Saturday, November 30, 2013

Feuerbach and Thanksgiving

For one of my classes, I have a few days at the end that are student choice -- they pick the topic, I choose a reading and email it to them, I make a few points at the beginning, and then we discuss it. The topic they chose for this past week was atheism, so I did a little Feuerbach and George Eliot (finding to my shock that no one in the class could tell me who George Eliot was -- I don't expect them to have read much Eliot, but not even to find the name or the titles of her books familiar is a bit more than I could be prepared for), with some Bertrand Russell for a contrast. In any case, given the juxtaposition with Thanksgiving I thought it was interesting to read the following passage, which gives the seed for a Feuerbachian account of the holiday:

At this point I differ radically from the earlier atheists and from the pantheists (I am thinking of Spinoza in particular) who in this connection held the same views as the atheists, for I cite not only negative, but also positive grounds of religion; not only ignorance and fear, but also the emotions opposed to fear, the positive emotions of joy, gratitude, love, and veneration as grounds of religion; and I maintain that not fear alone, but also love, joy, and veneration are makers of gods. “The feeling of those who have overcome affliction or danger,” I say in my notes on The Essence of Religion, “is very different from that aroused by existing or feared affliction or danger. In the first case attention is focused on the object, in the second on myself, in the first case I sing hymns of praise, in the second songs of lamentation, in the first case I give thanks, in the second I implore. The feeling of affliction is practical, teleological; the feeling of gratitude is poetic, aesthetic. The feeling of affliction is transient, but the feeling of gratitude enduring; it forms a bond of love and friendship. The feeling of affliction is base, that of gratitude noble, the former worships only in adversity, the latter also in happiness.” Here we have a psychological explanation of religion not only in its common, but also in its noble aspect.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Tim O'Neill on Historical Method

Tim O'Neill has a good post on historical method:

The Historical Method is based on three fundamental steps, each of which has its own techniques:

1. Heuristic - This is the identification of relevant material to use as sources of information. These can range from the obvious, such as a historian of the time's account of events he witnessed personally, to the much less obvious, like a medieval manor's account book detailing purchases for the estate. Everything from archaeological finds to coins to heraldry can be relevant here. The key word here is "relevant", and there is a high degree of skill in working out which sources of information are pertinent to the subject in question.

2. Criticism - This is the process of appraisal of the source material in the light of the question being answered or subject being examined. It involves such things as determining the level of "authenticity" of a source (Is it what is seems to be?), its "integrity" (Can its account be trusted? What are its biases?), its context (What genre is it? Is it responding or reacting to another source? Is it using literary tropes that need to be treated with scepticism?) Material evidence, such as archaeology, architecture, art , coins etc needs to be firmly put into context to be understood. Documentary sources also need careful contextualisation - the social conditions of their production, their polemical intent (if any), their reason for production (more important for a political speech than a birth certificate, for example) , their intended audience and the background and biases of their writer (if known) all have to be taken into account.

3. Synthesis and Exposition - This is the formal statement of the findings from steps 1 and 2, which each finding supported by reference to the relevant evidence.

This involves abstracting from the messiness of practice, but that's exactly what you have to do to look at methodology. He also considers ways in which people go wrong. I think the biggest reason people go wrong is that it's just plain hard study: in history you are dealing with so many things, of so many different kinds, that you really have to sit down and study not to go astray. But given that, the other reasons he gives end up being amplified. And because of the level of difficulty correcting serious errors and misrepresentations can be extremely labor-intensive -- which might account for the widely recognized fact that historians can get a little irritated. And, of course, it's worth pointing out that while O'Neill, an atheist himself, is considering atheist failings in the regard, most of the things he says generalize very, very easily to other groups.

