Wednesday, February 19, 2020

A New Poem Draft and a Poem Re-Draft


The whispers still remember,
as when bright colors fade
or leaves in deep November
on branches bare are splayed,
yet still they have a power,
the queen, the monks, the saint,
to seize in quiet hour
the heart whose feelings paint
the very world we see
and the things we think we know
and guide us on the journey
beneath a sunlit glow.


The autumn leaves are falling brown and dusty on the road,
the winter chill is beating like a hammer on the brain,
the sun perhaps forever-lost is hiding, veiled by cloud.
A dull and aching boredom rules, worse than any pain,
and time --
the word is inexact, but we may call it 'time' --
time is bare, oppressive;
it smothers the sublime.

We itch to walk and wander,
inquire, think, and ponder --
we itch but do not scratch,
for where is there to journey
when the sameness never ceases
(brown below and gray above)
and life in bits and pieces
knows not peace nor joy nor love?
All drained of every color,
now fades life and light,
and all without reprieve await
an all-elusive night.

Yet in a little building, quiet, tucked away,
a little light of day
through dismal day is breaking,
a single subtle ray
of sunlight bright and pure
like water to the thirsty, to the ill a cure:
like bread plain and unobtrusive
yet of endless grace diffusive,
like red wine upon the tongue
but ever ancient, ever young,
but the bread is living bread
and the wine is holy vine
and they who see and taste that supersubstantial sign --
the word is inexact, but call it living sign --
are abundant with renewal that can resurrect the dead.

The autumn leaves are falling brown and dusty on the road,
the winter chill is beating like a hammer on the brain,
yet sublimely, and how finely, like fair face behind a veil,
with enigmatic smile lives the lamb that had been slain.


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Il Beato Angelico

Today is the feast day of Guido di Pietro, more commonly known as Bl. Giovanni da Fiesole, even more commonly known as Fra Angelico.

Angelico Transfiguración

Fra Angelico 066
The Beheading of Saints Cosmas And Damian

Fra Giovanni was a simple man and most holy in his habits, and one day when Pope Nicholas V desired him to dine with him, he had scruples of conscience about eating meat without his prior's leave, not considering the Pope's authority. He would not follow the ways of the world, but lived purely and holily, and was a great friend of the poor. He painted constantly, and would never represent anything but the saints. He might have been rich, but did not care about it, saying that true riches are nothing else than being content with little. He might have governed many, and would not, saying it was less troublesome to obey, and one was less liable to err in obeying. It was in his power to hold dignities among the friars and elsewhere, but he did not esteem them, affirming that he sought no other dignity than to escape hell and attain to Paradise. He was most kind and sober, keeping himself free from all worldly ties, often saying that he who practised art had need of quiet and to be able to live without cares, and that he who represents the things of Christ should always live with Christ. He was never seen in anger by the friars, which is a great thing, and seems to me almost impossible to believe; and he had a way of admonishing his friends with smiles. To those who sought his works he would answer, that they must content the prior, and then he would not fail. To sum up, this father, who can never be enough praised, was in all his works and words most humble and modest, and in his paintings facile and devout; and the saints whom he painted have more the air and likeness of saints than those of any one else. It was his habit never to retouch or alter any of his paintings, but to leave them as they came the first time, believing, as he said, that such was the will of God. Some say he would never take up his pencil until he had first made supplication, and he never made a crucifix but he was bathed in tears.
[From Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists]

Monday, February 17, 2020

Evening Note for Monday, February 17

Thought for the Evening: Dedekind on the Infinite Realm of Thought

Richard Dedekind's "What are numbers and what are they good for?" is one of the foundational works for set theory. The search for a version of the latter that met certain formal desiderata, however, led the latter to drift a bit from what Cantor, Dedekind, and other early contributors to the field were intending. There's nothing wrong with that, but it is sometimes worthwhile to remember what the original aim was. This is particularly true since sets were not originally taken to be primitives but to be a way of formally capturing something else: thought.

Dedekind is quite explicit in his monograph. "In what follows," he says, "I understand by thing every object of our thought" (sect. 1, p. 44). One thing or object in this sense is taken to be precisely distinguishable ("completely determined by all that can be affirmed or thought concerning it") from another, and we can mark them therefore by distinct letters as labels. Because objects of thought in the sense used here are completely determined by what can be thought about them, we naturally get a criterion for identity: thing a is exactly the same as thing b when everything that can be thought about a is thought about b, and vice versa.

Objects of thought can in turn be thought-together, "associated in the mind" (sect. 2, p. 45). Dedekind calls this a system; it's the parent of what we call a set. If a, b, and c can be thought together, they form a system S; a, b, and c can then be called elements and we can say that these elements are contained in system S, or that S consists of a, b, and c. But S is something we can think about that can be exactly distinguished by all that can be thought concerning it, in the sense that S just being the thinking-together of its elements, it is completely determined by knowing exactly what is and what is not contained in S. So S can itself be a thing. Dedekind extends this to the singleton -- the system with only one element; but, while he recognizes that you could posit a system that had no elements, he sets that possibility aside in the monograph.

Dedekind also defines 'part' for systems: S is part of S' when every element in S is in S'; in this sense every system is part of itself. We can distinguish a narrower definition of part, however: S is a proper part of S' when S is a part of S' but is not the same as S'.

We can transform the elements of a system, in a sense to turn them into other elements (although it may just be a correspondence rather than an actual change); a transformation is a rule whereby for any element s there is another determinate thing φ(s), which is called its transform. A transformation of S (i.e., the new system) is similar to S if there is still a one-to-one correspondence between elements in S and their transforms.

On the basis of these definitions, Dedekind builds several important parts of mathematics, such as mathematical induction. But the key definition is that of the infinite:

A system S is said to be infinite when it is similar to a proper part of itself...; in the contrary case S is said to be finite.

In other words, if S includes a part (other than itself) that has elements that can be put into an exact one-to-one correspondence with the elements of S, it is infinite. An infinite system has proper parts that are infinite. Systems whose proper parts always have fewer elements than themselves are finite. And here we get to the most interesting argument of all, the argument that there are infinite systems, which is based wholly on the understanding of these systems as objects of thought (sect. 66, p. 64):

My own realm of thoughts, i.e., the totality S of all things which can be object of my thought, is infinite. For if s signifies an element of S, then is the thought s', that s can be the object of my thought, itself an element of S. If we regard this as the transform φ(s), then has the transformation φ of S, thus determined, the property that the transform S' is part of S; and S' is certainly a proper part of S, because there are elements in S (e.g., my own ego), which are different from such thought s' and therefore are not contained in S'. Finally it is clear that if a, b are different elements of S, their transforms a', b' are also different, that therefore the transformation φ is a distinct (similar) transformation.... Hence S is infinite, which was to be proved.

In other words, for every object of thought s, one can have the further object of thought 's is an object of thought'; we can do this one-to-one correspondence with everything about which we can think, but if we take all the explicit 'is an object of thought' thoughts, they will be a proper part of the totality of objects of thought, because there will be some objects of thought (like myself) that are not in the explicit 'is an object of thought' group. So the entirety of things that can be thought is infinite.

I find, looking at commentaries on this, that mathematicians are regularly baffled at Dedekind's 'non-mathematical' argument here. But, of course, if this is 'non-mathematical', so is all of Dedekind's set theory, since everything that could be said to be 'non-mathematical' in section 66 arises from how Dedekind defines the basic terms to begin with. But perhaps there is a legitimate sense in which this is true, and we can say that Dedekind is not doing mathematics. Rather, he is attempting to establish the existence and nature of numbers without assuming them. The only way you can do this is to start from something more basic and fundamental than number. What is more basic than number? What is a more general intelligible field out of which numbers can be drawn? Well, the obvious one is the intelligible field, all the intelligible things that can be associated with each other. More basic than the mathematical realm is the intelligible realm of which it is only a part. And the intelligible realm is infinite, which makes it possible for us to think about infinites in mathematics.

Various Links of Interest

* Rob Alspaugh, Theological Virtues

* Matthew Wills, How 1920s Catholic Students Fought the Ku Klux Klan

* Edmund Waldstein, Marx's Fundamental Insight into Capitalism

* Paul Lodge, What Is It Like to be Manic?

* Erin Blakemore, Is Emma Really the Heroine of Emma? The real answer, of course, is that she is, but Blakemore is right that Emma does have features that in other novels are associated with villainesses. It matters, though, that Emma has good taste in friends, one that gives her a way out her scheming.

* Re-sonnets.

* Cheryl Misak on Frank Ramsey.

* Yair Rosenberg on the interesting background to the Yiddish translation of Harry Potter.

