Saturday, December 31, 2011

The World Above in the World Below

New Year's Chimes
by Francis Thompson

What is the song the stars sing?
(And a million songs are as song of one.)
This is the song the stars sing:
Sweeter song's none.

One to set, and many to sing,
(And a million songs are as song of one),
One to stand, and many to cling,
The many things, and the one Thing,
The one that runs not, the many that run.

The ever new weaveth the ever old
(And a million songs are as song of one).
Ever telling the never told;
The silver saith, and the said is gold,
And done ever the never done.

The chase that's chased is the Lord o' the chase
(And a million songs are as song of one),
And the pursued cries on the race;
And the hounds in leash are the hounds that run.

Hidden stars by the shown stars' sheen;
(And a million suns are but as one);
Colours unseen by the colours seen,
And sounds unheard heard sounds between,
And a night is in the light of the sun.

An ambuscade of light in night,
(And a million secrets are but as one),
And a night is dark in the sun's light,
And a world in the world man looks upon.

Hidden stars by the shown stars' wings,
(And a million cycles are but as one),
And a world with unapparent strings
Knits the simulant world of things;
Behold, and vision thereof is none.

The world above in the world below
(And a million worlds are but as one),
And the One in all; as the sun's strength so
Strives in all strength, glows in all glow
Of the earth that wits not, and man thereon.

Braced in its own fourfold embrace
(And a million strengths are as strength of one),
And round it all God's arms of grace,
The world, so as the Vision says,
Doth with great lightning-tramples run.

And thunder bruiteth into thunder,
(And a million sounds are as sound of one),
From stellate peak to peak is tossed a voice of wonder,
And the height stoops down to the depths thereunder,
And sun leans forth to his brother-sun.

And the more ample years unfold
(With a million songs as song of one),
A little new of the ever old,
A little told of the never told,
Added act of the never done.

Loud the descant, and low the theme,
(A million songs are as song of one);
And the dream of the world is dream in dream,
But the one Is is, or nought could seem;
And the song runs round to the song begun.

This is the song the stars sing,
(Ton-ed all in time);
Tintinnabulous, tuned to ring
A multitudinous-single thing,
Rung all in rhyme.

This is one of those poems that you have to read several times before you get the hang of it: technically brilliant on the part of the writer, and technically demanding on the part of the reader.

Pop Apocalypse (Re-Post)

This is a reposting, with some revision, of a post that originally was posted in 2007. It seems a fitting post for the year's closing time, when we all look to the future.

A distinction can sometimes be made in the apocalypse genre between dark apocalypses and gentle apocalypses; they both exhibit the Final Judgment but in different ways. It's interesting to compare in this regard two of Leonard Cohen's songs from his album The Future: The Future and Closing Time.

"The Future" is a dark apocalypse. In the future mankind has become fundamentally corrupt:

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul
When they said Repent Repent
I wonder what they meant

It's therefore no surprise that God's judgment is correspondingly harsh:

You don't know me from the wind
you never will, you never did
I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible
I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all
but love's the only engine of survival
Your servant here, he has been told
to say it clear, to say it cold:
It's over, it ain't going any further
And now the wheels of heaven stop
you feel the devil's riding crop
Get ready for the future: it is murder.

Mankind is in hell, a hell so terrible that we would rather have the evils we have now; but humanity deserves every bit of the future it has made for itself.

We get a different apocalypse in "Closing Time". There, too, the human race has piled its sins high; there, too, the Final Judgment comes, bringing hell with it. But it's pictured in terms of a drunken humanity getting busted by the cops because "the Boss don't like these dizzy heights." And the tone is one of bittersweet resignation:

And I loved you when our love was blessed
and I love you now there's nothing left
but sorrow and a sense of overtime
and I missed you since the place got wrecked
And I just don't care what happens next
looks like freedom but it feels like death
it's something in between, I guess
it's closing time.

It's closing time; the drunks are all being thrown out of the bar. It's hell; but here it is almost a relief, something between freedom and death, because the party has gone on too long and, despite its highlights, maybe wasn't all that great anyway.

and I lift my glass to the Awful Truth
which you can't reveal to the Ears of Youth
except to say it isn't worth a dime

The Ambiguity of the Modern Word 'Political'

We talk about things being political, and political literally means what has to do with the polis, the city, the society of citizens (in one sense or another). It's clear that our usual use of the word does not really mean this; by it we mean not all that comes with citizenship but all that comes with elected or appointed offices of governance. But I think it's also clear that the older meaning is still there as a common secondary meaning.

