Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Man Who Summed All Truth

Saint Thomas Aquinas
by Aubrey De Vere


He left the fortress-palace of his sires:
The blood of princes coursing through his veins
Flushed him no more with pride's insurgent fires
Than streams, hill-born, make proud the sundered plains:
He loved that lowly life the world disdains;
Contemned the insensate pomp that world admires;—
He walked, in soul conversing with those choirs
That sing where peace eternal lives and reigns.
Tender Loretto to her breast elate
Caught him a youngling. Silent, meek, serene,
His small feet sought the poor beside her gate
That wondered at the brightness of his mien
Even then a holy creature dedicate
To Wisdom's sovran seat and sacred Queen.

Beauteous Campania! In the old Roman morn
The great ones of the nations rushed to thee:
In thy rich gardens by the full-voiced sea
Wearied they slept, and woke like men re-born.
Not so the greatest of thy sons! In scorn
He passed the snare; his spirit strong and free
Less honouring Pestum's roses than that thorn
The crown of Calvary's Victim. Who was he?
The Ascetic who refused a prelate's throne
Lest worldly aims with cares divine should mix;
The Builder lifting fanes of thought not stone,
Far less poor Babel Towers of sun-burnt bricks;
The man who summed all Truth, yet drew alone
His sacred science from his crucifix.

Great Saint! In pictures old a sun there flamed
Soft sphere of radiance on thy vest of snow;
It taught us that from hearts by sin unshamed,
The mind's inspirer best, alone could flow
Sapience like thine. "Master of those who know!"
At heaven's high mark alone thy shaft was aimed:
Therefore, by thee unwoo'd by thee disclaimed
Science terrestrial sought thy threshold low.
Beneath thy cell she knelt: all pagan lore
From mines of Plato and the Stagyrite
To thee she tendered. Thou, with spiritual light
Piercing each ingot of that golden ore,
To gems didst change them meet to pave the floor
Of God's great Temple on the empyreal height.

Quite a bit going on here. "The man who summed all truth" is, of course, a reference to the Summa Theologiae. The sun in the third stanza refers to one of his most noticeable iconographical symbols -- he is often depicted with a sun on his chest. "Master of those who know" is a phrase typically applied to Aristotle, as is "the Stagyrite".

Monday, January 27, 2020

To Peaks and Spires of Light

Saint Thomas Aquinas
by R. Metcalfe


O intellect sublime! Sounding the deeps
Of human science, compassing divine;
Whereunto shall we liken thee? To sweeps
Of mountain moorland, purpling line on line—
Distance to greater distance, where combine
The hills and heaven? Or to that mount of stone,
Whose shadowy gloom leads by gradations fine
To peaks and spires of light—thine own Cologne?

Yet seemest thou most like that ageless dome
Not reared for puny time, nor wrought in haste,
Catholic—for all tongues and nations made—
Symbol of unity, the Faith of Rome,
Grandly the world embracing, and embraced
By that pellucid heaven without a shade.

I know nothing at all about R. Metcalfe, beyond the fact that this comes from his 1901 work, Passion Sonnets and Other Verses; it is the second in a series on Dominican themes.

The feast of St. Thomas, of course, is tomorrow, the 28th.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Evening Note for Sunday, January 26

Thought for the Evening: Du Bois and the Cultivation of a People's Intellectual Life

W. E. B. Du Bois's "Conservation of Races" is perhaps unsurprisingly usually read for its discussion of race, which Du Bois defines as "a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life." However, the discussion of race in this sense is the background for what Du Bois is primarily discussing, which is a social program for the support and development of culture, or, perhaps more exactly, of a thriving and distinctive intellectual life.

Any such social cultivation of intellectual gifts is potentially powerful, but it can only be so, Du Bois argues, if the people involved in it are honest, earnest, inspired, and united:

(1) Honest: Such cultivation requires a willingness to engage in self-critique and to correct oneself in light of such reflection;
(2) Earnest: Such cultivation can only be furthered among a people who take themselves seriously as human beings capable of great things;
(3) Inspired: Such cultivation must draw strength and direction from a heritage that gives hope;
(4) United: Such cultivation is only possible among a people cooperating for mutual good.