Currently Reading

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Benoît-Dominique de la Soujeole, O.P., Introduction to the Mystery of the Church

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Fortnightly Book, February 16

There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.

One of the things I want to do this year is work through Sherlock Holmes, so that brings us to the first two, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four.

A Study in Scarlet, the first appearance of Holmes and Watson, was published in 1887 in Beeton's Christmas Annual. Conan Doyle had thrown it together in three weeks, and it had been rejected multiple times; he got a grand total of £25 for the entire thing. It was published in book form in 1888 by Ward, Lock, & Co.

The Sign of the Four, sometimes also titled The Sign of Four, started over dinner with a number of notables. The most famous person at the table was Oscar Wilde, but there was also an editor, Joseph Stoddart, who wanted to expand the very popular Lippincott's Monthly Magazine into England; in the course of the conversation, Conan Doyle, who was already well known for his short stories, promised to contribute to it. The Sign of the Four was published in February 1890 and J. B. Lippincott & Co. published A Study in Scarlet in American later that year.

History is sometimes made quietly. Neither book did badly, but neither made a big splash, either. But they both set the stage for the short stories, which Conan Doyle began writing for Strand Magazine in 1891, which made them both famous after the fact.

Looking at old time radio episodes, it looks like A Study in Scarlet was adapted for radio in 1962 for The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (with the inimitable Basil Rathbone as Holmes) and in 1977 for CBS Radio Mystery Theater; The New Adventures adapted The Sign of the Four in 1963, and CBS Radio Mystery Theater did it in 1977. In general, New Adventures tends to adapt quite loosely and Mystery Theater more strictly, but in any case I hope to listen to all four, if I have the time.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard; My Life in the Bush of Ghosts


Opening Passages: From The Palm-Wine Drinkard:

I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life. In those days we did not know other money, except COWRIES, so that everything was very cheap, and my father was the richest man in our town.

My father got eight children and I was the eldest among them, all of the rest were hard workers, but I myself was an expert palm-wine drinkard. I was drinking palm-wine from morning till night and from night till morning. By that time I could not drink ordinary water at all except palm-wine.

But when my father noticed that I could not do any work more than to drink, he engaged an expert palm-wine tapster for me; he had no other work more than to tap palm-wine every day. (p. 191)

From My Life in the Bush of Ghosts:

I was seven years old before I understood the meaning of "bad" and "good", because it was at that time I noticed carefully that my father married three wives as they were doing in those days, if it is not common nowadays. My mother was the last married among the rest and she only bore two sons but the rest bore only daughters. So by that the two wives who had only daughters hated my mother, brother and myself to excess as they believed that no doubt my brother and myself would be the rulers of our father's house and also all his properties after his death. My brother was eleven years old then and I myself was seven. So it was at this stage I quite understood the meaning of "bad" because of hatred and had not yet known the meaning of "good". (p. 17)

Summary: The narrator of The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town is, as his opening passage suggests, the son of a rich man, who, being the sort of man to set people to work at what they are good at, hires a palm-wine tapster in order to support his son's talent at drinking palm-wine. Palm-wine is made from the sap of a palm or similar tree; you cut the flower and it oozes a very sweet white liquid. It ferments very quickly, turning into a mildly alcoholic beverage in about two hours. So the expert palm-wine tapster will tap the palms every day, early morning and afternoon, and in just a couple of hours there will be enough alcohol for a party. But, alas, one day tragedy strikes; sometimes you have to climb quite high to tap the palm, and the palm-wine tapster falls to his death. A search for other tapsters discovers that they just don't measure up; they can't tap enough to supply the son, much less entire parties. So there's only one thing to do: the palm-wine drinkard is going to have to set out to find the dead palm-wine tapster and bring him back. It will be a harrowing journey, in which the palm-wine drinkard, who starts boldly giving out his name as "Father of the gods who could do everything in this world" to the astonishment of everyone he meets, tangles with ghosts and monsters -- Death, Skull, tiny creatures of Wraith-Island, unknown creatures of Unreturnable-Heaven's Town, Red-People of the Red Town, the Invisible Pawn, the Hungry-Creatures, and more, until he finally finds the expert palm-wine tapster in the Deads' Town. It turns out that it's impractical to bring back the dead, but he will get a magic egg that makes palm-wine, which would solve things if only people weren't so greedy. Along the way he will also meet a woman who will become his wife. She had made the mistake of following a beautiful unknown man (one of the section headings is the salutary moral advice, "Don't follow unknown man's beauty") who, it turns out, had rented all his beautiful parts and was really just Skull; after he rescues her, she helps him get through all the trials of trying to bring someone back from the dead.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is, like The Palm-Wine Drinkard, a journey tale. A young boy is forced to flee into the Bush of Ghosts to avoid slavery; he doesn't know enough about good and bad to know just how evil things in the Bush of Ghosts can be. He will end up wandering the Bush of Ghosts for twenty-four years, although his travels once he enters seem to be somewhat disjointed in time. He will end up marrying ghosts twice -- again, not having learned enough about good and bad before entering, he does not understand that this is not something an earthly mortal should do. The first time is to a beautiful ghostess; they go to the church on the wedding day, but the wedding faces a hitch when it turns out the preacher is the Devil, and because he is a mortal, he can't wed the ghostess before he is baptized. Since he doesn't know enough about good and bad, he agrees to be baptized into the Devil's church, which he immediately regrets because the Devil baptizes with fire and boiling water. That marriage doesn't work out. He later marries a "Superlady" who rebelled against her family's evil and can do anything; they get along well enough for a while, but when their son is born half ghost and half mortal, doing everything half and half, it leads to irreconcilable differences and she throws him out. When he returns from the Bush of Ghosts he is caught by slavers again, but eventually finds his family. He keeps thinking he might go back to the Bush of Ghosts, though.

There are a great many suggestive ideas in both stories. One that I found particularly interesting, which is found in both, is that the reason there are ghosts or supernatural monsters is that any mortal can die but you have to go through training to be Dead.

Both works have a folktale-feel. Of the two tales, The Palm-Wine Drinkard is the more fun; the obsessiveness of the palm-wine drinkard's thirst does more to drive its story, the jokes and absurd juxtapositions are often hilarious, and there's a kind of biting realism to the portrayal of human motivations even in the midst of all of the surrealism of the towns of ghosts and of the Deads. I did find My Life in Bush of Ghosts quite interesting in a number of ways, though. The young boy flees from slavers into the Bush of Ghosts, but when he returns he runs right into slavers again. Time has passed, but nothing has changed. And I think the juxtaposition of slavery and the Bush of Ghosts is interesting, because the result is that the difference between the Bush of Ghosts and the realm of mortals is less than you might think. Every traveler knows that you don't risk the dangers and evils of the Bush of Ghosts, but slave-wars are exactly the kind of thing you find ghosts doing in the Bush of Ghosts. And when the wanderer returns, he fears nothing in the mortal world because, as he says, "it is in the Bush of Ghosts the 'fears', 'sorrows', 'difficulties' all kinds of the 'punishments' etc. start and there they end" (p. 174).

Favorite Passages: From The Palm-Wine Drinkard, when the drinkard finds the tapster:

...He said that when he reached there, he spent two years in training and after that he had qualified as a full dead man, then he came to this Deads' Town and was living with deads and he said that he could not say what happened to him before he died in my town. But when he said so, I told him that he fell down from a palm-tree on a Sunday evening when he was tapping palm-wine and we buried him at the foot of the very palm-tree on which he fell.

Then he said that if that should be the case, he over-drank on that day. (p. 278)

From My Life in the Bush of Ghosts:

After some weeks he handed me to one of the principals of his schools as a new scholar, then I started to learn how to read and write. In the evening my cousin would be teaching me how to be acting as a dead man and within six months I had qualified as a full dead man. And again as I had a quick brain at that time, so I finished my schooling after a few years. Then I was sent without hesitation direct to the Deads' town as a student to learn how to judge cases , as police and also all the branches of the court works. having become expert in this field, then I returned and started the works.....(p. 152)

Recommendation: The Palm-Wine Drinkard is Highly Recommended and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is Recommended. I think both stories work better if you can find a stretch of time to read them; if you read them only a bit at a time, it is easy to get lost. It's the Bush of Ghosts, after all; everything is a little outside of normal.

Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Grove Press (New York: 1994).

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Quick and the Dead

This past week was the 25th anniversary of the underrated Sam Raimi take on the Western, The Quick and the Dead, which I am old enough to say that I saw when it came out a quarter century ago. It did not do well at the box office; it was panned by the critics; but it is, as I say, an underrated film. So I rewatched it.

