Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Word to the Wise Is Sufficient

People are sometimes puzzled by Proverbs 26:4-5, which reads (in the KJV):

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

Well, so what are you supposed to do? Answer him according to his folly or not? But here, as elsewhere, a word to the wise is sufficient. If both of these are true -- and they are certainly easy enough to confirm in everyday life -- the wise thing to do is never put yourself into situations where you have to choose whether to answer fools according to their folly. And, while maxims often seem randomly thrown together in Proverbs, this makes sense in context, since they occur in a brilliant series of drily ironic proverbs on the foolishness of dealing with fools (this time from the NIV):

A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey,
and a rod for the backs of fools!
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
Sending a message by the hands of a fool
is like cutting off one’s feet or drinking poison.
Like the useless legs of one who is lame
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.
Like tying a stone in a sling
is the giving of honor to a fool.
Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.
Like an archer who wounds at random
is one who hires a fool or any passer-by.
As a dog returns to its vomit,
so fools repeat their folly.
Do you see a person wise in their own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for them.

Ah, blogosphere: either Solomon or the men of Hezekiah who gathered up these Solomonic maxims were true prophets, and saw you even then.

Benedict XVI on Theistically Inclined Agnostics

An interesting passage from the Pope's recent address at the ecumenical meeting in Assisi:

They are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”. They ask questions of both sides. They take away from militant atheists the false certainty by which these claim to know that there is no God and they invite them to leave polemics aside and to become seekers who do not give up hope in the existence of truth and in the possibility and necessity of living by it. But they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others. These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practised. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God. So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible.

Belloc, Europe, the Faith

I've seen a number of people quoting Belloc's famous phrase, "Europe is the Faith," in contexts that require that it be taken in a different sense than Belloc took it, so I thought I'd put up a brief note on its meaning in its original context. The phrase is found in Europe and the Faith; it comes from the very last paragraph, "The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith." What is important, however, is that this is not a thesis about the Faith, as it is often taken; in context it clearly is a thesis about Europe. The basic claim is that 'The Faith is what gives Europe its integrated unity (and thus its identity as Europe rather than, say, just a jumble of countries West of Asia), and Europe is constituted by the unity it receives from Christendom.' As he puts it earlier, "My object in writing it is to show that the Roman Empire never perished but was only transformed; that the Catholic Church, which, in its maturity, it accepted, caused it to survive and was, in that origin of Europe, and has since remained, the soul of one Western civilization." It's a thesis some would controvert, of course, but it's not a claim that Christianity is somehow intrinsically European, a position I have repeatedly seen it used to represent in recent times.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Poem Draft


Little children, tips of leaves
are dripping with the raindrops sweet
that drop yet from eternity
with sounds like little marching feet
that tap a patter, pat a beat;
so always when the gray sky grieves
percussive patterns interweave
its weeping teardrops falling free,
a rhythmic water-tapestry,
threaded, loomed, and tied up neat.


Frege says somewhere that, if a single contradiction were to be discovered in mathematics, "the whole building would collapse like a House of Cards". Please, why? This claim seems largely an artefact of the wrong metaphor. Mathematics is not a house with foundations which have to bear the whole weight. It is rather a planetary system of different theories entering into various relationships, and happily spinning together in logical space. Damage one, and the system will continue, maybe with some debris orbiting here and there. Or, here is another metaphor for mathematics, equally attractive, due to Chaim Perelman: it is a wonderful tapestry of many strands woven together by the great mathematicians. Pull out one strand, and the tapestry may be weaker by an epsilon, but tears can mended. And this brings me to my most central objection: we know from the history of mathematics and the sciences that contradictions are never the end of a story.

Johan van Benthem in Philosophy of Mathematics: 5 Questions, Hendricks & Leitgeb, eds., Automatic Press (2008) p. 38

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

You Have Eight Years to Practice Your Basic English!

From H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come:

One of the unanticipated achievements of the twenty-first century was the rapid diffusion of Basic English as the lingua franca of the world and the even more rapid modification, expansion and spread of English in its wake....

This convenience spread like wildfire after the First Conference of Basra. It was made the official medium of communication throughout the world by the Air and Sea Control, and by 2020 there was hardly anyone in the world who could not talk and understand it....

