Saturday, June 02, 2012

Norman Douglas, South Wind


Opening Passage:

The bishop was feeling rather sea-sick. Confoundedly sea-sick, in fact. This annoyed him. For he disapproved of sickness in every shape or form. His own state of body was far from satisfactory at that moment; Africa--he was Bishop of Bampopo in the Equatorial Regions--had played the devil with is lower gastric department and made him almost an invalid a circumstance of which he was nowise proud, seeing tha till health led to inefficiency in all walks of life. There was nothing he despised more than inefficiency.

Summary: The barely-episcopal Anglican Bishop of Bampopo, who prefers to be known as Mr. Heard and is considering leaving the church in order to go into education, is the character who gives this novel what storyline it has. He is going home to England, but on his way there he is stopping for a while on the Mediterranean island of Nepenthe to see his cousin, Mrs. Meadows. There are a great many characters in this novel: the Duchess, who is preparing to make a public conversion to the Catholic Church; the suave and worldly Don Francesco who is her friend and spiritual director; the ascetic Mr. Eames, passionately devoted to his project of creating a new and annotated version of Mgr. Perelli's Antiquities of Nepenthe; the extraordinarily voluble Mr. Keith, who answers sentences with paragraphs and never gives you one completely arbitrary opinion when he can give you a whole string of them; Denis Phipps, an unassuming young man out and about in the world; Mr. Parker, who as the Financial Commissioner for Nicaragua is the island's only official foreign representative, a position he's inveigled that pays him to live on a Mediterranean island and write a report once a year; Bazhakuloff, the aging messiah of a Russian sect, who was more or less thrown out of Russia, and who has gathered around him his religious followers, who are called Little White Cows; Commissioner Malipizzo, the free-thinking freemason of a magistrate who hates the Catholic Church almost as much as he hates the Little White Cows; the parroco, or parish priest, who is mostly just known as Torquemada; Miss Wilberforce, who has a taste for the bottle and bad taste when on it; the American contraception magnate and millionaire, Cornelius von Koppen; and quite a few others. We also get characters from the island's history, such as the Monsignor Perelli, or the fondly remembered and sociopathic Good Duke Alfred. Many of these backward glances at the history of Nepenthe are among the best parts of the book. Perhaps the most important character, however, is the sirocco, the south wind of the title, which blows with extraordinary heat and humidity over Nepenthe for much of the year and makes foreigners do crazy things; it has almost a life of its own throughout the book.

Thus the book reads more like a description of a crazy holiday outing than a story, although there is something of a story that sometimes shows up -- actually, several different stories that make a half-hearted attempt to rise to the surface. Indeed, the Douglas seems deliberately to foil attempts to make much of a story out of these characters; he will write what seems like a major build-up to a big mystery, to take just one of the things he does, and then deliberately cut it short by telling the reader the solution and remarking that none of the characters ever figured it out. Stories are almost irrelevant: the characters are the story. It is a comic work, but I think it is very uneven. Some parts of it get very tiresome -- too many of the jokes go on too long to be quite funny, and not all the characters on which parts of the book focus are equally interesting -- although some passages are quite good. The whirlwind visit of the island's parliamentary representative, Don Giustino, is priceless, and the book is almost worth reading just to get to that part. I would say that the focus on the characters probably saves the book from what would have been its biggest danger. All the characters in the book have very significant foibles, some of which tend to be somewhat sordid; in a story-driven book, the sordidness would mount up pretty quickly, and with this many characters on the set, they would be sordid two-dimensional characters. By focusing on the characters, however, Douglas manages to round out a number of them so that, despite their sordid flaws, they are actually somewhat interesting as people, and this saves the book from the kind of malice that is always a dangerous temptation in a work that tries to be humorous on the basis of human flaws. Douglas likes his characters, even if he does sometimes seem to reserve his greatest liking for the most sordid ones.

The book was controversial in its day because sex is a pretty common topic throughout, but while the theme is constant, it's pretty tame compared to most of what you'd get today, and merely the sort of thing you'd expect to hear by gossip in a community where everyone knows everyone else. It's not as irreverent as I expected from descriptions; mild irreverence throughout, mostly evenhanded, and the irreverence is balanced out a bit by the delight Douglas has in some of his characters.