A female gunslinger (Sharon Stone), originally known only as The Lady although we later learn her name is Ellen, comes into the dusty border town of Redemption, which is ruled with a ruthless fist by the outlaw John Herod (Gene Hackman), who is hosting a single elimination quick-draw tournament. While the names for the tournament are being collected, Herod comes into the saloon, puts his name in, and threatens a preacher named Cort with hanging unless he enters the tournament. While Cort (Russell Crowe) is perched precariously on a chair, rope around his neck, as Herod shoots the legs of the chair, The Lady tries to enter the tournament. The whole saloon laughs (women can't shoot), and then, as the chair finally collapses under court, she shoots the rope until it breaks. So both The Lady and Cort are in the tournament, which Herod later turns into a match to the death.

It's often described as a spaghetti Western, but this is, I think, misleading. It certainly draws on spaghetti Western tropes, but it's as much a revision and subversion of the spaghetti Western as the spaghetti Western was of the original Western. One of the most notable ways in which it does this is by re-moralizing the tropes, to such an extent that it often borders on allegory. The Lady comes into town right before the Day of the Dead; the tyrant's name is Herod; the town only can live up to its name, Redemption, through a death and a resurrection; and, of course, the title is itself a Biblical phrase referring to the Last Judgment. The main characters, The Lady and Cort, are also primarily dealing with moral struggles. Herod is invincible because of his ruthless will and extraordinary skill; nobody can take him down without the desire, the force of will, and the skill. The Lady wants vengeance against Herod, so she has the desire to kill Herod, but has neither the force of will nor (despite her ability) the skill; Cort probably has the skill, but he is running away from his past, and thus has neither the desire nor the force of will. Only when these obstacles are overcome will Herod fall or law and order return to town.

Sharon Stone is excellent in this role (although she was apparently almost impossible to work with on set); it's scenery-chewing enough that it fits her usual work, but it also allows her occasional moments for subtler work than she is known for, particularly in her interactions with The Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio). She fits a Clint Eastwood role quite well -- her gravel and grit is not as convincing, but it works well with her character's struggles, and she has the steely gaze down. She is also much, much better looking in an Old West outfit than Clint Eastwood. Herod is also one of Gene Hackman's best scenery-chewing roles; it's impossible to imagine anyone else filling Herod out so well.

The camera-work is also excellent -- you can find here pretty much every kind of camera trick you'd ever get in a Western, plus a few from Raimi's horror background, so that the film is always visually interesting. The use of natural lighting is sometimes stunning, and contributes to giving the whole film a surreal feel.

And the surrealism, sometimes subtle, sometimes more obvious, is a big part of what makes the film work. There is a sense of timelessness to everything, as if it were in fact all leading up to Judgment Day.

Steps Leading into the Sea

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

She is neither pink nor pale,
And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun 'tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of coloured beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she never will be all mine.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Ephesine Account of the Epiclesis

I've just finished reading Christiaan Kappes's The Epiclesis Debate at the Council of Florence, which was an interesting experience. The topic is definitely interesting if you like theology; the book is very well researched and uncovers new light on it; and parts of the argument are likewise quite intriguing. On the other hand, the book is poorly organized and at times just badly written. You get sentences like this, contrasting St. Mark of Ephesus's Byzantine account of the Eucharist with Torquemada's simplified Thomistic account:

For Mark, because the Master Jesus ordered Christians to pray for the Spirit, and because he ordered the apostles to "do this in memory of me," only confidence in the Master versus automatic causality of a human efficient cause changes the gifts through the Spirit. (p. 132)

Reading the whole book one can kinda-sorta get an idea of what Kappes must really be intending, but the sentence as it stands is gibberish. None of the accounts on the table -- Thomistic, Bonaventuran, Scotist, or Byzantine -- takes anything about the sacrament to be "automatic"; and one of the things they all agree on is that it is a divine gift. In the context of Thomistic instrumental causality, one might as well as say that poems are automatically created by pens when poets set them to paper; it's not just wrong, it makes no sense. But more seriously, Mark, of course, never commits to such an obvious absurdity as "confidence in the Master...changes the gifts through the Spirit". At no point will you find Mark saying that our confidence turns the bread and wine to body and blood, or anything like it; it is inconsistent with his account. And Mark's concern in the argument being described here is not confidence vs. automatic causality but something else entirely.

The essential issue, of course, is that the Latin view of the Eucharist is that the bread and wine become Body and Blood at the words of institution, the words Christ used at the Last Supper to institute the sacrament -- 'This is my body' and 'This is my blood', although some Latins took it to be a larger amount of the prayer in which these words are embedded. The Greek view is that they become Body and Blood after the words of institution at the epiclesis, which is the prayer for the Holy Spirit to come down upon the offering. The divergence is quite natural, because it arises from the simplest reading of the prayers of the divine liturgy in each case. The Roman Canon at the time of the Council of Florence had no formal epiclesis, although some (the great Nicholas Cabasilas, for instance) had argued that one of its prayers, the Supplices te rogamus worked functionally as an epiclesis. But even if one takes Cabasilas to be right, after the words of institution, the most natural reading of all the prayers is that the Body and the Blood are already present. In the major Eastern liturgies, the epicleses are framed in terms that naturally suggest that the priest is praying in the epiclesis for the bread and wine to become the Body and the Blood, meaning that they still have not become the Eucharist in the proper sense. The difference leads to further differences; the natural implication of the Latin view is that only the words of the institution are required to have the Eucharist. The Greek view, on the other hand, does not naturally suggest the same about the epiclesis; the epiclesis is referring to things that have already been going on in the prayer of the divine liturgy, so it is natural to read it as the culmination, the final thing put into place to get the sacrament.

One of the really interesting things in the book is the view put forward by Mark of Ephesus on behalf of the Greeks at Florence. Kappes jumps around more than he should in explaining this absolutely central contribution, but it becomes clear what Mark's view is when you read Mark's Libellus, which Kappes provides in Appendix II. Both Mark and his opponent, Torquemada, agree that Christ's words are essential to the sacrament. But here is the fundamental difference: on Mark's view, the priest's statement of them is nothing but a commemoration. Christ's words, the very words on Holy Thursday, are essential to the sacrament. Christ's words have causal power to effect the sacrament, and without them there would be no sacrament. But we don't participate in the sacrament until the Holy Spirit is called down upon the altar and makes the elements the Body and the Blood. In preparation for this prayer, the priest remembers Christ's words. But the only thing the priest's commemoration of those words contributes is precisely that: commemoration. It is Christ's words that carry the power that makes the sacrament possible; in the epiclesis the priest prays for the Holy Spirit to actualize this power, and the Holy Spirit does.

One thing I find interesting is that this means that Mark's view has affinities with the Thomistic or instrumentalist view. Kappes repeatedly contrasts the Ephesine view with the Thomistic view, which is not surprising, since the major Latin opponent of it, Torquemada, accepted the Thomistic view. He also tends to associate the Ephesine view with a different view, the Scotist or occasionalist view. This is fashionable, but as Mark presents the view in the Libellus, the Ephesine view is actually intermediate between the instrumentalist and the occasionalist views.

On the occasionalist view at its simplest, there is a pact or promise between God and the Church; when the priest prays, God does what was promised. The priest's prayer is only an occasion for God's separate action of giving grace.

On the instrumentalist view found in Aquinas, however, God works through and in lesser causes, so that grace is given through and in these lesser causes, like a blacksmith uses a hammer to make something (to use Torquemada's analogy) or like a poet uses a pen to write poems (to use the Bañezian analogy that eventually became popular). The result of the blacksmith's use of the hammer goes beyond anything the hammer could do on its own, because it is the effect of the blacksmith, but it's not as if the hammer just does its own inadequate thing and then the blacksmith intervenes and makes the result; the blacksmith makes the result through the hammer. The most fundamental instance of this in the case of the grace is, on the Thomistic view, Christ's human nature, which is an instrument that is conjoined to the agent who uses it (like the hand of the blacksmith). The sacraments are extensions of this; they are separate instruments that are able to be instruments at all only because of their relation to the conjoined instrument (like the hammer in the hand of the blacksmith). All sacraments are actions of Christ, but in consecrating the Eucharist the priest serves as an instrument of Christ, so that when the priest says the words of institution, this is an act not merely of the priest (the hammer) but of Christ (the blacksmith). The priest says Christ's words like a pen writes a poet's words.

