Saturday, March 02, 2013

Links and Notes

* James Chastek has a good post on blindness to what is self-evident to us.

* Joel Gehrke discusses Ricardo Blanco's Inaugural poem.

* Rebekah Higgit discusses the problems with the words 'science' and 'scientist'

* Baruch S. Davidson looks at Jewish traditions about why Moses broke the tablets.

* Adam Smith on trust and honour at "guylongworth"

* Studying the history of alchemy by doing alchemical experiments

* Ethics & International Affairs has a just war issue up.

* A man named Anthony Brasfield was recently arrested and charged in Florida with a third-degree felony for polluting to harm. His crime? On a date with his girlfriend he released a dozen heart-shaped balloons.

Looking at the relevant code, it does look like the act technically applies. This is one of those cases where a weighing of the letter and the spirit is in order, though; while the Act's definitions are quite general, almost everything in it is clearly assuming that we are talking about industrial and other potential high-quantity sources of pollution. When it gives the penalty for the particular felony for which Mr. Brasfield is punished, for instance, in 403.011, it seems to assume that it's the kind of thing that is institutional and at least potentially ongoing. The specific statement of legislative intent says that courts should impose such penalties that would "ensure immediate and continued compliance with this section", which could hardly come into view at all if you are talking about a one-time action of no malicious intent.

In case, you're interested, here is the relevant legal definition of pollution:

“Pollution” is the presence in the outdoor atmosphere or waters of the state of any substances, contaminants, noise, or manmade or human-induced impairment of air or waters or alteration of the chemical, physical, biological, or radiological integrity of air or water in quantities or at levels which are or may be potentially harmful or injurious to human health or welfare, animal or plant life, or property or which unreasonably interfere with the enjoyment of life or property, including outdoor recreation unless authorized by applicable law.

The Mylar balloons could indeed be considered as being or possibly being potentially harmful or injurious to animal or plant life. If you're thinking that this definition on its own would include any and all emissions by automobiles, it does indeed: the Act later has to exempt motor vehicles explicitly.

Incidentally, this raises one of my pet peeves of modern journalism. If you are reporting that someone was arrested, charged, or convicted for breaking a law, state precisely which law, so people who are interested as citizens can look it up themselves.

* In other news, a boy in Baltimore was suspended for two days from school in Baltimore because he made an inappropriate gesture with his food. According to the boy he was trying to sculpt a strawberry tart into a mountain, but couldn't get it to come out right; it ended up looking like a gun, which his teacher saw. Fortunately for everyone the strawberry tart shaped like a gun was confiscated before anyone was threatened or hurt by the seven-year-old in any way.

Lent XVI

For do not tell me that this or that man is a runaway slave, or a robber or thief, or laden with countless faults, or that he is a mendicant and abject, or of low value and worthy of no account; but consider that for his sake the Christ died; and this sufficeth thee for a ground for all solicitude. Consider what sort of person he must be, whom Christ valued at so high a price as not to have spared even his own blood. For neither, if a king had chosen to sacrifice himself on any one’s behalf, should we have sought out another demonstration of his being some one great and of deep interest to the King—I fancy not—for his death would suffice to show the love of him who had died towards him. But as it is not man, not angel, not archangel; but the Lord of the heavens himself, the only-begotten Son of God himself having clothed himself with flesh, freely gave himself on our behalf. Shall we not do everything, and take every trouble, so that the men who have been thus valued may enjoy every solicitude at our hands? And what kind of defence shall we have? what allowance? This at least is the very thing by way of declaring which Paul also said, "Do not by thy meat destroy him for whose sake Christ died."

