Thursday, March 26, 2009

Notes for Thinking, Links for Noting

* Regan Penaluna discusses Masham and Astell at First Things.

* P. S. Ruckman, Jr. recently had a fascinating post about Hubert Huse Bigelow. Bigelow was a businessman who was put in a federal penitentiary for two years for failure to pay income taxes (this was 1924, so the Sixteenth Amendment had only just recently been passed). When he got out he started hiring hundreds of ex-convicts and seem to have had nary a problem from doing so.

* Here and there one finds philosophical works that, while minor in significance, are nonetheless exquisitely charming, and nearly perfect within their own modest limits. One very good candidate for this class is Minucius Felix's Octavius, a beautifully written philosophical dialogue on divine providence. In it Minucius (the narrator) is walking on a beach with some friends, Octavius and Caecilius; they stop to watch some boys skipping stones across the water, but Caecilius turns the discussion to philosophical matters, arguing that in human affairs there is nothing certain. It's hard to find in a good translation -- the better ones available online are old enough that it is difficult to see just how charming the work is. Looking at the limited preview allowed on Google Book, though, it looks like Graeme Wilbur Clarke's translation is worth picking up.

* Margaret Osler reviews Catherine Wilson's Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity.

* Alas, too true: Foxe's Book of Martyrs: American Edition (ht). It exasperates me how easily some people slip into whining about such matters.

* Henry Karlson discusses Western views of Eastern Catholics. Roman Catholics tend to have the bad, bad habit of assuming that because the Pope is first among bishops they are first among Catholics and that Roman Catholic ways are the 'real' ways of doing things, both of which are utter nonsense.

* Thurstan's World is a small but neat website dealing with forge-and-anvil-style metalworking.

* The Africa Windmill Project (ht)

* John Farrell discusses Updike and Hartwell on why science fiction is a minor genre.

* Speaking of genres that fail to live up to their potential (although in a different way), I came across recently the trope (common enough, and largely right) of how bad the Christian Music genre is. It's a slightly misleading trope, of course, since there is lots of music that is both Christian and great: most of Gospel, for instance, which is a distinct genre, and you find songs throughout most genres that obviously fit both criteria. Part of the problem is that it's a grab-bag genre, like 'Pop'; and worse, it is often a copycat genre, engaging in mimicry of other genres. And I think, to add on to the list of reasons why it so often fails, its dominant aesthetic value is what is known as 'uplift' -- a word that jumps up with crazy frequency in advertisements for Christian music, and which as a goal almost guarantees nonsense and is not in any way an especially spiritual goal. And so you get a genre filled with sugar-fluff trying to use shortcuts to induce an emotional state rather than higher-quality work that could dominate it if it sought the means to speak the truth, along the lines of (for instance) Dion DiMucci's The Truth Will Set You Free or Still in the Spirit, or Johnny Cash's God's Gonna Cut You Down or When the Man Comes Around, or Bob Dylan's When He Returns or When You Gonna Wake Up. It wouldn't be so bad, except that people usually don't make a distinction between "Christian music," the genre of generic, derivative, copycat music, and "Christian music," music that is Christian, which necessarily includes things like Gospel, which is a vastly more creative genre and only rarely sugar-fluffy (and often more genuinely uplifting because of it), and serious Christian music in other genres.

Happiness Is Not a Univocal Term

I was a bit amused by this article on research about self-reports of happiness. Apparently we think having children contributes to our happiness. But it's also clear that people with children have less free time to devote purely to amusing themselves, have to work harder, tend to be more harried and stressed, are burdened with more responsibilities, worry a lot more, etc., than they they ever did before they had them. Who knew?

It's not the researchers' interpretation, but the way I'd interpret this sort of discrepancy is that we are running up hard against the fact that happiness is not, despite what seems to be the common assumption, a univocal term, and that some things, like children, can contribute to your happiness in ways that apparently don't contribute to your 'sense of well-being'. We already know that our bizarrely disproportionate emphasis on sense of well-being is not a cultural universal: happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment, etc. are not universally understood to be defined as 'profound sense of well-being'; and there are lots of views of happiness in which the sense of well-being is as different from happiness as the sense of being successful is different from success, or the sense of being right is different from being right, or the sense that one is a pleasant person is different from actually being a pleasant person, or the sense that one is virtuous is different from real virtue. Examples like children, however, show that we are not even consistent on this ourselves: muddling fulfillment and sense of fulfillment together, we start tangling ourselves into knots, recognizing that having children contributes to one's happiness even while it is patently obvious that every child is a lot of work, frustration, worry, exasperation, stress, and insanity rolled into one. But a person with children is, as we rightly say, blessed with children; and while it's not an indefeasible blessing, almost everyone recognizes that it is a powerful one. This is something that can be recognized entirely independently of questions about whether people feel more satisfied with themselves and their lives when they have children. And it is a good thing, too; it is one thing to have children in order to have the blessing of the children themselves, but very few things would be more horrible than people having children for the purpose of increasing their own sense of well-being. The happiness that is the possession of a blessed life and the happiness that is the feeling of satisfaction about one's own life can be very different.

The real question the researchers should be asking even on their own terms, by the way, is why having children, with all the obvious stress, worry, and difficulty it brings, doesn't lead to exactly the opposite result. If, for instance, parents in Britain have on average the same sense of well-being as non-parents, surely the puzzle is not why they don't have more but why they don't have much, much less. Having children massively closes down options; it increases occasions for stress; it drains one of energy, time, resources; and yet it doesn't make people utterly miserable. In fact, they are about the same as they are without children. That is the odd fact about parenting and sense of well-being that needs explanation.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Likeness of the Giver of Speech

For the Deity gave us Speech that is free like Itself, in order that free Speech might serve our independent Freewill. And by Speech, too, we are the likeness of the Giver of it, inasmuch as by means of it we have impulse and thought for good things; and not only for good things, but we learn also of God, the fountain of good things, by means of Speech (which is) a gift from Him. For by means of this (faculty) which is like God we are clothed with the likeness of God. For divine teaching is the seal of minds, by means of which men who learn are sealed that they may be an image for Him Who knows all. For if by Freewill Adam was the image of God, it is a most praiseworthy thing when, by true knowledge, and by true conduct, a man becomes the image of God. For that independence exists in these also. For animals cannot form in themselves pure thoughts about God, because they have not Speech, that which forms in us the image of the Truth. We have received the gift of Speech that we may not be as speechless animals in our conduct, but that we may in our actions resemble God, the giver of Speech. How great is Speech, a gift which came to make those who receive it like its Giver!

St. Ephrem the Syrian, First Discourse to Hypatius

Monday, March 23, 2009

'We See What the Man Would Be At'

With regard to Hume's readers seeing immediately what he was doing (mentioned in the previous post), here is Warburton, with his usual unrestrained sarcasm and 'raillery', as Hume called it:

Text not available
The Works of the Right Reverend William Warburton, D.D., Lord Bishop of Gloucester To which is Prefixed a Discourse by Way of General Preface, Containing Some Account of the Life, Writings, and Character of the Author By William Warburton, Richard Hurd

Baggini on Hume on False Religion and Immortality

Baggini has more posts at Comment is Free on Hume. I don't have much to say on the posts about skepticism(#4 and #5), but I do have some comments on the more recent ones, #6 and #7. In #6, on the Natural History of Religion, he says,

But perhaps the most important feature of Hume's argument is how, no matter how intellectually respectable religion can be, as a matter of fact, most devotees end up believing intellectually disreputable versions. "The corruption of the best things begets the worse," he says, which doesn't entirely let the beggetter off the hook. If, as a matter of fact, most religion is of the "barbarous" and "idolatrous" varieties, then defending more refined versions is often besides the point.

But I have difficulty finding any way to interpret this that makes it both Humean and coherent. Hume holds that there is such a thing as "true religion" -- he is very insistent upon that fact, in fact, and not only in the Natural History, despite the fact that it's very difficult to make out what, precisely, it is supposed to be. But there seems no rational way to make the fact of false religion reflect badly on any true religion there might be, any more than the fact of pseudoscience reflects badly on the practice of science, or the existence of sophistry makes philosophy "besides the point." Either one holds that all religion is contaminated by something of this disreputable barbarism -- in which case we deviate from Hume by denying the existence of some sort of acceptable religious attitude -- or we deny that all religion is 'on the hook' for the disreputable varieties -- in which case we seem to deviate from Baggini's claim here. It's hard to read this argument as anything more than an attempt to create a lose-lose situation for religionists: if you accept a barbarous religion, you are barbaric, and if you accept a refined religion, you are still barbaric, just more indirectly. And this is not part of Hume's argument, for all that he is very critical of certain religious views.

Incidentally, Baggini accepts what I often call the Hume-was-incompetent interpretation of his religious writings. As he summarizes it:

We have to remember that criticising the religion of the day directly would not have been a wise move. Instead, Hume attacks what he describes as idolatrous and superstitious forms of belief, saying that, of course, the true religion of our place and time is nothing like this. Readers have to spot for themselves that, actually, the differences are not so clear.

The problem is that if we gloss Hume in this way, we are attributing extreme stupidity to him. Nobody was fooled, and there was never reason to think that anyone would be fooled, by such transparent criticism as Hume uses. Baggini calls it 'subtle', but it's not subtle at all. For instance, anyone with any knowledge of Christianity can spot the criticism of theology if you blandly say that a "traditional, mythological religion" is more rational than the "systematical, scholastic religion", and anyone who can read will begin to wonder if you are being quite serious about not warranting the quality of the reasoning of Chevalier Ramsey if you quote long, extended passages by him on the subject of how barbaric the Calvinist doctrine of predestination is, especially in a work that is elsewhere sharply critical of barbarism. Hume is not so utterly dimwitted as to think that these indirections aren't transparent. On the contrary, we should see them for what they are: clever and very rhetorical moves by which Hume tries to draw on the anti-Catholic and anti-pagan prejudices of his Protestant readers in such a way as to turn those prejudices against Protestantism itself. Nor is this last strategy subtle; all of Hume's major critics on the subject of religion, from Warburton to MacQueen to Campbell saw exactly what he was doing. But that is partly where it gets its force; it would be pointless if no one could draw the connection.

Likewise, in #7 Baggini thoroughly misses the fact that Hume's move in the discussion of the immortality of the soul, in which he rejects the philosophical arguments for immortality and says that "'tis the Gospel and the Gospel alone, that has brought life and immortality to light," is not unique to Hume. It is simply a restatement of the Lockean position -- indeed, in precisely the same terms that Locke, Masham, and other Lockeans use. (The Lockeans believed in immortality of the soul; they denied it could be proven philosophically.) Hume is simply taking Locke's position and developing it by looking at particular philosophical arguments. To be sure, it is highly doubtful that Hume agrees with this full position. But it isn't clear that there's any doublespeak here; Hume doesn't always speak in propria persona in his essays, and here he's just not going to get into the question of revelation, because he's doing philosophy rather than theology, and Locke's way of separating the two is a way of doing it that doesn't require defense by Hume (since it had already been defended by the Lockeans). And while Baggini recognizes that Hume is echoing Locke in one of his arguments against metaphysical arguments for immortality, he fails to note that this is only one of many, many Lockean echoes throughout the essay (arguably one of the most Lockean things Hume ever wrote). And Hume actually does press the claims of others into service even when he is speaking in his own person; he doesn't start from scratch if he can build on others (cf. the extensive use of Malebranchean arguments in ECHU Section VII Part II, or the extensive use of Berkeley in Treatise 1.4.2, or the weird use of criticisms of Spinoza in Treatise 1.4.4).

But Baggini, even if only quasi-Humean, is nothing if not honest, and he recognizes that one of Hume's arguments for the mortality of the soul is the 'inferiority' of women's minds.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Hope and Reverence

To theological hope answers the gift of fear ; that is to say, not worldly, not servile fear, which, although it may come from the Holy Ghost, still may be combined with a sinful will; but filial and chaste fear, whereby we reverence God Himself, and avoid withdrawing ourselves from Him, From this we infer, that filial fear and hope are mutually connected together, since by filial fear we do not dread lest that should fail us which we hope to obtain by Divine assistance, but we dread lest we should deprive ourselves of that assistance, according to the doctrine of S. Thomas.

And as the gift of fear answers to the virtue of hope, and for heroicity there is required the influx of some gift of the Holy Spirit, it follows that the influx of a gift for the heroic degree of the virtue of hope will be the influx of the gift of fear, not however every sort of fear, but of that which we have just described.

Prospero Lambertini (later Benedict XIV), Heroic Virtue, vol. I, pp. 104-105.

Two Poem Drafts

A Garden of Delights

As when a land of rivers pours forth water,
endless streams endlessly refreshed,
watering all the land and seeking sea,
so all the symbols of Scripture are poured forth,
the Holy Spirit their everlasting spring,
watering the prophets and our predecessors,
rolling and moving in search of Christ.

As when one moves through an endless forest
filled with fruit of every delightful kind,
rejoicing in even the smallest sapling,
so too the wise, meeting our predecessors,
rejoice in such a cloud of witnesses,
and take as their teachers any and all
who bear forth with delectable fruits.

Would I not be mad, and grievously insane,
to say to the apple, "Bear me a peach"?
If God makes the apple to bear apples,
shall I not rejoice in the apples it bears?
And shall I not wonder and rejoice
at how far His creativity exceeds my own?

Would I not be mad, a fool beyond fools,
to say to the rivers, "You meander,
and so in no way can you seek the sea"?
Should I not rejoice that God has given
these beautiful rivers like rolling roads
to carry me on to His illimitable Word?

Grass Is Not Green

Grass is not green;
those poets lie
who use that word to describe
the golden glow of sunlit blade
filled with ardor of bright ray.
'Green' is just a mundane word;
can it catch
a meadow full of sunlit grass?
But as the angels
and our God
are named with foolish names,
every name thus falling short,
so is the grass on sunlit day
called 'green' in a child's game,
a jest we jest
in heavenly courts,
a pet name made in play.

An Old Comment on Definition and Inquiry

I came across an old comment that I had forgotten that I had written, in a comment thread that was partly on the subject of definition and inquiry; I thought at least part of it deserved its own blog post.

Definition in the strict and proper sense is in fact very difficult; achieving definitions that are both accurate and useful for a given set of purposes is often extraordinarily difficult, and is more often than not the end, rather than the beginning, of an investigation. This does not mean in the meantime that the names in question do not refer, only that the referring is imprecise (and may at times involve a confusion of more than one thing) and governed less by definition than by associated, and sometimes officially standardized, usages. For instance, suppose you are interested in studying jade. You do not need a definition of jade in order to begin studying jade; nor, from the fact that you cannot give a definition of jade at the beginning of your investigation, does it follow that you can just, for no good reason, start including milk among the things called 'jade'. And in studying jade, you start learning the things that are useful for definition: for instance, the fact that what seemed to be a single object, jade, turns out to be at least two, since nephrite (an amphibole) and jadeite (a pyroxene) are certainly not the same. As you continue looking into this, you might start uncovering puzzles about jade worth solving -- e.g., nephrite turns out not to be easily classifiable, since it can be either actinolite or tremolite (my understanding is that they are very similar and under fairly common conditions tend to change into one another over time). Thus, nephrite, which has a standard usage and therefore a meaning, turns out to be resistant to rigorous definition. This might lead in any number of directions in one's inquiry, e.g., to an attempt to come up with a better classification, or a rethinking of the inquiry itself.