Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Five Years

Five years ago today this weblog began as a sort of open notebook for my thoughts. The name comes, ultimately, from the Iliad. Zeus, talking to the other gods, affirms his superiority over them all by suggesting a test of power:

Make ye fast from heaven a chain of gold, and lay ye hold thereof, all ye gods and all goddesses; yet could ye not drag to earth from out of heaven Zeus the counsellor most high, not though ye laboured sore. But whenso I were minded to draw of a ready heart, then with earth itself should I draw you and with sea withal; and the rope should I thereafter bind about a peak of Olympus and all those things should hang in space. By so much am I above gods and above men.

The Greek here is seiren chruseien ex ouranothen kremasantes: A chain of gold from heaven hang. Plato mentions this passage in the Theaetetus, and one finds it peaking out here and there at various times. But the particular form 'siris' is due to George Berkeley.

Berkeley's Siris, subtitled, "A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water, and Diverse Other Subjects Connected Together and Arising from One Another," is a somewhat unusual work first published in 1744. As the subtitle suggests, part of Siris's concern is with reflecting on tar-water, a home remedy which Berkeley had discovered in the Americas, and which he thought (in combination with reducing alcohol intake and increasing exercise) would help effect a revolution in the health of the poor, at a very cheap and affordable cost. But the work does not stop at tar-water; from tar-water it goes on to speculation about the nature of the world, rising higher and higher until ultimately it reaches God, and ultimately a series of hints gathered from various Platonic and Neo-Platonic sources suggestive of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Berkeley saw Siris as describing the ascent up a chain that began at the lowest part of the universe, something as insignificant as tar, and step-by-step rose up to the very throne of God, and thus borrowed the image from the Iliad of a golden chain from tar to God. This image is most explicitly developed in his poem, "On Tar," which serves as a sort of summary of the view of the world laid out in Siris.

'Siris', then, is Berkeley's Anglicization of the Greek word for 'chain'; it thus shares an etymological relationship (although how close is difficult to say) with the Latin word 'series', which can also mean 'chain', and which, of course, gives us the English word spelled in the same way. The name seems fitting enough for a weblog, which is a series of posts, and in particular for the sort of weblog a notebook of my thoughts would inevitably have to be -- ranging, as noted in the header of this blog, from very simple, perhaps even silly things, like tar-water, up to divine things. Seiren chruseien kremasantes is the motto: Hang up a chain of gold.

As time has passed it has seemed more and more to me that blogging, done properly, is a very Romantic medium; that is, it is (whatever the content of one's philosophical views) a style or an approach very much in keeping with that of Romantic philosophy. The Romantics tried to return to philosophy the important idea of ingenium, or wit, the faculty of discovery or invention. Schlegel calls it "fragmentary genius" and "logical sociability". saw philosophy as having the potential to combine in itself science and poetry, truth and sublimity. Good posts are exercises of wit: ways of doing philosophy, directly or indirectly, through aphorism and anecdote, commentary and conversation, all very Romantic forms of publication. Moreover, the blogosphere, albeit only within certain sharp limits, allows for what the Romantics called Symphilosophie: exchange of ideas so rapid and fluid that in a sense philosophy, without ceasing to be individual in pursuit, becomes communal, collaborative, and social by its very nature. A symphony of reason, so to speak, in which we each play our own notes but at the same time are interacting with each other so that our notes continually play off the notes of others. The Romantics would have loved jazz music. They argued that reason should not be thin, watery, calculating stuff, but instead thick and fiery, like intellectual electricity infusing a poetic style of thought. And this requires that philosophy be carried not by mere academics pursuing merely academic questions, but by friends in conversation: philosophical friendship that allows for a philosophy that is in some sense a communal work of art. The ability of blogging to contribute to this is only limited, but I think it's undeniable that to some extent it does exist: blogging done well makes up a part of the conversible world of ideas.