Favorite Passage:

Cornelius von Koppen loved a good liar. He knew something about the gentle art. It was an art, he used to say, which no fool should be allowed to cultivate. There were too many amateurs knocking about. These bunglers spoiled the trade. Without doing any good to themselves, they roused distrust; they rubbed the fine bloom off of human credulity. His puritan conscience as enraged at petty thefts, petty forgeries, petty larcenies. That was why he despised that otherwise excellent person, the Financial Commissioner for Nicaragua, whose wildest flights of embezzlement never exceeded a few hundred dollars. He respected a man who, like himself, could work in the grand style. To play upon the credulity of a continent--it was Napoleonic, it was like stealing a kingdom; it was not stealing at all. This, he shrewdly suspected, was what his good friend the Count was engaged upon. That delightful old man was working the grand style.

Recommendation: Very uneven, but there are fun passages; it's probably worth reading at least once, just so you can go back and read the Good Duke Alfred or Don Giustino passages again when you're done.

Notes and Notable Links

* Robert McHenry has a good piece on journalistic distortions of science:

What happens is this:

1. Some scientists publish a report of their work.

2. An alert PR guy who works for the university or institute notices some potentially hype-able words in the report.

3. He writes up a release, under the impression that he is Arthur C. Clarke.

4. J-school grads at a number of media outlets, whose science education ended in 8th grade, pick up the release, change three words to make it their own, and it is published to an unsuspecting public.

5. The unsuspecting public, which is not as dumb as the PR guy believes, dismisses the story as bushwah and blames the scientists.

Scientists aren't always quite so innocent (Carrie Figdor notes this with regard to psychologists in a guest post at "The Splintered Mind," although psychologists are not the only ones who sometimes do this), but they do generally have to restrain themselves in ways that journalists apparently don't, and that makes a big difference. (ht)

* Jason Zarri experiments with a different way of representing quantification in predicate logic.

* It is now official: Pope Benedict XVI will decree that St. John of Avila and St. Hildegard of Bingen be given the liturgical title 'Doctor of the Church' on October 7. I had thought that had already happened with St. John, but no doubt that was just due to bad reporting; as we've seen with St. Hildegard, journalists often botch the details.

* Virgil's Aeneid on Twitter

* The Plan of St. Gall (Codex Sangallensis 1092). This is an architectural plan for a monastic complex, extremely detailed, that was made in the ninth century. The actual St. Gall layout is not exactly the same as that on the Plan, and, in fact, there is no way that the entire Plan could have been built on the site of St. Gall, so some have speculated that it's actually a generic or idealized architectural plan for a monastic complex, to be adapted to particular circumstances. An interesting puzzle, actually. It's a beautiful piece of work, and you can see it in good detail.

* A Cleveland waitress named Virginia Hopkins was supposed to receive a $754 tax refund. Instead, the IRS sent her $434,712. She gave it back, of course, but the charm of the story is really the personality of Virginia Hopkins, which comes through very nicely in the story.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Maker and Father of the All

This is the passage from the Timaeus (28b-28c) to which Justin was alluding in the previous post (this is the Zeyl translation):

Now as to the whole universe or world order [kosmos] -- let's just call it by whatever name is most acceptable in a given context -- there is a question we need to consider first. This is the sort of question one should begin with in inquiring into any subject. Has it always existed? Was there no origin from which it came to be? Or did it come to be and take its start from some origin? It has come to be. For it is both visible and tangible and has a body -- and all things of that kind are perceptible. And, as we have shown, perceptible things are grasped by opinion, which involves sense perception. As such, they are things that come to be, things that are begotten. Further, we maintain that, necessarily, that which comes to be must come to be by the agency of some cause. Now to find the maker and father of this universe [to pan] is hard enough, and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible.

