Saturday, November 26, 2011

A New Poem Draft

The Arrow

An angel shot me through the heart
and I died, and I died;
I was a fitting victim
in my pride.
The ache tore through my chest
into my core; it did not rest
and a tear out my eye's corner
trickled down --
it slowly welled up, softly,
tickled out,
a single tear of longing,
no more could I
have borne, not one more tear,
for as I died
it seemed my soul would shatter, break apart,
from fractures made by the arrow in my heart.
Such aching pain can any man resist?
It slew me, broke me, slays me;
love it is
and how this human heart in suffering aches
from one small dart of love,
for our hearts break,
so forceful is that love tearing inside.
An angel shot me through the heart,
and I died, and I died.

A Small and Passing Thing

Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King. Ballantine (NY: 1983) p. 220 (LOTR VI.2).

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Wheelbreaker

Today is the patronal feast of philosophers, because it is the Feast of our lady Queen Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Great Martyr.

Lorenzo Lotto 028

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Catherine's patronage divides according to the major features of her hagiographical story:

(1) Holy Learning: According to the old legend, Catherine had studied the full panoply of studies available in the schools of Alexandrian Platonism; when pagan philosophers and orators were brought in to try to convert her, she outargued them all. All the Alexandrian saints tend to be intellectual in one way or another; St. Catherine in a sense sums them all up, as Christian Alexandria personified. Because of this, she is patron of philosophers, theologians, apologists, preachers, archivists and librarians, educators, jurists and lawyers, nurses, students (especially female students), scribes, secretaries and stenographers -- in short all those who live lives of the mind, however great and small, however theoretical or applied. In the medieval university, especially at the University of Paris (of which she was the patron), St. Catherine's Day was a big, big deal.

(2) The Wheel: The most famous element of her hagiographical legend was the attempt to kill her by breaking her on the wheel; it was the wheel instead that was broken. Since St. Catherine was an extremely popular saint in the Middle Ages, and well into the Renaissance, you can find her picture all over the place -- and usually you can pick her out by the fact that she wears a crown, has a book (occasionally some other instrument of learning, like a quill pen), and has a wheel (on occasions a sword is substituted for the wheel, since she was decapitated, and she often has a palm branch, but this is common to martyrs generally). On occasion one of these will be dropped, but rarely will you find her without at least two. Because of her association with the wheel, she is the patron of potters, spinners, knife sharpeners, mechanics, etc.

(3) The Maiden: For literally centures, St. Catherine was one of the most prominent and popular female saints. When artists wanted to show saints in attendance of the Virgin Mary, St. Catherine was always a prime candidate. Because of this she is a special patron of women: girls, female teachers and students, maidens, and spinsters.

As I noted above, the iconography and hagiography of St. Catherine really is a rather significant portion of our cultural heritage; even if you are non-Catholic and have no interest in hagiographical patronage, being a Westerner unable to look at a painting and pick out St. Catherine, a visually distinctive saint found throughout art and literature, is quite literally almost as absurd as being unable to identify the Virgin Mary. It's a sign of the artistic equivalent of illiteracy. But such is what we've largely come to, I suppose.


No Virtue Gulags

James Chastek has a really excellent post on defining torture. Some of his comments in the commments thread are well worth reading, too. A sample, from one of the comments:

There can be no “virtue gulags” where we would snatch up vicious men and then use sleep deprivation, beatings, and various physical contortions to brainwash them into goodness or even admit their own folly and error. You can’t build virtue up in this way because you are crushing the very principle within them that will allow them to make a virtuous choice, even if they happen not to be making it now.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Poem Re-Draft

A Bit of Thanksgiving

I thank you, Lord, for fruitful fields,
for wide and healthful skies,
and for the fact not everyone
who is out at war will die;
and for the limits you have placed
on corruption and despite,
that we need only deal with them
a dozen times each night.

I thank you, Lord, for cheerful suns
that rise at every dawn,
and that my students learn to hide
the sound and sight of yawn,
that education is a joy,
filled with love and awe,
and, on those crazy grading days,
that there are murder laws.

I thank you that we live here free
in houses without bars,
that there are things that we can own,
that no one owns the stars,
that joy and virtue freely flow
without a market price
while we have markets fully full
of grain and fruit and spice.