In this sense, it's interesting to contrast the fate of the term 'political' with the term 'civic' (or 'civil', as we sometimes find it, although more commonly civil is to civic as polite is to political). In a sense you would expect them to be the same -- civitas is a rough, but natural, Latin equivalent for Greek polis -- but they really aren't, and that is because 'civic' seems to have headed (more slowly) in the opposite direction from 'political': the civic has more to do with the society of citizens, and usually not with the elected or appointed offices of governance unless we're talking about local govenments. (It still retains some connection with 'city'.) But the boundaries here are much looser, I think, than in the case of the primary meaning of 'political'; 'political' is often used as a sort of opposition to the society of citizens (abstracted from elected and appointed offices), while 'civic' rarely is. And, of course, in much of government, 'civil' positions are the opposite of 'political' positions: the latter are elected or appointed, while the former are hired.

The fact that 'political' has these ambiguities -- a specialized primary sense and a more general secondary sense that occasionally pops up, can make it difficult to determine what people mean at any given point when they talk about the political, and I think this often creates serious and troubling equivocations. 'Everything is political' if we take 'political' in the secondary sense, in the sense that is closer to what we usually mean by 'civic' -- directly or indirectly everything is civic, and it is as citizens (whether of cities, states, nations, or the world) that human beings achieve their highest natural goods. It is in this sense that man is a political animal, and it is in this sense that being a political animal both follows from and necessarily presupposes being a rational animal. Other animals are members of societies; only human beings actually become citizens of societies. It is a distinctively human spin on membership in a society. On the other hand, 'everything is political' is dangerous nonsense if we mean it in the primary specialized sense of 'political', which in the modern world has to do with political parties, into whose hands we ultimately end up committing elected and appointed political offices. We are not political animals in this sense; and in this sense it has very little to do with rationality. And clearly you are going to understand 'everything is political' in a very different way if you are thinking of the whole body of citizens working together as citizens than if you are thinking of politicians as legislators and magistrates.

What worries me somewhat is that I think there's an argument to be made that the ambiguity of the word 'political' -- which is a far more common word than 'civic' -- is a symptom of a collapse in our civic understanding. The ambiguity of the word encourages an equivocation that seems actually to be very common: that the only way to work together as citizens is by means of political offices or parties, which, again, get their power from the fact that we really think of political offices in partisan terms. This removes the emphasis on finding ways to work together (which does not always mean compromise in our usual sense, but sometimes means deference or even argument) and puts the emphasis on organizations which tend to be groups of citizens trying to shut other groups of citizens out of power. The one can't completely eliminate the other in a society that is still functioning -- when the partisan political completely abolishes the civic political we have civil war. But thinking of our political lives in terms of political parties more than in terms of citizenships is simply and utterly a deterioration, a degeneration, a fall. Political parties exist for the sake of political offices; political offices exist for the sake of the whole society of citizens precisely as citizens. When we take them as an important part of who we are, rather than affiliations for better expressing our positions as citizens, we have perverted what it is to be political.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Buridan's Ass and the Major

Thus it was to-day, at my friend Marmaduke Langdale's. The last course was no sooner removed, than the fermentation of wit and humour began; and the first display was elicited by the major, who observed, that "he was not like Buridan's ass (as General Sibthorpe used to say), for he had both eaten and drunk to his heart's content."

"I dare say you don't know the origin of Buridan's ass," interrupted Burlingham.

"I can't say I do," replied the major; "but I know what it means—that I have made a good dinner."

"Buridan," continued Burlingham, "was one of the schoolmen; and, in order to prove the existence of free will, he supposed a hungry ass—or an ass equally hungry and thirsty—"

"As you were, major, when you sat down," interrupted Jeremiah Chesterton; "only my friend Burlingham did not like to say so."

"Buridan," pursued Burlingham, "supposed such an ass placed between a bushel of oats and a tub of water, each being equi-distant from him; and then inquired—what the ass would do?"