In the older and looser Jowett translation:

First then, in my judgment, we must make a distinction and ask, What is that which always is and has no becoming; and what is that which is always becoming and never is? That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is. Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created. The work of the creator, whenever he looks to the unchangeable and fashions the form and nature of his work after an unchangeable pattern, must necessarily be made fair and perfect; but when he looks to the created only, and uses a created pattern, it is not fair or perfect. Was the heaven then or the world, whether called by this or by any other more appropriate name-assuming the name, I am asking a question which has to be asked at the beginning of an enquiry about anything-was the world, I say, always in existence and without beginning? or created, and had it a beginning? Created, I reply, being visible and tangible and having a body, and therefore sensible; and all sensible things are apprehended by opinion and sense and are in a process of creation and created. Now that which is created must, as we affirm, of necessity be created by a cause. But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible.

'Created' is not really the right word to use, because Plato's origin of the cosmos is different from Jewish/Muslim/Christian creation; those are creation ex nihilo, but Plato is talking about formation of a cosmos, an order of things, out of an eternal chaos. Nonetheless, it's not surprising that so many Christian platonists liked this passage.

The Martyr Justin

Today is the feast of St. Justin Martyr, whose day, of course, we really have to mark around here, seeing that he was a philosopher and could in a sense be regarded as the patron saint of this blog.

Our doctrines, then, appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul. For whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word. But since they did not know the whole of the Word, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves. And those who by human birth were more ancient than Christ, when they attempted to consider and prove things by reason, were brought before the tribunals as impious persons and busybodies. And Socrates, who was more zealous in this direction than all of them, was accused of the very same crimes as ourselves. For they said that he was introducing new divinities, and did not consider those to be gods whom the state recognised. But he cast out from the state both Homer and the rest of the poets, and taught men to reject the wicked demons and those who did the things which the poets related; and he exhorted them to become acquainted with the God who was to them unknown, by means of the investigation of reason, saying, "That it is neither easy to find the Father and Maker of all, nor, having found Him, is it safe to declare Him to all." But these things our Christ did through His own power. For no one trusted in Socrates so as to die for this doctrine, but in Christ, who was partially known even by Socrates (for He was and is the Word who is in every man, and who foretold the things that were to come to pass both through the prophets and in His own person when He was made of like passions, and taught these things), not only philosophers and scholars believed, but also artisans and people entirely uneducated, despising both glory, and fear, and death; since He is a power of the ineffable Father, and not the mere instrument of human reason.

[Second Apology, Chapter X] 'Word' here is in the Greek Logos, which, of course, comes from the first chapter of John and also means 'Reason' -- hence St. Justin's argument that all the most noble pagan philosophers partly knew Christ. I've talked about St. Justin's philosophical background previously.

ADDED LATER: It is perhaps worth pointing out that the quotation that St. Justin gives is from Plato's Timaeus, and probably done from memory; it is actually Timaeus, not Socrates, speaking (although Socrates seems to agree with it).

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Double Effect Doesn't Make Everything A-OK

There are a number of common misunderstandings of double effect, and one of them seems to be that if you can do something and be exculpated by double effect, then it's morally acceptable. This is certainly not true.

Consider the paradigm case for double effect. You are walking home in a very secluded place and set upon by someone trying to kill you. You fight for your life, and in so doing you twist the knife in his hand and stab him with it. Now, you are not working in any sort of genuine law enforcement capacity, so you don't have that excuse, and in general you should not go around stabbing and killing people. But this is where double effect comes in: you weren't trying to kill someone, you were trying to save your own life, which ended up involving the stabbing of another person and his consequent death. This duality of effect, what you did because you were actually trying to do it, and what you did despite not trying to do it because you couldn't help it, is the 'double effect' of the doctrine of double effect. And the basic idea here is simply that it is not "unlawful" or "blameworthy" to kill someone if you were not trying to kill them at all but only trying to save your life.

But, of course, this doesn't mean that it was morally desirable or even morally acceptable to stab and kill your attacker. It was morally understandable. It is not culpable. But it is a very bad thing, to be avoided if at all possible. The only reason it's not blameworthy here is that it wasn't, under the circumstances, avoidable. And, what is more, if you, holding the dignity of life to be such a very high thing that you refuse to kill a man even if he is trying to kill you, so that you die instead, that will sometimes be the better way. Nonculpability is generally a very low standard to aim for in the moral life. And the only thing going for your killing of your attacker is that no reasonable person can regard it as an immoral act. But it doesn't follow that it was the best thing to do. It doesn't even follow that it was a completely good thing to do -- in fact, since direct consequences are part of what makes an action completely good or not, you know it was not a completely good thing to do. It just wasn't a wrong you yourself committed. It was a terrible thing to happen. It is the sort of thing that you should try to avoid allowing to happen. It is even entirely reasonable to feel terrible because it happened. And when such things happen -- it might not necessarily be a self-defense case, but any case where double effect draws a fine line between culpability and innocence -- good and decent people often do feel terrible about them, even when recognizing that there was nothing else they could do. Double effect doesn't make it OK; it just makes it something you weren't trying to do, and that it was unavoidable in this particular case doesn't make it acceptable in itself.

