Saturday, November 19, 2011

Vexatious Life

An interesting atheistic argument in Sextus Empiricus:

If, however, God exists, he is a living being. If he is a living being, he also possesses sensation. For it is precisely he fact of possessing sensation that differentiates a living being from what is not a living being. But if he possesses sensation, he hears and sees and smells and touches. And if this is so, there are certain things in the realm of each sense which attract or repel him....But if this is so, there must be certain things which are vexatious to God; and if there are certain things which are vexatious to God, God is subject to change for the worse, hence also to destruction. Therefore God is perishable. But this is in violation of what was the common conception of him. Therefore the Divinity does not exist.

Probably the most interesting feature of the argument is the assumption that sensation implies the possibility of vexation. That is to say, that for every sense there is necessarily something attractive and something repulsive (sweet and bitter, for instance); given that, and the claim that the gods must possess sensation (the basic reasoning there is that if there is a sense a god does not have, it will follow that human beings and other living animals are superior to that god in that respect), it follows that the gods can change for the worse. But this is inconsistent with what, for instance, the Stoics insist when they talk about God.

An equally interesting argument, which goes for the same artery:

If, however, the Divinity exists, it is in any case a living being. If it is a living being, it is at all events all-virtuous and happy (and happiness cannot subsist apart from virtue). But if it is all-virtuous, it also possesses all the virtues. But it cannot possess all the virtues without possessing both self-control and endurance. And it cannot possess these virtues unless there exist certain things which for God are hard to abstain from and hard to endure....And if there exist certain things which for God are hard to abstain from and hard to endure, there also exist certain things which can change him for the worse and cause him vexation.

At a more abstract level, the assumption underlying both of these arguments (and several others that Sextus Empiricus gives) is that life intrinsically carries the power to vex the living. If you are alive, then, necessarily, you can be worse off. The Stoics, who seem to be in the background here, would surely have denied this claim; for that matter, it seems to me that most schools would have -- it's as inconsistent with Platonic, Peripatetic, and even Epicurean conceptions as it is with Stoic conceptions. But at the same time Sextus Empiricus takes the assumption to be quite plausible -- he certainly uses it too often in too many different arguments to be unaware that he is using it. It does bring out quite well how important it would have been for them to develop an account of the unvexable life; the Stoics had started it, and certainly it would become a major Neoplatonic project.

Quotations from Sextus Empiricus, Selections from the Major Writings on Scepticism, Man, & God, Hallie, ed., Etheridge, tr. Hackett (Indianapolis: 1985) pp. 206-209.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Calm Patience of the Woods

A Day
by John Greenleaf Whittier

Talk not of sad November, when a day
Of warm, glad sunshine fills the sky of noon,
And a wind, borrowed from some morn of June,
Stirs the brown grasses and the leafless spray.

On the unfrosted pool the pillared pines
Lay their long shafts of shadow: the small rill,
Singing a pleasant song of summer still,
A line of silver, down the hill-slope shines.

Hushed the bird-voices and the hum of bees,
In the thin grass the crickets pipe no more;
But still the squirrel hoards his winter store,
And drops his nut-shells from the shag-bark trees.

Softly the dark green hemlocks whisper: high
Above, the spires of yellowing larches show,
Where the woodpecker and home-loving crow
And jay and nut-hatch winter’s threat defy.

O gracious beauty, ever new and old!
O sights and sounds of nature, doubly dear
When the low sunshine warns the closing year
Of snow-blown fields and waves of Arctic cold!

Close to my heart I fold each lovely thing
The sweet day yields; and, not disconsolate,
With the calm patience of the woods I wait
For leaf and blossom when God gives us Spring!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Notable Links and a Poem Draft

* Humphrey discusses Steven Pinker's claims about medieval murder rates.

* Kenny Pearce's article on omnipotence for the IEP is quite interesting.

* Donald McClarey on the first American saint.

* Michael Flynn discusses the importance of geography and the interaction between Aristotelianism and quantum physics. Even if you are skeptical about the fit, it's always worth remembering Heisenberg's repeated insistence throughout his career that, whatever his answers, Aristotle was asking the right questions.

* The Imaginative Conservative posts a reflection by Roger Scruton on T. S. Eliot's conservatism

* Dale Ahlquist talks reasonably about usury, while Jeffrey Tucker completely botches the history of it. It is incorrect to say that the Church's condemnation ended "in the 16th century"; it's still condemned, and you can look it up in the Catechism, if you like. What he means is that the general practice of lending at interest, if the interest is specifically for identifiable risk, loss, or service, was explicitly and authoritatively stated not to be usury -- which under most positions, it wasn't. The Church was coming down against those who tried to use anti-usury prohibitions to stop charitable works like Bl. Bernardino's pawn shops for the poor, not saying that usury was OK. Indeed, throughout his article, Tucker shows that he has no conception whatsoever of the actual debates that were had on the subject of usury.


