist on calling Queen Elizabeth II, "Great Britain". Besides the absurdity just on the face, it is, frankly, ridiculously absurd to think you are affirming a woman's agency by calling her the name of the kingdom her father happened to rule until he lost it.

If you really were insisting on using her last name, I suppose the proper name would be Pfalz-Simmern, which is the name of her House. But it doesn't make all that much sense to do so. For one thing, that's not how she would generally have been known, nor the form of address she would have expected from other people. She would just have been Princess Elisabeth, and, later, Princess-Abbess Elisabeth, and anything else would have been just to clarify if there might be confusion with other people of similar name. For another, she is known the world over as Princess Elisabeth, and it does her no great service to pin her with a more obscure one.

In addition, despite the author's assumption that it is the standard to use a person's last name, the field of philosophy has no ability to apply that standard rigorously. 'Novalis' is a pen name; 'Plato' seems to be a nickname (according to one line of ancient rumor, his real name may have been Aristocles, but we don't even know for sure); 'Aquinas' is not St. Thomas's last name but literally just means 'the guy from Aquino'; 'Marcus Aurelius' is just the name that ended up sticking to the man who was known at various times of his life as Marcus Catilius Severus, Marcus Annius Verus, and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (I suppose if you were to insist on last names, 'Augustus' would be the closest thing). We call Anthony Ashley Cooper 'Shaftesbury' because he was, in fact, Lord Shaftesbury. Calling Damaris Cudworth, 'Cudworth' invites confusion with her father, who is better known under that name; since she was Lady Masham, she's often called that, or, more often, Masham. There is no standard of using last names in philosophy; there can't be. What is typically done is to use the name most convenient for distinctive identification -- which happens to be the last name through most of the West for a good portion of the past several centuries because of the spreading popularity of [first name / family name] as a distinctive identifier.

If we are really concerned with agency, I would go in exactly the opposite direction that the author of the post does: instead of dropping titles and using 'last names', in formal contexts we should in fact show respect by at least occasionally using the highest title applicable to them unless they themselves chose to call themselves something different. Thus 'Novalis', 'Lord Shaftesbury', 'Lady Masham', 'Lady Mary Shepherd', 'St. Thomas'. It's disingenuous to say that you are respecting (say) Lady Masham's agency by calling her 'Cudworth', when that would in fact have been taking an immense liberty. It's natural that in informal contexts people will use shortcuts like this, but in formal contexts, a little respect, applied at least sometimes, makes sense. (I grant, though, that most people would balk at 'Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus'. It's probably impossible to get perfect consistency out of people.)

It's noticeable that assigning people last names sometimes gives results that are exactly the opposite of what is claimed: 'Shepherd' collapses Lady Mary Shepherd's name to the part that belonged to her husband. Again, there's no problem with that as shorthand -- there are fewer Shepherds than Lady Marys she might be confused with -- but if you really are concerned about this, you should call her, in full, 'Lady Mary Shepherd'. That's how she signed her letters. That's what pretty much everyone called her whenever they talked about her. If recognizing her agency is the issue in question, it's absurd to say that anything else is superior specifically in terms of recognizing her agency. It is nonsense to think you are especially respecting a woman by stripping her name of signs of respect she's historically had.

Four Poem Drafts

"Purgatory" is influenced by the end of Book VIII of the Iliad.

I Ought

I did not know you, yet I thought
the cosmos in your eyes was caught;
an endless treasure there I sought,
a world within --
I ought, I ought --
and yet, though cities rise and burn
and planets ceaseless make a turn,
I know not how,
not then nor now,
to quiet, still, the mental churn;
I did not know you, yet I thought
in inmost heart:
I ought, I ought.

Ã“Ã°rÃ¸rir

Life is in the blood,
the heated fire,
the harvest of the good
from deep desire,
the rush of solar might
and purest light
turned to life and hope;

mix it well with gold,
the splendor sure,
the bee-brewed glory bold
and turned to sweetness light
which gives words might,
fused with life and hope.