"Nothing at all," said the Rev. Jonas Dankes, "for equal powers must produce equal results, and the ass would be starved to death; his hunger and thirst would be suspended between co-ordinate attractions."

"When that was the answer," observed Burlingham, " Buridan derided it as a palpable absurdity: but when it was contended that the ass would both eat and drink, then he maintained it had free will—else it followed, that of two equal attractions one was greater than the other, which involved a contradiction of terms."

"Buridan was a magnificent ass himself," exclaimed Jeremiah, "to suppose he proved anything by such an argument."

"I am not going to defend Buridan," replied Burlingham; "I merely wished to explain to Major Bagot tbe origin of the expression."

"Thank you," said the major; "it is very curious, and I'll try and recollect it, please the pigs—"

"I dare say," interrupted Burlingham again, " you don't know the origin of that phrase either; and little think, while using it, that you are employing a corrupt formula of popish adjuration."

"God forbid !" exclaimed the major, "for I hate the pope and all his works."

From "The Chudleigh Papers: A Dinner Scene in the Reign of George the Second," The Canterbury Magazine, vol. 2, no. 9 (March 1835), p. 103.

Some Notable Links

* Michael Kremer, What is the Good of Philosophical History? (PDF)

* Jeff Bell discusses Hume, Husserl, and Deleuze.

* Jerome Copulsky reviews two books on Moses Mendelssohn.

* John Farrell recommends Toby Huff's Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution.

* A very awesome little house in Wales.

* Lots of interesting things in SEP's Philosophy of Chemistry article.

* Robert Paul Wolff has a pair of posts appreciating Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments:
Part I
Part II

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Michael Dummett (1925-2011)

Michael Dummett died recently. I never had much philosophical connection with him, because he was wrong about most things that he spent most of the time discussing, but he had some excellent moments: his attacks on British racism were excellent, and would, in fact, be worth the time of Americans or anyone else; and his modern-style revival of Berkeley's argument for the existence of God in his Gifford Lectures, Thought and Reality, is worth reading, and a splendid joke on everyone who dismisses that argument facilely. The IEP has an article on his philosophical thought.

He also had some facets that deserved more recognition than they got. He was, for instance, an expert on the history of card games, and a wrote a fairly hefty number of works on it. One of his major arguments was that Tarot's association with fortune-telling is actually fairly late, and an offshoot of the game's extraordinary popularity in the early modern period.

He was one of the great Catholics in analytic philosophy in the third quarter of the twentieth century; now that he's gone, Peter Geach is about the last. He argued both for and against the Catholic position on contraception; his arguments against are, I think, the arguments that should most be taken seriously. He wrote a short piece a number of years back that was very critical of the English translation of the Mass that came about after the Second Vatican Council, arguing for the complete replacement of ICEL. That's a pretty strong view. But Dummett was never afraid to put forward a strong view if he thought he had an argument for it.

ADDED LATER: Skholiast has a nice post on the subject.


Ritual is really much older than thought; it is much simpler and much wilder than thought. A feeling touching the nature of things does not only make men feel that there are certain proper things to say; it makes them feel that there are certain proper things to do. The more agreeable of these consist of dancing, building temples, and shouting very loud; the less agreeable, of wearing green carnations and burning other philosophers alive. But everywhere the religious dance came before the religious hymn, and man was a ritualist before he could speak.

G. K. Chesterton, Heretics. And from the same book:

Christmas remains to remind us of those ages, whether Pagan or Christian, when the many acted poetry instead of the few writing it.

A Poem Draft

On a Flight from Billings to Denver

Bright the lights of God in the sky, the first gems;
bright are men's lights shining below with warm cheer;
darkness mediates in the middle night air --
planes are there flying.

World below my feet as the plane on high mounts,
I with calm mien look on the nighttime wind.
Coldly, cloud-like, misty, it arches wide wings,
rushing to darkness.

I as well: the world in its speed will rush past.
I, a mist, will fall to the aft and be gone.
Yet -- and I with surety and vision know it --
stars will be shining.

High above me, God's own creations gleam gold.
Down below me, streets will be lined with bright light.
Here in the middle spaces the world will pass by,
light all around it.

What will worry wind? In the light it leaps up.
Time is not its foe; it will dance in deep night.
Only worlds pass, only the planes; the wind plays --
time cannot rule it.