This rearrangement of the association systems of the human brain which is now in progress brings with it — long before we begin to dream of eugenic developments — the prospect of at present inconceivable extensions of human mental capacity. It will involve taking hold of issues that are at present quite outside our grasp. There was a time when early man was no more capable of drawing a sketch or threading a needle than a cow; it was only as his thumb and fingers became opposable that the powers of craftsmanship and mechanism came within his grip. Similarly we may anticipate an enormous extension of research and a far deeper penetration into reality as language, our intellectual hand, is brought to a new level of efficiency.

Obviously, since the U.S. is currently in Iraq, the First Conference of Basra, which will make Basic English the world language, cannot be far away. And, no doubt, Otto Neurath's Isotype, which is based on Basic English (Neurath quotes, with modification, Wells's claim here), will spread, too.

This is the complete list of the 850 words of Basic English, although some add supplementary lists of widespread international words and specialized vocabularies. And here are the ten primary grammatical rules. Actually, there are some ways it could be improved. For instance, conjugations could always use auxiliary verbs: instead of conjugating to have as 'had, has/have, will have' one simply conjugates as 'did have, am/is/are having, will have'. That allows a massive simplification that nonetheless will usually sound fairly natural as English.

So get cracking!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


As I am currently re-reading The Lord of the Rings, I found this comment quite excellent:

The LOTR is a story about humility (among many other things, of course). Only Frodo is humble enough to carry the ring and only Sam is humble enough to carry the carrier of the ring. Gandalf does not ride into Mordor on the back of Shadowfax, staff blazing with light. Aragorn does not lead a mighty army of Gondor up to Mount Doom. It is the smallest, the least-likely and the most humble that must journey the hardest road, and who have the only chance of succeeding, and who in the end do succeed. Sauron’s might is unequaled; and yet Sam’s humility is mightier.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Last of the Romans

I missed mentioning that yesterday was the feast day of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius; so I'll make up for it today.

`When the stars are hidden
by black clouds,
no light
can they afford.
When the boisterous south wind
rolls along the sea
and stirs the surge,
the water,
but now as clear as glass,
bright as the fair sun's light,
is dark,
impenetrable to sight,
with stirred and scattered sand.
The stream,
that wanders
down the mountain's side,
must often find a stumbling-block,
a stone within its path torn
from the hill's own rock.
So too shalt thou: if thou wouldst see
the truth
in undimmed light,
choose the straight road,
the beaten path;
away with passing joys!
away with fear!
put vain hopes to flight!
and grant no place to grief!
Where these distractions reign,
the mind is clouded o'er,
the soul is bound in chains.'

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, Book I, meter 7

Scotus on the Most Perfect Form of Justice

Know that in regard to another, one can act rightly either by giving oneself to another as far as one can or by giving him something else that belongs to him. The virtue inclining one to the first is friendship, by which one gives oneself to one's neighbor insofar as one can and one's neighbor can have one; and this is the most perfect of the moral virtues, because justice as a whole is more perfect than virtues that are directed to oneself, and this is the most perfect form of justice.

Scotus, Ordinatio III Suppl, dist. 34, as translated by Allan Wolter in Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, CUA Press (Washington, D.C.: 1997) p. 248.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Novelish Something for November

Ever since I started this blog, I've thought it might be fun to participate in the blog version (NaNoBlogMo) of NaNoWriMo, but every year November has been a hectic month for me, and it hasn't been feasible. I'm not sure it will be feasible this year, either, but as it happens I will have a tiny bit more time this November than in any November before, even allowing for things like research. Since I can't guarantee anything, I won't be officially participating, but I've been planning to put up a novel or novelish bit of draft this November. The idea would be to get at least most of it online by the end of November. What precisely it will be will depend in the end on what I decide will flow more easily, but as I always have several ideas for novels in my head, I thought I'd ask what people thought of the various alternatives currently on the table. These are the current possibilities:

(1) Tanaver: a rather involved space fantasy involving, among other things space barbarians, super-advanced space monkeys (the Samar), and a War between Very Powerful Aliens (one group of which is the Tanaver, of whom the Samar and the main character -- who is not Samar -- are less-advanced allies). Actually, it's a little more serious (the villains are a very nasty bit of work) and a bit less pulpy than that makes it sound, and this is the current frontrunner. The Samar aren't the main characters, but I've really wanted to write a novel about them for a while -- the problem being that they are, for a number of reasons, not actually novelizable. So the next best thing is a novel about human beings in which they figure on occasion. Reason for the Working Title: The main character, Kassi, lives in the Tanaver Alliance, a political commonwealth that covers seven entire universes and uncountably many civilizations, and is chosen suddenly by the powerful and mysterious Tanaver, who exist outside any particular universe, to be an ambassador to the Samthyrian Empire in a non-Alliance universe; the Empire is a galaxy-wide empire under attack by an enemy that takes over human bodies, an enemy that is itself backed by mysterious Tanaver-like aliens.

(2) Aegidius: a fantasy about werewolf packs in the modern world, and in particular about the Wolf-King; his history will unfold as he handles a pack war and a rebellion in his own ranks. There will be no sparkling vampires or nonsense like that, so never fear on that end. This is one where I like the idea, but waver on the particular course to take with it. Reason for the Working Title: The Wolf-King's modern name is Giles Scott, CEO of the Aegidian Corporation; 'Giles' is just the anglicized version of his actual name, which is Aegidius. Unimpressive to look at and originally rather mild-mannered, he rose to power through the centuries by cunning and strength of will, eventually killing his predecessor and destroying his rivals.

(3) Balaam's Ass: science fiction with some (fairly mild) fantasy elements, beginning with a terrorist act on the advanced planet of Hypermetria, in which all the Scientists of the planet are shut down -- the Scientists of Hypermetria being in fact artificial intelligences. The rest of the story is about an attempt to find out who is behind the act. This is probably the one that currently holds the position behind Tanaver; I like the two main characters as they are currently conceived, Robert Couvert (pronounced Ro-Bare Cu-Vare) and Father Matthew Li. Reason for the Working Title: The main characters will spend most of the work trying to uncover the nature of the Society of Balaam's Ass, an anti-Hypermetrian group accused of having initiated the attack on the Scientists; their motto is, "Balaam's Ass is the True Prophet." When I first thought up the basic story idea, it was called The Dead and Their Shadows, about a multi-generational feud between the Devil and either an Ibbur or a Dibbuk; but once the mysterious Society of Balaam's Ass came in, it dominated the story until it's pretty much stuck with its current title, however completely unpublishable in the real word such a title may currently be.

(4) The River Already: has the advantage of largely being written already -- I wrote it years ago (because of that it would be ineligible for real NaNoWriMo, but since this won't be officially NaNoWriMo, but just inspired by it, that wouldn't be a problem). It requires some pretty heavy revision in parts, and there are possibly irreversible plot problems that are almost inevitable in something whose basic outlines were thought out in ninth grade, but for all that the original (which wasn't, never fear, actually written in ninth grade) was quite readable -- reasonably trim and with at least some engaging characters. It's a fairly straightforward quest fantasy, although it's an occasionally weird take on the genre, with a lot of dream sequences: a boy, and the tiny country of Irlia, gets swept up in bigger affairs involving a might empire, a demon, invasions, etc. I'd have to dig up the old drafts, but they're around here somewhere. The story (deliberately) has no chapters -- it's just one long stream with occasional pauses, which might make it difficult to put online very easily. Reason for the Title: Much of the background for the story is the tiny landlocked nation of Irlia and its relations with its next-door neighbor, the mighty ocean-spanning Tasimonian Empire. The Irlians are very practical, while the Tasimonians are rather cryptic and mystical in outlook. 'Time is the River Already and Already is the Moment of Decision' is a Tasimonian proverb.

So does any of that sound the slightest bit interesting? As I said, I'll end up going with what I think I can handle most easily (i.e., what will be likely to hold my interest long enough, what has been thought through enough, etc.), but I'd also be interested in whether any of it sounds promising to anyone who's likely at least to browse it.

Music on My Mind

Barnaby Bright, "Reverend's Son" (the song itself begins at 2:40).