St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Lowliness of Mind

Friday, March 01, 2013

On Hart's Kantian (?) Argument

There has been some discussion of Hart's recent salvo against natural law theory. I was going to say something about it, but I confess I'm utterly baffled by the argument. Hart argues that natural law theory cannot provide either categorical or hypothetical imperatives adequate to morality, but the two branches of the argument don't seem to cohere. His argument on the categorical imperative side is purely Kantian. But his argument on the hypothetical side is a sensible knave problem put in such strong terms that it would, if problematic for natural law theory, be equally a problem for the Kantian, who also cannot persuade Nietzsche. Perhaps this is why he also sometimes uses language suggesting not Kantianism but fideism? But it seems a little harsh to insist that a theory of practical rationality, which is what natural law theory is, can only be adequate if it is a completely compelling Kantian refutation of Nietzsche. This is a very specific thing to demand, and I'm not sure why it's being demanded.

Any natural law theorist already rejects the Kantian assumptions of Hart's argument. While a natural law theorist could have a sharp divide between categorical and hypothetical moral judgments, such a divide only makes sense if you concede Kant's analysis of judgment into three irreducible kinds. (The three kinds are categorical, hypothetical, and disjunctive. Disjunctive judgments don't come in at all here because Kant insists that moral judgments must have necessity, and his account of disjunctive judgments makes them concerned only with possibility. Hypothetical judgment can have a kind of necessity, but Kant argues that it doesn't have the right kind.) Kant's theory of judgment, while essential for understanding Kant, is not something that is widely shared. Most people usually treat hypothetical judgments as reducible to categorical judgments. Logically this is quite easy to do, actually, since all conditional propositions can be reformulated as categorical propositions and vice versa; the predicate calculus depends on this fact, since without the conversion it would not be able to handle basic syllogisms. (Kant's theory of judgment is not purely logical; it is in a sense intended to be pre-logical or meta-logical, so this disparity wouldn't necessarily be an issue for Kant himself.) Hart's argument that you can't get a categorical 'ought' from a conditional is certainly Kantian. But the question immediately arises: "Why would a natural law theorist be committed to a Kantian theory of moral judgment?"

Likewise, as I keep pointing out to people, it has never been true, as a matter of logic, to say that you can't get an 'ought' from an 'is'. Logically it's trivially easy to create 'is' statements that yield 'ought' statements. The standard forms of deontic logic, for example, all have what is called O-necessitation, or deontic necessitation; and it is equivalent to saying that you can get an ought from any logical theorem in the system (even if it is an 'is'). This is a very controversial rule, mostly tolerated because it massively simplifies deontic logic, making it well-behaved, but the point is that you can always get an 'ought' from an 'is' whenever the relevant modal inference rules allow you to do so. And in any given case, it's not a purely formal or logical matter what the relevant modal inference rules are.

There are, though, obviously specific contexts and obviously very specific sets of assumptions on which the claim would make sense or even be true. What about those? It made sense for Hume to put forward the dictum, because Hume argued for it on the basis of his account of relations, and did so against a position that made 'ought' a relation between ideas (which is why he talks about 'ought' as if it were a copula rather than a modal operator). But there's no reason to accept the Humean version of the dictum unless you accept Hume's insistence that the Humean theory of relations covers all legitimate kinds of relations, which few people do, and even if you did accept it, it would arguably only work for accounts that require that 'ought' be a relation between ideas, although this is a bit more debatable. Kant, who takes up Hume but whose Hume is a generalized Hume, Hume as idealized empiricist skeptic, also can put forward something like this claim. But in Kant it's grounded by the distinction between the phenomena and the noumena, or (to put it in different terms) by his account of intuition/experience and its limits. And again the question arises: "Why would a natural law theorist be committed to a Kantian account of experience?"