Tick and Tock

Tick, the clock said, sour of face,
sitting on the mantle space;
then to soften blow and shock
it relented with a tock.

Tick -- my time is ticking on,
the new becoming old anon;
nor to hold it any lock
can stop the tick that follows tock.

Tick -- the world will pass away;
nothing you can do or say
brings again the turn of clock
that once was spoken at the tock.

Tick, the watching watches shout,
tick, the sullen wall-clocks pout,
tick, the grand-old-father clock
will claim, and will not stay at tock.

Tick -- it passes. Tick -- it ends.
Tick, it says, and tick again.
But ah -- 'tis true, tick cannot block
the single hope returned by tock.

Tick -- accept it, but recall
pendulum must rise and fall:
for every end ticked by the clock,
new beginning starts with tock.

Illustrious for the Gift of Revelations

Today is the feast day of a number of interesting saints in the Catholic liturgical calendar. One of them is St. Margaret of Scotland. I talked about her a bit last year. But I wavered over whether I would do a post on St. Edmund Rich of Abingdon and Canterbury or on St. Gertrude of Helfta, both of whom also have their feast today. I decided on Gertrude, who is best known as St. Gertrude the Great.

Gertrude lived in the last half of the thirteenth century. We know almost nothing about her background, but we do know that she was sent as a child to live and study at the monastery at Helfta. There she was looked after by Mechtilde von Hackeborn-Wippra, who would later become known as St. Mechtilde or St. Matilda. The two would become lifelong friends. Gertrude was an exemplary student and eventually joined the convent as a nun.

At the age of twenty-six she began to have the visions that gave her the description, "illustrious for the gift of revelations," in the Roman Martyrology. It was also about this time that she began to focus on helping her sisters in the convent to understand theological matters, writing paraphrases of Scriptural passages, collecting notable sayings of the saints, and designing guides for meditation. She seems to have written quite a bit, but only two works have survived: the Herald of Divine Love and the Spiritual Exercises.

In one of her visions she saw Christ upon his throne and the Apostle John at his feet writing down the devotions that her community made day in and day out, that they might be noted when all people came to judgment. Some of these were written in black: these were done out of mere custom. Some were written in red: these were done in true memory of Christ's Passion. Of the red letters, some were given decoration in black, others in gold; those decorated in black were done for one's own salvation, while those in gold were done simply for the glory of God. After every two paragraphs, the Apostle left a space, and when she asked why, she was told that everything was written down in a particular order. First came thoughts, then came words, then came deeds. The space was because people were forgetting to offer their deeds, as well as their thoughts and words, to God in memory of Christ's Passion.

She died in her mid-forties in 1301.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

When Atheists Try to Be Clever...

...they shoot themselves in the foot. This image has been making the rounds on various atheist blogs, with the caption "When a theist starts a debate with an atheist...":

(from here). Now, setting aside the obvious fact that

(1) the joke depends on an entirely arbitrary assignment of labels to each position;

it nonetheless ends up backfiring because

(2) it is logically and mathematically impossible, given any standard rules of chess, for either side to win this game. The rules of chess require an automatic draw if there is an impossibility of checkmate -- once it is established that no legal series of moves can reach checkmate, the game is over and both sides tie. A game with no kings has no possible checkmate, and so is an immediate draw. In trying to depict with a chessboard how much better their arguments are, a task in which they had perfect freedom to choose any possible chess set-up, they still managed to give themselves an unwinnable board. In other words, the atheist player doesn't know what he's getting into: the board is rigged so that the theist, with nothing but pawns, can guarantee a draw no matter how many queens the atheist has. Diabolically clever theist, getting atheist hopes up while making it impossible for them to win! That's on standard rules. And, of course, if the rules are supposed to be nonstandard, it is impossible to know what this board even means.

The jokes write themselves.

Teacher of the Universe of Knowledge

Today is the feast of St. Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church, often called the Doctor Universalis or Universal Doctor. He is the patron saint of scientists and engineers; he is usually given credit for having been the first person to isolate the element arsenic, in the sense that he is the first person on record to isolate what can be clearly identified as a pure form of arsenic (by heating arsenic compounds). He studied everything -- the entire universe of knowledge that was available to him -- everything from falcons to ant lions, from minerals to morals, not just from books but by experiments. The experiments were often crude and unsystematic, and sometimes inconclusive (to test the common claim that ostriches ate rocks, he tried to feed an ostrich gravel, but reported that he couldn't get it to eat any), but they were part of a genuinely empirical approach to the world. As he once said in talking about the phsyiology and anatomy of plants, Experimentum solum certificat in talibus ("only experience guarantees in such matters"), and, indeed, his work on plants was second to none prior to the early modern period, precisely because of his extensive observational work and careful, matter-of-fact description. He is usualy said to be, for instance, the first major figure to discuss at length the importance of light and heat for the height and spread of trees.