What double effect really tells us is that there is a particular kind of accident, in something very like our ordinary sense of the term (although 'accident' in our sense usually assumes that it's sudden, and in the sense relevant here we can have accidents that are ongoing or slow-moving, if they are unavoidable and not what we are aiming for), that is sometimes intimately integrated with our deliberate actions. A just person trying to save himself from an attacker only deliberately tries to save himself, not kill the attacker; but sometimes it happens by accident, and sometimes the accident was unavoidable under the circumstance. These accidents-within-our-deliberate-actions are an important thing to consider. But it's important to keep in mind the fact that the killing was only non-culpable because it was accidental, because you didn't mean to do it, and accidents are non-culpable precisely to the extent they are accidents. This doesn't mean that that's the end of the story. Some things are very serious even if they are entirely understandable accidents; they may still require that you make up for them, that you work to prevent them from ever happening again, and so on and so forth, depending on what, exactly they were. Your responsibilities don't always end at the point where you honestly say, "I didn't mean to do it," and that it was an unavoidable accident may mean you aren't guilty, but it doesn't mean that all's right with the world. But lack of guilt is all that double effect gives.

Feast of Visitation

And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, "How can the ark of the Lord come to me?" So David was not willing to take the ark of the Lord into the city of David. But David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. And the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household. And it was told King David, "The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God." So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing. And when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six steps, he sacrificed an ox and a fattened animal. And David danced before the Lord with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the horn. (2 Sam 6:9-15 ESV)

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord."...And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. (Lk 1:39-45, 56 ESV)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Beattie on Truth II: Common Sense

The first part of James Beattie's Essay on Truth, as it is usually called, is titled "Of the Standard of Truth," and is itself divided into two chapters; the first chapter is given the heading, "Of the perception of truth in general," and the second chapter, much longer, is given the heading, "All reasoning terminates in first principles. All evidence is ultimately intuitive. Common Sense the Standard of Truth to Man." These headings lay out the field quite nicely. In the first chapter he will argue on general principles for the coherence and importance of common sense as our "standard of truth," and in the second chapter he will give an inductive argument tracing different categories of human knowledge back to its roots in common sense. So let's start with the first chapter.

There are certain kinds of propositions which, when understood, receive the immediate assent of our minds, while their contraries are immediately disbelieved; and such is our assent that, at least for the most part, we take ourselves to be as certain of these things as we would be if we were "perfectly acquainted with all nature, in all its parts, and in all its laws" (p. 33). If I take a proposition like, "I exist," I assent to it immediately; I disbelieve its opposite immediately; and my certainty in this proposition is so great that I judge that I would still believe that I exist even if I knew infinitely more about the universe than I do. This is a simple assent to it as true; when I say, "I exist," I take it to be in the nature of things that I exist, or, as Beattie prefers to put it, that the proposition expresses something conformable to the nature of things. But what do we mean when we talk about the nature of things? That there is something in our minds that makes us think that things exist deteriminately according to laws which determine them, and that the proposition agrees with those laws. Note the very important entrance of this 'something in our mind that makes us think'. We have minds, in other words, that tend to think in terms of truth, in terms of what is really the case, and we could not really avoid doing so even if we tried. On this basis, Beattie says, "truth" means that which the constitution of our nature determines us to believe, and "falsehood" means that which the constitution of our nature determines us to disbelieve.