All four of these, especially the last, require the development of organizations specifically for the purpose of furthering "careful conference and thoughtful interchange of opinion", such as the American Negro Academy that Du Bois is specifically addressing. In order to meet these ends, the organizations have to have three characteristics: they must in a specific sense be representative in character, they must be impartial in conduct, and they must be firm in leadership:

(I) Representative in Character: By 'representative', Du Bois does not mean representative of a people quite so much as he means representative to the people. The organizations that uphold and cultivate social intellectual and cultural life must in a sense hold up a mirror to the people they support, but the reflection must be a reflection of what is the best in the people: their "best thought", their "most unselfish striving", their "highest ideals". These things are already implicit in the people, but they are scattered: the organizations must see themselves as in part gathering them together in concentrated form.

(II) Impartial in Conduct: The organizations are exalting the people by drawing together the best that is in them, but this creates a potential temptation that must be avoided, namely to exaggerate or fictionalize in the misguided notion of exalting people that way. People can only be exalted if the reflection created by these supporting organizations is concerned with truth. It must be unlying and unflattering. And in particular, it must show that these high qualities implicit in the people are not things that simply fall into their laps; they are things for which one must work, things that require "a vast work of self-reformation" and "dogged work and manly striving".

(III) Firm in Leadership: Given the vast number of problems the people must solve, the organizations need to provide "a practical path of advance", not always so much in terms of specific solutions as in terms of general policy arising out of its representativeness and impartial honesty.

None of this is the work of a night; it is a long and difficult road, requiring considerable thought and cooperation.

Du Bois, of course, is thinking specifically of what is needed to build a system of support adequate to the black community, but he is deliberately doing so in light of the general conception of the infrastructure required for preserving and developing the intellectual and cultural life of communities, and it's clear enough that this account can be generalized to give an account of the characteristics of healthy organizations for intellectual life, wherever they are found. It serves, for instance, as a reasonable standard to which one should hold schools in general like colleges and universities, for instance.

Various Links of Interest

* Katja Vogt, Seneca, at the SEP

* David Heddendorf, On Being Kind

* Eitan Hersh, College-Educated Voters Are Ruining American Politics. I've argued something similar for broadly related reasons, but I think I regard the problem as more general than Hersh does, since I don't think activism has shown itself to be resistant to it.

* Byrne Hobart, Coins as Tangible History

* Moti Mizrahi, How to Play the "Playing God" Card (PDF)

Currently Reading

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Treason of Isengard
John R. Page, What Will Dr. Newman Do? John Henry Newman and Papal Infallibility, 1865-1875
Julian of Norwich, The Showings of Julian Norwich

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Two Poem Drafts

Fragment

O most holy alphabet,
potential of all curse and prayer,
quarks of trade and courtesy,
blessed be the first who framed
line and order of your grace.
Like to wheel or sacred arch,
instrument forged in breath of mind;
all the secrets of the world
implicit in your lines we find.

Of the Word

The word a world encompasses, enfolds,
and like its Muse will reach to highest star;
the language of the angels each word holds
and touches fields where roaming planets are.
In words like 'world' we say what is not seen,
we point to what no pointing hand can guide,
and every word is graced with tone and sheen
that gestures at what words both show and hide.
'Indefinite' and 'infinite' both make
distinction that eludes our fancy's play;
no senses show what fluent ear has heard.
Some things we may from senses straightway take,
we point and mime to make precise our way,
but for precision nothing beats the word.

The Cofnas Controversy

There was a bit of a storm in online philosophy over the past week. It was mostly just a mess, but has some interest as an example that raises professional ethics issues in the context of academic philosophy. Nathan Cofnas, a graduate student at Oxford, had recently published a paper on research ethics on genetic study of racial differences in the journal Philosophical Psychology; Mark Alfano, a professor at Delft specializing in moral psychology, worked up a petition and a blogpost and went to Twitter:



The hubris of this is rather remarkable. Philosophers have never gotten together and elected Alfano the Grand New Aristotle to be able to call boycotts; it's one thing to boycott a journal oneself, and make known why, and another entirely to think a general boycott is something you can call. In any case, what we have here is an attempt to escalate immediately out of the starting gate. The normal and ordinary professional course in dealing with a paper that is in some way seriously bad is to publish a responding paper that shows it. A paper that is significantly bad might conceivably lead one to petition the editors to invite a formal response in the journal itself. Because philosophers are so diverse, and use such diverse methods, retraction in philosophy is a relatively unusual thing, and the most common reason for it is discovery of plagiarism; it typically involves some sort of clear violation of professional ethics. Calling for a retraction rather than a response is already quite strong, but, of course, Alfano's call is not even as modest as that, since it is in fact a call to punish the editors for publishing it, on the grounds that it showed a failure of peer review. Public boycott is a punishment of reputation; since philosophical journals exist as a part of the reputational economy of academic philosophy, public boycotting is an attempt to black-mark both a journal and its editors, and this is explicit in Alfano's characterization -- the editors are to be black-marked for incompetence, and must prove to the satisfaction of others that they will be more competent in the future. It is a mind-bogglingly arrogant demand. Academics assess each others' incompetence all the time as a matter of private judgment; they may at times be public about their private judgment. But to demand of colleagues that they admit that they are incompetent, apologize for it, and provide you with a plan to prove that they will stop being incompetent, and to call on the rest of the philosophical community to force them into a position in which they have to do this, is something that no one with any sense would ever, ever do. Moral turpitude or violation of professional ethics might call for something like that, but even then you wouldn't escalate to that right at the beginning.