One of the things that I think would be interesting to look at in some detail is the historian's need for what might be called, for lack of a better term, cautious charity, which is related to what O'Neill is talking about when talking about objectivity. The historian doing serious history can't often take things at face value because other evidence may change the lay of the land quite considerably. For instance a document that seems quite straightforward and whose claims are plausible could be shown to be subtly polemical in light of contextual evidence; or it could happen that further comparison with documents would show that there is a highly conventional, formulaic aspect to it that has to be taken into account. But at the same time the historian, possibly more than anyone else engaging in intellectual inquiry, has to keep in mind that perspectives are myriad, and while this doesn't imply that they are all right, it does require that we recognize how relevant features of our own perspective may be influencing our reasoning. For instance, slavery is a morally pernicious practice, but our recognition that it is so needs also, if we are going to study the history of slavery, the recognition that we find it so easy to accept this in part because we have lots and lots of energy-slurping machines that contribute to our lives more than slavery possibly could -- our rectitude costs us nothing. This is not going to be the case with others, and this fact at least has to be taken into account. People usually do things because it's what seems to make sense at the time, given their context, and if you're going to understand anything in history, you have to make an effort at least to see why they thought it made sense. So there's a real need for an attitude of cautious charity: recognize these historical periods you are studying as being full of real people, not caricature devils or idealized fantasies, and letting neither liking nor distaste interfere with taking the evidence into account.

This is particularly important when we are drawing moral conclusions. History is, indeed, something that can contribute to our moral reasoning; but it's useless as such unless we are careful to make sure it's the evidence and rational inference that's doing the work.

Thanksgiving Proclamations V: Deeds of Kindness and Charity

And might as well add one more:

In conformity with a custom the annual observance of which is justly held in honor by this people, I, Chester A. Arthur, President of the United States, do hereby set apart Thursday, the 30th day of November next, as a day of public thanksgiving.

The blessings demanding our gratitude are numerous and varied. For the peace and amity which subsist between this Republic and all the nations of the world; for the freedom from internal discord and violence; for the increasing friendship between the different sections of the land; for liberty, justice, and constitutional government; for the devotion of the people to our free institutions and their cheerful obedience to mild laws; for the constantly increasing strength of the Republic while extending its privileges to fellow-men who come to us; for the improved means of internal communication and the increased facilities of intercourse with other nations; for the general prevailing health of the year; for the prosperity of all our industries, the liberal return for the mechanic's toil affording a market for the abundant harvests of the husbandman; for the preservation of the national faith and credit; for wise and generous provision to effect the intellectual and moral education of our youth; for the influence upon the conscience of a restraining and transforming religion, and for the joys of home--for these and for many other blessings we should give thanks.

Wherefore I do recommend that the day above designated be observed throughout the country as a day of national thanksgiving and prayer, and that the people, ceasing from their daily labors and meeting in accordance with their several forms of worship, draw near to the throne of Almighty God, offering to Him praise and gratitude for the manifold goodness which He has vouchsafed to us and praying that His blessings and His mercies may continue.

And I do further recommend that the day thus appointed be made a special occasion for deeds of kindness and charity to the suffering and the needy, so that all who dwell within the land may rejoice and be glad in this season of national thanksgiving.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this 25th day of October, A.D. 1882, and of the Independence of the United States the one hundred and seventh.


By the President:

FREDK. T. FRELINGHUYSEN, Secretary of State.

From here. Arthur is one of my favorite presidents -- not a perfect one, by any means, but of the lesser-known presidents, I think it is on Arthur that we may most lavish that under-appreciated praise, that he did what the office required. And while none of the sentiments are particularly unique, there is something very Arthurian about the practical focus of this one.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Proclamations IV: To Heal the Wounds of the Nation

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

From here. While there had been plenty of officially declared thanksgivings today, this is effectively the one that begins the regular holiday.

A Poem Re-Draft

A Bit of Thanksgiving

I thank you, Lord, for fruitful fields,
for wide and healthful skies,
and for the hopes that we can have
that are not marred by lies;
yea, for the limits you have placed
on corruption and despite,
that we need only deal with them
a dozen times each night.

I thank you, Lord, for cheerful suns
that rise at every dawn,
and that my students learn to hide
the sound and sight of yawn,
that education is a joy,
filled with love and awe,
and, on those crazy grading days,
that there are murder laws.

I thank you that we live here free
in houses without bars,
that there are things that we can own,
that no one owns the stars,
that joy and virtue freely flow
without a market price
while we have markets fully full
of grain and fruit and spice.

I thank you, Lord, for politics,
for presidents and such,
that they work so hard to get their way,
that they never get it much,
who teach us that the foolish thirst
to rule and reign on high
dishonor brings upon our hearts
when we get them by a lie.