This, then, is the Common Sense theory of truth. It is important to make a distinction. It does not say that truth is whatever we think it is; it says, rather, that truth is whatever our natures compel us to believe. Falsehood is not whatever we think it is; rather, falsehood is whatever the set-up of our minds themselves forces us to disbelieve. We can believe many false things; but if our minds themselves are set up so that we cannot actually believe something false, there is no good pretending that we can make sense of the notion that they might actually be false. Likewise, if our minds are set up so that they always, willy nilly, disbelieve something, there's no good pretending that this might actually be true. If you believe something, you regard it as true; if you can't help but believe something, you can't help but regard it as true, whatever you may say. And it comes to the same thing if, instead of talking about truth, we talk about certain truth and probable truth.

We can, however, make an important distinction between two different kinds of truths: those that are intuitively perceived to be true and those that are perceived to be true in consequence of a line of proof. It makes sense to distinguish these two different abilities by two different names; and Common Sense philosophers like Beattie call the first common sense and the second reason. Beattie notes that, although terms are not always used the same way, the distinction itself is an old one, and is found in the ancient geometers and in Aristotle under a different terminology; and also that we must be very careful not to be misled by different senses of these terms, since both terms are used in a wide range of very different contexts to mean somewhat different things. "Common sense," as used here, means

...that power of the mind which perceives truth, or commands belief, not by progressive argumentation, but by an instantaneous, instinctive, and irresistible impulse; derived neither from education nor from habit, but from nature; acting independently on our will, whenever its object is presented, according to an established law, and therefore not improperly called Sense; and acting in a familiar manner upon all, or at least upon a great majority of mankind, and therefore properly called Common Sense. (p. 45)

For the reason why it is called a "Sense" he refers the reader to Gerard's Essay on Taste, another important work in the Scottish Common Sense tradition. Suffice it to say here that this is a broader use of the term than when simply used of the five senses, and is closely related to the sense it has when we talk about a 'sense of humor' or 'sense of proportion' or 'sense of beauty'. He then argues that reason and common sense must be distinct abilities, neither resolvable into the other.

(1) We are conscious that the two feel different. When we believe something true because of a reasoned investigation, we are sensible of the connection of this belief with our ability to assign a reason. When, however, we believe something true because it is an intuitive principle, we are sensible of the connection of this belief with the fact that it is natural to believe the principle and unnatural not to believe it.

(2) While common sense and reason are often connected, we find no obvious necessary connection between them. In fact, says Beattie, there are certain cases in which we reason with a lack of common sense: dreams, for instance, or madness. As Beattie says, someone who thinks himself made of glass can reason very accurately about what follows from this. (It's noteworthy that we find this same line of reasoning, occasionally using the same example, in Chesterton's "The Maniac"; there is nothing, as far as I am aware, to connect the two, but it's an interesting commonality.) We don't have to go madness, though, to see the same thing. People who read a great many polemical works often develop their reasoning faculty to a considerable degree while allowing their common sense to remain in a very defective state; they argue without understanding, but still often manage to argue to great effect. This is also connected to the third difference.

(3) Education and culture can do an immense amount to improve our reason. Common sense is much less in our power to cultivate: "To teach the art of reasoning, or rather of wrangling, is easy; but it is impossible to teach common sense to one who wants it" (p. 47). You can teach such people first principles, make them memorize it, but the sense of their truth will always be beyond your power to impart. Likewise, different people are born with different strengths of common sense; some can see mathematical principles at once, some never will. And we find, too, that of two people who accept the same first principle, one may hold it lightly, being easily persuaded out of it, while the other may hold it very deeply, being so sensible of its truth that it has an immense impact on life and reasoning. This is to a great extent simply a matter of temperament. Beattie does not deny that common sense can be developed; like all capabilities, it is developed by being used. Likewise, not using it leads to its weakening. (Being a good Calvinist, his example is a Catholic who, led by false religion, simply accepts what the priest says regardless of what sense it makes.) An atmosphere with freedom of inquiry will be better suited for the development of common sense than any other. But common sense is massively more difficult to develop than reason, and can only be developed to a certain extent.

(4) Something like the distinction is recognized by pretty much everyone. People will sometimes admit that an argument is extraordinarily good, indeed, beyond their ability to refute, but still utterly unconvincing. It really doesn't matter how good Berkeley's arguments against the material world may be; people who cannot refute him still come away unconvinced. This is injurious to philosophical pride; people inclined to argue like to dismiss rejections of argument not based on refutation; but none of this makes it any less true that a person can be faced with an apparently irrefutable argument and not be swayed by it at all because the conclusion seems so obviously wrong.