And the ground for it is absurdly weak. The claim that a paper represents a failure of peer review and that therefore the editors must apologize and retract the paper, perhaps (as the petition suggested) even resign over it, is thoroughly inadequate. Peer review is, first of all, not a system for preventing bad and inaccurate papers from being published; it's a system for raising the bar for publication in such a way as to improve the overall quality of scholarly journals. No way of refereeing submissions you could design would guarantee that all the papers published are accurate and not flawed; you certainly can't do it under current academic refereeing conditions. Thus from a single failure, one cannot in any way determine whether a journal's refereeing and acceptance practices are flawed. Even setting aside the fact that the referees and editors may have read the paper more charitably than Alfano does, and taken it to be making more modest claims than he does, editors and reviewers will make mistakes. If a very bad paper gets through, it's reasonable to suggest that the process should be reviewed, just in case; but such a review may or may not find anything. To conclude from a single case that a journal's practices are flawed is an illegitimate inference. And even if you had an excellent argument that it was flawed, you would not usually escalate immediately to a boycott; the normal and professional course would be to start by calling the attention of the editors to the problem. Perhaps you could justify, depending on the case, petitioning the editors to clarify their review process. But the petition itself merely says that the editors should at least have requested further revision; this is indeed probably the strongest that can be said on the evidence available, and it is well short of anything that would justify what was demanded by the petition. It's another example of the extraordinary arrogance in play here.

Alfano did not help matters at all by his direct behavior to Cofnas, at one point on Twitter boasting that he would destroy Cofnas's reputation, which shows, I think, that he has very nonstandard views of the professional ethics of his own profession. Graduate students are not immune to criticism, even vehement criticism, of their arguments or of their professional behavior by normal channels. In the philosophy profession, however, it's pretty widely accepted that the professoriate has an obligation to cultivate graduate students as junior colleagues, rather than bully or intimidate them, and to make an effort always to criticize in a way that allows improvement. The norms for this are not very standardized or rigid, but there's not any room for doubt that threatening to destroy their reputations and ruin their careers is a violation of this obligation. And, indeed, I know colleagues who were infuriated by Alfano's handling of the matter because it forced them, in the context of a paper with whose argument they had no sympathies, to step up and make sure that the graduate student nonetheless was not ruined by the unprofessional behavior of the professor and was given as much benefit of the doubt as could be given.

Much of the controversy, of course, and much of Alfano's self-righteousness in the pursuit of it, seems to have been due to issues of racism. As the petition says, "the paper disingenuously argues that the best explanation of differences in IQ scores between racial and ethnic groups is genetics." (Whether the paper should actually be read this strongly is part of the controversy, but the point is that the racial issue is front and center, despite the fact that the argument was rationalized in terms of professional norms of peer review.) Alfano, I think, saw himself as taking the anti-racist stance; but whether he did or not, some of his supporters very certainly did. This is in fact not true; the stance explicitly taken is that differences in IQ scores between racial and ethnic groups are due to environmental factors like lead poisoning, which is not an anti-racist position. If, for instance, "Women are overemotional because of their biology" is a sexist statement, it would not be reasonable to conclude that "Women are overemotional because of their environment" is therefore not a sexist statement; the thing that made the first statement a candidate for being a sexist statement is carried over into the second, and they are just disagreeing about whether the best sexism is biological or not. You can, of course, have alienans explanations, explanations that subvert the phenomenon. For instance, "Women are 'overemotional' because people arbitrarily redefine 'overemotional' to mean behaviors of women they don't like" gives an alienans explanation; the explanation if true would mean that women aren't actually overemotional, that their being classified as such is due to defective classification. An example of an alienans explanation in the case considered by Cofnas would be, "The best explanation of differences in IQ scores between racial and ethnic groups is that IQ testing is defective in some relevant way". But "because of environmental factors" is not an alienans explanation; if something is explained by environmental facts, it has to be really the case. Thus it seems that if "The best explanation of differences in IQ scores between racial and ethnic groups is genetics" is racist, it follows that "The best explanation of differences in IQ scores between racial and ethnic groups is environmental" is also racist, because they just disagree on how the phenomenon arises, not on the phenomenon itself.*