Thank you, Lord, for infant smiles
and children bright at play,
for all the crabbed and silly souls
who annoy us every day.
(We appreciate those most, O Lord,
those crosses that we bear,
and we thank you that we're not yet bald
from pulling out our hair.)

Thank you, Lord, for mirrors,
for when I most despise
the follies of my fellow man,
I can look, and see pride's lies.
And thank you, God, for mysteries
you have left for us to solve
upon this awesome floating ball
that rotates and revolves.

Thank you for your mercy,
which saves us from the brink;
and thank you, Lord, for righteous wrath --
we need more of it, I think.
But thank you for all gentle souls
who can always tempers keep;
protect them, Lord, from the rest of us,
lest we kill them in their sleep.

And for all the blissful marriages!
There are three of them, at least,
and given how hard the whole thing is,
that's quite an abundant feast.
And for all the others as well, my Lord,
that stall and sputter and spin
like well-loved cars that barely move,
so nicely broken-in.

Thank you, Lord, for critics harsh
who attack with whip and flail,
and because of harsh reviewers,
for the looming gloom of hell.
And thank you, Lord, for stupid folk,
that we can clearly see
all the things that shock the mind
from which none of us are free.

And thank you for those shocking times
when we pedants who lecture all
on every foolish folly
into those follies fall,
for it teaches us the wisdom
of gentleness and restraint
lest we in turn be painted
with the brush by which we paint.

Thank your for your graces,
the goodness of little things,
which even in the hardest times
can make us laugh and sing.
And thank you for all wonders
that stimulate the mind
that, no matter the occasion,
we may true learning find.

Thank you for absurdities --
they overflow the bank,
so if I thank you for each one,
I'll never cease to thank!
And thank you for sweet irony;
it gives the wit to see
that all the things we moan about
may be thanksgiving's seed.

But most of all, I thank you, Lord,
that long before we die,
we can see ourselves with wry regard,
and laugh until we cry.

Thanksgiving Proclamations III: Freewill Offering

The Senate and House of Representatives of the United States have by a joint resolution signified their desire that a day may be recommended to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnity as a day of thanksgiving and of devout acknowledgments to Almighty God for His great goodness manifested in restoring to them the blessing of peace.

No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of Events and of the Destiny of Nations than the people of the United States. His kind providence originally conducted them to one of the best portions of the dwelling place allotted for the great family of the human race. He protected and cherished them under all the difficulties and trials to which they were exposed in their early days. Under His fostering care their habits, their sentiments, and their pursuits prepared them for a transition in due time to a state of independence and self-government. In the arduous struggle by which it was attained they were distinguished by multiplied tokens of His benign interposition. During the interval which succeeded He reared them into the strength and endowed them with the resources which have enabled them to assert their national rights and to enhance their national character in another arduous conflict, which is now so happily terminated by a peace and reconciliation with those who have been our enemies. And to the same Divine Author of Every Good and Perfect Gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land.

It is for blessings such as these, and more especially for the restoration of the blessing of peace, that I now recommend that the second Thursday in April next be set apart as a day on which the people of every religious denomination may in their solemn assemblies unite their hearts and their voices in a freewill offering to their Heavenly Benefactor of their homage of thanksgiving and of their songs of praise.

Given at the city of Washington on the 4th day of March, A. D. 1815, and of the Independence of the United States the thirty- ninth.


From here.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Virtue Analysis

I have previously (here and here) put up results from one of my Ethics assignments, in which I ask students to analyze a virtue. It's been a while since I've done it, so I thought I'd do it again. The assignment:

Pick a virtue and analyze it using ideas we've discussed in class. (Examples of questions you should ask yourself in order to do this: What are the corresponding vices of excess and defect? What actions does this virtue involve? With which cardinal virtue is it most closely associated? Are there any vices that mimic it? Are there any vices it remedies?)

Your paper should be 800-1000 words (that's approximately three to four full pages if written out on a word processor). You should try to be as concise, focused, and organized as possible in your discussion, you should use examples to show that your analysis is a good one, you should consider possible objections to your analysis, and you should cite any sources that you use. If you have difficulty thinking of a virtue, you might consider looking at the virtues listed in the table of contents of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics or the list of virtues analyzed by Thomas Aquinas to see if you can find one that interests you; keep in mind, too, that the doctrine of the mean allows one to identify virtues for which there is no handy name.