On the Ephesine view, as noted above, Christ's words on Holy Thursday have consecrating power; they are like God's commands at creation. Without them there would be no Eucharist; they make it possible. But this needs completion in the specific sense that there needs to be something that makes the sacrament here and now for us. The priest cooperates with the divine power of Christ's words by obeying the command to remember them and by performing the relevant blessings. But the change is effected by the Holy Spirit's descent on the altar when the priest prays for Him to do so. This view is much more robust than a strict occasionalist view; to say that Christ's human words have causal power in the sacrament is not occasionalism. It is indeed something an instrumentalist would say, not an occasionalist. The Ephesine view does not, however, give an instrumentalist account of the sacrament itself. The priest's words are not Christ's words; they're just a memorial of them.

From the evidence Kappes gathers in his book, it is very clear that the Latins were very confused by this, and whenever the Greeks talked about Christ's words, they seem generally to have taken it to mean Christ's words as said by the priest at Mass, not Christ's words centuries ago on Holy Thursday, to which Mark actually attributes real power. This seems to be why, for instance, they were utterly baffled at the Byzantine analogies to creation and the Annunciation; they kept thinking that the Byzantines meant that when the priest says 'This is my body' that we then have the Body but defectively until the epiclesis, whereas Mark, at least, meant that Christ's words on Holy Thursday, of which the priest reminds us, are what makes the Eucharist possible and the Holy Spirit descending at the epiclesis makes it actual.

For an instrumentalist, Christ has real power that is exercised in the sacrament but the priest is an instrument of this real power, so Christ's words said by the priest are instrumentally Christ's, through which He performs the sacrifice. This is not true in Mark's account; the words of institution are just a memorial, and the Holy Spirit's descent on the altar, while it is because of the priest's prayer, is not through the priest as instrument. It is this that makes Kappes and others tend to overassimilate Mark to the occasionalist view. In a sense we could say that Mark is instrumentalist about Christ's participation in the Eucharist and occasionalist about the priest's. If you only focus on the priest, he will look occasionalist; but it is impossible for an instrumentalist to focus only on the priest -- instruments, as instruments, only work as they do because of their principal agents. Both the Ephesine and the Thomistic view attribute real causal work in the sacrament to the same principal agent, Christ; but the Thomistic view takes this real causal work in the sacrament itself to be through the priest, who is a 'moved mover', so that the priest's actions are part of Christ's action, whereas the Ephesine view takes this real causal work to be something with which the priest cooperates non-instrumentally, by obeying the commands to commemorate and to pray for the Holy Spirit, while Christ and the Holy Spirit achieve the result by actions distinct from anything the priest himself does.


Christiaan Kappes, The Epiclesis Debate at the Council of Florence, University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, IN: 2019).

For a convenient introduction to the basics of Thomistic instrumentalism (of which you will not get any clear picture in Kappes's book), see Reginald M. Lynch, O.P., The Cleansing of the Heart: The Sacraments as Instrumental Causes in the Thomistic Tradition, The Catholic University of America Press (Washington, DC: 2017).

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Ethics and Reasoning III (Mill)

In the second half of the twentieth century, there was a complicated scholarly discussion of whether Mill's version of utilitarianism was an act utilitarianism or a rule utilitarianism. This is a dispute over the application of the greatest happiness principle. Act utilitarianism is the view that to assess right and wrong in an action, you should apply the greatest happiness principle to each action. Rule utilitarianism is the view that to assess right and wrong in an action, you should apply ordinary moral rules (like 'don't murder') to each action, and instead use the greatest happiness principle to decide what should be a moral rule. Mill says things that can be interpreted both ways. However, I will suggest that looking at the overall structure of Mill's ethics, as we find it displayed in his comments on the Art of Life, shows that the dispute is somewhat misguided. Mill doesn't think there is only one way to apply the greatest happiness principle.

Mill discusses the Art of Life in his A System of Logic. 'Art' here means something like a form of know-how; in art (in this sense) we propose an end to be attained based on general practical principles; we then drawn on science or theoretical study to determine what will attain that end; and finally we use this to make a rule that we will follow. The Art of Life is the most general kind of art, the know-how for living itself. It is not a unitary thing but has a structure. As he puts it (Book IV, Chapter XII),

These general premises, together with the principal conclusions which may be deduced from them, form (or rather might form) a body of doctrine, which is properly the Art of Life, in its three departments, Morality, Prudence or Policy, and Æsthetics; the Right, the Expedient, and the Beautiful or Noble, in human conduct and works. To this art (which, in the main, is unfortunately still to be created), all other arts are subordinate; since its principles are those which must determine whether the special aim of any particular art is worthy and desirable, and what is its place in the scale of desirable things. Every art is thus a joint result of laws of nature disclosed by science, and of the general principles of what has been called Teleology, or the Doctrine of Ends; which, borrowing the language of the German metaphysicians, may also be termed, not improperly, the principles of Practical Reason.

Needless to say, as a utilitarian Mill takes the primary general principle governing the Art of Life to be the principle of utility: "the general principle to which all rules of practice ought to conform, and the test by which they should be tried, is that of conduciveness to the happiness of mankind, or rather, of all sentient beings".

The claim that the greatest happiness principle will be the most general principle of practical reason is significant, and involves a conception of how the principle applies that is different from that of many other utilitarians. Let's look at this by considering each department of the Art of Life in turn, to the extent that Mill's scattered and limited comments enable us to understand what he means. Each department covers a kind of goodness and badness.

(1) Aesthetics, which Mill also calls Taste. Mill says it is concerned with "the Beautiful or Noble". That Mill would think this way is not surprising, of course, given what we have already seen of the importance of poetry to Mill's intellectual life. In A System of Logic, Mill recognizes the possibility that people use the term 'beautiful' so broadly that, while 'beautiful' indicates something agreeable, they may mean several different things by it; but he doesn't think that this makes it impossible to use in a unified way, as long as you focus on the principal kinds of things that we can call beautiful. He himself uses the term explicitly to describe buildings and the colors of a kaleidoscope. 'Noble' he elsewhere takes to apply to " sentiment, expression, or demeanor" and he most often applies it to feelings, to character, or to "will and conduct". When we say that something is beautiful or noble, this is a way of saying that it is good or bad; as a utilitarian, the goodness or badness is a way of contributing to the general happiness. The more beautiful building is the one that contributes more to the overall happiness through admiration or contemplation; the more beautiful action is likewise the one that contributes more to overall happiness when people reflect on it. When someone's judgments about beauty or nobility approximate what actually contributes to overall happiness, we say that person has good taste; when they don't, we say that person has bad taste.

But this is very important: while bad taste involves a kind of badness, it is not morally bad to have bad taste. Merely violating the principle of utility is not itself morally wrong. In some sense bad, yes. Morally wrong, no. Someone who likes decorating in ways that are gaudy, tacky, and kitsch to the point of grotesqueness has very bad taste; they are, when they decorate, reducing overall happiness. But their decorating is not immoral.

(2) Policy or Prudence. (Mill doesn't give any precise definition of either, but 'policy' suggests decisions for a group or society, and Mill's uses of 'prudence' suggest decisions for oneself, so I assume that he has something like this in mind when picking these two terms for the second department of the Art of Life: it's one department, but we call it 'policy' when we are making decisions for society and 'prudence' when making decisions for ourselves.) Mill says that this department concerns "the Expedient", that is, roughly what we would ordinarily call the 'useful'. Understanding Mill's view of this department of the Art of Life is complicated by the fact that usually when Mill talks about expediency he is trying to head off the confusion between 'utility' in the utilitarian sense from popular notions that identify it with some degenerate or defective notion of usefulness for one's own purposes. But when we consider Mill's recognition of the Art of Life as being coextensive with practical reason, it becomes clear enough what he means. We often recognize plans and decisions as bad plans or bad decisions; some plans just don't 'make practical sense'. Since he is a utilitarian, this kind of badness has to be understood as a violation of the principle of utility. Indeed, Mill, like Bentham, thinks we clearly do apply the principle of utility naturally, by recognizing that, for instance, a plan for a vacation is a bad plan if it increases people's misery, or that a decision is a bad decision if it obviously reduces overall happiness. Someone who regularly makes decisions that make people less happy is someone who has bad judgment, who lacks good sense.

But it is very important to grasp that bad plans and decisions are not necessarily morally bad plans and decisions. It may be a bad idea to go into a situation poorly prepared, but not all such bad ideas lead us to make moral criticisms. It's not automatically wicked to plan or decide badly. Here, too, it's not necessarily morally wrong to violate the principle of utility.

This raises a puzzle. Policy or prudence concerns things like decisions and actions. But morality is also concerned with decisions and actions. So if applying the principle of utility to decisions or actions only gets us badness and goodness of policy, we need to do something else to get moral badness and goodness. What is more, moral judgments are generally recognized as more important judgments than policy judgments; moral considerations override other practical considerations. Thus whatever we add to get morality has to give moral judgments more weight than prudential or policy judgments. What could it be?