In any case, although it's not a situation in which anyone covered themselves with glory, the whole situation is a good example of one reason why professional norms develop, namely, to handle problem cases in ways that don't make them one-man crusades, which are often liable to bad judgment, and to prevent arbitrary escalation to extremes by individuals and small groups. It also shows that overreach and lack of professionalism can make one's actions much less effective.

----
* My own view is that the most plausible explanations in this kind of situation are alienans -- in particular, I suspect that racial and ethnic differences in IQ scores are likely an accidental artifact of which kinds of intellectual abilities we take to be easily quantifiable and how we score them relative to different broader populations, so that IQ scores are not always describing the same things in the same way; such a view would be consistent with the position that IQ does measure something that is a proxy-for-intelligence-under-very-specific-and-limited-conditions, but that no definite general conclusions can be drawn from populational differences in scores, and that especially no definite general conclusions about intelligence itself can be drawn from them, since that is talking about something well beyond those specific and limited conditions. I don't think there's much sense in asking whether a particular score on a test is due to genetics or to environment; it's due entirely to having taken the test a certain way. And I don't find plausible the view that we have already in hand any way to think coherently about these matters at the level of whole populations. But, of course, what I find plausible has very little relevance to anything.

Music on My Mind



Disturbed, "Hold on to Memories".

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Correspondence of Paul and Seneca

The Correspondence of Paul and Seneca is a work of fourteen letters purporting to be, as one might expect, a correspondence between Seneca and St. Paul, who were indeed contemporaries. We have external attestation of a work at least along these lines in the fourth century, as both St. Jerome (De viribus 12) and St. Augustine (Epistle 153) mention a supposed correspondence between Paul and Seneca that was read at the time, and the work that we have is generally assumed to be (at least some version of) the same one, which generally leads people to assume that it is a fourth-century work (although scholars have at various times proposed that some of the letters in the collection were added later). It was fairly widely copied, and we have manuscripts of it going back to the ninth century, in manuscript lines that arguably go back at least to the fifth century; what we have of the text is not always high quality or in good shape, so there are a number of difficulties in interpreting and translating it.

The work is often disparaged as intellectually unimpressive, and it is generally agreed that it has a rough style, but the letters for the most part show a fairly good knowledge both of Rome and of events in the reign of Nero. It has also been criticized for being fairly substanceless, consisting mostly of Seneca and Paul complimenting each other, but I think this is generally due to a sort of philological shortsightedness; as an epistolary work, one should not be looking so much at individual letters but at the whole -- in a short epistolary work consisting of short letters, each letter is not going to contribute much, but they may well work together to build something definite. And I would suggest that this is in fact true of the Correspondence: the work should be seen as an epistolary narrative, building by various techniques of suggestion and allusion a story in the gaps between the letters. In any case, I will be reading it as an epistolary short story here.

You can find The Correspondence of Paul and Seneca online in a number of places; a particularly handy one is this Latin-English parallel version, using the M. R. James translation. There is elsewhere a translation by Jeremiah Jones, which has some differences. Lightfoot has a good discussion of the background in his Dissertations on the Apostolic Age.

The Thought

Letter I: Seneca writes to Paul about a discussion he had with his friend Lucilius and a number of others, including some Christians, who happened to meet up with them in the Gardens of Sallust; he assumes Paul has been informed of the discussion, and lets Paul know that they had wished he had been there in person. A book collecting some of Paul's letters had been read, and Seneca remarks that they were mira exhortatione vitam moralem continentes, i.e., they contain wonderful exhortations to the moral life ("inculcate the moral life with admirable precepts" in James's translation). Seneca takes them not merely to be Paul's advice, but to be Paul drawing on the wisdom of ages.
--- The reference to Paul's letters being bound in a book is often taken to be a sign of the work having been written later, since it is generally thought that this practice only began well after the lifetime of Paul and Seneca.
--- Lucilius Junior was procurator of Sicily and a friend and correspondent of Seneca.
--- The Gardens of Sallust were a park in northeastern Rome; they were severely damaged in the sack of Rome in 410 and vanished entirely in the sixth or seventh century.