And here are the virtues that were chosen (there are a few stragglers who haven't turned in papers yet):

Courage (x3)
Fortitude (understood as more basic than courage)
Bravery (understood as intermediate between courage and fortitude)
Patience (x 2)
Temperance (x 3)
Decency in conversation (as opposed to gossip)

Obviously the striking thing is the proliferation of fortitude-related virtues. Indeed, while there are an unusual number this time, looking back on some of the others, fortitude-related virtues seem to be definitely the most popular virtues chosen for this assignment overall (although temperance always does very well). In addition to fortitude, courage, bravery, and patience, I've occasionally had students choose faith as a virtue, and since we don't do theological virtues, they analyze it as an acquired virtue, and if you do that it inevitably ends up as related to fortitude. I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps students regard them as fairly straightforward? Or maybe they find it easier to think of clear examples that make their status as virtues plausible (great endurance perhaps being easier to see than great fairness or great decision-making)? In any case, it's a quite consistent thing.

Thanksgiving Proclamations II: And By a Correspondent Conduct as Citizens

When we review the calamities which afflict so many other nations, the present condition of the United States affords much matter of consolation and satisfaction. Our exemption hitherto from foreign war, an increasing prospect of the continuance of that exemption, the great degree of internal tranquillity we have enjoyed, the recent confirmation of that tranquillity by the suppression of an insurrection which so wantonly threatened it, the happy course of our public affairs in general, the unexampled prosperity of all classes of our citizens, are circumstances which peculiarly mark our situation with indications of the Divine beneficence toward us. In such a state of things it is in an especial manner our duty as a people, with devout reverence and affectionate gratitude, to acknowledge our many and great obligations to Almighty God and to implore Him to continue and confirm the blessings we experience.

Deeply penetrated with this sentiment, I, George Washington, President of the United States, do recommend to all religious societies and denominations, and to all persons whomsoever within the United States to set apart and observe Thursday, the 19th day of February next, as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, and on that day to meet together and render their sincere and hearty thanks to the Great Ruler of Nations for the manifold and signal mercies which distinguish our lot as a nation, particularly for the possession of constitutions of government which unite and by their union establish liberty with order; for the preservation of our peace, foreign and domestic; for the seasonable control which has been given to a spirit of disorder in the suppression of the late insurrection, and generally, for the prosperous course of our affairs, public and private; and at the same time humbly and fervently to beseech the kind Author of these blessings graciously to prolong them to us; to imprint on our hearts a deep and solemn sense of our obligations to Him for them; to teach us rightly to estimate their immense value; to preserve us from the arrogance of prosperity, and from hazarding the advantages we enjoy by delusive pursuits; to dispose us to merit the continuance of His favors by not abusing them; by our gratitude for them, and by a correspondent conduct as citizens and men; to render this country more and more a safe and propitious asylum for the unfortunate of other countries; to extend among us true and useful knowledge; to diffuse and establish habits of sobriety, order, morality, and piety, and finally, to impart all the blessings we possess, or ask for ourselves, to the whole family of mankind.

In testimony whereof I have caused the seal of the United States of America to be affixed to these presents, and signed the same with my hand. Done at the city of Philadelphia, the 1st day of January, 1795, and of the Independence of the United States of America the nineteenth.


By the President:


From here.

Thanksgiving Proclamations I: Good Governments, Peace, and Concord

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and

Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me " to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness: "

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other trangressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

- Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October,

A. D. 1789. G.ø WASHINGTON.

From here.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

White Drift of Worlds O'er Chasms of Sable

The Galaxy
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Torrent of light and river of the air,
Along whose bed the glimmering stars are seen
Like gold and silver sands in some ravine
Where mountain streams have left their channels bare!
The Spaniard sees in thee the pathway, where
His patron saint descended in the sheen
Of his celestial armor, on serene
And quiet nights, when all the heavens were fair.
Not this I see, nor yet the ancient fable
Of Phaeton’s wild course, that scorched the skies
Where’er the hoofs of his hot coursers trod;
But the white drift of worlds o’er chasms of sable,
The star-dust, that is whirled aloft and flies
From the invisible chariot-wheels of God.