There is a third way in which blogging is a very Romantic thing, and that is its fragmentary and on-the-fly nature. The Romantics saw themselves as engaged in a massive reform of philosophy; but philosophy is an infinite discipline, vast beyond any one mind. How can such a reform even get off the ground? By recognizing the importance of workshop philosophy. Even if your ideas are jumbled, they still have value as rough drafts. Just as the rough draft of a work of art is itself a valuable element of the creative process, so too the rough draft of a potentially beautiful, or forceful, or fruitful idea is a valuable element of reasoning. The Romantics took this in a strong sense; Schlegel at one point says that if a person can't make a crayon-sketch of an idea, or sketch a thought in a few pen strokes, philosophy can never be either an art or science. This is one reason why the Romantics liked aphorisms and fragments so much: each aphorism or fragment is a pen-sketch, in a few strokes, of a powerful idea or set of ideas. And while bloggers rarely reach the brilliance of those pen-sketches, it makes sense to see blogging as the same sort of thing: fragment-publication, draft-presentation. Posts are, to use the phrases of Novalis, "pollen" or "literary seedings". They are not the full-grown ideas, but we scatter them liberally and sometimes they fertilize or seed another person's mind, to the benefit of us all. There's that Symphilosophie again.

It is no secret, however, that blogging is often associated with bad habits; and even if all the above were true, if blogging (whether active blogging, i.e., writing posts, or passive blogging, i.e., reading blogs) makes you a worse person, you obviously shouldn't be doing it. So what counts as the ethical practice of blogging? And, what is more, how does one integrate blogging into one's overall self-improvement (which is often a different thing)? By happenstance one day I came across a 'Code of Amiability' written out by the Venerable Maria Teresa Josefina Justina Gonzalez-Quevedo (more commonly noted as Ven. Teresita Gonzalez-Quevedo) for her nuns. The Code was as follows:

The virtue of amiability results from the fusion of several strong virtues. It is the all things to all men that grows out of charity: the knowledge of self that humility teaches; the pure detachment found in mortification; the meekness born of patience; and the undaunted courage won of perseverance... The Code of Amiability obliges one:

1. To smile until a kindly smile forms readily on one's lips.
2. To repress a sign of impatience at the very start.
3. To add a word of benevolence when giving orders.
4. To reply positively when asked to do a favor.
5. To lend a helping hand to the unfortunate.
6. To please those toward whom one feels repugnance.
7. To study and satisfy the tastes of those with whom one lives.
8. To respect everyone.
9. To avoid complaining.
10. To correct, if one must, with kindness.

These are the dispositions which union with the amiable Virgin will place in our heart.

The Code was not written with blogging in mind, of course, but it seemed to me that it would be a good idea at least to try to embody the Code of Amiability on this weblog. I have a fairly affable temperament as it is, so it didn't seem like it would be wholly out of the realm of possibility that I could do a fair job being amiable in the blogosphere. I didn't think it would be easy, but I think even so I underestimated the difficulties of following such a Code; blogging is a medium very conducive to impatience (against (2)), ranting (against (9)), and unkind correction (against (10)). It doesn't help that my sense of humor is naturally acidic, that I have very little patience for certain ways of thinking, and that, as one of the major things I do is criticize reasoning, I am sometimes in risky territory from the very beginning. So I can't, unfortunately, say that I've been as amiable as I should have been in every case; but over time I've developed some rules to help me do a better job. For instance, when I feel I've been overharsh, I try to allow the other person the last word even if I think I'm actually getting the better of the argument. It's irrational to think that every argument needs to be argued out to the very bitter end every time it is raised, and there are many, many arguments where both sides would be better off shelving the dispute until they have had time to cool down and think things through more thoroughly. When you are arguing you want to argue it out to the bitter end; but this is often not a good thing at all, either for the people arguing or for the rational integrity of the argument itself. And I have a few other rules that follow, a bit more loosely. It's all a work in progress, a sort of ethical experiment. So far I've been pleased with the overall results, since I think I have become more thoughtful and less quick to rush in where angels fear to tread. But there are miles to go. It's an ongoing discipline rather than an achieved perfection.

According to Blogger's count, I have in five years published nearly 3,700 posts here at Siris. I have learned an immense amount in that five years, for which I thank you all. To celebrate my five years blogging here, I will here and there, over the next few months, re-visit some old posts, perhaps re-posting them with revision if I think they've stood the test of time, perhaps correcting them if I think I went wrong in some way. I'll probably also rework the sidebar a bit, and may explore a number of other things. Mostly, however, it will be the same old Siris, which is still, as it was when it began, a forum to let my mind be unruly.