Ecclesia

Holy hyperhexeract,
image of high heaven's grace,
well of legend turned to fact,
impress of the Holy Face,

lines of grace in heptacross
life abundant, hope from loss,
sevenfold with God's own worth.

Purgatory

The moon, refulgent through the night,
an argent tint and hue impart
to all the shadowy forms below;
its borrowed light,
in pale yet splendid sheen,
casts the world in contrast stark,
the crags and mountain peaks,
pallid-bright beneath the deep serene
where stars eternal shine with peace.
Exemplate down below,
high in hope the livelong night,
the air ensmoked with sacrifice,
ten thousand thousand hearts await
and endless fields of many more.
As when around the gleaming moon
the stars pierce through the breathless air,
when rocks in prospect shine
and shepherds on the heights rejoice
at endless stars
that endlessly endure,
the watching fires light the camps
with blaze of light upon the plain.
In satispassion hosts await,
anticipation's patient peace
upon their brows a holy crown,
before the City high-enwalled;
those walls that none may hope to scale
they hope to overcome,
to seize the City as their own--
not by arms, but by gift,
All throughout the night they watch,
waiting for the dawn.

Aquinas for Lent XIV

Now one should consider further that the adversity of an impious man is graver than that of a just man, since when a just man suffers temporal adversity there remains to him the support of virtue and consolation in God; hence, he is not totally dissipated. But to evil men, once the temporal goods which alone they sought for themselves have been lost, no support remains
.

Thomas Aquinas, The Literal Exposition on Job, Damico, tr. Scholars Press (Atlanta, GA: 1989) p. 285.]

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Black Panther

I managed to get to Black Panther this past weekend, and intended to put something up on it, but kept not doing it. I was looking forward to it; when I was a boy Black Panther was my second favorite Marvel superhero, after Captain America; he was a warrior king (I liked that kind of character), from a Lost Civilization (I liked that kind of story), and had the spirit of the panther (which was my favorite animal growing up). I was not disappointed. A few thoughts.

* It is clear that this was a labor of love for almost everybody involved. It's interesting in this universe to contrast Wakanda and Asgard as high-tech civilizations with distinctive aesthetic: Wakanda has a richness of detail that Asgard was never given. Everything in Asgard is impressive in scale, but most of it is rather generic. You don't get a sense of place as you do here. And it's the same with the customs and rituals; over the course of the three Thor movies we got about as much of Asgardian culture as we get of Wakandan culture in this one movie -- only the funeral of Frigga in The Dark World gives us much like what we repeatedly get here. There is still a lot that's not covered, of course, but one never gets the sense that it's due to wasted opportunities in the story itself.

The CGI, I think, was a bit uneven -- some very excellent work, and also some not so great. I was a bit disappointed at the Wakandan city, which most of the time seemed to be a very generic Futuristic City with a few vaguely African elements occasionally.

* The acting is generally excellent. Chadwick Boseman continues to get this character exactly right, although I think Civil War was more consistent in giving him material to work with; Letitia Wright's Shuri is deservedly praised; and, while I wasn't immediately sold on Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger, once the character really begins to take his position in the story, he sold it perfectly.

* The story, I think, is the weak point. There is a lot going on here: introducing Wakanda and its politics, the Killmonger thread, the Ulysses Klaue thread, the relationship between T'Chaka and T'Challa. The story manages to do all of this in a fairly unified way, but it's clear that each one is eating up time and resources for the movie to do the others. An effect of this is that, for a superhero movie, there is relatively little superheroing on the part of the main character. We get a lot of growing-into-kingship story here, some of which we didn't need, because we had already indirectly seen something like it in Civil War. The battles, while entertaining, are relatively generic, and often rely more on spectacle than on investment of the audience. It's an interesting story, and well done, but a crowded one, and oddly it results in most of the plot-threads feeling too short. The first Iron Man, both of the first two Captain America movies, and Homecoming had stronger, cleaner story-structures, I think. Nonetheless, this one doesn't drag and is not a complete mess. Storywise, it was about middle-of-the-road for Marvel movies, I think.