(3) Morality. Morality is concerned with "the Right"; elsewhere he frames it in terms of the closely related words, "Justice" and "Duty". Mill is quite clear that everything that is morally right is also expedient, and this is part of the key to understanding what is meant by these terms. When we are making moral judgments about a decision or an action, we judge whether it contributes to the greatest happiness for the greatest number, whether it is good policy; but we also make a further judgment: is this a kind of decision or action that is so important that either doing it or not doing it requires some kind of sanction. ('Sanction' can be either reward or punishment, but in this context usually means punishment.)

Punishment is an interesting issue for a utilitarian. The whole point of punishment is to make somebody unhappy. If I tell you, "I am punishing John by throwing him a big party," the only way you can make sense of this as a 'punishment' is if John really doesn't like big parties. To punish is to immiserate. But a utilitarian is supposed to work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number; how can they justify punishment? The only way is to argue that making this person less happy will actually lead to greater overall happiness. We punish murderers because a society in which murder is punished is happier than a society in which people can murder with impunity.

Mill's theory of sanctions is fairly sophisticated, and not easily summarized, but put crudely, he recognizes three major kinds of sanction, arising in one way or another from the combination of our inclinations to defend ourselves and to sympathize with others: sanctions of law, sanctions of public opinion, and sanctions of conscience. Sanctions of law generally involve physical coercion: being forced to give up something (fines), or being jailed, or being put to death. Sanctions of public opinion involve what Mill sometimes calls 'moral coercion': being shamed, shunned, boycotted, protested. Sanctions of conscience are guilt, shame, and the like, when you punish yourself for doing something; as Mill puts it (Utilitarianism, Chapter III), it is "a pain, more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty, which in properly cultivated moral natures rises, in the more serious cases, into shrinking from it as an impossibility."

Morality arises through a double application of the greatest happiness principle to the action and to the possibility of sanction. For instance, if we apply the greatest happiness principle to murder, we discover that it is 'inexpedient', i.e., it is a bad idea, given the overall needs, interests, and desires of human beings -- it detracts greatly from any attempt to work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But this only gets as far as Policy. To get Morality, we need to consider a further question. We are inclined to retaliate against murders by punishing them, often severely. If we do this, can this be justified by appeal to the greatest happiness of the greatest number? If so, then when we punish murder by law, we are establishing, entirely reasonable, a moral duty not to murder. The double application of the principle of utility and the stamp of the sanction both contribute to making moral judgments more serious than ordinary policy judgments.

The sanction-based feature of the department of Morality has bearing on a puzzle people occasionally have when reading another of Mill's works, On Liberty. In this work, which is devoted to arguing for the importance of freedom of speech, Mill elaborates a political philosophy that is usually called classical liberalism. The heart of Mill's classical liberalism is what is usually called the harm principle, which he elaborates in explaining the argument of the essay (Chapter I):

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Given Mill's influence on later generations, it's sometimes overlooked how much this baffled both utilitarians and liberals; Mill's version of liberalism, and his combination of it with his utilitarianism, seemed to many to be an incoherent mess. One notable liberal utilitarian, James Fitzjames Stephen, wrote an entire book on the subject, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, and Stephen's versions of both liberalism and utilitarianism were much more popular at the time than Mill's (and, indeed, despite Mill's influence, probably more typical of both ever since). The core problem is this. The principle of utility says that you should work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But the harm principle explicitly says that we cannot compel individuals to do anything by law or public opinion simply because it will increase happiness; the only justification it allows is prevention of harm to other people. How can you fit the two together? There seem to be cases in which the principle of utility would require you to compel people to do something to increase overall happiness but the harm principle would deny that you can.

Once we recognize how the Art of Life is structured, however, we can easily see that Mill has at least some answer to this. There are several points that could be made, but two are especially notable:

(1) In Mill's version of utilitarianism, following the principle of utility is not always required. It is always better, of course. Violating the principle of utility is always bad. But, as we have seen, Mill is quite clear that not every kind of badness is moral badness. Thus the principle of utility does not require us to do anything specific until we consider the matter of sanction. Nothing becomes obligatory before we add in the notion of justifiably punishing those who deviate from it. Which brings us to the next point.

(2) The harm principle given above is quite carefully formulated. You can't compel someone to do something against their will by law or public opinion, if they are not hurting anyone. But Mill recognizes at least one other kind of sanction: the sanction of conscience. Mill's point in the harm principle is that you can't use physical coercion (law) or moral coercion (public opinion) except to prevent harm to other people. But if someone is just harming himself, you can still recognize that as bad, even as morally bad, and you can still work to stop it -- just noncoercively. You can, as he says, remonstrate with him, or reason with him, or entreat him. You just can't use law and public opinion to force him, because their basis lies in defending ourselves from people who hurt others. The right way to handle someone who is hurting himself is to get him to see reason.

In any case, we can now see that asking whether Mill is an act utilitarian or a rule utilitarian misses the point; the question assumes that utilitarianism is much flatter and more monotonous than Mill's version of utilitarianism is. And we can now complete our utilitarianism table for Mill:

(1) happiness(2) for the greatest number of(3) by looking at(4) applying this to
All classical utilitarians, by definitionpleasure without pain
Virtually all classical utilitarians, in practicepleasure without painanything that can experience happiness
Benthampleasure without painanything that can experience happinessquantity(1) decisions or actions for oneself;
(2) laws
Millpleasure without painanything that can experience happinessquantity and quality(1) objects of experience (like art or good character);
(2) actions, decisions, and plans, whether individual or collective;
(3) rules with sanctions, whether from conscience, from public opinion, or from law

There are many other kinds of utilitarianism; not all utilitarians are classical utilitarians, and even among classical utilitarians it is not difficult to find those who will have different views from Bentham and Mill, especially with regard to columns (3) and (4). But Bentham and Mill give us enough to see how utilitarianism works; one can easily extrapolate to other kinds of utilitarianism. And knowing how utilitarianism works, one knows enough to have an idea about how non-utilitarian consequentialisms will work, which do not base the distinction between good and bad consequences on happiness (or, at least, not happiness alone), since the reasoning will often be similar in structure, even if the content is different.

Consequentialism is not the only approach to moral reasoning, however. This brings us to deontology, which we will begin to examine in a future post.

Something Under Construction

Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter. Few have stared at that long enough to accept the fact that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction.

Flannery O'Connor, "Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann," Mystery and Manners, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York: 1970) p. 226.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Animal Obligations

Human beings obviously understand a lot of their lives in terms of deontic ideas -- rules, laws, rights, obligations, duties. One way this deontic life manifests itself, which I think is not considered enough, is that we impose obligations on nonrational beings. This is interesting because I think we tend (for good reason) to associate deontic concepts with rationality; but the phenomenon of obligation creatures without reason is robust enough that any adequate theory of obligation will have to take it into account.

It's easiest to see this in the case of pets. We take a dog and we train it. What does training a dog involve? We often treat it as if it were purely a matter of training in the behaviorist sense: we organize the stimuli in such a way that the animal develops the stable response we want. But anyone who has had pets knows that this is not really how it works with pets. Yes, you reward and punish, but a dog doesn't just start responding with the appropriate behavior. For one thing, dogs, even when trained, often don't respond with the appropriate behavior; almost everyone who has long experience with dogs has had the experience of walking into a room and knowing immediately that the dog has done something they were trained not to do, even though you don't know exactly what it is. As we would usually put it, "The dog is acting like it's done something wrong."

When we train animals we ourselves conceptualize it as rules. And the relationship between the animal and the rule we formulate is very much like our relationship with rules we formulate when we train ourselves. We could perhaps say that the dog doesn't understand the rule we are imposing as a rule, but (1) we are indeed imposing a rule on the dog, even if the dog doesn't understand it; and (2) even if the dog isn't aware of the rule as a rule, the evidence of the dog's behavior is difficult to characterize in any other way than saying that in some way they are aware of the rule, even if not specifically as a rule.

Theorizing about rules, and about what rules should be, obviously requires the intellectual concept of a rule; formulating rules probably requires the concept or something like it; but following rules does not, and the training of pets, whether dogs or anything else, depends on this, because a significant portion of our ability to interact with pets is structured on our side by formulating rules for pets -- not for our interaction with pets (as we might formulate rules for how to interact with wild animals) but for pets, rules that we make specifically for pets to follow, that we train them to follow, that we expect them to follow, and that we punish them for not following or reward them for following. We don't expect them to grasp the underlying reasons, of course; we have no way to communicate those reasons to them. But we do communicate the rules, whatever our reasons for them may be, and we expect them to be aware of them.