"White Drift of Worlds" would make a good title for a science-fiction story.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Talismanic Appeals to Philosophers

Michael Lopresto at "3 quarks daily":

Equally for the theological perspective, the arguments for the existence of god were refuted by the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume in his classic Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1777), and it is time that we stop legitimating the theological perspective by engaging with it any more than superficially.

Lopresto can, of course, arrange his own research program according to his own tastes, but what interests me in particular here is the incantatory use of Hume. Anyone who has read Hume's Dialogues closely knows that Hume actually only considers two arguments for the existence of God, one of which is so thornily formulated that it's lucky we have for other reasons a fairly good idea who is in view -- Samuel Clarke -- since it would otherwise be difficult to figure out what's even going on; and, what is more, anyone who has read the Dialogues all the way through knows that the book itself denies that it refutes the other -- Cleanthes clearly doesn't think he's been refuted, Philo explicitly says he hasn't refuted him, Pamphilus obviously has sympathies with Cleanthes, and Demea, who thinks it obviously refuted, is not presented as a sympathetic, or very perceptive, character. Hume scholars have different interpretations of the denial, and one could indeed hold that the denial is rhetorical rather than to be taken straight (there is plenty of evidence that this is wrong and that Hume is, in fact, less interested in the question of whether he can refute the design argument at all, than in, what most of the work is devoted to arguing, whether the argument, good or bad, actually has the implications people tend to assume it does; but it's a possible interpretation that one finds ventured among respectable interpreters). But the limitations of the work as a general refutation of arguments for the existence of God are not very deep or difficult to find. The Dialogues are a truly excellent work, worthy of a close reading, but what you can get from them on the subject is not very extensive, for the obvious reason that Hume himself doesn't particularly care about theology but does care about the Newtonian approach to science, which in his day was often held to be inextricably linked to design arguments, and about rational civility in a society in which there are religious disagreements (as is made explicit in Part XII and by the close friendship of Philo and Cleanthes).

However, this sort of use of Hume as a talisman has become quite common. It's becoming common enough on this particular point to be displacing use of Kant as a talisman (which had its own problems, since Kant's reasons for saying that the arguments for God's existence fail are at least closely linked with things that Kant thinks are reasons for saying that theism is nonetheless still more rational than atheism). It also seems, however, to be increasing outside of this particular topic. The obvious implication, of course, is that Hume's fortunes continue to rise, which is a pretty good omen for people like myself who actually study him.

But what are these talismanic appeals really doing? They aren't serious looks at the actual arguments -- not uncommonly, as above, they are put forward as reasons why one no longer has to pay much attention to the dispute for which the arguments were framed; if you never pay any more attention to theological perspective than is required for superficial engagement, it follows fairly directly that you never pay any more attention to the arguments that refute it than is required for superficial engagement. Hume refutes the arguments for the existence of God so soundly nobody needs to pay much attention to his refutation anymore! So it's not the arguments themselves that are being waved around; since it is consistent with making arguments for self-induced ignorance about things required for understanding the arguments, it has to have a more ritualistic function.

One possible interpretation is that it's a big dog tactic. By bringing in Hume, or Kant, or whomever is in the ascendant at a given time, you can effectively say, "And if you want to say otherwise, it's not me you have to refute but such-and-such supergenius." Big dogs, of course, can afford to walk over rivals on the basis of their own strength; but so can little dogs who are allied to big dogs, on the assumption that the big dogs have their back.

Alternatively, it could be interpreted as a scarecrow tactic. Rather than being a form of facilitated aggression, it would then be a way of avoiding a conflict one finds annoying. Farmers put up scarecrows so that they don't have to fight them off. Put Hume up as your representative and you scare off opponents who don't want to have to refute Hume.

Both of these take the point of the invocation to be to fight or frighten off opponents. A third interpretation is possible: perhaps the point has nothing to do with opponents at all. For instance, it could be a mascot tactic, the name of the philosopher as a rallying point for likeminded people. People build communities around major names, and indeed it's quite natural for us to do so. In this sense, serious appeals to Hume and talismanic appeals to Hume would differ only by degree -- to wit, the degree to which one actually pays attention to Hume's arguments themselves.