Letter II: Paul replies, saying he would have sent his letter sooner if he had had the young man he meant to send to Seneca, "For you know when, and by whom, and at what moment, and to whom things ought to be given and entrusted." Paul is happy with Seneca's good opinion of his work, since he knows that a censor sophista magister tanti principis etiam omnium, a censor/sophist/teacher of such a prince and indeed all, would only say such things if they were true.
--- Here we have the first allusion to Nero who will, of course, play an important role in the unfolding of the correspondence.
--- Paul's comment about the young man is interestingly indirect and cirumspect; the young man is treated as important and known to Seneca, but deliberately not named. This is something that we find repeatedly in the correspondence: Seneca and Paul will talk about a matter as if they both know more than is explicitly said and as if they both are deliberately not putting something down in writing -- we saw it with Seneca's remarks about the Christians in the first letter, and we will see it several times again.

Letter III: Seneca writes that he has put together a book collecting together various writings and intends to read it to Caesar, if he can, and perhaps Paul himself will be present. If not, they will get together sometime to look over the work together. Seneca has intended to get Paul's opinion on the book before he gives it to Caesar, if it could be done without risk safely.
--- I haven't been able to find anyone who even remarks on it, but I suspect we should take the remark about meeting without risk as a sign that there is, again, more going on here than is explicitly said.

Letter IV: Paul remarks that whenever he reads Seneca's letters, it's as if Seneca were there, and, as soon as Seneca begins to come, they will see each other.

Letter V: Seneca asks why Paul stays away. He suggests that it may be the indignatio dominae, the wrath of the Lady, because Paul has left the old rite and sect and converted others, but says that it may be possible to plead with her.
--- If the translations are any guide (they vary widely), the text to this letter must be somewhat difficult to pin down. However, the reference to Poppaea seems clear enough, even though some translators don't seem to make this explicit. Poppaea Sabina the Younger became Nero's second wife in AD 62. Contemporary accounts of her are often contradictory, but at least some of them indicate that she did indeed have sympathy for the Jewish people and religion -- Josephus, who had met her, certainly thought so.

Letter VI: Paul says that he cannot talk about the subject Seneca has raised in writing, especially since he knows that there are people in both his and Seneca's circle who would know what he is talking about. He concludes instead by saying that honor must be paid to all because some people take offense, but if we are patient with them, then if they can repent, they can be overcome.
--- Here we have Paul explicitly saying that he cannot write openly about the real matter of discussion between them.

Letter VII: Seneca is content in reading Paul's letters to the Galatians, to the Corinthians, and to the Achaeans. He remarks that there is a holy spirit in and above Paul that expresses the thoughts in them. He wishes Paul's style had the excellence appropriate to such majestic thoughts, and then casually remarks that Nero was moved by Paul's thoughts, and had been surprised to find such ideas in someone who had not had a regular education. To this Seneca had replied that the gods often speak by the mouths of the guiltless, and had given him the example of Vatienus, a simple man who had conversed with Castor and Pollux. Nero had been convinced by the argument.
--- The remark about the 'holy spirit' might be thought a Christianization, but in fact it is an expression used by Seneca himself in one of his letters to Lucilius (Epistolae Morales 41).
--- Vatienus is said to have met two handsome men who told him that Paullus had taken the king of Persia prisoner. Perhaps significant in light of Paul's life, Vatienus, when he brought this news to the Senate, was thrown into prison for having wasted the Senate's time, until it became clear that the two men had really been the gods Castor and Pollux.

Letter VIII: Paul writes back that although he knows that Caesar, despite his lapses, loves things to do with Christians, he will admonish Seneca. Seneca should not have brought the matter to Nero's attention given that he was not properly prepared, being a worshipper of the gods of nations, and Paul begs him not to do it again. It is important not to offend Poppaea. The last part of the letter is obscure, but I take it that it is intended to convey the idea that it is less Poppaea's anger than her taking offense that is a problem.

Letter IX: Seneca says he knows that Paul is not disturbed on behalf of himself but due to the moral situation. They should then start anew, and Seneca asks that if anything was done carelessly, it should be pardoned. Seneca is sending Paul a book, De copia verborum.
--- While there are later books that were spuriously attributed to Seneca under the title, De copia verborum, we don't know if the letter is referring to such a book or something else.

