Saturday, November 21, 2009

Memorist (Part Two)

This is the second part of a short story draft. For the first part, click here.

After her dinner with the Infanta, the Matriarch passed through a series of rooms toward the Small Drawing Room, where the Memorist awaited her. But before she had reached the room, a voice arrested her.


The Matriarch stopped and turned slowly toward the voice, which belonged to one of the generals of the army. She noted with some pleasure that he flinched under the coldness of the look she gave him. No doubt he would later tell loud jokes, perhaps even insulting stories, about The Dragon Lady to salve his pride at having quailed before the glance of an old woman, as they all did. They were all alike. She had dealt with them for sixty years, and they were all alike. But they were also all firmly in her iron grasp, however much they might squirm. She continued to look at him coldly, waiting and looking. He squirmed.

"Matriarch," he said again. "I understand that you have reassigned a portion of my legion to the sentinel-stations. Why was I not consulted on this matter?"

She continued to look but said nothing for so long that he opened his mouth to speak again. But before he could, she said, icily, "And I should consult with you?"

His mouth closed again. The Matriarch simply turned and walked away, but there was something in the turn and the walk that expressed contempt more than any words could. As she moved out of sight, the general's fists curled and teeth gritted in rage and he stormed off to his next meeting.


The Infanta of Syan and her handmaiden did everything in their power to make the Infanta beautiful. They careful did her hair and perfumed her in every place that would admit of perfuming; they painted her thin lips and tried to shape her shapeless eyebrows; they powdered her face to cover her sallow complexion and used every secret known to cosmetics in an attempt to thicken her thin lashes. They did, as I said, everything in their power to make the poor girl beautiful; but such an effect, I fear, is beyond the ability of mortal woman, however ingenious she may be and however resourceful her supplier of cosmetics, and the result was more like a painted ugliness than like the vision of loveliness the Infanta had hoped to attain. But they managed, in the process, to distract from some of the Infanta's most unpleasant features, and so had reached a point where the Infanta, used to disappointment on this topic, was willing to settle.

The handmaiden had just gone out to retrieve somethign when she rushed back in again. "He's here!" she said breathlessly.

Excitement rushed over the Infanta's features. "Bring him in, bring him in!" she said, trying, not entirely successfully, not to squeal it out.

As the handmaiden went out the Infanta composed her features and her body into a pose and demeanor that she hoped conveyed an impression of Regal Splendor. It conveyed nothing of the sort, but the Infanta fortunately was looking eagerly at the door, not at the mirror, when she did it, and thus she somehow, despite the absurdity of her looks, had a charming air of innocent enthusiasm. That is a cosmetic ladies of the court rarely wear; but it was the only thing that prevented her from looking merely like a fugitive from colony of exceptionally ugly clowns.

The air of innocent enthusiasm intensified when a young man walked through the door. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with dark hair and bright blue eyes, and he was dressed in a flawless dress uniform. The uniform, while handsome, only declared him to be a lowly sublieutenant; but his smile, also handsome, declared a great many things more.

He went down on one knee. "My Infanta!" he said. "You are truly loveliness itself tonight! I thank you for allowing me into your gracious presence!"

The Infanta simpered at this opening -- how could she not? But she had more self-control than many young women have when a handsome young soldier is on his knees before them, and she only offered him her hand to kiss, which he did with melodramatic enthusiasm. She then bade him sit by her, which he also did with enthusiasm. Only then did she soften out of her attitude of, as she still thought it (not having looked in the mirror), Regal Splendor.

"How are you tonight, my love?" she said.

"Now that I see you, I am very well," he replied. "And you, my darling Infanta?"

She sighed. "Not well at all. I think the Matriarch intends to poison me."

The soldier looked sharply at her. "What makes you say that?"

"I told you before, she hates me and does nothing but torment me. I think she has only kept me alive this long to torment me. And everyone says that she poisoned the previous Matriarch, and that Matriarch's son, and hundreds and hundreds of others, too. She's a horrid woman. I hate her!"

"You know," said the young man slowly, "if you survive her it is you who will be Matriarch."