A Kantian theory of reason rules out any classical natural law theory, to be sure; but it obviously does so because natural law theory is a rival theory of practical reason. On Kant's account of morality, no moral law can have any empirical component, even if the empirical component is universal to human nature. This is precisely what Kant says about the desire for happiness: it is universal, but incapable of forming any part of a moral law because it is entirely concerned with pleasure, which presupposes the actual existence of something, which can only be established by intuition giving the concept an object, which means it is not a priori, which means it is not necessary, which means that it cannot ground a moral imperative in the proper sense of the word. It is certainly true that if you accept this entire line of reasoning you are committed to rejecting any classical form of natural law theory, but every single step in this chain is as controvertible as anything in natural law theory itself, and not a single one need be (or should be) accepted by a natural law theorist. Natural law theory insists that all moral judgments must be based on what is good; Kant insists that all judgments about the good must be based on moral judgment established independently of any idea of what is good, which is why moral judgment for Kant is based on the purely formal capacity of autonomous will to be autonomous. Natural law theory insists on a moral role for specifically human aspects of practical reason; Kant explicitly insists that any such specifically human aspect cannot have any moral role at all (unless by 'human' we just mean 'pertaining to any kind of rational being'). Kant denies any moral role to prudence because it deals with contingent matters; natural law theorists have historically insisted on the moral importance of prudence because it deals with contingent matters. Hart's (apparent) argument that Kantian considerations rule out natural law theory is surely right, but this is just because what we usually think of as natural law theories are anti-Kantian theories of practical reason.

In other words, it is true that natural law theory is not Kantianism. But where does that actually leave the natural law theorists? Short of a proof that Kantianism is the way to go -- which Hart doesn't seem to hold, either -- it seems to leave them exactly where they were.

I have similar kinds of questions on the hypothetical side of the argument, as well as with Hart's apparent fideism. And there are problems with putting so much emphasis on persuasion when talking about theories of rationality, which are concerned with things that can be true or false regardless of whether people are persuaded. (The fundamental idea of natural law theory is just that there are practical rational principles based on the notion of good, which are the practical counterparts of the logical principles we use in theoretical contexts; we don't usually judge logic on the basis of whether people are persuaded by arguments using logical principles. If someone doesn't want to be logical, that's a problem for them, not logic. You might look into what you could do in addition to logical reasoning, but you don't say, "Well, I guess that's it for logic." So what would make the proposal of natural law in practical matters so different from the case of logic in theoretical matters?) But I'll leave it at this, because, as I said above, I don't actually understand what the argument is.

Music on My Mind

Leonard Cohen, "The Future"


Capitulum Octavum Decimum

Capitulum Nonum Decimum

Capitulum Vicesimum

Capitulum Vicesimum Primum, et Fortasse Capitulum Ultimum

And that's that. I was hoping to finish it all yesterday, but that just didn't quite happen, in part because it seems like, all of a sudden, I have to juggle every plate in the world this week, and perhaps next week as well.

So, where are we with it? Of course, it's a bit of a mess: while the basic plot won't change, the beginning is entirely wrong for where the story ended up, and there are inconsistencies that need to be ironed out. (As generally happens, it's the small ones that bug me, like repeated typos with Krasnoyarsky Krai and Vsesalevich. I find the Russian language baffling. And looking back, I honestly don't know how any Russian ended up in the story at all; I certainly didn't expect it going in. I signed up for a story knowing that it would give me trouble with Latin, I didn't expect one that would give me trouble with Russian as well. And I can, and did, cheat to make sure the actual Latin wouldn't be too awful without having to carefully work through each and every saying on this very first draft. But how do you cheat at Russian? I don't know. And this bugs me, too, even in the English. I will at some point have to go through the dialogues with Ivan and Vsesalevich and strip out purely English colloquialisms.) The narrator, too, will need to be brought to the fore less clumsily, and parts of the story are absurdly rushed. Lots to revise, although I think the story is worth revising -- I like Aegidius himself, anyway, even if the story around him is a shambles. But this revision is all for down the road, because I'll set it aside for now.

Despite the fact that it took me forever to finish even such an absurdly messy first draft, I did manage to finish it, which is something. After a breather I'll restart Tanaver.

Incidentally,speaking of cheating at Latin, the Latin from Vicesimum Primum is, with some minor modification and reordering, from Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, which Giles has been quoting all the way through. Most of it is from Philosophy's diagnosis of Boethius's philosophical illness in Book I, Prose 6:

But this question would I have you answer: do you remember that you are a man?' --`How can I but remember that?' --`Can you then say what is a man?' --`Need you ask? I know that he is an animal, reasoning and mortal; that I know, and that I confess myself to be.' --`Know you naught else that you are?' asked Philosophy. --`Naught,' said I. --`Now,' said she, `I know the cause, or the chief cause, of your sickness. You have forgotten what you are....'
 But there are sprinklings from elsewhere in the book.

Lent XV

Fasting is as old as mankind itself. It was given as a law in paradise. The first commandment Adam received was: "From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil do not eat." Now this command, "do not eat," is the divine law of fasting and temperance. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not have to keep this fast now.

St. Basil of Caesarea, Homily 1 on Fasting

Thursday, February 28, 2013


From the website. This is an image of the Umbraculum, which means exactly what you think it means; the Italian is Ombrellino. It is a standard papal symbol, representing the temporal powers of the Holy See -- governance of Vatican City, fiscal administration of the Patrimony, and the like. Despite being purely papal, it appears on the coat of arms of the Cardinal Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church during a papal vacancy, because he wields the temporal powers of the papacy as steward and agent of the papal office. He only wields the temporal powers. Papal powers of routine and emergency ecclesiastical administration are administered by the College of Cardinals; and the entire episcopal college in communion with the Holy See retains, of course, its magisterial authority (to be in communion with a see, including the Holy See, does not require that the see be currently occupied by a bishop, because communion is, to put the matter somewhat simplistically, liturgical).

I once thought of writing a science fiction story called "Camerlengo," taking place in the far future, where, due to extraordinary and unexpected catastrophe and upheaval, the See was vacant and the College of Cardinals was literally unable to meet in proper Conclave for a very long period of time -- decades, perhaps. This would affect the Catholic Church in general much less than one might think, but obviously there would be problems to deal with. The story would have followed the Camerlengo in episodic fashion from the Incident (whatever it would be) through struggles to the final victory of forming the Conclave. In effect, it would be a story about a man dealing with the immense pressures and responsibilities that come with having to be a caretaker of another's estate for an indefinite period of time, along with the risks and temptations that could mean even for a very decent and intelligent man. It would be an interesting story to write, but to do it properly would take a fair amount of research and a properly thought-out Incident to set it all off, which is why this summary is about as far as the story ever got.

Lent XIV

Let us endeavour to do our best: beware of the poisonous reptiles--that is to say, the bad thoughts and aridities which are often permitted by God to assail and torment us so that we cannot repel them. Indeed, perchance we feel their sting! He allows this to teach us to be more on our guard in the future and to see whether we grieve much at offending Him. Therefore if you occasionally lapse into sin, do not lose heart and cease trying to advance, for God will draw good even out of our falls, like the merchant who sells theriac, who first takes poison, then the theriac, to prove the power of his elixir. This combat would suffice to teach us to amend our habits if we realized our failings in no other way, and would show us the injury we receive from a life of dissipation. Can any evil be greater than that we find at home? What peace can we hope to find elsewhere, if we have none within us? What friends or kindred can be so close and intimate as the powers of our soul, which, whether we will or no, must ever bear us company? These seem to wage war on us as if they knew the harm our vices had wrought them. 'Peace, peace be unto you,' my sisters, as our Lord said, and many a time proclaimed to His Apostles. Believe me, if we neither possess nor strive to obtain this peace at home, we shall never find it abroad.

St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Second Mansions

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Do you see that a failure in almsgiving is enough to cast a man into hell fire? For where will he avail who does not give alms? Do you fast every day? So also did those virgins, but it availed them nothing. Do you pray? What of that? prayer without almsgiving is unfruitful, without that all things are unclean and unprofitable. The better part of virtue is destroyed. "He that loves not his brother," it is said, "knows not God." And how do you love him, when you do not even impart to him of these poor worthless things? Tell me, therefore, do you observe chastity? On what account? From fear of punishment? By no means. It is of a natural endowment that you observe it, since if you were chaste from fear of punishment, and did violence to nature in submitting to so severe a rule, much more ought thou to do alms. For to govern the desire of wealth, and of bodily pleasures, is not the same thing. The latter is much more difficult to restrain. And wherefore? Because the pleasure is natural, and the desire of it is innate and of natural growth in the body. It is not so with riches. Herein we are able to resemble God, in showing mercy and pity. When therefore we have not this quality, we are devoid of all good. He has not said, "you shall be like your Father, if you fast," nor "if you be virgins," nor "if you pray," has He said, "you shall be like your Father," for none of these things can be applied to God, nor are they His acts. But what? "Be merciful, as your Father in Heaven is merciful."

St. John Chrysostom, Homily 6 on Second Timothy

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Reason's Foot in the Door

We are in the midst of Lent, of course, and that is traditionally a season of penitent prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. I always find the fasting part of it fascinating, because it's the part I'm completely incompetent at. Penitent prayer really doesn't require any more than being able to say you're sorry and think of how to do better; almsgiving requires little more than just setting some aside and remembering to get it somewhere. Confessedly I've failed at both, but it's not a competence issue. I really and truly do not fast well, though.

I am very much the sort of person who doesn't pay attention to these things. I don't usually have regular meals -- the whole rule of "one full meal and two small meals" for mandatory fast days is completely useless to me since almost all my meals consist of light snacking over the course of a few hours. Sometimes, in any season of the year, I will forget to eat almost entirely. Normally I just eat when I'm hungry; a bite here, a bite there, while doing other things. (I am a consistent multitasker when it comes to eating.) I have never succeeded in giving up anything for the entire period of Lent; I usually only remember that I'm supposed to be giving something up after I've finally failed to do so. The same happens during Fridays of the ordinary year; in principle I don't eat meat on Friday, but I fail at that about every three to four weeks. "Ham is meat," I think, as I finish the last bite of a ham sandwich. "Today is Friday," I think, fifteen minutes after I have finished a pepperoni pizza. You might think I'm exaggerating, but no.

There are lots of reasons for traditional practices of fasting. But one of them is just to remind ourselves that there are many parts of our lives to which we simply don't attend, at least not in any serious way. Maybe things are just fine there, maybe not, but obviously if you never look, you never know. Bad habits build up most easily where you cannot see them, and we are less transparent to ourselves than we usually think. It's not that reason has to pay attention to everything all the time; it's that it has to look around sometimes at things it usually leaves to themselves, tidying them up a bit, making sure the whole thing's working as it should. And sometimes things have become quite bad (or, if not yet bad, absurd in a way that could be bad someday) without one's ever realizing it. It's useful, for instance, to look around and realize that, while I don't really eat too little or too much in quantity, an inordinate proportion of my food pyramid consists of pizza or chips and dip. In those cases something needs to be done, and the first thing that needs to be done is to get reason's foot in the door by actually paying attention for once.

Fasting is a spiritual practice. It is not about the food. It's not even really about how well one succeeds at restricting oneself, although I hope most people's failures in it do not reach the height of ridiculousness mine sometimes do. It's really about avoiding the thoughtlessness that lets anything take root, about looking around at your life occasionally in order to pay attention to the little things. That's the primary discipline. There are other things, of course, since it's a penitential practice as well as a disciplinary one, and also (both very important, but too often forgotten) a way of marking the importance of a new beginning and a way of freeing oneself of unnecessary distraction. But all these presuppose that you've undergone the discipline of having a good, rational look around.

Skill and Magic II

As a sort of appendix to my Skill and Magic post, I thought I would just list the etymologies of some magic-related terms, showing links to various skills or crafts. I've skipped steps in several of the etymologies. And, of course, with all etymologies one should exercise a bit of caution; etymology is a tentative study at best, even for experts, and for us amateurs there's plenty of danger of falling victim to mere appearances. But it's an interesting list.

charm < Latin carmen = song
enchantment < Latin incantare = to sing onto/into
Old English galdor < galan = to sing

gramarye < Old French gramaire < Latin grammatica < Greek grammatike techne = art of writing
glamour < gramarye
grimoire < gramaire

spell < Old English spell = story
German besprechen (to charm) < sprechen = to speak
rune < Old High German runa = whisper, quiet conversation

fetish < French fétiche < Portuguese feiti├žo < Latin facticius = something crafted

wizard < Middle English wys = wise or skilled in craft

Of course, there are many words relating to magic whose etymology is abscure at best, or trails back through the depths of time to oblivion. 'Alchemy' is one of them (perhaps it's a reference to the land of black soil, i.e., Egypt, but perhaps this association is later), as is 'witch'. And other words relating to magic were straight descriptions that have just been carried from one language to the other. In yet other cases, former magic-related words, like 'amethyst' or 'poppet' or 'prestigious', have since shed their magic to become non-magical denizens of the English language.

Gleeful Shenanigans

The Fox show Glee is now ripping off independent artists; they've stolen Jonathan Coulton's cover of "Baby Got Back":

Well, they aired it, seemingly unchanged. And it’s now for sale in the US iTunes store. They also got in touch with my peeps to basically say that they’re within their legal rights to do this, and that I should be happy for the exposure (even though they do not credit me, and have not even publicly acknowledged that it’s my version – so you know, it’s kind of SECRET exposure). While they appear not to be legally obligated to do any of these things, they did not apologize, offer to credit me, or offer to pay me, and indicated that this was their general policy in regards to covers of covers.

Admittedly it's not an original song, just an arrangement, and because of this Fox may indeed not owe actual money to Coulton; but it was his arrangement, and using it without even crediting the originator (which wouldn't have been difficult and wouldn't have put them out anything) is pretty sleazy.

Of course, Coulton responded by doing a cover of Glee's cover of his cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot's original; that is, he did his original cover again under the same license and is donating the proceeds to charity.

Lent XII

And Christ again says, "Go and sell that you have, and give to the poor...and come and follow Me." Do you see that the commandment was given that he might be induced to follow Him? For as riches are an impediment, therefore he commands them to be given to the poor, instructing the soul to be pitiful and merciful, to despise wealth, and to flee from covetousness. For he who has learned to give to him that needs, will in time learn not to receive from those who have to give. This makes men like God. Yet virginity, and fasting, and lying on the ground, are more difficult than this, but nothing is so strong and powerful to extinguish the fire of our sins as almsgiving. It is greater than all other virtues. It places the lovers of it by the side of the King Himself, and justly. For the effect of virginity, of fasting, of lying on the ground, is confined to those who practice them, and no other is saved thereby. But almsgiving extends to all, and embraces the members of Christ, and actions that extend their effects to many are far greater than those which are confined to one.

For almsgiving is the mother of love, of that love, which is the characteristic of Christianity, which is greater than all miracles, by which the disciples of Christ are manifested. It is the medicine of our sins, the cleansing of the filth of our souls, the ladder fixed to heaven; it binds together the body of Christ.

St. John Chrysostom, Homily 6 on Titus

Monday, February 25, 2013

Skill and Magic

There are recurring patterns in how magic is handled in fantastic tales; magic (assuming it is handled consistently) can only enter into a tale if it is emblematic of, or correlative to, something else. Depending on whether the magic in question is something out of human hands or under human control, magic will serve as emblem or correlate either of a numinal/religious order, a providence, so to speak, or of specialized skill. However it is conceived as to details, magic has to be either something in the order of things or something people are capable of doing. The latter is perhaps the more common. Magic as usually conceived in a story or narrative is a subjective causation of marvelous objective effects; and the subjective causation of objective effects that is best known in our natural, ordinary, everyday experience is technical skill. Some specialized skills, in fact, seem at their best to border on this, anyway. Lots of the different 'flavors' of fantasy arise from the particular kind of skill that is used as the correlate. Thus Tolkien's Elves and Dwarves do magic; their magic is in general an idealized artistry. (Tolkien is quite explicit about this, but it could have been inferred anyway from the kind of things they can do.) This is very different from the kind of magic represented in, say, The Dresden Files, which is correlative not to art but to skills related to forensic investigation. In principle, any technical skill that already seems, at its height, to border on the marvelous or amazing can easily serve as a model for a kind of magic, and any context for such a skill can easily be 'fantasticized'. Metalwork, dancing, singing, hunting, reading and writing, computer programming, have all at some point or other been treated in this way.

The reverse is true, as well, though; it's not just a matter of human storytelling. Just as we build tales of magic or fantastic deeds on the model of real skills and crafts, so, too, we talk about real skills and crafts in magical terms. This has always been the case and will certainly always be the case.

This latter point can complicate our understanding of history. People's assumptions about the way alchemy or astrology was practiced, for instance, are a mish-mash of different elements. Some of the things people assume were obviously true about medieval or Renaissance alchemy were outright inventions, mere literary tropes that arose because they sounded good in a particular context, and that continued to be used because they made for striking effects in stories. Others have a connection to real alchemical practice, but may be filtered through various literary and artistic symbolisms. Yet others may have their first origin in outright fabrication and counterfeit, as if advertisements and frauds about 'fractal water' or 'health through quantum effects' were, three hundred years from now, taken as obviously the sort of thing twentieth century physicists were normally trying to do. You can imagine people half a millenium from now just taking it as obvious that forensic investigation in our day had such-and-such features that were in fact pieces variously derived from police reports, news outlets including the tabloids, Basil Rathbone movies, CSI, Nero Wolfe, and The Dresden Files. It would obviously have a connection of some sort to real criminal investigation, but it will have been filtered through any number of other outlets. This is pretty much what most people's view of alchemy is: a mish-mash thrown together from various fragments of genuine alchemical practice, literary use of alchemy as a symbol, and confidence games involving alchemical terminology, treated as if it were an accurate rendering of what alchemists did or attempted to do.

When this happens on a major scale, historical investigation becomes very difficult; it requires a very careful regard for which kind of alchemy, which image of alchemy, and which use of alchemical ideas and terminology are relevant at a given time. The actual skills and crafts used by most alchemists may have no natural connection with later images of them, and when they do, it may not be straightforward. The lives of alchemists in general were less involved in attempting 'magical' things than we often assume. This doesn't mean that it wasn't there, but it does mean that we should be careful about how we treat the question, because, again, people talk of ordinary skills in magical terms for any number of reasons. If you take an extensive survey of how people talk about the sciences today, you would find exactly the same kind of talk; sometimes as figures of speech for talking about excellence or ideals in the field, sometimes as rhetoric to play up frauds or to win arguments, sometimes as symbolism for something else, sometimes as striking effects in science-fiction stories. Think about how mixed a group that is, and how strange the science of our day will look several centuries from now when people (other than historians of science) are no longer making a clear distinction among these different discourses. How benighted and foolish we will look!

A People Groaning from Ambiguities

Cardinal Zen has some sharp words (for him) about Rome's handling of matters concerned with the Church in China:

I have said and I repeat: his work was wasted by others close to him, who did not follow his line. I'm not here to judge consciences: it is likely that these his advisers thought that maybe he did not know enough about the situation, he was unable to pursue the right strategy. In any case, these people have not implemented what Benedict XVI has established as the guidelines for the Church in China.

Saying "others" I mean people in the Vatican, but also those outside who, without the help of the Holy See, would not have done so much damage.

Lent XI

An act is virtuous through being directed by reason to some virtuous [honestum] [Cf. 145, 1] good. Now this is consistent with fasting, because fasting is practiced for a threefold purpose.

First, in order to bridle the lusts of the flesh, wherefore the Apostle says (2 Corinthians 6:5-6): "In fasting, in chastity," since fasting is the guardian of chastity. For, according to Jerome [Contra Jov. ii.] "Venus is cold when Ceres and Bacchus are not there," that is to say, lust is cooled by abstinence in meat and drink.

Secondly, we have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things: hence it is related (Daniel 10) of Daniel that he received a revelation from God after fasting for three weeks.

Thirdly, in order to satisfy for sins: wherefore it is written (Joel 2:12): "Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning." The same is declared by Augustine in a sermon (De orat. et Jejun. [Serm. lxxii (ccxxx, de Tempore)]): "Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one's flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity."

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2-2.147.1

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fortnightly Book, February 24

So having done modernist business-like, we now move to Romantic art and philosophy. The next fortnightly book is one I've been meaning to read for a while, but which I never managed to get around to: Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the second novel of the inimitable Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. What can be said of Goethe? Nothing that does justice to the man, who made Renaissance men look like underachievers. He had a father who, unable to achieves his life's dream, poured everything he could into his children's educations so that they might have more options than he had. Thus the young Goethe studied six languages (not counting German, of course), learned fencing, riding, and drawing. He went into law and hated it, beginning instead to take an interest in poetry, which began to take fire not long after he became friends with Herder. At twenty-five he wrote his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was an instant success and made him famous. He had an interest in just about everything, and never stopped studying. His two great interests were science and theatre.

The love of theatre is especially relevant to Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the story of a young man he tries to succeed in the theatrical life; over the course of time he changes from being a youthful dreamer to an integrated man, someone with his life in balance. The book, however, is like Goethe: it contains too much for any summary to do justice to it. And it does seem to elude serious summary; at least, even bold critics balk at giving one. So we'll just have to take it as it comes.

I will be using the Heritage Press edition, so the translation is that of Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle, of course, is a Scottish philosopher who also had broad interests that defy easy summary. He was perhaps the most important conduit for Romantic thought moving from Germany to Britain, and his translation of this work is certainly part of this.

This edition of the work has illustrations, both lithograph and line drawing, by William Sharp. Sharp is interesting in his own right. He was actually born Leon Schleifer in an area of Austria that is now part of either the Ukraine or Poland (I have found conflicting answers here); he studied at the University of Berlin but fled Germany at the rise of the Nazis because he was Jewish. He was a sort of jack-of-all-trades artist, having started out in the design of stained glass windows and expanded from there into engraving and other kinds of illustration; in the day he was probably most famous for his courtroom drawings and his political cartoons.

A Poem Draft


The garden hidden off the way
was glistening in the dewy day
as sun, new-wakened, rose to play
in blue, unburdened sky.
A threefold wall laid thick with vine
was raised around it, ivy twined
upon the gate in tendrilled vine
through which the breezes sighed.

Within, in centermost estate,
a fountain rose in joy elate;
it rose and did not dissipate,
but lived with laughing smile.
Beside its pool, where lilies slept
a mournful maiden softly wept;
she hid her face but tears surrept
fell gently down the while.

A song she sang of sorrow's dreams,
of griefs revived where sadness teemed:
how sad it sounded in the gleams
that morning cast on dew!
I saw her eyes once; softest green,
not emerald but ocean-sheen
before the gray grows sharp and keen,
leaped out with wisdom true.

Long grief indeed will make one wise.
I saw that wisdom in her eyes,
the memory that never dies
but gives the heart a weight.
They saw, but did not see, my face,
attention by her grief erased;
tear on tear with hurry raced,
on pool-glass to abate.

She turned away, and yet my thought
has by her been enchanted, caught;
I found her, though I had not sought.
She haunts my inner mind.
And like an illness sorrow spread
to tinge her image in my head;
at times I stare as were I dead
and weep with eyes turned blind.