Saturday, May 25, 2013

Two New Poem Drafts

Both in a bit of a fragmentary state.

At Night

The waxing moon upon the hill
enthroned was ruling shadowed night,
where ghostly shades with phantom will
alone were walking, hid from sight
and only heard, like gentle hush
within the leaves of creaking trees.
The river bloomed with silver blush,
reflecting royal argency,
a modest mistress newly kissed
by light of moon, her love and king.
The shades were moving in her mist,
where ghosts their shushing voices bring
to whisper on her moonlit sands.
The trees like crickets violins
were playing with their branching hands
in songs of long-forgotten sins,
in melodies of dreams and sighs.
They sang of lights that soar unseen,
they sang of words that never die,
they sang it for the river-queen,
in honor of the moon their king.
A sweeter song cannot be heard,
nor can our human voices sing
that melody in tune or word.
Then rose the moon in grandest state
from hilltop throne, with solemn face,
and, king-like still with royal gait,
went marching at procession-pace.


Once long ago was a princess in a tower,
her prison built of the ice formed from her tears;
she sat and sighed in her far and distant bower
amidst a field of the thorns grown out of her fears.
On starry nights she would look up at their wonder
and sing a song of some dream her heart had had;
the stars, soon hidden by the clouds that rolled in thunder,
would sing responsion quiet, clear and sad.

Beda of Jarrow

Today is the feast for St. Beda, most often known in English as the Venerable Bede.

Nuremberg Chronicle Venerable Bede

(From the Nuremberg Chronicle)

Aquinas for May XXV

Quando reficeris de bonitate dei, tunc edis in mensa dei, et hoc est beatitudo sanctorum.

"When you are restored by the goodness of God, then you will eat at the table of God, and this is the blessedness of the saints."

Beata gens pars 2

Friday, May 24, 2013

Aquinas for May XXIV

Rex caelorum et dominus hanc legem ab aeterno instituit, ut providentiae suae dona ad infima per media pervenirent.

"The King and Lord of the heavens has instituted this law from eternity, that the gifts of his providence come to the lower through mediating things."

Rigans Montes, pr.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Thursday Virtue: Magnanimity

Aristotle discusses megalopsychia in Book IV of the Nicomachean Ethics. Megalopsychia would later be translated literally into Latin as magnanimitas; both mean 'great-souledness' or (as we might also put it) 'living greatly'. The virtue of magnanimity is perhaps the most important of all virtues in Aristotle's ethics. The magnanimous man thinks highly of himself, but unlike the arrogant man, who thinks highly of himself for foolish reasons, the magnanimous man has excellent reason for doing so. Someone who is great and thinks little of himself has a vice, in Aristotle's view: he is unduly humble. Someone who is of little worth and recognizes it, on the other hand, shows the virtue of temperance. There's a weird sense in which Aristotle's magnanimity is a kind of temperance or moderation: it is the temperate and measured attitude of the great to their own greatness.

Because the magnanimous rightly think highly of themselves, they will therefore rightly demand that others do the same. After all, justice is an extremely important thing, and requires that everyone get their due; it doesn't include exceptions for oneself. The magnanimous expectation of being treated as great therefore is wholly consistent with justice; the great-souled are just demanding that justice be done in their own case. What is more, since they are the sort of people who deserve the best, that's precisely what they should demand, and this is itself a virtuous demand. Aristotle famously calls magnanimity the crown of the virtues, and it is easy to see why: it is the insistence of the heroically virtuous on the virtuous work of treating virtue as it deserves.