It seems that there are only a couple of possibilities here, given that this is the way things appear to be:

(1) Pets do not in fact follow rules but only act as if they follow rules; that is, we cannot actually obligate animals, but we can train them so that they act as if we had. The primary issue here is the one noted above, namely, that when you interact with animals over these rules, their behavioral relationship to the rules does not seem all that different from our own behavioral relationship to rules that seem arbitrary and whose rationale we don't understand -- we might say that their as-if acting is really as if. If they aren't following the rules we impose, then whatever they are doing has to be at least part of what we do when we follow the rules.

(2) We do in fact extend obligations to, and create obligations for, pets, who do in fact follow the rules we establish, even if they are incapable of theorizing about it. They may not have our deontic rationality and they may not perceive our deontic reasons, but they in some way recognize them in the way one might recognize a rule whose rationale one does not understand.

Whichever way one goes, our deontic interactions with animals says something important about the nature of obligation in general. And also about our reason -- reason is such either as to extend obligations to nonrational beings or else to use our grasp of obligations as a guide for intelligibly reshaping the world beyond us.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Three Ideals

He who would tell a tale must look toward three ideals: to tell it well, to tell it beautifully, and to tell the truth.

The first is the Gift of God, the second is the Vision of Genius, but the third is the Reward of Honesty.

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Quest of the Silver Fleece, Note from the Author.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

A Saint Called 'Fortunate'

Today is the memorial of St. Josephine Bakhita. She was born in the Sudan in the late nineteenth century, but around the age of seven or so was kidnapped by slave traders. We do not know her name before that time because after several years of hard slavery, she herself could not remember it. The slave traders had given her the nickname, Bakhita, which means something like 'Lucky' or 'Fortunate'. She was bought by the Italian Vice Consul, who eventually had to flee the country due to a revolution, which brought her to Italy. They had Bakhita stay at the convent of the Canossian Sisters until they could make some arrangements, but when they tried to reclaim her, she refused to leave. The case went to court, but the court ruled for her: slavery was illegal in Italy, and although it had been common in the Sudan, strictly speaking it had been illegal there, too, so she was free. Bakhita chose to stay with the Canossians; she was baptized and took the name Josephine Margaret Fortunata, and was eventually assigned to the convent at Schio, just north of Vicenza. She was their cook and porter for several decades, where the convent was located. She died on February 8, 1947. The Italian locals took up her canonization cause almost immediately, and she was eventually canonized in 2000.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Ethics and Reasoning II (Mill)

As noted before, there are many different kinds of utilitarianism that we could have. All forms of utilitarianism are based on some version of the principle of utility, which holds that things are good insofar as they contribute to happiness and bad insofar as they detract from happiness. The principle of utility is often called the Greatest Happiness Principle, because of its slogan form: Greatest happiness for the greatest number. This is a handy formula, because it helps us think more clearly about the different kinds of utilitarianism you can have, by asking questions about the parts of this slogan:

Greatest happiness for the greatest number
(1) What is happiness?

Greatest happiness for the greatest number
(2) Greatest number of what?

Greatest happiness for the greatest number
(3) What has to be considered in determining greatness of happiness?

To which we can add a fourth question about the whole thing:

(4) To what do we apply this principle?

We are discussing classical utilitarianism, and all classical utilitarianisms, of whatever form, accept the same theory of happiness: Happiness is pleasure without pain (to the extent that is possible), and that's it. If you propose a different theory of happiness (say, that happiness is pleasure without pain in a sociable life with close friends), you get a different version of utilitarianism. We could also change utilitarianism by changing whose happiness we count. In practice, though, most of the reasons why people are attracted to utilitarianism are also reasons not to restrict whose happiness counts. After all, if happiness is what matters for ethics, why would some happiness not be counted? It's still happiness. So, overwhelmingly, the most common answer to (2) is that we are counting anything and everything that can feel happiness. So we can build a table to give our results so far.

(1) happiness(2) for the greatest number of(3) by looking at(4) applying this to
All classical utilitarians, by definitionpleasure without pain
Virtually all classical utilitarians, in practicepleasure without painanything that can experience happiness

If we think about Bentham, when Bentham is determining greatness of happiness, he considers only quantitative measures; and he applies these to decisions or actions, whether as an individual or as a matter of law, although in fact he never lumps these together but always treats calculations about decisions for oneself as different things from calculations about decisions for society. So we can put him on the table:

(1) happiness(2) for the greatest number of(3) by looking at(4) applying this to
All classical utilitarians, by definitionpleasure without pain
Virtually all classical utilitarians, in practicepleasure without painanything that can experience happiness
Benthampleasure without painanything that can experience happinessquantity (intensity, duration, etc.)(1) decisions or actions for oneself;
(2) laws

Not all classical utilitarians give the same answers as Bentham for (3) and (4), however. This brings us to John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who gives different answers for both. And to understand how Mill diverges from Bentham, and more importantly, why, we need to know something about Mill's life as a utilitarian. Unlike most classical utilitarians, Mill was raised as a classical utilitarian, indeed as Benthamite, and what he learned both made him appreciate Bentham (who remains throughout his life as one of his major influences) and think that Bentham's approach was inadequate.

Public Domain, Link

James Mill, John Stuart Mill's father, while not commonly read today, was an important utilitarian and contemporary of Bentham. Like other utilitarians of a Benthamite stripe, he was actively interested in reform, and that included reform of education; he attempted to work out a course of education for the young John. John Stuart Mill began studying Ancient Greek and arithmetic at the age of three, and as he grew older, he began, on his own, to read a large amount of history. At the age of eight, he began Latin, and shortly afterward geometry and algebra and then a bit later differential calculus, although his education in the last was at the time inadequate for any serious understanding. He developed a taste for reading about the sciences (although he would later regret that his interest in the sciences at this age only went so far as reading about experiments and not actually doing them). At the age of twelve, his father started him on logic. His father also paid a great deal of attention to elocution -- important for oratory, which James Mill seems to have thought particularly important due to its political relevance -- but John Stuart Mill makes a comment on this in his Autobiography I think can be taken to sum up much of how James Mill approached teaching (Chapter 1): "A defect running through his otherwise admirable modes of instruction, as it did through all his modes of thought, was that of trusting too much to the intelligibleness of the abstract, when not embodied in the concrete." At the age of thirteen, John Stuart Mill began studying economics. This would serve him well when he was sent to France at the age of fourteen, at which time he interacted with a number of important economists of the day. After he returned from France, he would study Roman law under John Austin, the noted jurist. And at the same time, Mill, who had grown up in a Benthamite household, actually read Bentham. And it was a landmark in his life. As he would put it (Autobiography, Chapter 3):

My previous education had been, in a certain sense, already a course of Benthamism. The Benthamic standard of "the greatest happiness" was that which I had always been taught to apply; I was even familiar with an abstract discussion of it, forming an episode in an unpublished dialogue on Government, written by my father on the Platonic model. Yet in the first pages of Bentham it burst upon me with all the force of novelty. What thus impressed me was the chapter in which Bentham passed judgment on the common modes of reasoning in morals and legislation, deduced from phrases like "law of nature," "right reason," "the moral sense," "natural rectitude," and the like, and characterized them as dogmatism in disguise, imposing its sentiments upon others under cover of sounding expressions which convey no reason for the sentiment, but set up the sentiment as its own reason. It had not struck me before, that Bentham's principle put an end to all this. The feeling rushed upon me, that all previous moralists were superseded, and that here indeed was the commencement of a new era in thought. This impression was strengthened by the manner in which Bentham put into scientific form the application of the happiness principle to the morality of actions, by analysing the various classes and orders of their consequences....The "principle of utility," understood as Bentham understood it, and applied in the manner in which he applied it through these three volumes, fell exactly into its place as the keystone which held together the detached and fragmentary component parts of my knowledge and beliefs. It gave unity to my conceptions of things. I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion; the inculcation and diffusion of which could be made the principal outward purpose of a life. And I had a grand conception laid before me of changes to be effected in the condition of mankind through that doctrine.

Mill would himself become very active in utilitarianism understood not merely as a philosophy but as a movement of practical reform. In this work of active reform, he thought, he could find true happiness. But in 1826, all of this shifted. He was feeling a bit down, and while feeling this way, asked himself whether he would actually be happy if all of his reforming activities succeeded, and realized that he would not be. This was devastating. He had been so enthusiastic for reform because the ends had seemed so worthwhile, as contributing something to enduring happiness, and coming to the realization that he could no longer think of the ends of his activism as sources of happiness, his motivation to pursue them collapsed. It's not that he had a crisis of faith in the principle of utility; he still recognized the things for which he was working as good, in the abstract. What he could not do is feel that there was any point in working toward them. The depression seemed to grow worse with time, probably in part because Mill was so isolated in his melancholy, since he did not think he could make his father or any of his friends understand his problem. The problem seemed clear to Mill himself, however: his education, thorough as it seemed, had failed him because nothing in it had cultivated in him feelings that were likely to endure in the face of all the logic and analysis with which his education had been abundantly supplied. Utilitarianism was right -- but his utilitarian education had eaten away at what made it practically possible to be a utilitarian.