I thank you, Lord, for politics,
for presidents and such,
that they work so hard to get their way,
that they never get it much,
who teach us that the foolish thirst
to rule and reign on high
dishonor brings upon our hearts
when to ourselves we lie.

Thank you, Lord, for infant smiles
and children bright at play,
for all the crabbed and silly souls
who annoy us every day.
(We appreciate those most, O Holy Lord,
those crosses that we bear,
and we thank you that we are not bald
from pulling out our hair.)

Thank you, Lord, for mirrors,
for when I most despise
the follies of my fellow man,
I look, and see pride's lies.
And thank you, God, for mysteries
you have left for us to solve
upon this strangely floating ball
that rotates and revolves.

Thank you for your mercy,
which saves us from the brink;
and thank you, Lord, for righteous wrath,
we need it more, I think.
Thank you for all gentle souls
who can their tempers keep;
protect them, Lord, from the rest of us,
lest we kill them in their sleep.

And for all the blissful marriages!
There are three of them, at least,
and given how hard the whole thing is,
that's quite an abundant feast.
And for all the others as well, my Lord;
they stall and sputter and spin
like well-loved cars that barely move,
they're so nicely broken-in.

And also for the ones that fail,
as they might have been worth the try
if they had words that told it straight,
and laughs, and gentle sighs,
and that they in their saddest loss
yet stand as vivid sign
that the commitment is to person there,
not a signature on a line.

Thank you, Lord, for critics
who attack with whip and flail,
and for reviewers and polemicists,
and, because of them, for hell.
And thank you, Lord, for stupid folk,
that we can clearly see
all the things that shock the mind
from which none of us are free.

And thank you for those shocking times
when pedants who lecture all
on every foolish folly
into those follies fall,
for it teaches us the wisdom
of gentleness and restraint,
lest we in turn be painted
with the brush by which we paint.

Thank you for absurdities;
they overflow the bank,
so if I but thank you for each one,
I'll never cease to thank.
And thank you for sweet irony;
it gives the wit to see
that all the things we moan about
may be thanksgiving's seed.

But most of all, I thank you, Lord,
that long before we die,
we can see ourselves with wry regard,
and laugh until we cry.

Validity and Goodness of Argument

Edward Ockham has been having a discussion with Bill Vallicella on the subject of truthmakers. That's not an issue I'm particularly interested in (I think that once you get rid of either of Armstrong's two major theses of necessitarianism and maximalism, as most people do or at least consider doing, truthmaker theory is entirely a waste of time and we are better served handling truth in other ways). But I was interested in an incidental comment on a side issue:

This wrongly implies there can be degrees of goodness or badness in arguments. Not true: an argument is either valid, or it is not. All invalid arguments are equally bad, and all valid arguments equally good.

This is certainly much too strong a claim, since it is not true by any reasonable standard of goodness in arguments. In order to get the "All invalid arguments are equally bad" clause even to the level of plausibility we have to include enthymemes -- arguments with suppressed premises -- as valid arguments. Certainly an invalid argument that can easily be made valid by adding reasonable assumptions is better than an invalid argument that cannot be made valid at all. But most invalid arguments can be made valid by adding in the assumptions that make them valid, for the obvious logical reason; the only invalid arguments that can't are those that are invalid regardless of what assumption one adds, and thus the claim would have to be reduced to "All unsalvageable invalid arguments are equally bad". Which may well be true -- I don't in fact think it is, because things equally bad have to be equally bad means to their ends -- but is a far cry from including every invalid argument. As I always tell my students, it is always useful to know that an argument is valid, but knowing that an argument is invalid is only useful if you are doing certain kinds of things.

And, further, there are purely logical tasks in which invalid arguments are not equally bad; in certain approaches to defeasibility, for instance, some invalid arguments are better than others as being more validisimilar, as we might say (i.e., preserving truth to a greater extent).

Likewise, the claim "All valid arguments are equally good" would require us to say that sound and unsound arguments are equally good, as long as the unsound argument is valid. Since evaluating the truth of claims is an important part of evaluating arguments, holding soundness or unsoundness irrelevant would clearly be doing violence to any reasonable conception of 'equally good' when it comes to arguments.

Moreover, all arguments are means to ends, and means that are appropriate for their ends are always better as means than means that are not appropriate for their ends. Thus arguments that are better suited to their ends are better arguments. This is why we do not in most cases consider circular arguments good arguments. Why not? Circular arguments are not just valid but necessarily so. Yet it is certainly true that nobody considers "God exists, therefore God exists" as an equally good argument for God's existence when compared with a valid argument that doesn't have "God exists" as a premise. The reason must not lie in validity but in something else; and, in fact, it seems clear enough that the reason we don't usually think circular arguments good arguments is that they are poorly suited for most of the things you want an argument for. Thus not all valid arguments are equally good. (This same point could be adapated to showing that not all invalid arguments are equally bad as well; because enthymemes are arguments that, as they stand, are invalid, but are nonetheless still able to be well-suited to the usual ends of argument because they are not unsalvageably invalid.) For essentially the same reasons, we can't ignore relevance and irrelevance in the evaluation of whether arguments are good and bad. If you and I are arguing about whether God exists and I 'refute' your argument by arguing, completely validly, that you are a Manchester United fan, there is no reason why anyone would have to regard this as equally good in context as any other valid argument, even a valid argument that God does not exist.

Thus goodness in argument, as in other things, is said in many ways. I think Ed would have been fine, given the rest of his argument, had he settled for the more modest claim that any argument that is valid is good to at least some extent. But it's certainly not true that "All invalid arguments are equally bad and all valid arguments are equally good."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Pardoning Is for People, Not Turkeys

Justin E. H. Smith has a sharp criticism of the annual turkey pardon and P. S. Ruckman, Jr., who runs the "Pardon Power" blog, is clearly not amused by it, either. And I don't think it can really be argued that it isn't, at best, a sad thing: the Office of the President has over the past several administrations been absurdly stingy with pardons, and the Obama administration has done very, very poorly with it -- only George W. Bush took longer to give the first presidential pardon (and that not much), and his commutation record isn't any better. To date he has a mere 22 pardons and 1 commutation to his name. This is truly awful. Further, most of these were for minor crimes occurring a long time ago, yet the Obama White House is still notoriously slow with them -- cleared by the DOJ, it still takes months before anything is done about them. We should be well over a hundred pardons and commutations by now, even in the most stingy of administrations.

Monday, November 21, 2011


When there is a prize for hitting a bull's-eye, one makes people want to hit the bull's-eye by showing them this prize. Still they cannot win the prize if they do not see the bull's-eye. And those who see the bull's-eye cannot be induced to aim for it if they do not know that there is a prize to win. Similarly, virtue, which is the bull's-eye, does not come to be strongly desired when it is seen on is own; contentment, which is the prize, cannot be acquired unless it is pursued.

Rene Descartes, to Elisabeth of Bohemia (18 August 1645), from The Correspondence Between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes, Shapiro, ed. & tr. (U Chicago P: 2007) p. 104. This is in the midst of a discussion of Stoicism and Epicureanism, and, more precisely, in the midst of Descartes's discussion of what he agrees with in Epicurus -- he thinks Epicurus was right to say that happiness consists in pleasure in general, but thinks that critics of Epicurus are right to the extent that Epicurus was not really teaching virtue. The difference between sovereign good and true happiness is an important one for Descartes's ethical discussions in the correspondence. Virtue is our good, happiness our contentment or satisfaction of mind on having virtue; and both are the aim of life.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Music on My Mind

Johanna Kurkela, "Nothing Else Matters". I like the Metallica original, too, but this, I think, is my favorite rendition of it; I tend to like most of Kurkela's work.

Aegidius Draft IV

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
Capitulum Quintum

I haven't the faintest idea what a subtitle for this new chapter could be, but it's an important turning-point; for one thing, we get a glimpse, albeit very brief, of how dangerous Aegidius is. Now we just need (1) to get the narrator on the scene and start solving the mystery of the death of Joanne, and (2) to push ahead with the Siberian problem.

This brings us to about 9500 words, so still limping along. November is just not the month for me to do something like this! Despite a relaxation of my usual schedule things keep coming up, and starting this next week the amount I have to grade will start picking up. Whoever decided that November would be a good month for a national novel writing month never taught at the college level.