Perhaps the most important issue to do with magnanimity is the attitude of the magnanimous to the goods of fortune, things like wealth and fame; this will be the locus of an important difference between Aristotle and the much more Stoic Cicero. It is also the point at which the magnanimous man shows to greatest advantage, since if one doesn't look at it one might get the impression that magnanimity requires always demanding things of people. It should be clear from the description I've already given that Aristotle's magnanimous man is concerned with goods of fortune, although not mastered by them. The magnanimous demand great things, but they do not do so as beggars, but in an odd way as benefactors: they are merely giving others the opportunity and privilege of reward virtue. The goods of fortune, however, are not particularly important as rewards for virtue, at least on their own. Because of this, they prefer to give than to receive, because receiving puts one in debt, which is a position of inferiority, which is not an appropriate position for the heroic and highly virtuous. They ask for help only under genuine necessity, but they give help freely. They act loftily towards the lofty, because they will not place themselves in an inferior position, but towards ordinary people they do not put on airs, because that would be a vulgar attack on the weak, disadvantaged, or inferior, and would itself suggest some kind of inferiority. They tell the truth, do not hide their feelings, are openly contemptuous of anything that is contemptible. Their lives revolve around themselves and their friends, and no one else. They are independent, they do not whine at their misfortunes, they do what is required, and will prefer things of beauty, even if they are useless, to ugly things, even if they are profitable, because they are wholly unservile. And that is perhaps the best way to grasp what a Greek like Aristotle would have seen as excellent in magnanimity: is it is that virtue making a man wholly unservile, completely free from anything suggestive of slavishness, a master in his own right, even if rules nothing else but himself.

Aristotle's account of magnanimity focuses on justice. This has been interestingly unstable in the history of discussions of the virtue, and part of the reason is that the magnanimous man in Aristotle's account can easily be made to sound a little too concerned with whether he's getting what's his. This is not quite a fair assessment, because the magnanimous man does not have a slavish interest in goods of fortune. It is also true that the greatness of the great-souled is nothing other than the greatness of virtue, a point which is perhaps made a bit more clear in his Eudemian Ethics account of the virtue than in the better-known Nicomachean Ethics account. But the problem remains that one can question whether Aristotle quite manages to make the magnanimous as unslavish and unvulgar as he intends. In more Stoic accounts, which begin to dominate, this problem is removed, and it is removed in great measure by thinking of magnanimity less along the lines of justice and more along the lines of fortitude or endurance. The major such account, of course, is Cicero's in De Officiis (1.18-1.26).

In Cicero's account, the aspect of magnanimity which involves looking down on fortune is intensified. The magnanimous do not care about fortune. They are contemptuous of the goods of fortune, and equally contemptuous of its evils. They see things in perspective, and because of this, magnanimity has two elements: refusal to do anything except what is appropriate to important ends and actively seeking to overcome challenges whose overcoming would be of great value. Aristotle's magnanimity is largely a matter of self-knowledge; but Cicero's is an extremely active virtue, the attempt to live a life of truly great deeds done in a truly great way. And this leads to two interesting consequences for Cicero's account of magnanimity. First, Cicero's account makes magnanimity a much more philosophical virtue; the magnanimous philosophize. Indeed, in the Tusculan Disputations, one of his primary examples of magnanimity is Socrates. This element is nearly entirely absent from Aristotle's account, to such an extent that it sometimes seems from Aristotle's account that no one interested in philosophy could be magnanimous. In Cicero, on the other hand, no one not interested in philosophy can have greatness of spirit, because one needs philosophy at least to the extent of examining one's life and critiquing one's projects and pursuits in light of what is truly important. Aristotle starts his account with the magnanimous knowing their own greatness. But Cicero starts his with the magnanimous making themselves great, and that requires doing the rational work of determining what is truly, not just apparently, great. The second consequence is that Cicero's account makes magnanimity a much more public-spirited virtue. Because the magnanimous only devote their lives to what is truly important, they always place public good above private good, and this part and parcel with their disdain for a life in pursuit of wealth or fame.

It is unsurprising, I think, that Cicero's account becomes the dominant account; it has many advantages over Aristotle's. When medieval philosophers and theologians consider magnanimity, the result will inevitably end up being more like Cicero's than Aristotle's. It is almost impossible to imagine a Catholic saint being like Aristotle's magnanimous man, but it is not so difficult to imagine him or her being like Cicero's magnanimous man. Indeed, one of the most influential books on medieval Catholic thought, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, can be read as a treatise on magnanimity in the face of death, and it is a very Ciceronian picture. Even as Aristotelian thinker as Aquinas takes the virtue in a Ciceronian direction. Aquinas's magnanimous person (ST 2-2.129) is, like Aristotle's, concerned with honors for his or her own virtue, but this is understood, as in Cicero, as being primarily a work of fortitude, thus putting the emphasis on magnanimity being less about knowledge of one's own greatness and more about making oneself the sort of person worthy of great honor. Once Christianity enters the scene, the virtue of humility ends up taking a very important role in the overall sense of what is virtuous and what is not, and Aquinas has to adapt the virtue so that it recognizes this somewhat ironic superiority of the virtue of humility over the virtue of magnanimity. This requires Ciceronian elements.