Mill managed to force himself to keep up his utilitarian activities, partly by deliberately trying not to think about happiness at all. But he also began to consider this problem of how one cultivates feelings. He tried a number of things, and in 1828 began reading the poetry of William Wordsworth. It would be another landmark in his life, as well as one in the history of utilitarianism, because in reading Wordsworth he found a glimmer of something that would provide a solution.

William Wordsworth was a Romantic poet; feelings and passions were important in Romanticism, and Romantics like Wordsworth gave an extraordinary amount of thought to the influence of feelings on science, religion, politics, and, in short, all the aspects of human life. And for Wordsworth, poetry did not exist simply to express the poet's feelings, but to communicate to others those feelings that go with what might be called the 'fit' between the mind and world, which plays a significant role in our motivations. If Mill's reaction is any test, Wordsworth was successful in this. As Mill says in his Autobiography (Chapter 5):

What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence....I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in, the common feelings and common destiny of human beings. And the delight which these poems gave me, proved that with culture of this sort, there was nothing to dread from the most confirmed habit of analysis.

To use one of his examples, it became clear to him that the feeling of the beauty of the clouds at sunset is something that can go with knowing that clouds are masses of water vapor acting according to physical laws. This would lead to a reconsideration of much of his view of the world, and we find the impact of this in his 1838 essay, "Bentham", which has high praise for aspects of Bentham's utilitarianism, but also some rather severe criticism. Mill's criticism covers a number of features of Bentham's philosophy, but the part that is of particular value for our purposes is a criticism that he thinks applies not merely to Bentham but also to many others:

This error, or rather one-sidedness, belongs to him not as a utilitarian, but as a moralist by profession, and in common with almost all professed moralists, whether religious or philosophical: it is that of treating the moral view of actions and characters, which is unquestionably the first and most important mode of looking at them, as if it were the sole one: whereas it is only one of three, by all of which our sentiments towards the human being may be, ought to be, and without entirely crushing our own nature cannot but be, materially influenced. Every human action has three aspects: its moral aspect, or that of its right and wrong; its æsthetic aspect, or that of its beauty; its sympathetic aspect, or that of its loveableness. The first addresses itself to our reason and conscience; the second to our imagination; the third to our human fellow-feeling. According to the first, we approve or disapprove; according to the second, we admire or despise; according to the third, we love, pity, or dislike.

Mill uses the example of the Roman hero Brutus. Brutus's sons were implicated in a conspiracy to overthrow the Roman Republic and, as it happens, Brutus was the judge when their case came up. He heard it, and as the evidence of their guilt was quite clear, he sentenced them to death. The action was right, if we consider just how much happiness depended on the freedom of the Roman citizens; it was even admirable, in that it showed a patriotism and devotion to the public good on a heroic scale. But nobody can look at such an action and find it sympathetic or loveable. It seems inhuman for a father to condemn his sons to death. It was in some way the right thing to do, but also in some way a bad thing to do. Suppose, Mill goes on, the younger brother had been involved in the conspiracy solely out of affection for the older brother. What he did was neither right nor admirable, but nonetheless loveable; it is something with which one could sympathize. It was wrong, but it was not wholly bad.

One of the major points made in the essay on Bentham is that human beings are not indivisible agents with singular motivations. We have a rich, complex, multifaceted moral psychology. And human happiness depends on fulfilling this complex human nature. Internal consequences are at least as important as external consequences. While there are differing views on the subject, I think this is the major concern which will drive Mill's deviations from Bentham. Suppose you could get immense pleasure from eating a special kind of chocolate cake. Obviously, this can contribute a great deal to your happiness, understood as pleasure without pain. But if you had this cake, would it actually suffice to make you happy? Here's a reason to think it couldn't: you aren't a cake-eating machine. Eating cake is nice, but you have a much wider range of needs than eating cake can actually satisfy. Make the pleasure of eating the cake ever so great, it will not satisfy your sense of honor, it will not satisfy your need for friends, it will not satisfy your love of action and your desire to overcome challenges, it will not satisfy your love of beauty. It's just cake. Very good cake, to be sure, but just cake. Conversation with friends, on the other hand, may not give you pleasures as vast as our hypothetical chocolate cake, but it will no doubt give you pleasure that contributes to more of who you are as a human being.

Something like this line of thought, at least, gets us to where we find Mill in his most famous and influential discussion, Utilitarianism, first published in Fraser's Magazine in 1861 and then published as a book in 1863. Quantity of pleasure is not enough. One must also consider quality of pleasure. As he says in what is perhaps his most famous comment (Chapter 2):

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

When we are comparing two pleasures in equal quantity, it can nonetheless happen that all or almost all who can appreciate both pleasures will nonetheless still treat one of them as more desirable or valuable and, indeed, as so much more valuable that, however much you increased the quantity of the other pleasure, they still would not give up this pleasure. In that case, the preferred pleasure is superior in quality; it is the higher pleasure. It might be lower than some other pleasure, but it is the more valuable in this comparison. However much pleasure a pig may have, it is a pig's pleasure; a human being has a richer set of needs and desires than a pig could ever have, and the pleasures of a pig will not do a good job satisfying them. Socrates has cultivated himself so that he is capable of a richer experience of life than any fool; no matter how happy the fool is, a fool's happiness will not be rich enough to satisfy a Socrates.

Benthamites at the time, and more than a few people since, thought this a weird hybridization of Bentham's pure theory with Romanticism. And many thought that it simply gives away the store -- many people think it takes away the attraction of being a utilitarian. But from what we have seen, of course, Mill likely thinks his own experience proves that you need something like this if you take seriously the idea that the moral life is not just an abstract scheme but something to be lived by actual human beings.

There are some obscurities in how we are supposed to unite our measurements of quantity with our judgments of quality. But there is no question that it is a significant change. Once we add quality to the mix, neither the felicific calculus nor the repudiation of asceticism can work the way Bentham thinks they should. Simply calculating with quantities of pleasures and pains will now only get you the right answer if the pleasures and pains do not differ much in terms of quality. In addition, the introduction of quality means that it might now be reasonable for us deliberately to take less pleasure in order to get better pleasure. It shifts the entire approach and gives us a new kind of utilitarianism:

(1) happiness(2) for the greatest number of(3) by looking at(4) applying this to
All classical utilitarians, by definitionpleasure without pain
Virtually all classical utilitarians, in practicepleasure without painanything that can experience happiness
Benthampleasure without painanything that can experience happinessquantity(1) decisions or actions for oneself;
(2) laws
Millpleasure without painanything that can experience happinessquantity and quality

Mill will also end up differing with Bentham on the application of the principle of utility, largely, I think, because introducing quality into the assessment requires us to use the principle more flexibly than Bentham would have countenanced. But this is a complicated enough matter that it will need its own future post.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

The Button

One of my students recently pointed out to me this jokey version of the ethical scenario that is depicted in Richard Matheson's "Button, Button", and that is found in a particularly famous form in the radio episode, "The Chinaman Button" (which I've talked about before).

Sacred to All the Young and the Unborn

In February
by Alice Meynell

Rich meanings of the prophet-Spring adorn,
Unseen, this colourless sky of folded showers,
And folded winds; no blossom in the bowers.
A poet's face asleep is this grey morn.

Now in the midst of the old world forlorn
A mystic child is set in these still hours.
I keep this time, even before the flowers,
Sacred to all the young and the unborn;

To all the miles and miles of unsprung wheat,
And to the Spring waiting beyond the portal,
And to the future of my own young art,

And, among all these things, to you, my sweet,
My friend, to your calm face and the immortal
Child tarrying all your life-time in your heart.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Three Poem Drafts

Divine Law

Who makes a law is guiding to an end,
to set to act an order and a way,
as general will seek a winning day,
as statesman rule for peace of friend to friend,
but He who is on high does all his deeds
for Him Himself, their end, the God who draws
existence, life, and love and thus all laws,
for glory never touched by wants or needs,
as when to Moses gave He laws on stone,
a providence to be expressed by act
and life that preached that He is God alone.
Thus laws that God has given from His throne
turn human heart to God and form as fact
a pattern making us His very own.