"Yes," said the Infanta dismissively, "but haven't you been listening? She will kill me. She kills everyone." But something in his voice made her look at him. He took her hands in his and looked deeply into her eyes with that passionate, poetic look at which no one can succeed except handsome young men trying to be persuasive.

"My darling Infanta," he said in the manner of one beginning a practiced speech, "as long as she lives, you will live in fear, and it rends my heart to see you in such fear. As long as she lives, you and I can never truly be together. How would you ever convince her to allow it? But if she were to die before you, you would become Matriarch, and all our problems would be solved. You would live free of her, and there is nobody who could stand in the way of our being together. I know that you, being of such good heart, would never think of it yourself, but there are poisons that are swift and painless and that could never be discovered. As a soldier I can get you such poisons. It is within your power to solve all our problems and bring us together completely."

The Infanta was somewhat confused at the mingling of the pleasant blue eyes with the unpleasant suggestion. "But I don't think I could...," she began.

He quickly interrupted her. "I know it is something you would never do under ordinary circumstances. How could you? You have a good and decent heart. That is what I love most about you." The Infanta blushed here, but the young man took no notice. "But these are not ordinary circumstances. You have lived under the most terrible oppression a woman can expect to bear, under constant anxiety because of the odious mindgames of the Matriarch. No one could blame you. As you say, she may mean to kill you; it would only be self-defense." He squeezed her hands harder. "All I ask is that you consider it. I know that your good judgment will decide best what to do." And at that he kissed her many times, and she was confused yet again, although much more pleasantly and for different reasons.

The rest of their interview consisted of the stilted, trite banalities at which lovers excel. But they all eventually came to an end, and the young man emerged from the Infanta's room, straightened his uniform, and hurried off to his next meeting.

Memorist (Part One)

This is the first part of a short story draft.

The Matriarch of Syan was watching a criminal die. He was being executed as Syan always executed those who committed capital crimes, with brands of glowing iron and every effort made to keep him conscious for as long as possible. It was a gruesome thing to watch, but she had seen every criminal execution in her sixty years as Matriarch, more than could be counted, and so the screams of agony made not the slightest change in her impassive countenance, and did not in the slightest affect the air she had about her of being elsewhere, thinking of other things.

In a pause between the screams there was the sound of a door being opened to her right and she turned to look at the dark-haired young man who entered. He carefully kept his gaze on the Matriarch. She seemed to draw suddenly from deep inside herself and look at him with razor intensity.

"Matriarch," he said, "I beg pardon for the disturbance, but you asked to be notified immediately when the Memorist arrived."

There was a scream from the room below that startled the young man into glancing at the glass. He quickly looked away again, a sudden nervousness springing to life in his hands. He cleared his throat. "Shall I arrange an audience immediately?"

She looked at the ground a moment, suddenly far away again. A twinge of pain suddenly crossed her face; then it passed, and she looked up again. "No," she said. "We will make him wait. I will take supper with the Infanta first. Tell the cook that the dish with the mushrooms is to be served, but remind him that last time it was unacceptably tepid." She turned again to gaze dispassionately at the dying man below as the young man bowed low and backed out of the room. But when the door had closed again she allowed herself to look down at the large and ornate ring of gold and diamonds on her right hand. She touched the setting that could be slid aside to reveal the compartment with the poison.


The Infanta of Syan was a sullen girl with a sullen face. She was ugly and untalented and had always been so. When she had been chosen as the consort of the Matriarch's son it had caused widespread surprise and the rumors about the reason for it had been wild. The son had been sickly and soon after had died. The rumors, too, soon died, for they were smothered by the overwhelmingly boring personality of the Infanta herself, who had no vice but sullenness and no virtue but mediocrity. In the court it was joked -- quietly, of course, and with every futile attempt to guarantee that the Matriarch did not hear -- that the Matriarch had chosen her as security against assassination, for no one would look at the Infanta and see the future of Syan. The Matriarch thought of this as she gazed across the table at the Infanta and set her lips in a thin, firm line. This line may have been a repressed frown, or a repressed smile, or something else entirely; no one ever saw the Matriarch frown or smile.

"And how are your lessons, my dear," she said dispassionately. In form it was a question; but there was no hint of a question in her tone, no verbal suggestion of a question mark. The Matriarch did not question; she commanded and was answered.

The Infanta merely toyed with her food and said nothing. The Matriarch's voice became colder. "And how are your lessons, my dear," she repeated.

The Infanta looked up furtively. "Fine," she said sullenly, as she said everything sullenly. And she returned to toying with her food.

"Excellent, my dear. One who will be Matriarch must cultivate a wide range of skills." The Matriarch had not touched her plate at all, but she pushed it firmly away from her and looked across at the Infanta. "I have heard, however, that you have often shirked them, instead preferring to flirt -- if the foolish mooning you do can be called flirting -- with certain palace guards."

The Infanta's eyes flickered up suddenly, then fell back down.

"One who is to be Matriarch must forego such private foolishness," the Matriarch continued quietly. "For those in our position such matters always end badly for the other person. And sometimes for both." She looked down at the ring on her right hand and distractedly traced the patterns on it.

"Sometimes for both," she repeated. "I expect more sense in the future."

The Infanta suddenly pushed her plate away. "As you please," she said. "May I leave?" Her sullen voice suddenly took on a slight edge of malice. "I have lessons to attend to, you see."

The Matriarch's lips set into that thin line that may have been her version of a smile, or a frown, or something else entirely. "Certainly, my dear," she said.

King of Grief

The Thanksgiving
by George Herbert

Oh King of grief! (a title strange, yet true,
To thee of all kings onely due)
Oh King of wounds! how shall I grieve for thee,
Who in all grief preventest me?
Shall I weep bloud? why, thou hast wept such store
That all thy body was one doore.
Shall I be scourged, floutted, boxed, sold?
’Tis but to tell the tale is told.
My God, my God, why dost thou part from me?
Was such a grief as cannot be.
Shall I then sing, skipping thy doleful storie,
And side with thy triumphant glorie?
Shall thy stokes be my stroking? thorns, my flower?
Thy rod, my posie? crosse, my bower?
But how then shall I imitate thee, and
Copie thy fair, though bloudie hand?
Surely I will revenge me on thy love,
And trie who shall victorious prove.
If thou dost give me wealth, I will restore
All back unto thee by the poore.
If thou dost give me honour, men shall see,
The honour doth belong to thee.
I will not marry; or, if she be mine,
She and her children shall be thine.
My bosome friend, if he blaspheme thy Name,
I will tear thence his love and fame.
One half of me being gone, the rest I give
Unto some Chappell, die or live.
As for thy passion--But of that anon,
When with the other I have done.
For thy predestination I’le contrive,
That three yeares hence, if I survive,
I’le build a spittle, or mend common wayes,
And mend mine own without delayes.
Then I will use the works of thy creation,
As if I us’d them but for fashion.
The world and I will quarrell; and the yeare
Shall not perceive, that I am here.
My musick shall finde thee, and ev’ry string
Shall have his attribute to sing;
That all together may accord in thee,
And prove one God, one harmonie.
If thou shalt give me wit, it shall appeare,
If thou hast give’n it me, ’tis here.
Nay, I will reade thy book, and never move
Till I have found therein thy love,
Thy art of love, which I’le turn back on thee:
O my deare Saviour, Victorie!
Then for thy passion---I will do for that---
Alas, my God, I know not what.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Like the Heavy Scent of Flowers

Rain Before Dawn
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The dull, faint patter in the drooping hours
Drifts in upon my sleep and fills my hair
With damp; the burden of the heavy air
Is strewn upon me where my tired soul cowers,
Shrinking like some lone queen in empty towers
Dying. Blind with unrest I grow aware:
The pounding of broad wings drifts down the stair
And sates me like the heavy scent of flowers.

I lie upon my heart. My eyes like hands
Grip at the soggy pillow. Now the dawn
Tears from her wetted breast the splattered blouse
Of night; lead-eyed and moist she straggles o'er the lawn,
Between the curtains brooding stares and stands
Like some drenched swimmer -- Death's within the house!

On a Noncounterexample to Aquinas's Third Way

Aquinas's Third Way is a very tricky argument; not only do we have two different versions of it in the manuscripts, it uses terms in a way with which we are not very familiar, and because it is merely a concise summary, looking at the Third Way itself often will not answer any questions one may have about it. But just one can clarify things in the First Way by looking at the Commentary on the Physics, so one can clarify things in the Third Way by looking at the Commentary on the De Caelo, where Aquinas discusses generation and corruption and the sort of possibility and necessity an Aristotelian would associate with those two. Thus, if we turn to the De Caelo commentary we see immediately that we have to put aside the meanings we usually give to the terms:

And it should be noted that, as the Philosopher says in Metaphysics V, possible and impossible are said in one way absolutely, namely, because in themselves they can be true or cannot be true by reason of the relationship existing between the terms; in another way a thing is said to be possible or impossible to something, namely, what it is able for with respect to its active or passive power. And it is in this sense that "possible" and "impossible" are taken here, namely, as what is, or is not, within the power of an agent or patient - for this is the meaning that is most appropriate to natural things.

Likewise I think we would see that, whatever problems there may be with the argument, one of the counterexamples very commonly put forward against it is not a counterexample at all. I quote Wippel's summary of it:

Why not rather suggest that one possible being has come into being after another, and that after another, extending backwards into a beginningless past? Under this supposition, some possible being or beings will have existed at any given point in time, although no single possible being will have existed from eternity.

[John Wippel, "The Five Ways," Thomas Aquinas, Brian Davies, ed. Oxford UP [Oxford: 2002] p. 176.]

This is supposed to be a counterexample to the claim that "It is impossible for all things that are, to be such [i.e., possibly not being in the sense relevant to generation and corruption], because what possibly is not being, is at some time or other not." But this is singularly what it fails to be. The underlying idea involved in Aquinas's discussions of possibility and necessity in generation is the actual ability to exist for a duration, given the nature of things. Something that possibly exists and possibly doesn't exist means that it has the actual ability, given its generating causes and its nature, of existing for a specific period of time and the actual ability, given its nature and generating causes, of not existing outside that specific period of time; and this is an ability that must be exercised, because if you say that something began to exist at a specific point in time because of its generating causes and its generable nature, you are saying that it had the ability to begin to exist from that point on, and not prior. And likewise, if you destroy something, it no longer has the actual ability to exist, but only the actual ability not to exist. If it has the ability to exist for a specific period of time, it exists; and if it doesn't, it doesn't. Thus in this very technical sense of the term it's a contradiction to say that something possibly is and possibly is not at the same time: this would be to say that its causes and nature are set up so that it both exists and does not exist in that period of time, which is a contradiction. Now something counts as necessary in the same way if its causes and nature are such that it exists at every time. Some of these things exist always because of their nature, some because they are made to exist. But if it exists always, it is necessary and not possible, since in the sense being used here necessity is an actual ability to exist at every time and possibility is a actual ability to exist some, and only some, times. And since 'generable' and 'destructible' are coextensive, an existing thing that by the nature of things is ingenerable is indestructible; so, if one accepts the arguments in the De Caelo commentary (which are really the trickiest and hardest part of the whole account), if something by nature has never been generated it will by nature never be destroyed, and this is to be necessary in the sense relevant to generation.

But given this we see why the supposed counterexample is not a counterexample: the world insofar as it consists of the series will have always existed, and therefore will be ingenerable, and therefore will be classified as necessary, and therefore not as possible. Therefore the scenario doesn't present a case in which everything would be possible, and is not a counterexample to the claim that not everything can be possible (in the relevant sense). Faced with such a series, we would have to ask, in Aristotelian terms, whether the series itself had some feature that made it necessary to exist or if it were made necessary to exist by some cause (which itself would have to be necessary to exist in order to have that sort of effect); that is, the argument would proceed exactly as it would if there were no such series.

And this, if you think about it, makes entire sense: while Aquinas holds that the world was created, he accepts the Aristotelian claim that it is ingenerable and indestructible, and he can do this because creation and generation are two entirely different things: Aristotle has no concept of creation in the Christian sense, and trying to treat creation and generation as the same thing will get you immediately into contradictions. This is why Aquinas holds that it is possible for the world always to have existed: there is no impediment to it either from the nature of the world (which is such that if it exists it can neither be generated nor destroyed in the Aristotelian sense) nor from its cause (which is God omnipotent, cause of existence for everything that can be made to exist). The argument is built out of Aristotle's account of generation, but the supposed counterexample depicts a situation that is on Aristotle's own account the way the world actually is, and on Aquinas's account a way in which God could have created it. If the world were possible in the sense relevant to the Aristotelian account of generation, it could not exist without being generated at some point in time after it had not existed. So it is necessary, being such that it cannot be generated or destroyed; but it can still be created. Explaining this, in fact, is how Aquinas ends the first book of the De Caelo commentary:

But according to the Catholic faith, we hold that [the world] began to be, not through a process of generation as from nature, but by flowing from a first principle whose power was not bound to give it existence in infinite time but as it willed, after previous non-existence, in order to manifest the excellence of its power over the totality of being, namely, that the totality of being depends entirely on it and its power is not confined or determined to the production of some given being. Now the things produced by it so as to exist forever have the potency and power to exist forever, and in no way at some time not to exist. For as long as they did not exist, they had no such power; but when they now exist, they have no power with respect to non-existence in the past but to the existence which now prevails or will be - for potency does not look to the past, but to the present or future, as the Philosopher says. Thus it is clear that the preceding arguments in no way impugn the judgment of the Catholic faith.

I think, incidentally, that the same points show that there is no quantifier shift fallacy in the argument. Like I said, I think the hard part is figuring out the arguments for why 'ingenerable' and 'indestructible' are coextensive and why 'generable' and 'destructible' are coextensive, which, although not explicitly mentioned in the argument, is essential to the notion of necessity being used; once that is assumed, the argument follows in strict succession.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Days of Darkness

The passage from Hume I previously mentioned in passing, one of the ones that always forms a stumblingblock to simplistic interpretations of Hume's essay on miracles:

I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion. For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony; though, perhaps, it will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history. Thus, suppose, all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the first of January, 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight days: suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary event is still strong and lively among the people: that all travellers, who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: it is evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived. The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies, that any phenomenon, which seems to have a tendency towards that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform.

ECHU, Section X, Part II. As has been noted plenty of times in the scholarly literature, this causes serious problems for those who think that Hume ever offers an in-principle or a priori (as opposed to merely empirical or a posteriori) argument against miracles; an in-principle argument should eliminate the days of darkness as well as (to use the very transparent example Hume uses) the resurrection of Elizabeth I. And Hume himself is quite explicit: the reason we should "form a general resolution" not to attend to any reports of religious miracles is the claim, which Hume thinks is discoverable from experience, that "the violations of truth are more common in the testimony concerning religious miracles, than in that concerning any other matter of fact". And thus Part I of the essay only serves to establish the standard that has to be met by any testimony of a 'violation of the usual course of nature'; the argument of the essay actually stands or falls not with that but with how accurate the observations in the beginning of Part II, about religious unreliability, are.

What is generally overlooked, but is quite clearly signaled by Hume at the very beginning of the essay, with the mention of Tillotson, and at the end of the essay, with the transparent talk about faith, is that Hume is turning popular anti-Catholic tropes and arguments, as used by Protestants, against Protestants as well. Protestant arguments about the gullibility of Catholics with regard to the miracles of the saints become Humean arguments about the gullibility of religious people generally with regard to miracles generally; Protestant arguments that we cannot rationally believe that transubstantiation occurs against the evidence of our senses find parallels in Hume's arguments against believing in religious miracles; and so forth. What is more, this seems not to have been lost on Hume's early critics; George Campbell, for instance, sees quite clearly what Hume is doing in (for instance) his long note on the Jansenist miracles, and, obviously, refuses to play the game, insisting that the parallels are artifical and based on false assumptions. In any case, these tropes were not typically in-principle arguments; they were based on claims about the mendacity of priests, the gullibility of poorly educated Catholics, and so forth.

Links for Thinking

* The Alexandrian, an online Catholic cultural magazine for young Canadians, has published its Fall 2009 edition.

* Turning novel openings into chess games

* Ed Feser has an interesting post on Plato's affinity argument in the Phaedo.

* Humphrey notes some serious lapses in the article on Hypatia of Alexandria in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

*Cédric Eyssette gives links to the original sources of the Jack, Anne, and George problem that I posted a while back, as well as a useful little summary (in French) of what's supposed to be involved in it.

* A suggestion about how to understand the breastplate and belt in Paul's 'whole armor of God'. Commenters also note links to Exodus 28, Isaiah 59, and Wisdom 5.

* Rebecca recently had a post on the theological term 'covenant'.

* Mike Flynn discusses various possibilities for alien intelligence.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Berry and the Bath (Repost)

An earlier version of this post was posted in 2005.

The Kalevala is one of the world's most remarkable works of literature. Compiled by Elias Lönnrot in the early nineteenth century from Karelian folk songs, it is the national epic of Finland. What Lönnrot was attempting to do had been attempted before with much less scholarly skill, in particular by James MacPherson in his 1760 Ossian, an attempt to pull together Highland folksongs into a national epic.* But Lönnrot's masterpiece is in another league entirely.

One of the interesting aspects of the Kalevala is Lönnrot's adaptation of the first three poems in a religious cycle of Christian legends; in a trope common in folklore, he presents it as the ending of the Kalevala -- the old gods and heroes sail away as they are replaced by Christianity. As the story goes, there was a young girl named Marjatta who was sweet and pure and innocent; so pure and innocent, in fact, that she refuses to sit in a sledge drawn by a stallion. One day she's out tending sheep on the hillside, when she comes across a cowberry, which she eats ('Marjatta' suggests the Finnish word marja, 'berry'). She becomes pregnant. After nine months, she begins to realize that she needs a sauna (to ease childbirth, of course); so she goes to her mother, who gives this supportive response:

'Fie upon you, demon's bitch!
Who were you laid by?
Was it an unmarried man
or else a married fellow?'

So she goes to her father, who is equally supportive:

'Go, you whore, further than that
scarlet woman, further off
to the bruin's rocky dens
ino the bear's craggy cells--
there, you whore, to breeed
there, scarlet woman, to teem!'

Marjatta responds:

'I am not a whore at all
no kind of scarlet woman:
I am to have a great man
to bear one of noble birth
who will put down the mighty
vanquish Väinämöinen too.'

Väinämöinen is the sky-god/hero who is the protagonist of most of the Kalevala. According to Bosley's notes the line 'who will put down the mighty' might be more literally translated as 'who will have power over power itself'. But back to Marjatta: she needs that sauna, and it doesn't seem to be forthcoming; so she sends her servant-girl Piltti find a sauna at Sedgeditch; when Piltti asks who she will ask for one, Marjatta replies that she should ask for Herod's bath at Saraja's gates.

Piltti comes to Herod's cabin and there finds Herod at a feast. The picture is unforgettably good:

Ugly Herod in shirtsleeves
eats, drinks in the grand manner
at the head of the table
with only his lawn shirt on;
Herod declared from his meal
snapped, leaning over his cup:
'What do you say, mean one? Why
wretch, are you rushing about?'

Piltti replies that she's looking for a bath at Sedgeditch. When Herod's mistress asks her for whom she's asking, Piltti replies that it's for Marjatta. To which Herod's mistress replies:

'The baths are not free for all
not the saunas at Saraja's gate.
There's a bath on the burnt hill
a stable among the pines
for a scarlet woman to have sons
a whore to bring forth her brats:
when the horse breathes out
bathe yourself in that!'

Piltti returns to Marjatta with this bit of counsel. Poor Marjatta bursts into tears and goes to the stall on Tapio hill, praying as she goes:

'Come, Creator, my refuge
and my help, merciful one
in this hard labour
in these most hard times:
free a wench from a tight spot
a woman from the belly-throes
lest she sink in woes
perish in her pains!'

So Marjatta gives birth with the horse's breath as a sauna, and beside a manger brings forth a baby boy, whom she wraps in swaddling clothes.

The story goes on from there, with a confrontation between the little boy and Väinämöinen. It's an interesting set of legends, forming a sort of mythological symbol of the life of Christ that plays on the association of Marjatta and marja; one thinks of the common medieval play on the association of Maria and Latin maris, as in Stella Maris, Star of the Sea, a popular title for Mary.

[All quotations from the Kalevala are from Keith Bosley's translation, Oxford University Press, 1989.]

[*] The Ossianic question, namely, whether MacPherson had forged the poem, was one of the major literary disputes and scandals of the eighteenth century, with most of the period's literary intellectuals in Britain lining up on one side of the question or another, e.g., Hugh Blair argued that it was genuine, David Hume and Samuel Johnson that it was not. My understanding is that current folklore scholarship holds it to be based in actual Highland folksongs, but massively re-worked.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Motives and Grounds

And [Aristotle] says that the very desire to attentively lay out difficult and obscure things and give their cause, and to inquire into everything and leave aside nothing, will perhaps be seen as a sign either of great stupidity that causes one to be unable to distinguish between the easy and the difficult, or else as a sign of "great hastiness," i.e., of great presumption, that causes a man not to know the measure of his capability for investigating the truth. But although some deserve rebuke on this point, it is not a just thing to condemn all alike; rather we ought first to look at two things.

(1) We must look at the cause that moves a man to speak of such things, whether he is doing it out of love for the truth (ex amore veritatis) or in order to show off his cleverness (ad ostentationem sapientiae)? (2) One ought to consider how he governs himself in believing what he asserts, whether he has a weak certainty about them according to the common human way (secundum communem hominum modum), or does he know them firmly, i.e., beyond the common human way? When, therefore, a person can attain to a knowledge of necessary causes more certainly than the common human way, he who finds such necessities ought to receive our thanks rather than our rebuke.

Thomas Aquinas. In De caelo, lib. 2 l. 7 n. 4. The translation is mine and is quick and loose, so it should be taken with a grain of salt.

Crazy Parmer Lane

I don't like driving much, and Parmer Lane here in Austin is almost the perfect summation of why: people don't think when they drive. I had to go to Wal-Mart to buy some jeans, and I came back just as rush hour was beginning to start. The number of crazy drivers out was just insane. Yes, I mean you, little old lady in the red Nissan with the Obama Hope bumper sticker, who continued to go fifty miles per hour through the flashing lights of a school zone. The school zone on Parmer is thirty-five, which is already absurdly fast. As, indeed, most of Parmer is absurdly fast, since the speed limit in my area varies from fifty to sixty-five despite the fact that it has traffic lights exactly like any other street -- people speed up to fifty, slam on the brakes, speed up to fifty, slam on the brakes, speed up to fifty.... Naturally, since the speed limit says fifty, everybody gets angry at the people who have only managed to get up to forty-five before the next light begins to loom up ahead. And then, of course, there was the person at the Mopac intersection weaving in and out of traffic and tailgating the cars up ahead -- who obviously couldn't go any faster than the cars in front of them. No doubt it was so important that he reach his destination as quickly as possible that he couldn't even be bothered with the patience to drive at the same speed as everyone else for five to ten minutes until the traffic thinned out. I would have walked, and I've walked to Wal-Mart once before, but it's quite a hike, and, as I've mentioned before, Parmer is extremely pedestrian-unfriendly -- witness the nice red Nissan in the school zone. I think I've read somewhere that Parmer is one of the worst streets for accidents in Austin, and that's not in the least surprising: the whole street is ridiculous.

Hume on Historical Evidence

Now moral evidence is nothing but a conclusion concerning the actions of men, deriv’d from the consideration of their motives, temper and situation. Thus when we see certain characters or figures describ’d upon paper, we infer that the person, who produc’d them, would affirm such facts, the death of Caesar, the success of Augustus, the cruelty of Nero; and remembring many other concurrent testimonies we conclude, that those facts were once really existent, and that so many men, without any interest, wou’d never conspire to deceive us; especially since they must, in the attempt, expose themselves to the derision of all their contemporaries, when these facts were asserted to be recent and universally known. The same kind of reasoning runs thro’ politics, war, commerce, oeconomy, and indeed mixes itself so entirely in human life, that ’tis impossible to act or subsist a moment without having recourse to it.

[Hume, Treatise] This is similar in part to the hypothetical days of darkness in Section X of the Enquiry, when Hume explicitly argues that it is possible for even a violation of the laws of nature to receive, in his words, "proof from human testimony" if the testimony is sufficiently extensive and uniform, if the phenomenon admits of sufficient analogy as to be not too singular, and if interfering biases -- Hume has religious biases particularly in mind here, since he has just been arguing that they have a pernicious effect on the quality of testimony -- are not involved. Hume doesn't think any historical testimony has reached that point, of course; but as an empiricist he won't rule it out a priori. Any reason for ruling it out would have to come, as in the case with religion, a posteriori. But in general there's no need for historical testimony to reach that level anyway, since most historical testimony does not describe violations of the laws of nature, and therefore has less to do to reach the point of leaving no room for doubt or opposition on the basis of experience, which is all Hume ever means by 'proof'. People who only read Hume superficially and casually often forget that Hume was a historian; he would go on to write a History of England, and he himself doesn't shirk from treating historical evidence as at least on occasion reaching the level of proof.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Friendly and the Unfriendly

It should be said that friendship and enmity are found in brute animals. The reason for this is that friendship consists in the perception of what is agreeable and enmity in the perception of what is harmful. But these are found in brute animals, and therefore, etc. For birds perceive that a seed is agreeable to them, and a sheep or lamb perceives that a wolf is harmful to it but that a human or a shepherd is a friend.

St. Albert the Great, Questions Concerning Aristotle's On Animals, Book VIII, q. 1 (Resnick & Kitchell, trs.). He later argues that this is universal to all animals, because even immobile animals will flow over something they find agreeable and recede from something they find harmful. The actually interesting thing here, I think, is the conception of friendship as an agreement between two things, at least one of which is capable of perceiving the agreement, insofar as it is perceived. Not all of these agreements are of the same sort, of course, and so there are many kinds and levels of friendship. Each kind of animal (including ourselves, of course) is capable of some kind of friendship, and what we would call higher animals (including ourselves, of course) are capable of many kinds of friendship, depending on their powers of perception. But for St. Albert, animal life is by its very nature a life that involves interacting with the world in terms of the friendly and the unfriendly (or amiable and hostile), where this is not an anthropomorphism but a more general account of interaction with the world in which 'friendly' and 'unfriendly' in the sense we humans usually recognize is merely one particular kind of friendliness and unfriendliness.

Cold Oblivion's Wave

Written at the Sea-side, and Addressed to Miss Honora Sneyd
by Anna Seward

I write, Honora, on the sparkling sand!-
The envious waves forbid the trace to stay:
Honora's name again adorns the strand!
Again the waters bear their prize away!

So Nature wrote her charms upon thy face,
The cheek's light bloom, the lip's envermeil'd dye,
And every gay, and every witching grace,
That Youth's warm hours, and Beauty's stores supply.

But Time's stern tide, with cold Oblivion's wave,
Shall soon dissolve each fair, each fading charm;
E'en Nature's self, so powerful, cannot save
Her own rich gifts from this o'erwhelming harm.

Love and the Muse can boast superior power,
Indelible the letters they shall frame;
They yield to no inevitable hour,
But will on lasting tablets write thy name.

Seward, the 'Swan of Lichfield', was in the circle of Erasmus Darwin, who encouraged her to write her poetry from an early age. She was something of a controversial poet in her lifetime; the critical opinion of her occupies the entire range.