Letter X: Paul remarks that if he doesn't put Seneca's name first in the heading of the letter, he does something unfitting. He ought instead to be all things to all men and to respect Seneca's senatorial position. He adds a date: the fifth of the calends of July, in the consulate of Nero and Messalla.
--- Paul talks about being all things to all men in 1 Corinthians 9:22: " I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some."
--- Nero and Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus both served as consuls in AD 58. (It is perhaps worthwhile to note that Nero's wife at that time would have been Claudia Octavia, not Poppaea.)

Letter XI: Seneca responds that it is an honor to be so closely associated with Paul, and that Paul is worthy to be named first in the headings of letters, particularly since he is a Roman citizen. As to rank, he wishes Paul and he could switch places. The letter is dated: the tenth of the calends of April, in the consulate of Apronianus and Capito.
--- Gaius Vipstanus Apronianus and Caius Fonteius Capito served together as consuls in AD 59.

Letter XII: Seneca writes again, grieving that so many Christians suffer, and that the Romans think them the cause of every ill that befalls the city. Previous eras had to bear Alexander the Great or Dionysius, and ours has to endure Caesar. The source of the fires in Rome is obvious, and if people could speak plainly, it would be clear to all. Christians and Jews are commonly blamed for it, but the criminal who did it will eventually receive his reckoning, and as the best is sacrificed for the many, he too will be burned. In six days 132 houses and four apartment blocks have been incinerated. The date is: the fifth of the kalends of April, in the consulate of Frugi and Bassus.
--- The Great Fire occurred in July of AD 64 and lasted six days. Nobody knew its source but the usual suspect is Nero himself. It's notable that this letter pretty clearly indicates that Nero is the culprit, despite again not explicitly writing it down.
--- Gaius Laecanius Bassus and Marcus Licinius Crassus Frugi were consuls together in AD 64.

Letter XIII: Seneca writes to Paul saying that his works discuss things that are rich with allegory and enigma, and therefore they should be expressed with care. Nor should Paul worry about what he has sometimes said, that worrying about such things leads to weakening the force of what is said. He should give beauty to the nobility of his words, in accordance with his great responsibility. The date is always translated as the day before the nones of June in the consulate of Leo and Sabinus; since there was no consul Leo, this is often considered a gibberish date. But it seems clear that this is a corruption that entered somewhere down the line, and it should read the consulate of Lurco and Sabinus.
--- Aulus Petronius Lurco and Aulus Paconius Sabinus were both consuls in late AD 58, serving as subsitutes for the previous consuls.

Letter XIV: Paul writes to Seneca saying that revelations have been given to him that God has granted to few. Paul sows not corruptible matter but the abiding word, which grows and endures forever. Seneca's prudence has brought him to this, to recognize that the laws of the Israelites and of the nations are to be cast aside. Seneca himself may be renewed as an author, presenting the unblameable wisdom of Jesus Christ in rhetorical form; he has come close to it, and may instill it into the temporal ruler and his household. Such a persuasion will be a difficult task, for many of them will hardly listen, but the word of God once instilled makes a new man without corruption, an enduring spirit speeding to God. The date is the kalends of August in the same consulate as the previous.

A Proposal

I suggest two things for reading this work; while I am by no means expert on anything to do with these matters, I think they follow quite clearly from the internal logic of the work as a whole.

(1) I think Letters XIII and XIV are displaced. They should in fact both be placed between Letters IX and X. In Letter X, Paul worries about the impoliteness of putting his name first in the heading of the letter; but in fact the only letter in which his name comes first is Letter XIV, which is clearly responding to Letter XIII. In addition, if the consulate is supposed to be that of Lurco and Sabinus, as I think it must be, then all end up being in the same year. (A potential problem, for which I have no solution, is that Lurco and Sabinus then seem a little too early in the year and Nero and Massalla's consulship seems a little late, and their order is reversed. Also, of course, all the other letters suggest dates in the 60s, with the apparent references to Poppaea and the undeniable reference to the Great Fire, not around 58, which is what the consulate dates suggest.)

(2) Putting these in proper order, we get an intelligible story arc, the tale of a noble conspiracy of morality that, alas, fails. Seneca and Paul both have reasons to worry about Nero, and through their interconnections, they start a sort of conspiracy to improve Caesar morally (I & II). Seneca's plan is to put together a morally edifying work with the help of Paul (III) and Paul agrees to this (IV), but this is complicated by the fact that Poppaea's Jewish sympathies could perhaps cause problems for Paul (V); Seneca thinks this can be overcome, but Paul can't talk about it in writing because it could not be secret (VI); he hints at his own attitude, however, in noting that they should avoid offense and be patient. Seneca, however, does not wait, and springs the plan on his own by reading passages from Paul's letters to Nero (VII), and he thinks it was successful, although he wishes Paul's letters were more stylistically impressive. Paul is not happy with this failure to heed his advice (VIII). Seneca does not take offense at this, and suggests they start again (IX); he is sending a book on improving one's style. Apparently having heard through their common connections that Paul thinks concern with style detracts from the message, he raises again the problem that Paul's style is getting in the way of conveying his message (XIII). Paul, however, reiterates his commitment to the content of his message rather than corruptible things like style, and suggests that Seneca himself is in the position to do what he is asking Paul to do (XIV). Paul seems, however, to have regretted the peremptory and commanding tone of the letter, and writes again, more or less apologizing (X). Seneca does not take offense at this (XI). However, unfortunately they have run out of time. Nero has set fire to Rome and is blaming the Christians (XII). That's an abrupt and depressing place to end, but since Paul's martyrdom has historically been thought to have taken place at some point after the Great Fire of 64 but before the end of Nero's reign in 68, I think we can perhaps take this work to be suggesting that Paul himself will be martyred in the aftermath. I think you can even see the whole set of letters as implying that Seneca, by a mistake arising from his impatience in talking about Christian doctrine with the Emperor, is the one who set Nero on the idea of blaming the Christians for the fire, and thus is, tragically, the reason for Paul's death. Since the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate Nero occurs in 65, and Seneca was ordered by Nero to commit suicide as being suspected of involvement in that conspiracy, it is possible to read it as suggesting that Seneca may have already been making Nero suspicious of his activities.

Of course, we have to be careful; the text we have may be corrupted, and some of the letters, especially XIII and XIV, are thought to be later additions, so there is a limit to both precision and accuracy in interpretation here. But I think the epistolary story approach works very well.

The Gentleman Saint

Today is the feast of St. Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church. From his most famous work, Introduction to the Devout Life, PartI, Chapter 1:

You aim at a devout life, dear child, because as a Christian you know that such devotion is most acceptable to God’s Divine Majesty. But seeing that the small errors people are wont to commit in the beginning of any under taking are apt to wax greater as they advance, and to become irreparable at last, it is most important that you should thoroughly understand wherein lies the grace of true devotion;—and that because while there undoubtedly is such a true devotion, there are also many spurious and idle semblances thereof; and unless you know which is real, you may mistake, and waste your energy in pursuing an empty, profitless shadow. Arelius was wont to paint all his pictures with the features and expression of the women he loved, and even so we all colour devotion according to our own likings and dispositions. One man sets great value on fasting, and believes himself to be leading a very devout life, so long as he fasts rigorously, although the while his heart is full of bitterness;—and while he will not moisten his lips with wine, perhaps not even with water, in his great abstinence, he does not scruple to steep them in his neighbour’s blood, through slander and detraction. Another man reckons himself as devout because he repeats many prayers daily, although at the same time he does not refrain from all manner of angry, irritating, conceited or insulting speeches among his family and neighbours. This man freely opens his purse in almsgiving, but closes his heart to all gentle and forgiving feelings towards those who are opposed to him; while that one is ready enough to forgive his enemies, but will never pay his rightful debts save under pressure. Meanwhile all these people are conventionally called religious, but nevertheless they are in no true sense really devout....

But, in fact, all true and living devotion presupposes the love of God;—and indeed it is neither more nor less than a very real love of God, though not always of the same kind; for that Love one while shining on the soul we call grace, which makes us acceptable to His Divine Majesty;—when it strengthens us to do well, it is called Charity;—but when it attains its fullest perfection, in which it not only leads us to do well, but to act carefully, diligently, and promptly, then it is called Devotion.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Emerentiana Emerita

Today is the feast of St. Emerentiana, who I mentioned in one of the poems on St. Agnes' Day. Agnes was a Roman girl from a wealthy Christian family; as was common among the wealthy, she was given to a wetnurse, who was Emerentiana's mother, and who was lactating because she was already nursing Emerentiana. The two girls grew up together, and Emerentiana, who was not from a Christian family, eventually became a catechumen. About this time, according to the story, some of Agnes' pagan suitors who were rejected precisely because they were not Christian reported her to the authorities as a Christian. She was eventually beheaded. A few days later, Emerentiana was found praying outside her tomb near the Via Nomentana by a number of pagans who criticized her for doing so; when she scolded them for the evil they had done to her friend and foster-sister, they stoned the young catechumen to death. She was canonized and is often depicted holding stones in her lap. Both Agnes and Emerentiana are said to be buried in the Roman church of Sant'Agnese fuori le mura (Saint Agnes Outside the Walls), which was built over the catacombs on the Via Nomentana where Agnes was buried and Emerentiana martyred; but it can't be completely ruled out that she is in fact buried somewhere else nearby.