But he was not a mere observer, and was very much a medieval intellectual; the importance of his philosophical and theological works are slowly becoming better appreciated. Above all and beyond all others he was at the forefront of appreciating the significance of Aristotle, and of closely examining Aristotle's account, both for strengths and weaknesses; on this point at least, while Aquinas may have surpassed him, it was only because Albert had already begun to clear the way.

Tommaso da Modena - Saint Albert the Great - WGA23006

Monday, November 14, 2011

A New Poem Draft and Two Poem Re-Drafts


All of the things I say to you
are caught away,
they fail and fall;
they pass on through
to heavens blue
on some bright, sunny day;
you hear them not at all.


Swiftly spring to winter tends
all things hurry to their place;
but swifter far than to this end
our human hearts to nothing race.
With nothing left, no more than death,
the final goal, so swiftly found,
let craving flee with fleeing breath,
resign to fate with reason sound,
and, if you fear the heart's last beat,
then bury fear within the grave.
Time and night do not retreat.
Death will not in mercy save.
The road before is yet unknown;
who of our spirit's fate is sure?
Ask those now laid beneath the stone,
ask those who never lived nor were!
But still the battle-lines are drawn,
and still I stand, though but a husk,
and though there may not be a dawn
I yet may have a hero's dusk.


garden fountains pour
living streams refreshed by shower
greening leaf and blooming flower
around the lily white

fresh and dewy-petalled light
surrrounds her, silver scented
where God on earth is tented
spreading grace and fire
breaking death's desire
calming wrath and fear

see her many-gifted hand
spreading graces dear
granting merci to her knights
vital sips of paradise
vivid dreams of sainted lands
beyond all ken of bearded wise

see beneath the maddened moon
in lights bewitching to a swoon
how she walks on rain-wet paths
through shades of minds demented
boiling with an inner wrath
calming with her touch and song
the ache of heart that, maddened, longs
for better world and wonder

a fresher flower touched by dew
as the mover moves the stars
as cloud to earth will call in thunder
making every heart renewed
she calls, she moves, she draws
the knight to learn of loving awe

inspires she to seek the true
by gentle kiss of breath
a wind outracing wings of death
bringing hoping heart to light
she speaks her troth and gives us life

Aegidius Draft III

I'll slowly be putting up rough draft chapters at While I'll be writing every day, I'll only be posting as chapters are finished.

Capitulum Primum: Wherein we meet the Wolf of Wolves
Capitulum Secundum: Wherein we learn something of Wolves
Capitulum Tertium: Wherein a plan is made
Capitulum Quartum: Wherein a war begins

Two new chapters this time; I was a bit delayed in getting the third up. Actually, though, lengthwise they could be conjoined into one chapter. Current wordcount is 8000, which is way behind, but this week should be less busy than last week. And as I mentioned last time, I'm increasingly thinking that this is more of a novella-length story than a novel-length one, anyway. On the other hand, there are at least two notable secondary characters who haven't even come on stage yet -- including the narrator himself. So we'll see.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

'It's Worth What People Are Willing to Pay'

Joe Carter recently had a post about the world's most expensive photograph, which sold for $4.3 million dollars, noting also that the third, fourth, and fifth most expensive photographs are by the same artist and are different prints of the same photograph of supermarket shelves. In response to Joe's jokes about it, some commenters (you can always find humorless commentators in the "First Thoughts" comment boxes) replied that the photograph was worth whatever anyone was willing to pay for it. I put a comment there that I want to put here, because although it has some of the common weaknesses of a comment on a blog, it does convey a point that I think is important.

I find the automatic response of some commenters interesting: the claim that things are worth simply what people are willing to pay for them has the direct implication that nothing can be overpriced or underpriced; that there are no bargains and no bad deals; that, in fact, it is impossible to price anything unjustly as long as someone will pay it. Nobody actually believes such nonsense; everyone attributes value and disvalue to things by comparisons that have nothing to do with the actual price paid, and we all can make perfect sense of saying that somebody paid too much for something, or that a price is too high even if someone will pay it. The conditions under which price paid can reasonably be said to track the worth of the thing in question are not universal; in part because other things beside the thing bought can be factored into deliberation about price. Status signaling, for instance, which can at times have virtually nothing to do with the thing bought. Nor is it plausible to identify actual worth with attributed worth in the absence of any consideration of practical or moral rationality. But it is interesting how easily people will swallow such an incoherent principle, merely because they have the notion that it’s ‘economics’.

And this is actually generally true; one should never accept economic arguments without looking at what conditions they presuppose -- because they always assume that some conditions are already in place, and often rather specific conditions. They can be quite good arguments when those conditions are met but worthless when they are not. One should for the same reason be very suspicious of any economic claim put forward as completely universal; they can certainly exist, but they are always either very general principles or the work that has to be put in to show that they are genuinely universal is considerable, and needs to be done. Most good conclusions in economics are conclusions for a very specific kind of domain.