Saturday, August 31, 2013

Booth Tarkington, Monsieur Beaucaire


Opening Passage:
The Young Frenchman did very well what he had planned to do. His guess that the Duke would cheat proved good. As the unshod half-dozen figures that had been standing noiselessly in the entryway stole softly into the shadows of the chamber, he leaned across the table and smilingly plucked a card out of the big Englishman's sleeve.

Summary: Bath, England, in the eighteenth century! It was the right kind of town in the right kind of place in the right century. Queen Anne visited it on holiday in the summers of 1702 and 1703, having enjoyed a previous visit there, and a pour of visitors followed, first to be like the Queen, then afterward simply to have visited Bath. It became the resort of resorts, and the wealthy and powerful flocked there to take their ease. A fixture in the town in the first part of the century was Richard Nash, more commonly called Beau Nash, who became known as the informal Master of Ceremonies for the whole town. He was the entrance to the finest parties and the finest company; he pre-booked the tables for those who met his standards, introduced the right people to the right people, guaranteed that the young ladies would not be lacking in dancing partners, and in general was the King of Bath.

Monsieur Beaucaire is the story of a young Frenchman, Beaucaire himself, who according to his passport is a barber serving the French ambassador, and who has come to Bath to vacation. He is a bold sort, a brilliant gambler, unafraid to insert himself into practically any situation. This eventually gets him in trouble, as he is thrown out of the Pump Room by no less than Beau Nash himself. He wishes, however, to court the beautiful Lady Mary Carlisle, and to this end he manages to blackmail the card-cheating Duke of Winterset into introducing him to high society as the visiting Duke of Chateaurien -- Castle Nowhere. When Winterset protests that everyone would recognize him, we discover that Beaucaire has been going about with fake moustache and dark-haired wig to hide his smooth face and blond hair; an interesting point in itself. Can M. Beaucaire navigate English society? But of course. Can he avoid being uncovered? Of course not. But sometimes when one strips the mask from a man one finds that the man is far more than the mask.

The story is a tale of the difference between seeing a man as a name and a role and seeing him as he is in himself. M. Beaucaire teaches all of Bath a lesson -- and learns one himself.

Favorite Passage:
"Mr. Molyneux," said Lady Mary, "in spite of your discourtesy in allowing a servant to address me, I offer you a last chance to leave this room undisgraced. Will you give me your arm?"

"Pardon me, madam," said Mr. Molyneux.

Beaucaire dropped into a chair with his head bent low and his arm outstretched on the table; his eyes filled slowly in spite of himself, and two tears rolled down the young man's cheeks.

"An' live men are jus'--names!" said Monsieur Beaucaire.

Recommendation: A short and charming tale worth reading if you ever come across it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Dare, Never Grudge the Throe!

from Rabbi Ben Ezra
by Robert Browning

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith "A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!"

Not that, amassing flowers,
Youth sighed, "Which rose make ours,
Which lily leave and then as best recall!"
Not that, admiring stars,
It yearned "Nor Jove, nor Mars;
Mine be some figured flame which blends, transcends them all!"

Not for such hopes and fears
Annulling youth's brief years,
Do I remonstrate: folly wide the mark!
Rather I prize the doubt
Low kinds exist without,
Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.

Poor vaunt of life indeed,
Were man but formed to feed
On joy, to solely seek and find and feast:
Such feasting ended, then
As sure an end to men;
Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?

Rejoice we are allied
To That which doth provide
And not partake, effect and not receive!
A spark disturbs our clod;
Nearer we hold of God.
Who gives, than of His tribes that take, I must believe.

Then, welcome each rebuff
That turns earth's smoothness rough,
Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!
Be our joys three-parts pain!
Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!

For thence, — a paradox
Which comforts while it mocks,—
Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
What I aspired to be,
And was not, comforts me:
A brute I might have been, but would not sink i' the scale....

The poem continues. The 'Rabbi Ben Ezra' of the title is usually thought to be a reference to Abraham ibn Ezra.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Music on My Mind

Gordon Lightfoot, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"

One of my courses (four different ones this term -- two kinds of Intro and two kinds of Ethics!) is discussing aesthetic paradoxes as a sort of warm-up to the term; so to lead into the paradox of tragedy, I had them listen to this and write a paragraph on why anyone would like a song about people drowning in Lake Superior.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

St. Augustine

Yesterday was the feast of St. Monica (or Monnica) and today the feast of her son St. Augustine. Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith has a nice article on the vision at Ostia and has the kindness to point readers to my 2010 post on the subject. The Vision -- which is a joint religious experience between Augustine and his mother -- is one of the more interesting religious experiences in history, and an entire theology of heaven packed into one small package. Father Zuhlsdorf has a good re-post on why St. Monica is buried in Rome.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The -ism Mistake and Consequentialism

-ism has a plurality of functions in English. X-ism, whatever X may be, can indicate a propensity or tendency to emphasize X; or it can indicate a philosophical system or theory that takes X to be especially important or fundamental in some way; or it can indicate a process or activity as a whole in contexts in which it is more convenient to use it as a noun rather than a verb. This plurality of functions sometimes trips people up. Probably the most common I've come across is shifting from talking about natural explanations (as opposed to preternatural or supernatural ones) to talking about naturalistic explanation. Naturalism, however, is not the appeal to natural explanations, nor is it even the tendency to emphasize natural explanations; as far as explanations are concerned, it is the position that only natural explanations are legitimate explanations. You can't be naturalistic in a single explanation; you can only be naturalistic about how you approach explanation as a whole.

One I've seen a lot recently is the same kind of problem with consequentialism. Consequentialism has a well-established philosophical meaning. In the words of the SEP article:

Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences.

Or in the IEP article:

Consequentialism is the view that morality is all about producing the right kinds of overall consequences.

Even Wikipedia has the right idea:

Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct.

(Of the three, the SEP is the most accurate, because it recognizes the existence of consequentialist approaches to things other than morality. But this is just a matter of how restricted our focus is rather than any fundamental difference.) You'll notice that in each case the issue is taken to the limit: "only" in SEP, "all about" in IEP, "the ultimate basis" in Wikipedia. Thus nothing can be consequentialist unless it is in a context in which the entire approach to the area relies on consequences 'only' or as the whole point or as 'the ultimate basis', however you prefer to phrase it.

There are a lot of amateur consequentialists on the internet, however, and they tend to slip up at precisely this point and treat any ethical justification or account in terms of consequences as consequentialist. This hopelessly muddles up every sort of ethical discussion in which the slip is made. Not every appeal to consequences as a moral consideration is consequentialist. If you appeal to consequences in moral reasoning, but what counts as the right kinds of consequences ultimately depends not on the nature of the consequences themselves but their conformity to some moral law or universal set of obligations, you are not a consequentialist but a deontologist. (Kantianism, which a major form of deontology, rejects all appeal to consequences in moral reasoning, but this is not universal among deontologists.) If you appeal to consequences in moral reasoning, but what counts as the important, right, or good consequences depends on how they reflect on, or feed into, character in some way, you are not a consequentialist but a virtue ethicist. To be a consequentialist in a particular area, everything has to trace back to consequences -- if anything essential doesn't, you aren't a consequentialist.

Likewise, the fact that people appeal to consequences in moral reasoning has nothing to do with consequentialism as such. You could make an argument for consequentialism based on how easily people slip into appeals to consequences, but this would be an obviously weak argument without a considerably greater amount plugged into it. But mere appeals to consequences in moral reasoning is not consequentialist; for anything to be consequentialist, they have to be the only admissible appeals in moral reasoning ever -- it all has to come down to consequences directly or indirectly, and nothing else. The mistake of conflating the two things is equivalent to assuming that to be rational we must all be rationalists.

This is all exactly parallel to the fact that mere appeal to rules or moral obligations doesn't make you a deontologist. People aren't generally inclined to slide from 'justification based on obligation' to 'therefore deontology', though, and I think it's the -ism mistake that makes the difference. There are other examples besides these of the -ism mistake -- empiricism seems to get a lot of it, too, in which people move freely from 'empirical' to 'empiricist'. It's something that generally needs to be avoided, though, when -ism indicates philosophical positions, systems, or theories.