The name 'Emerentiana' is a fairly unusual one (although in some traditions, the Virgin Mary's grandmother is named Emerentia); the name comes from Latin ēmerēre, which means to deserve or merit, especially because you have completed a term of service. It's the same word that gives us the English word 'emeritus' for professors who have completed their service; 'emeritus' was the word Romans used for a veteran who had been honorably discharged.

The building of the church above the catacombs was a common practice in the early Church; it's actually the source of the Catholic customs of dedicating churches to saints, of putting relics in or under altars, and of having patron saints. The earliest Christians would sometimes have their liturgies actually at the graves of martyrs in catacombs and the like. The martyrs themselves were, so to speak, the altars. (In the Emerentiana legend this may well be why the pagans reacted so vehemently to Emerentiana praying at Agnes' tomb.) When it became feasible, they would build churches and basilicas over the catacombs, and of course, the church would be referred to by the relevant martyr, leading to the practice of churches having titular saints. Where it was possible, the churches would be built in such a way that the altar was right over the saint giving the church its title, as Sant'Agnese fuori le mura is built so that the remains of St. Agnes are thought to be directly beneath the altar. But sometimes this was not possible, so it would be done symbolically by putting a relic of the saint in the altar. This continued even as there was a need for churches far from any martyr's grave, and when saints who were not strictly martyrs were given honors analogous to martyrs (thus leading to canonization in our usual sense). Thus, for instance, not far from where I live is a church dedicated to Saint Albert the Great; there is a little bit of bone from St. Albert in the altar, so every time Mass is said, it is in a sense said on the tomb of St. Albert, which in reality is very far from here. Now, these titular saints, especially the more famous ones, were often associated with particular places, which became the idea of patron saints of places, which then expanded, sometimes by accident of location, sometimes by historical association, and sometimes just by analogies based on their lives, to patron saints of guilds and other things. Agnes being the more famous Virgin Martyr, she has a long list of things of which she is taken to be patron saint, most of which are based directly on her life or on historical associations that built up around her titular church. Emerentiana, always the quiet girl in Agnes' shadow, has a much shorter list. Indeed, the only thing I've ever seen Emerentiana listed as patron of is stomach problems. Like most lesser-known saints, the patronage comes purely by an analogy; as I said above, she is usually depicted seated with a pile of stones in her lap, and it's usually thought that she became associated with stomach problems because having a lap full of stones looks like it would be hard on the abdomen. It's far from being the only saint-patronage based on a visual pun.

In any case, I think St. Emerentiana would make a good patron saint for friends.

Teaching Ethics

I was recently looking for one of my posts on teaching Ethics, and so thought I'd make up a short index post with some of the links on the subject (not ethics in general, but points relevant to teaching a course on it).

Virtue Analysis I (2010)
Virtue Analysis II (2010)
Virtue Analysis III (2013)
(A few observations about a particular assignment I experimented with.)

Various Jottings on Applied Ethics and Refugees (2015)
(I don't like how applied ethics is typically handled in Ethics courses.)

On Teaching Metaethics in an Ethics Course (2018)
(Don't do it beyond what comes up naturally and easily in dealing with ethical topics.)

Aesthetics and Ethics (2019)
(The two should not be split the way they often are, and the implications for aesthetics are often important for understanding an ethical approach.)

Natural Law Theory (2019)
(Textbooks are really bad at explaining it.)

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Across the Anxious Forehead of the Sky

Rain Sonnet
by Nina Frances Layard


And all the dank hair of the hurrying rain,
Flung backward by the wind, did stream and fly
Across the anxious forehead of the sky,
And rattling lashed my shaken window-pane
With sudden spotted sounds, that yet again
Sink to a lighter fingering, or die
Into a tinkling treble by-and-by,
Soft as the falling of wind-scattered grain.

So is my sorrow as the streaming drift,
That from the mighty shoulders of a cloud
Is shaken back and tangled in the blast;
So is my dreadful sorrow, but I lift
A trembling hand to God and cry aloud
That He shall make it music at the last.