In the modern era one finds a rather remarkable disappearance of the virtue of magnanimity, at least from serious discussion, with very few exceptions. One of the important exceptions is that Cicero of eighteenth-century Scotland, David Hume. We know from letters that Hume thought the emphasis on humility that laced his Calvinist upbringing absurd at best, so it is perhaps unsurprising that he explicitly attempts to bring back magnanimity as an important virtue (Treatise 3.3.2):

But though an over-weaning conceit of our own merit be vicious and disagreeable, nothing can be more laudable, than to have a value for ourselves, where we really have qualities that are valuable. The utility and advantage of any quality to ourselves is a source of virtue, as well as its agreeableness to others; and it is certain, that nothing is more useful to us in the conduct of life, than a due degree of pride, which makes us sensible of our own merit, and gives us a confidence and assurance in all our projects and enterprizes. Whatever capacity any one may be endowed with, it is entirely useless to him, if he be not acquainted with it, and form not designs suitable to it. It is requisite on all occasions to know our own force; and were it allowable to err on either side, it would be more advantageous to over-rate our merit, than to form ideas of it, below its just standard. Fortune commonly favours the bold and enterprizing; and nothing inspires us with more boldness than a good opinion of ourselves.

Given Hume's debts to Cicero, it's unsurprising that, despite adaptations to fit Hume's account of virtue, the Humean account of 'greatness of mind' is largely Ciceronian. While a good opinion of oneself has its place, what makes it a virtue is its boldness and confidence. That said, Hume's virtue seems to lose some of the public-mindedness of Cicero's: it is utility for oneself and the respect of others that Hume emphasizes, whereas Cicero certainly regards utility for the republic as the true sign of the great soul. It is interesting to speculate that this difference might arise from a slightly stronger mix of Epicureanism in Hume's view of the world. Cicero's magnanimity involves a very Stoic disdain for things of the world; but the way in which Hume's great-minded person looks on fortune seems more closely related to Epicurean tranquillity. Regardless, serious discussions of magnanimity seem to fade out after Hume.

Aquinas for May XXIII

Causa prima est actus purus, nihil habens potentialitatis adiunctum; et ideo ipsa est lumen purum a quo omnia alia illuminantur et cognoscibilia redduntur.

"The first cause is pure act, having no adjoined potentiality; and thus is itself pure light by which all other things are illuminated and rendered knowable."

Super De causis, lect. 6

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Star Trek Into Montage

I went to see the new Star Trek movie last night, and I have discovered J. J. Abrams's method for making Star Trek movies. You start with a bunch of lists: Iconic Star Trek (KHAN!, slow reveal of ship, Vulcan neck pinch, Klingons, Spock's death scene, "live long and prosper"), Things Star Trek Fans Have Wanted to See (an Engineering section that looks like Engineering, more of a sense of what life is like on twenty-third-century earth), Jokes about Star Trek (McCoy's over-the-top metaphors, Kirk's woman thing, redshirts). Then you modify them slightly (switch characters, add an unexpected detail) so that people can interpret it as innovation or irony rather than just list-making. Last, you need some very loose narrative theme, which requires a villain. However, since this is the second Star Trek movie by Abrams in which the vast majority of the villain's potential is wasted, nothing too serious hangs on it; you just have the villain meet one or more of the items on your list. Then you string the items on your list together using this narrative theme, filling in the gaps with lush visual. Because an Abrams Star Trek movie is not a story; it is a montage with story-like trappings.

Because of this, I can now give a prediction of what the next Star Trek movie will involve. It will have the Enterprise undergoing time travel, probably with snarky comments about whales, Uhura will sing, someone will say to Spock, "You are, and will always be, my friend", there will be Galaxy Quest-like running through a spaceship that no rational person would ever design, however alien their psychology, and a hand-to-hand combat scene, perhaps three or four, with a villain, almost certainly Klingon, probably Kang, Kor, and/or Koloth.

The interesting thing is that it kind-of works. Cinema is a very forgiving medium if you ramp up the Spectacle and edit well, science fiction is an especially forgiving genre within cinema. And the Star Trek franchise, while it has done great stories (like "Balance of Terror" from TOS or "Far Beyond the Stars" from DS9), has always been a mixed bag of the interesting and the ridiculously cheesy. The movie wasn't awful, which is impressive, since it has a plot that can't be summarized without sounding like you are summarizing a seventh grader's fan fiction. Since it throws everything into the post, there are whole sections of the movie that are quite fun. And that seems to be what it was trying to do.

Aquinas for May XXII

Finis est causa causalitatis efficientis, quia facit efficiens esse efficiens: similiter facit materiam esse materiam, et formam esse formam, cum materia non suscipiat formam nisi per finem, et forma non perficiat materiam nisi per finem. Unde dicitur quod finis est causa causarum, quia est causa causalitatis in omnibus causis.

"The end is the cause of the causality of the effective, because it makes the effective to be effective; likewise it makes material to be material and form to be form, since material does not receive form save by the end, and form does not complete material save by the end. Wherefore it is said that the end is the cause of causes, because it is the cause of causality in all causes."

De principiis naturae cap. 4

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Aquinas for May XXI

Gratia Dei datur ad duo: scilicet ad bonum operandum, et ad vitandum malum; et quantum ad ista duo perfectissimam gratiam habuit beata virgo.

"The grace of God is given for two reasons, to wit, that good be done and that evil be avoided; and in both these ways the Blessed Virgin had grace in a most complete amount."

Super Ave Maria art. 1

Monday, May 20, 2013

My Teaching Philosophy

I put a fair amount of thought into my teaching philosophy. This is part of what I used in my recent teaching evaluation portfolio; to be completed, its generalities need to be filled out with the particularities of the course commentary, but the latter would be much less generalizable.


I have found that three principles especially important in guiding my teaching.

(1) All teaching by an instructor is really guidance of the student’s own discovery.

To use the terminology of seventeenth-century philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, my task is not so much to be a maĆ®tre, a source of learning, as to be a moniteur, someone who directs attention and prompts action. Especially in philosophy, it is the student’s own intellect and reason that is doing the lion’s share of the work in the process of education*; because of this I try to fill my courses with activities that direct the attention of the student to particular features of arguments and ask them to do things with it. To take one example, one element of the major project I require when teaching the Gorgias is to write short pieces in which they speculate about how the dialogue might have gone differently if one of the rhetoricians in the dialogue had chosen to respond to Socrates’ questions in a different way. I think something like this provides a very simple and basic way for students to begin exercising an important set of skills, namely, looking beyond what the argument says in order to ask why it says that rather than something else and, instead of being satisfied with simply criticizing the argument as stated, asking themselves whether the argument could be restated in a way that would avoid the flaw.

(2) Teaching is itself a form of learning.

I believe that emphasizing the self-discovery aspect of education makes for a more interesting course, both for the instructor and the student. This does increase the difficulty of the course. It is all the difference between feeding someone directly and providing them an entire environment where they can safely and easily find good food; the latter is far more complicated. Because of this I try to have the attitude of someone who is a student himself, learning from the students at least as much as they are learning from me, and thus my courses are always being adjusted a bit in light of previous experiences. Recognizing the importance of one’s own learning also requires the harder task of recognizing that an idea that seemed good does not work as well in practice as in theory.

(3) Philosophy, whatever else it may be, is civilization in the abstract.

I often tell my Intro students that they can get a rough first approximation to what philosophy is by considering it to be ‘civilization in the abstract’. Philosophy deals with all the important issues that are essential for civilized life, a life of rational science, insightful art, and just politics, and to the extent that all our students are themselves participants in civilized life, they already are doing philosophy in a diluted form. As I see it, part of my task in an undergraduate philosophy course, and especially in an introductory course, is to help students start looking around at their goals, practices, and beliefs, in order to see what kinds of assumptions, arguments, and analyses underlie them, by taking this diluted philosophy that forms the abstract side of civilized life and putting it into more concentrated form. In each course I try to link at least some of the philosophical arguments and ideas to art, literature, or politics, and structure assignments so that students will have to look at the philosophical ideas and themes with which their lives are already pervaded.

For similar reasons, I do my best to come to a philosophy course with a passion and enthusiasm for the topics I’m teaching. In my ideal course it is this enthusiasm for philosophical ideas and arguments that students will primarily take away from the course. Teaching philosophy is primarily about helping the students to develop this enthusiasm, this tendency to ‘court truth with a kind of romantic passion’ (to borrow a phrase from Mary Astell). Regardless of what they go on to do, I hope that most of my students will come out of my courses approaching everything important in their lives at least a little more philosophically.

* This is pithily expressed by Thomas Aquinas in the De Veritate (q. 11 a. 1 ad 9): “A human being can truly be said to be a teacher in teaching truth and enlightening the mind; but not as infusing the light of reason, but as assisting the light of reason in the completion of knowledge through what is outwardly proposed." The Socratic image of the midwife also brings it out clearly; midwives do not give birth for people but help them to give birth to their own.

Aquinas for May XX

Experimento patet quod ille qui iam acquisivit scientiam intelligibilem per species intellectas, non potest actu considerare illud cuius scientiam habet nisi occurrat ei aliquod phantasma. Et inde est quod laeso organo imaginationis impeditur homo non solum ab intelligendo aliqua de novo, sed etiam considerando ea, quae prius intellexit, ut patet in phreneticis.

"From experience it is clear that he who has already acquired intelligible knowledge through intellectual appearances, is not able actually to consider the knowledge he has unless some phantasm comes to mind. And this is why injury to the organ of imagination impedes a man not only in newly understanding something, but also in considering that which he has previously understood, as is clear in the mad."

De sensu tr. 2 [De mem. et remin.] l. 2 n. 4

The 'organ of imagination' is the brain.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Accepting the Conclusion is Prior to Accepting the Argument

People often say of an argument that "No one could accept this argument who did not already accept the conclusion". In general the idea, of course, is that the argument is circular, which can be a perfectly legitimate claim to make: no one could accept the premises who did not already accept the conclusion. I'm interested here more in the phrase, though, than the intent, because I think the phrase is potentially misleading, and I'm very sure that in conversation I've come across non-circular arguments treated as if they were circular precisely because the phrase is misleading. The basic point is this:

Accepting an argument always presupposes accepting the conclusion.

This actually just follows directly from the nature of validity. Suppose you have a valid argument with seemingly true premises and a conclusion that is seemingly false. Do you accept the argument? No, you look to see where the premises went wrong. In order to accept the argument you have to have evaluated the whole argument as good, which requires already accepting the conclusion. What is true of valid arguments is true a fortiori of defeasible arguments.

In practice we tend not to distinguish the argument from the premises; and it is true that if you can only accept the premises by presupposing the conclusion, you have a circular argument. (It is often forgotten, of course, that this is something that should be itself provable, and thus can reasonably be expected to be proven rather than simply asserted; but this is a distinct issue.) But accepting the argument requires more than accepting the premises: it requires accepting the whole inference, which includes the conclusion as well as the premises. Accepting the premises may lead us to the conclusion; but accepting the argument requires also accepting tha tthe premises lead us to the conclusion.

A small matter, one that rarely makes a big difference. But as I've said, I've come across arguments in conversation where I'm certain that the problem was that people were confusing the two, and treating arguments as circular explicitly just because someone could reject the conclusion and therefore (in so doing) at least one of the premises, and not because the premises actually required the conclusion. It's an interesting mistake, and I wonder if anyone has come across it before?

Aquinas for May XIX

Deus honoratur silentio, non quod nihil de ipso dicatur vel inquiratur, sed quia quidquid de ipso dicamus vel inquiramus, intelligimus nos ab eius comprehensione defecisse.

"God is honored by silence, not in that we say or investigate nothing about Him, but because whatever we say or investigate about him, we understand that our comprehension of Him fails to be complete."

Super De Trin. de Boet. q. 2 a.1 ad 6