In governance alone opposing things
in harmony and unity are bound.
All regulation 'round an end must ring;
where opposites unite a mind is found.
This world a cosmos makes, and formed as one
draws many different things into a whole;
opposing things do not to chaos run
but act, each in its place, as if by goal.
A plan by human thought takes pro and con
and gives to each its weight; when interests war
it finds a place for each and guides them home:
just so, beyond all chance an order dawns
by providential mind that holds in store
the aims from which the world does never roam.


Baby, lift your wings if you want to fly,
no holding back, you can travel the sky;
get out and try what you've wanted to try;
I'll just make it easy.

If you want to climb, and no matter how high,
if you want to dive, I won't even ask why,
just say the word, there's no need to be shy;
I will make it easy.

Sometimes you miss the chance
to take part in the dance;
sometimes your dream
is not what it seemed;
you may try to smile
and be a good sport,
but don't hide your light
or sell yourself short;
sometimes all you need
is some loving support.

Baby, life goes fast and one day we'll die;
but this is your fate, and I tell you no lie:
you'll shine like a star 'cause I'll be your guy,
and I will make it easy.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

George Steiner (1929-2020)

George Steiner died on February 3 at the age of 90. Born in 1929 in Paris to Viennese Jews who had fled to France to escape antisemitism; they fled to New York in 1940, and with good timing, because the Nazis invaded France shortly after they left. After a number of academic positions, he eventually began to teach at the University of Geneva, where he stayed until retirement. Most of his writing is in comparative literature, cultural criticism, or philosophy of literature. From his work, Real Presences (The University of Chicago Press [Chicago: 1989] p. 145):

No serious writer, composer, painter has ever doubted, even in moments of strategic aestheticism, that his work bears on good and evil, on the enhancement or diminution of the sum of humanity in man and the city. To imagine originally, to shape into significant expression, is to test in depth those potentialities of understanding and of conduct ("thrones, dominions, powers" as the rhetoric and architecture of the baroque have it) which are the life-substance of the ethical. A message is being sent; to a purpose. The style, the explicit figurations of that message may be perverse, they may intend the subjugation, even the ruin of the recipient. They may claim for themselves, as in Sade, as in the black paintings of Goya, as in the death-dance of Artaud, the sombre licence of the suicidal. But their pertinence to questions and consequences of an ethical order is the more palpable. Only trash, only kitsch and artefacts, texts, music, which are produced solely for momentary or propagandistic ends do, indeed transcend (transgress) morality. Theirs is the pornography of insignificance.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Evening Note for Monday, February 3

Thought for the Evening: The Good Place

The Good Place was a comedy TV show produced by Michael Shur, and just had its finale recently. It was a philosophy teacher's dream, since the show was heavily laced with philosophical ethics -- real philosophical ethics, which is sometimes more than you get when a show does 'philosophy'. It had a hilarious episode on trolley problems (Season 2, Episode 6), for instance, repeated references throughout to Scanlon's book, What We Owe to Each Other, and lots of Kant and Aristotle jokes. The show had philosophers as consultants, Patrician Hieronymi (of UCLA) and Todd May (of Clemson), both of whom have cameos in the finale. (When I was watching the scene with Hieronymi, I thought, "I've seen that actress somewhere; what is she in?")

The basic conceit with which we start is that Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself in the Good Place, in the neighborhood designed by the architect Michael (Ted Danson) and run by the artificial intelligence Janet (D'Arcy Carden) and realizes immediately that they have made a mistake; she gets help from Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) and zaniness ensues. But the situation shifts dramatically many times during the whole series; one of the notable features of the show, and one that gives it a feeling of substantiveness other shows often lack, is that it will take an idea that most series would have spent at least several episodes on and burn through it in a single episode, perhaps even less. There is a lot that happens in the relatively short episodes of this relatively short series. The comedy is good, the casting and acting are great. It's good television.

Occasionally it borders on profound. One that's always stuck with me is Michael's musing on frozen yogurt in Season 1 that human beings will take something good and make it a little bit worse so we can have more of it, which I think manages to be funny, true, and illuminating of a lot of human life. It is fairly insightful about the difference between people who recognize their failings and people who don't. It almost, almost reaches a truth that would have been worth a television show: Human beings achieve their most important things cooperatively -- build societies, fly to the moon, change the world, what have you -- so why do we keep assuming that we can live the moral life alone? It never quite pulls this together, usually opting instead for a generic 'friends are what it's all about' theme, although sometimes it comes very close, as with the title of one its episodes, "Help is Other People", or the occasional hint that what we really owe to each other is a little bit of reasonable support.

Ultimately, however, I think the show flounders a bit, considered in terms of the ethics with which it interacts. The reason is not, as one review would have it, a failure to grapple with capitalism. Rather, it's that The Good Place had no real conception of goodness. I think this is a rather common problem, actually; we want to be good people living the good life, but this requires more attention to what goodness actually is than most people ever give it. And the show never really goes beyond this. Most of what counts as good throughout the series is trivial; indeed, if it weren't for a real recognition of friendship as a major good of human life, it would all be trivial. Despite the excellent joke of the motto of the neighborhood in Season 1 being the vague and lackluster "Everything is fine", it never actually gets beyond "Everything is fine." The committee running the Good Place, we eventually find, is a bunch of very ineffective activists, and indeed, the best the series manages in showing a 'good person' is to show a generic activist. I've met a lot of activists in my life; activists are not any more likely to be good people than anyone else, and activism itself is very much not the good life, however necessary it might be as a means to an end occasionally. But this conflation of means and ends is not surprising, following as it does from the fact that the show treats being good as nothing more substantive than being likable, nonthreatening, and willing to try to be good; the good life is a hedonic life of getting along hedonically and usefully helping each other out in ways that make us progress by becoming better able to get along and help each other out. It is a world in which goodness has no sublimity, no infinity, no authority, and no unbearable radiance. It's just fine.

This is seen very clear as we approach the end, I think. We meet Hypatia of Alexandria (Lisa Kudrow) -- actually just writing that Hypatia of Alexandria was played by Lisa Kudrow tells you most of the joke. The show does not do justice to Hypatia; we don't know Hypatia's particular ethical views, but we know generically what they would have been like, because she was a well-respected Neoplatonist, and we know the kinds of things that Neoplatonists would have taught: the superiority of the mental over the physical, the superiority of the intellect over the senses, the absolute superiority of the Good over goods. But the show has no space for such a view; mental and physical pleasures are treated as on a level, sensible goods are all that are shown, and all good is finite. The show is intelligently written enough that it shows a recognition that a hedonic life of getting along and helping each other out is a life that will certainly run out of good. This is not a minor recognition. But there is no other kind of good that it recognizes. All good being finite, eventually you'll be done with it. And in a world with no infinite good, the closest you can come to recognize anything beyond this running-down kind of life is just to recognize that at some point the final good you can have is just to bring it all to an end. The show buys into the canard that mortality gives life meaning; it also fails to be very convincing about it, because it can't help but repeatedly show, by the very nature of its premise and its structure, that our mortality is only given meaning by our life. But even having supposed that life goes on after death, the only life it shows is one with good that runs out.

Various Links of Interest

* Maureen Johnson, Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village

* Kyle Williams, Happiness, Virtue, and the Bastard Science

* Daniel Burns, The Classical Alternative to Liberal Theory, at "Public Discourse"

* Alex Pruss has video versions of his 2019 Wilde Lectures in Natural Theology

* Liz Tracey looks at Avicenna's contribution to medicine

* Jon Baskin, On the Hatred of Literature, and Friends Like These

* Valerie Stivers, Cooking with Zora Neale Hurston

* Nina Papathanasopoulou, Black Classicisms in the Visual Arts

* Alice Maz, Playing to Win, is a very interesting discussion of the economies of gameworlds.

* Frank Furedi, Butchers vs. Academics, looks at one aspect of the class issues involved in Brexit debates.

* Clare Carlisle, The philosophy of George Eliot. Carlisle primarily focuses on the Spinozistic side, but there are other sides to George Eliot's philosophical engagements, too, including Feuerbach and Comte and Lewes himself.

* Timothy B. Noone, Augustine on Words, Signs, Thoughts, and Things in De Magistro

* Scott Meikle, The Switch from Agency to Causation in Marx

* Kathleen Stock, Sticks, stones, and lawsuits and Helen Joyce, Speaking up for female eunuchs, on the current disputes over transgender politics in British feminism.

* Gillian Dooley on Iris Murdoch's philosophy of fiction

Currently Reading

Amos Tutuola, The Palm Wine Drinkard
Christopher Tolkien, ed., Sauron Defeated
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell