Thursday, December 22, 2011

Music on My Mind

Crosby wanted "Little Drummer Boy," Bowie didn't; they compromised, and I've heard this song probably every Christmas of my life. Crosby died a month after recording, in October 1977.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"There Is No Peace on Earth," I Said

Christmas Bells
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Longfellow's wife had died due to an accidental fire a few years before, and he never really recovered from it, developing, in fact, a laudanum problem to cope. He had even been unable to attend her funeral because he was burned badly trying to save her from the fire. It is clear that Christmas especially hit him hard each year because of it; he once wrote that all holidays were inexpressibly sad. His son Charles had been seriously wounded in the War; Longfellow was still trying to nurse him back to health. And this was still months away from Lee's surrender and the end of the Civil War. He wrote this on Christmas Day, 1864.

But the Civil War did end, and Charles went on to have a productive life, traveling the world.

The Hobbit Trailer

So far, so good.

A Brief History of Catechisms, and Peter Canisius

Catechetical instruction goes back to the earliest beginnings of Christian history; in its basic character it is simply the instruction of those being baptized. Several of the Church Fathers had catechetical lectures that were preserved; the most notable of these were those of Cyril of Jerusalem, whose Catechetical Lectures is one of the great theological classics of the fourth century. Likewise, Augustine wrote a manual on the subject of how to catechize. None of the catechetical works of the Church Fathers includes anything clearly and definitely identifiable as a catechism in our sense of the term, although some do occasionally approach it; but they are worth mentioning, because catechisms were an early modern attempt to get back to the patristic emphasis on catechesis in a form suitable for the day; both Cyril and Augustine, as well as some other Church Fathers, were highly influential for the development of the catechism.

One can find catechism-like fragments throughout Church history simply because catechesis is found throughout Church history. If you want a convenient point from which to identify the beginning of the catechism in the proper sense of the term, though, that is, a writing not consisting of lectures that systematically and topically arranges the foundational doctrines of the faith to serve as a guide to catechesis, it's useful to start with the fourteenth century, in which things recognizably what we would call a catechism appear. There tend to be two kinds, one in a simple question-and-answer format for the laity to learn, and another, more detailed, to assist the catechist, and both kinds continue until today.

What really makes the catechism take off, however, is the Protestant Reformation. Well before Luther, as early as the fourteenth century, it had regularly been recognized that catechesis was essential to reform of the Church. The Reformers carried this idea forward, and with them we find the beginnings of a process of refinement; taking the idea of a catechism, which had already developed, they began to improve upon it. This resulted in at least four major classic works, two of which were Luther's Small Catechism and his Large Catechism, both published in 1529. Luther placed extraordinary emphasis on the importance of catechesis, and devoted himself to it with a will; his exhortation at the beginning of the Large Catechism is well worth the reading. Starting with Calvin the Reformed tradition also produced catechisms regularly; the most notable in English were developed in the seventeenth century (1647-1648), namely, the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Westminster Longer Catechism. The beginning of the Westminster Shorter Catechism has achieved almost legendary status:

Q. Quis hominis finis est præcipuus? (What is the chief end of man?)
A. Præcipuus hominis finis est, Deum glorificare, eodemque frui in æternum. (The chief end of man is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.)

The publishing of catechisms was not a purely Protestant matter, however. And this brings us to the Jesuit, Peter Canisius, whose feastday is today. Canisius published three important Catholic catechisms: a long major form (1555), a very short minimus form (1556), and an intermediate minor form (1558). They quickly became the Catholic catechisms throughout the Catholic communities of Greater Germany, and then began to be translated into other languages all over Europe. "Knowing Canisius" became a common expression for being well-catechized, regardless of whether it was out of his books or not. Canisius's catechisms were a model for Bellarmine's catechisms at the end of the sixteenth century, and Bellarmine's catechisms in turn were raised up as a general model for Catholic catechisms.

Canisius was one of the most important theologians of his day. He attended the Council of Trent. He also attended the Diet of Worms and provided the primary Catholic responses to the arguments of Melanchthon -- and, indeed, it was his list of points that was actually under discussion when those attending discussed the Augsburg Confession. Canisius had the upper hand in the discussion, in part because (as he himself wrote in a letter to the Jesuit vicar in general) the Protestants were in complete disarray. One of Canisius's major points had been to note that there were divergences in the text of the Augsburg Confession, due to Melanchthon, who had both drawn up the original and also a later version that broadened the language of some of the clauses; and thus he and the other Catholic collocutors asked that the Protestants clarify what version they actually meant when they talked about it. The result was sheer confusion among the Protestants, who on the spur of the moment were unable to come to any agreement on the acceptability of Melanchthon's changes.

Nonetheless, Canisius was one of the more irenic voices of the Counter-Reformation, repeatedly insisting that polemical approaches should be avoided in dealing with Protestants; his letters to his superiors are full of complaints about the corruption of clergy, asking them to push for remedies, so he was well aware of the problems, and sympathetic to that extent. And he more than once insisted that the German people should be treated leniently because, decent and humble at heart, they could be brought about if treated with courtesy and if, instead of trying to force them into submission, someone just spoke honestly and plainly with them. A German himself (his name is Peter Kanis) he was very pro-German, a lover of German language and life. It is largely due to the work of Canisius, and his furthering of the Jesuits throughout the German provinces, that Bavarian and Austrian parts of greater Germany remained Catholic. His levelheadedness and generally irenic temper led him to be widely respected even by Protestants -- he was known as a man with whom, no matter how much you disagreed with him, you could always have a reasonable discussion. I say 'widely'; he was also criticized widely, in very sharp terms, because he was recognized as one of the major opponents of the Protestants, and his catechisms as a significant part of the Catholic response. But, opposed to polemic and ridicule to the very end, he refrained from attacking people and instead focused on arguments and claims. He stands as a testimony to the extraordinary power of intelligence combined with an ability not to take offense. Leo XIII described him as the Second Apostle to Germany, and Pius XI named him a Doctor of the Church. From one of his sermons:

It is not enough for the Gospel-teacher to please the people with his speaking. He must also be the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and so by his eloquence call many to the good life. He must not be a dumb dog, not even able to bark, as spoken of by the Prophet Isaiah. Yea, he should also burn in such a way that, equipped with good works and love, he may adorn his evangelical office, and follow the leadership of Paul....Those churchmen err who imagine that it is by brilliant preaching that they fulfil their office; rather, it is by holiness of life and all-embracing love.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Poem Draft

No icy lace here, though; Austin weather, firmly committed to keeping Austin weird, has been gracing us with mild rainy days broken up by chill sunny days. But I'll be going up to Montana to see family over Christmas; no doubt there will be webs a-plenty there.


Tranquil tapestries in the breath of house-air,
Like the white fog blown in the cold, the pure smoke
Children puff in play, but with power, strength, force,
Memories growing --

White and cold, ice forms on the sill in laced webs:
Flawless winter spiders enmesh the whole world,
Artisans of power and grace with fair threads
Catching the shadows.

Devil's Advocate

I really have no interest in Christopher Hitchens, and never have, but in all the talk over his recent death, I did come across something interesting that I did not know before:

The 1983 streamlining of canonization eliminated the traditional position of Devil's Advocate, whose job was to make the case against a given candidate. Nevertheless, the people who were handling Mother Teresa's cause wanted to be as thorough as possible, and decided to call as a witness her harshest critic.

"Somebody in the world had to represent the Devil pro-bono. And I was perfectly happy for that to be me," says author Christopher Hitchens, who recalls being thunderstruck when he was called to testify in Mother Teresa's case.

Hitchens, who specializes in the slaughter of sacred cows, wrote a book that took the 20th Century icon to task for perpetuating poverty with her militant opposition to family planning, and preaching that poverty was a blessing.

"I met her. My impression was that she was a woman of profound faith, at least in the sense that one can say of anyone, who is a completely narrow-focused single-minded fanatic, that they are a person of faith," says Hitchens.

Did he meet her before or after he made up his mind about her?

"It was by talking to her that I discovered, and she assured me, that she wasn't working to alleviate poverty," says Hitchens. "She was working to expand the number of Catholics. She said, 'I'm not a social worker. I don't do it for this reason. I do it for Christ. I do it for the church.'"

And the church listened to Christopher Hitchens, but decided that his argument was irrelevant.

Yes, if that's the argument he gave for why she shouldn't be a Catholic saint, I rather suspect the Congregation did regard it as a bit irrelevant. But I find the reason for his animus rather interesting, and also (and this was the part I didn't know before) that they brought him in -- which was really the right thing to do, since there was a reason for the Devil's Advocate position originally. Without it, bringing in Hitchens as a makeshift Devil's Advocate was the best thing to do.

The truly great irony, of course, is that the other name for the original Devil's Advocate, indeed, the real name, was Promoter of the Faith.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Historical Analysis as Causal Reasoning

One thing study of Hume, his influences, and responses to him has taught me is that the single most important area of philosophy, in terms of its ramifications, is philosophy of causation. Everything leads back there; it pulls everything together; and a very tiny change there can lead to massive changes everywhere else. While not all reasoning is causal, most reasoning involves causal reasoning of some sort. It is crucial in the strictest sense; it is the major crossroads of philosophy. One thing that I think needs to be worked out more clearly is the way in which historical reasoning is causal reasoning, and these are just some notes in that direction.

(1) To say that a given description of the past is reliable is to say that this description is an effect of such sort that it can only be traced back to actual historical actions that are such as the description describes, allowing for approximation (or, what is the same thing, in such a way as to be an appropriate means for the ends of the kind of inquiry one is doing). By saying 'it can be traced back' to these causes, I mean that it is caused by them, through intermediating causes.

(2) All historical accounts are effects; all effects have causes. The big problem for historical inquiry is determining how the features in the effect can be accounted for by causes, and what kinds of causes those must be. This genus of causal reasoning has not gone unnoticed in the history of philosophy; in fact, most undergraduates in philosophy have read one of the most influential early modern texts on the subject, although the discussion there was for different ends than clarifying historical inquiry. I speak, of course, of Descartes's Meditations III. There the question is of how to determine the features of the cause of an idea from the features of the idea, considered as an effect. But it is structurally the same problem, and what follows are some rewritings of parts of the argument of Meditations III in terms of historical accounts rather than ideas in the mind.

If we only take historical accounts to the extent that they are accounts, they seem on par. But if we take historical accounts in terms of what they represent to us as objects of thought, they end up being rather different. And this is the key point. Everything in the effect must be traced back to the causes of the effect. Thus, taking historical accounts as effects, as they obviously are, we must be able to identify causes not merely of the formal reality of these accounts, that is, for the fact that they exist and are accounts, but also for the objective reality of them, that is, for their being accounts saying this rather than that. What is more, we must take the causal chain resulting in the historical account to explain everything in the historical account without remainder, although obviously for practical purposes there will often be gaps. But it must be so: it is an a priori precondition for any inquiry that effects can be fully explained by their full set of causes. Given a principle of this sort, rational inquiry is possible; without it, it will never get off the ground.

Now accounts may, with the help of additional intermediate causes, give rise to other accounts, serving as the partial cause of later accounts (partial because accounts tend not to be self-propagating). This cannot regress infinitely, though; we must in the end reach a first account, the cause of which is the archetype from which the objective reality or content of the historical account comes. (There need not, of course, be one single cause for the whole content of the historical account, but every bit of content in the historical account must have some originating cause.)

Historical inquiry, insofar as it deals with historical accounts, is the attempt to identify, from the features of the effect and what is known about the intermediate causes, what the features of this archetype must be, may or may not be, or must not be.

(3) It is clear from thinking about these chains of intermediate causes that the most important thing to determine about them is whether any of the parts of the total cause of our historical account are defective or deficient causes. This genus of causation, too, has been given some thought, although again not with the specific purpose of elucidating historical inquiry. It has arisen in the context of privation theories of evil. As Augustine noted, if evil as such is a privation of good, then, while there is an oblique sense in which evil has an efficient cause, it is more accurate to say it has a deficient or defective cause. That is, evil as privation traces back not to an efficient cause insofar as it is effective, but an efficient cause insofar as it fails to be effective.

This is actually going to be true of privations generally, including failures to be accurate in recording something. When we ask whether an account is reliable, we are asking whether it lacks what is required to be a true account; or, in other words, we are asking whether any of the partial causes that constitute its total cause are defective causes precisely to the extent that they are causes of the account at all; and, if so, whether these deficiencies are significant for our purposes and whether any other causes compensate for them. All errors must have some defective cause; and in assessing the reliability of an account historians spend their time ruling out the possibility of various deficiencies in the causes, such as malice, deception, confusion, gullibility, or mistake.

(4) We could also say that claiming an account to be reliable involves claiming that it can be trusted. It's important to understand that this is not a different account of reliability from that found in (1). When we trust an account to tell us what happened we are assuming something about how it relates to its causes. Either we have reason to think it can only be traced back to actual historical actions that are such as it describes, or we have no reason to think it doesn't and are willing for our purposes to work on the assumption that it does. The primary value of putting it in terms of trust is, besides the fact that this is often the way people put it anyway, that talk of trust brings out the fact that every evaluation of the reliability of an account is in terms of how reliable it is as a means for whatever precise ends we have in view. It is this that raises questions about whether the account is reliable to a sufficient degree of approximation. Sufficient for what? Sufficient for whatever we are doing with it. Putting it in terms of trust brings this out nicely.

(5) All of the above talks about what historians do with accounts -- that is, testimony. Obviously historians do not only work with testimonies about what happened. They work with artifacts (papyrus, monuments, coins, etc.) as well, and even with natural objects. The reasoning in these cases is causal as well -- artifacts and natural objects are effects, with causes of their own, and we can ask broadly similar questions. The main reason for focusing on testimonies or historical accounts first, though, besides the fact that historical accounts are very, very important for historians, is that causal inferences to positive conclusions about the content of a historical account are generally quite direct and straightforward. The full-scale causal inquiry to establish these inferences can be quite complicated, and a single account can require many, many such inferences. But the inferences themselves are fairly straightforward, and tend all to be of the same kind. This is not necessarily so with other things historians look at. In talking about historical accounts, we have already narrowed down the type of cause we will be considering: accounts are by their nature direct or indirect effects of cognitive agents. Other causes only have to be considered very indirectly, insofar as you might want to know why a cognitive agent might make this mistake, or that modification, or anything else. Any involvement of a noncognitive cause that is direct (i.e., not mediated by a cognitive cause) would be rather unusual. Almost the only time it ever comes up at all is when the medium in which the account itself is preserved can be a defective cause for the account; and the way in which the medium can be a defective cause of the account is simply by loss of information (holes develop, edges shred, magnetic structure is disrupted). When we deal with artifacts as such, however, there are lots of other causes besides cognitive agents that consistently are important, despite cognitive agents still being fairly important; and when we talk about natural objects, cognitive agents are often very minor parts of the full explanation, if at all, and there are jillions of other factors to consider. Thus historical analysis of testimony, while not simple in itself, tends to be simpler in overall structure than other kinds of historical reasoning.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

PNC Christmas Price Index

PNC Financial Services Group does a 'Christmas Price Index' each year based on the song, "Twelve Days of Christmas." The main website is an awfully unnavigable flash page, but they also provide a nice PDF. Calling birds and gold rings are slightly cheaper this year than last, but everything else is at least as expensive as last year. In our current economy, the price of getting twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords-a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree is $24,263.18, up 3.5% from last year, although a good deal of that is driven by the highly volatile swan market; dancers (both lords and ladies) are the most expensive items on the list, at least at dance company and ballet prices. But swans are far and away the most expensive non-service items on the list, and there are a whopping seven of them; which has a considerable effect on the price, because swan mating cycles are highly unpredictable, and thus supply of swans can vary drastically from year to year. It is apparently not a good year for buying swans. If you take the swans out of the picture, the rise of the price over last year is only 0.7%.

Vaclav Havel (1936-2011)

Václav Havel, one of the most profound statesmen of recent times, has died at age 75. He started his career in drama and first became famous as a playwright. Because of his active support of Czechoslovakian freedom in the Warsaw Pact Invasion, his works were banned from stage in 1968 and to support himself ended up having to take a job in a brewery. He wrote a play about this experience, and other plays as well; although no one could stage them, people all over Czecholslovakia copied them and read them in secret. He became one of the founding members of the Charta 77 group and the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted. He was imprisoned several times, once from 1979 to 1984. Things turned when he became one of the leading figures of the Velvet Revolution; on December 29, 1989, he was elected president of Czechoslovakia by the Federal Assembly, which was confirmed by popular vote in June of the next year. One of his first acts as president was a general pardon for the imprisoned, arguing that the corruption of courts under the Communist regime meant that none of its verdicts could be trusted. (It was an act for which he was severely criticized.) It was he who withdrew Czechoslovakia from the Warsaw Pact. He opposed the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, but when it was a done deed, he became president of the Czech Republic. He was also a cancer survivor.

He was not a perfect man, but in everything he sought to live according to his motto, Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate. We are less for having lost him.

Every story begins with an event. This event-- understood as the incursion of one logic into the world of another logic -- initiates what every story grows out of and draws nourishment from: situations, relationships, conflict. The story has a logic of its own as well, but it is the logic of a dialogue, an encounter, the interaction of different truths, attitudes, ideas, traditions, passions, people, higher powers, social movements, and so on, that is, of many autonomous, separate forces, which had done nothing beforehand to define each other. Every story presupposes a plurality of truths, of logics, of agents of decisions, and of manners of behavior. The logic of a story resembles the logic of games, a logic of tension between what is known and not known, between rules and chance, between the inevitable and the unforeseeable. We never really know what will emerge from the confrontation, what elements may yet enter into it, and how it will end; it is never clear what potential qualities it will arouse in a protagonist and what action he will be led to perform by the action of his antagonist. For this reason alone, mystery is a dimension of every story. What speaks to us through a story is not a particular agent of truth; instead, the story manifests the human world to us as an exhilarating arena where many such agents come into contact with each other.
(from Stories and Totalitarianism)