I think this crowding also leads it to struggle a bit in the attempt to weave humor into all of its serious story threads.

* Thematically, the movie attempts to handle some fairly deep issues about isolationism and imperialism/colonialism, and, in particular, to argue for some mean between the two. This gives it a nice depth that Marvel movies often lack. However, it does not, I think, sufficiently motivate the repudiation of isolationism; we get no sense that Wakanda is really ready to throw open its doors the way the movie pushes us to think it should be, and, ironically, I think this is because we never get a sense of why the Wakandans are so vehement about their isolation -- we just know that they are, and that T'Challa himself is moving away from it. The Wakandan marvel is that having all the power required to build an empire, they never did; a fact that is never adequately explained. Wakanda, sitting on a mountain of miracle metal, certainly has no need to go abroad, seeking monsters to destroy; but that never has stopped any other nation. The movie also doesn't properly grapple with the fact that many of Wakanda's attractive features are explicitly tied to the fact that it has had such a strict isolationism (albeit without most of the disadvantages of isolationism).

And equally ironically, I think the movie does too well in presenting the attractions of colonialism. One of the comments I saw in a review was about how Killmonger's 'black liberation' position was in some ways the more attractive position. This is a testimony to how sympathetically Killmonger was written, and also probably how well Jordan managed to capture that aspect of him, but it's an illusion. Killmonger doesn't actually give a black liberation position anywhere in the movie; every time he talks about his vision, he is describing colonialism. This is, rather surprisingly, the first movie I think I have ever seen that really captures just how attractive colonialism can seem to its proponents: bringing aid and assistance to entire nations in dire need of your enlightenment, forming the world according to your values, building not just a civilization but a Great Civilization, an empire on which the sun will never set, to be the standard against which other nations are measured. Killmonger is right that he learned from the colonizers he hates; and T'Challa is right that he has become one.

Aquinas for Lent XIII

...the proud wish themselves to enter into those things to which they do not attain, and therefore it is unavoidable that they err and fail. Is. 16:6: His pride and his arrogancy, and his indignation is more than his strength, etc. Likewise, they do not wish to subject the intellect to another, but rely on their own prudence, and therefore are not obedient to Sacred Scripture. Contrary to this is said in Prov. 3:5, And lean not upon thy own prudence. Prov. 11:2: Where humility, there wisdom.

[Thomas Aquinas, Commentaries on St. Paul's Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, Baer, tr., St. Augustine's Press (South Bend, IN: 2007) pp. 77-78. From the commentary on I Timothy.]

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Harp of Narek

Today is the feast of St. Gregory of Narek, Doctor of the Church. From his Litany for the Church:

Treasure of profound goodness, desired, discovered, and concealed,
absolute fullness that gathers everyone, never wanting,
hardly differing from heaven above:
Your altar extends beyond its space--into the inaccessible ether,
your boundaries are marked by the fiery hosts beyond the chasm;
immeasurable image of compassionate care,
glorious throne of the King on high, beyond imagination.
Please accept our prayers of petition with befitting incense
offered in this place, the holy church, we plead.

[Gregory of Narek, The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek, Terian, tr. Liturgical Press (Collegeville, MN: 2016) p. 93.]

“Nothing, sir, can induce me to surrender my claim.”

“I am sorry, count, but in such a matter your views cannot modify mine.”

“But allow me to point out that my seniority unquestionably gives me a prior right.”

“Mere seniority, I assert, in an affair of this kind, cannot possibly entitle you to any prior claim whatever.”

“Then, captain, no alternative is left but for me to compel you to yield at the sword’s point.”

“As you please, count; but neither sword nor pistol can force me to forego my pretensions. Here is my card.”

“And mine.”

This rapid altercation was thus brought to an end by the formal interchange of the names of the disputants. On one of the cards was inscribed:

Staff Officer, Mostaganem.

On the other was the title:

Count Wassili Timascheff,
On board the Schooner “Dobryna.”

Of all the stories in the Voyages extraordinaires, Hector Servadac (often titled in English, Off on a Comet) is probably the wildest. Hector Servadac is a competent French army captain in Algeria, spending his days in administration and trying to woo a widow (the occasion for the challenge with which the book opens). Suddenly one day, however, the whole world seems go crazy -- the earth shakes; gravity changes; the coast of Algeria, and, indeed, most of Europe, vanishes; the sun rises and sets in the wrong places and at the wrong times. With the help of Ben-Zouf, who is his Algerian aide, and Count Timascheff, he learns that a comet has grazed the earth, tearing off a strip, which is now wrapped around the comet itself and speeding far away from earth on a two-year voyage, the temperature slowly but steadily cooling as they go. The thirty-six people on the comet will have to survive. And how will they get back to earth?

The story has what is probably the most baffling endings in Verne's works. Verne originally wanted a catastrophic ending in which everybody dies, but his publisher nixed that, on the grounds that his magazine was a family magazine. Given the premise, though, the options were quite limited, and what Verne chose leaves everything unexplained and inexplicable.

The story was sharply criticized by Jewish authorities for its comic relief character, who is a patchwork of Jewish stereotypes. Verne and his publisher publicly apologized, and attempted to tone the characterization down a bit, but translations had already begun to be made; almost all translations into English that have ever been done, for instance, have been based on the book as originally published. This controversial aspect, combined with the wildness of the premise, may be why the book did quite poorly, despite following after Michael Strogoff, which is one of the greatest successes in Verne's lifetime. It is in some ways a pity. Hector Servadac himself, for instance, is one of Verne's most likeable characters. But more than that, one wonders what the relatively weak sales closed off. In Autour de la lune Verne had raised the possibility of seeing the planets and even the stars. Hector Servadac's wildness is partly because the difficulty of visiting the planets is massively greater than even going to the moon (how, for instance, could you supply it?), and requires a correspondingly bolder approach. In that light, Verne's solution is quite as logical as could be found in the nineteenth century. Had Hector Servadac done much better than it did, one can well imagine Verne thinking about the next step in the kinds of voyages mentioned in Autour de la lune: interstellar travel. It would have been interesting to discover how he might have handled it; but he never went that direction again.

Aquinas for Lent XII

The likeness we have to God precedes and causes the likeness we have to our neighbor: because from the very fact that we share along with our neighbor in something received from God, we become like to our neighbor. Hence by reason of this likeness we ought to love God more than we love our neighbor.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Music on My Mind

Catriona Watt, "Ailein Duinn". I've mentioned before that this is one of my favorite songs ever. "Ailein Duinn" means 'Dark Alan'. Alan Morrison was a sailor from the Isle of Lewis who was to marry Annie Campbell, and he sailed out with her for Scalpay, where they were to be married. A storm overtook the ship and Annie was the only person on board to survive. She is said to have composed this lament and then ended her life by walking into the sea. This is a particularly nice version.

Aquinas for Lent XI

And one should note that earthly affections imitate remotely in some way spiritual affections by which the mind is joined to God, but they can in no way arrive at a similarity with them. For earthly love, and consequently every affection, falls short of the love of God, for love is the source of any affection.

[Thomas Aquinas, The Literal Exposition on Job, Damico, tr. Scholars Press (Atlanta, GA: 1989) p. 80.]

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Fortnightly Book, February 25

The next fortnightly book is Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy, written in 1817, which was one of Robert Louis Stevenson's favorite books.

The title is by all accounts somewhat misleading; while Rob Roy MacGregor is a character with repeated appearances throughout the book, the work is really about the adventures of a young man, Frank Osbaldistone, during the time of the Jacobite uprisings. But, of course, he is not incidental to the story, but part and parcel of the environment in which it occurs. To borrow from Wordsworth,

For thou wert still the poor man's stay,
The poor man's heart, the poor man's hand;
And all the oppressed, who wanted strength,