Thus the two, reason and common sense, are distinct. People are very reluctant, however, to admit that they may have cognitive instincts of the sort that is labeled by common sense. Beattie seems to think that this is due to pride: animals have instincts, we have reason. But, in fact, Beattie wants to argue, the opposite is true: we have more and better instincts than animals and if we observed ourselves carefully rather than interpreting ourselves through a preconception of ourselves, we would see these impulses of nature working entirely independently of reason. Moreover, important as reason is, we must not overlook the extraordinary ways in which it is perverted and abused to sophistical ends; it has its weaknesses as well as its strengths. And this gets us precisely into seeing the necessity of common sense. Berkeley and Hume come to you and say that everything around you is really just in your mind. If you think this contrary to common sense, this just means your common sense is wrong; it is proved wrong by argument. But, says Beattie, if my common sense -- and remember, we are not talking about just 'commonly accepted truths', but the kind of assent deriving directly from the constitution of our nature -- is mistaken, how could I possibly correct the mistake? Nothing reason can throw at me is going to be clearer, stronger, or more obvious than what common sense is telling me. Common sense is about what we are constrained to believe; we can't unconstrain ourselves just because someone says we should. Even if we set this aside, though, even if we assumed, contrary to actual experience, that reason were just as forceful as common sense, what good would this do? We would have two powerful cognitive faculties each telling us something inconsistent with what the other is telling us. And why would we assume that reason is more likely to be right? Because reason says so? But the whole point is that common sense is saying that reason has actually come to the wrong answer. Which shall we believe? Either they both may be inconsistent, and then we are in miserable straits when they conflict, as we know they can, or one must be superior to the other.

One reason you might give for saying that reason should be superior to common sense is the claim that all philosophy, all reasonable inquiry, should begin in doubt, and nothing believed without proof. This would certainly require the superiority of reason; reason would be the ultimate standard of truth, and common sense would, at best, simply have to submit to reason. But this turns out to be an untenable position -- we can show that it is unreasonable to start with doubt, and that all inquiry goes back to first principles. And this is what Beattie will argue in the next chapter.

The Maid of Orleans

Today is the feast of one of my favorite saints, St. Jehanne D'Arc, usually known in English as "Joan of Arc", which is due to something of a misunderstanding, since D'Arc seems to have functioned just as a last name, not as a description. In any case, she herself preferred to be called la Pucelle, the Maid. She died on this day in 1431 at the age of 19, having led the French army to quite unexpected and crucial victories, thus humiliating the English-Burgundian alliance, who had seemed to have an absolute upper hand. Here is her first salvo in that fight, a demand that the English surrender before a battle they seemed almost certain to win. (It should be noted that there are slightly divergent copies and there are a few small phrases in the copies we have that she later denied were actually in the letter she dictated; for instance, she denied that she ever actually said that she was Chef de Guerre, i.e., commander. Since she was unable to read and write, we don't know if this is a case of the scribe she was dictating to adding some flourishes and glosses, which may be, or if later copyists added them. They don't change the substance of the letter, however, which we know to be essentially accurate. For more discussion of the matter, see here, which site has some excellent discussion of all of Joan's letters. I have added some paragraphing to make it easier to read.

+ Jesus Maria +

King of England, and you, Duke of Bedford, who call yourself Regent of the kingdom France; you William de la Pole, Count of Suffolk; John, Lord Talbot; and you Thomas, Lord Scales, who call yourselves lieutenants of the said Duke of Bedford:

Do justly by the King of Heaven; render to the Maid [she claimed later that she said 'the King'] who is sent here of God, the King of Heaven, the keys of all the good cities that you have taken and violated in France. She has come here from God to restore the royal blood. She is all ready to make peace, if you will deal rightly by her, acknowledge the wrong done France, and pay for what you have taken.

And all of you, archers, companions of war, nobles and others who are before you; and if this is not done, expect news of the Maid, who will go to see you shortly, to your very great injury.

King of England, if you do not do this, [I am Chef de Guerre, and] in whatever place I shall find your people in France, I will make them go whether they will or not; and if they will not obey I will have them all killed. I am sent here by God, the King of Heaven, [body for body,] to put you out of all France. And if they will obey I will be merciful. And stand not by your opinion, for you will never hold the kingdom of France through God, King of Heaven, son of Saint Mary; it will be thus ruled by King Charles VII, true heritor; for God, the King of Heaven, wishes it, and this to him is revealed by the Maid, and he will enter Paris in good company. If you will not believe the news from God and the Maid, in whatever place we shall find you, we shall strike in your midst, and will make so great a Hahay! that for a thousand years there has not been one in France so great, if you do not deal justly. And you may well believe that the King of Heaven will send more strength to the Maid than you will be able to lead in all your assaults against her and her good soldiers. And when the blows fall we shall see who will have the better right[, whether God of Heaven or you].

You, Duke of Bedford, the Maid begs you and requires of you that you work not your own destruction. If you listen to her you will yet be able to come in her company to where the French will do the finest deed that ever was done for Christianity.

And reply to this, if you wish to make peace at the city of Orleans; and if thus you do not do, you will shortly remember it to your great sorrow. Written this Tuesday, Holy Week.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Chesterton's Birthday

We often read nowadays of the valor or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be.

From What's Wrong with the World. Chesterton was born May 29, 1874.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Eclipse of Thales

Herodotus, Histories 1.74:

After this, seeing that Alyattes would not give up the Scythians when Kyaxares demanded them, there had arisen war between the Lydians and the Medes lasting five years; in which years the Medes often discomfited the Lydians and the Lydians often discomfited the Medes (and among others they fought also a battle by night): and as they still carried on the war with equally balanced fortune, in the sixth year a battle took place in which it happened, when the fight had begun, that suddenly the day became night. And this change of the day Thales the Milesian had foretold to the Ionians laying down as a limit this very year in which the change took place. The Lydians however and the Medes, when they saw that it had become night instead of day, ceased from their fighting and were much more eager both of them that peace should be made between them. And they who brought about the peace between them were Syennesis the Kilikian and Labynetos the Babylonian: these were they who urged also the taking of the oath by them, and they brought about an interchange of marriages; for they decided that Alyattes should give his daughter Aryenis to Astyages the son of Kyaxares, seeing that without the compulsion of a strong tie agreements are apt not to hold strongly together. Now these nations observe the same ceremonies in taking oaths as the Hellenes, and in addition to them they make incision into the skin of their arms, and then lick up the blood each of the other.

The eclipse predicted by Thales occurred on May 28, 585 BC. Diogenes Laertius says in the Lives:

According to other statements, he is said to have been the first who studied astronomy, and who foretold the eclipses and motions of the sun, as Eudemus relates in his history of the discoveries made in astronomy; on which account Xenophanes and Herodotus praise him greatly; and Heraclitus and Democritus confirm this statement.

Thales was by all accounts pretty competent in the astronomy of the day, but it's utterly unclear how he managed to predict the eclipse. Part of the difficulty is how precise the prediction is supposed to be; I am not enough of a Greek scholar to adjudicate, but I have seen interpretations of Herodotus according to which he is saying that Thales predicted the exact year, and the eclipse occurred within that limit, and others according to which he is saying that Thales predicated a limit, and the eclipse occurred in a year within the limit of the predicted range. The former seems the more common interpretation, and in that case it's possible that Thales just made a lucky guess: it isn't clear what method he could have used with the kind of data he would have had to predict a solar eclipse. Lunar eclipse would have been manageable, in principle, and some have argued that Herodotus is actually not saying that it was a solar eclipse; but this doesn't seem a popular view.

Patricia O'Grady has an interesting discussion in her IEP article on Thales.

Short Stories

St. Peter's List recently had two posts listing ten short stories every Catholic should read:

(1) J. R. R. Tolkien, "Leaf by Niggle"
(2) George MacDonald, "The Light Princess"
(3) Oscar Wilde, "The Selfish Giant"
(4) G. K. Chesterton, "The Blue Cross"
(5) Flannery O'Connor, "Revelation"
(6) Graham Greene, "The Hint of an Explanation"
(7) J. F. Powers, "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does"
(8) Roger B. Thomas, "The Last Ugly Person"
(9) Mark Twain, "The Story of the Bad Little Boy"
(10) Jerome K. Jerome, "The Passing of the Third Floor Back"

I haven't read the Powers, Thomas, or Jerome stories, but all of the rest are quite excellent. I was thinking of what others could be added to the list. I think a good candidate would be:

* Honoré de Balzac, "The Atheist's Mass" -- This is one of the best short stories of an extraordinary writer of short stories. In just a few pen strokes Balzac manages to capture both a great character and the sheer power of friendship.

Hawthorne also has some excellent short stories. Perhaps we could add:

* Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Birthmark"

I am myself quite partial to "The Celestial Railroad," but I'm not sure that's a short story for everyone.

And, of course, several of the authors listed have some other excellent short stories. But I find on reflection that I'm not a major short story person, so I don't have an extensive list of possible candidates. How about you? Any other short stories that a Catholic, or, for that matter, any civilized person, should read?


In the comments, Martin suggests:

* O. Henry, "The Ransom of Red Chief"

John Farrell suggests:

* Raymond Carver, "A Small, Good Thing"
* James Joyce, "The Dead"

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Twelve Suns for One

by George Herbert

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

Where is that fire which once descended
On thy Apostles? thou didst then
Keep open house, richly attended,
Feasting all comers by twelve chosen men.

Such glorious gifts thou didst bestow,
That th’ earth did like a heav’n appeare;
The starres were coming down to know
If they might mend their wages, and serve here.

The sunne, which once did shine alone,
Hung down his head, and wisht for night,
When he beheld twelve sunnes for one
Going about the world, and giving light.

But since those pipes of gold, which brought
That cordiall water to our ground,
Were cut and martyr’d by the fault
Of those, who did themselves through their side wound,

Thou shutt’st the doore, and keep’st within;
Scarce a good joy creeps through the chink:
And if the braves of conqu’ring sinne
Did not excite thee, we should wholly sink.

Lord, though we change, thou art the same;
The same sweet God of love and light:
Restore this day, for thy great name,
Unto his ancient and miraculous right.

'Whitsunday' is an interesting word. No one actually knows the origin for sure; it probably originally meant White-Sunday, but very early on people understood it as Wit-Sunday, i.e., the Sunday of Knowledge or Understanding: the Spirit descended on the Apostles with knowledge and wisdom. Its more general and common name, of course, is Pentecost, Fiftieth, i.e., from Easter, since it is seven weeks after Easter. It is the direct Christian liturgical counterpart to the Jewish feast of Shavuot, which is seven weeks after Passover, and which celebrates the giving of Torah on Mount Sinai. 'Shavuot' means 'Weeks', which is often the name given to it (Feast of Weeks), but it is also called the Feast of First-fruits, because it was the time for Jews to offer the first fruits of their labor in the wheat harvest to God:

And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, even of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year. (Ex 34:22)

And thou shalt keep the feast of weeks unto the LORD thy God after the measure of the freewill-offering of thy hand, which thou shalt give, according as the LORD thy God blesseth thee. (Dt 16:10)

Also in the day of the first-fruits, when ye bring a new meal-offering unto the LORD in your feast of weeks, ye shall have a holy convocation: ye shall do no manner of servile work. (Nm 28:26)

Book a Week, May 27

One book that I have started but never finished through no fault of the book, was a Heritage Club edition (Connecticut Era) of Norman Douglas's South Wind. So I'm remedying that.

Norman Douglas was a twentieth-century writer of satires and travel books. He was born in Austria but raised an Englishman, and he lived much of his life on the Isle of Capri, because he was charged with indecent assault against a minor and skipped bail. Later he would treat this as a persecution for kissing a boy; it's difficult to accept that assessment given that he was reported to the police by the boy himself. But he apparently went no farther than a nonconsensual kiss, so we aren't talking serious sexual violence, either. South Wind is his most famous book. It's a work about a fictional island, called Nepenthe, but is often thought to be loosely based on Douglas's experiences in Capri.

According to The Heritage Club Sandglass, "Douglas was a hedonist and a skeptic," a perspective that threads through the book. It's supposed to be a quite irreverent work, so it will be a change from last week's.