A fourth interpretation is that it's not so much about opponents or allies as it is about the philosopher: genuine admiration or respect as a predecessor, but simply as a predecessor. One sees this quite often in the sciences, where there's lots of respect for people whose actual work and motivations are rarely if ever studied. The point is never the work and motivations, but that they made you possible. Why, then, would you bother with the philosopher's actual arguments? What makes the philosopher important is the purely historical fact (or legend) that they anticipated what you're interested in, or, even better, swept away things you don't want to be bothered with. One invokes them as one often invokes national heroes and founding fathers: it's a sort of filial piety, maintaining the honor of one's ancestors by keeping their names remembered.

There are probably many more functions that the talismanic appeal has. I'm far from thinking they are always unreasonable. But the thing about them, of course, is that used very widely they start looking more like spellcasting than philosophy: one does not need to engage with arguments, one just has to invoke the right names in the right contexts to banish unlucky things and draw down lucky ones.

Less the Horror than the Grace

On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery
by Percey Bysshe Shelley

It lieth, gazing on the midnight sky,
Upon the cloudy mountain-peak supine;
Below, far lands are seen tremblingly;
Its horror and its beauty are divine.
Upon its lips and eyelids seems to lie
Loveliness like a shadow, from which shine,
Fiery and lurid, struggling underneath,
The agonies of anguish and of death.

Yet it is less the horror than the grace
Which turns the gazer's spirit into stone,
Whereon the lineaments of that dead face
Are graven, till the characters be grown
Into itself, and thought no more can trace;
'Tis the melodious hue of beauty thrown
Athwart the darkness and the glare of pain,
Which humanize and harmonize the strain.

And from its head as from one body grow,
As [ ] grass out of a watery rock,
Hairs which are vipers, and they curl and flow
And their long tangles in each other lock,
And with unending involutions show
Their mailed radiance, as it were to mock
The torture and the death within, and saw
The solid air with many a ragged jaw.

And, from a stone beside, a poisonous eft
Peeps idly into those Gorgonian eyes;
Whilst in the air a ghastly bat, bereft
Of sense, has flitted with a mad surprise
Out of the cave this hideous light had cleft,
And he comes hastening like a moth that hies
After a taper; and the midnight sky
Flares, a light more dread than obscurity.

'Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror;
For from the serpents gleams a brazen glare
Kindled by that inextricable error,
Which makes a thrilling vapour of the air
Become a [ ] and ever-shifting mirror
Of all the beauty and the terror there—
A woman's countenance, with serpent-locks,
Gazing in death on Heaven from those wet rocks.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Fortnightly Book, November 24

For this Fortnightly Book, I've decided to do Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell; given the size of the book and the time of year, this might end up being one of those three week fortnights.

Susanna Clarke worked on the novel for ten years, publishing a short story here and there. For her day job she edited cookbooks. The basic idea for an ambitious book of fantasy was inspired by Tolkien, but the content was based on a dream she had about a man, dressed as if in the eighteenth century, in Venice, with some sort of magical doom hanging around him. (The last time I read this, I remember the Venice episode seeming like a mildly interesting but not especially important digression; but discovering that this was the seed of the book puts it in a different perspective.) She did not, however, ever plan on the book taking ten years; in interviews she's said she kept expecting to finish it the next year, and would not have begun it if she had known it would take so long. One reason she could think of such a big project as being completable in just another year is that she wrote the whole thing in fragments, a little here, a little there, and wove them together, and discovered as she did so that she need something about this, something about that, and she kept going until it fit together fairly well.

We begin in the year 1806; England is faring badly in the Napoleonic Wars. And in Yorkshire a reclusive man named Gilbert Norrell is about to restore English magic; he will soon be joined by an opposite counterpart, Jonathan Strange. And together they are going to find that this involves more than they bargained for. It's in many ways a very dark story, although I think it is prevented from being unbearably so by the spirit of the times it depicts -- the Englishness of the time depicted, for all its social failings and moral ambiguities, resists any outright nihilism.

Đọc Kinh

Today is the Feast of Christ the King; liturgically in other years it is the feast of the Holy Vietnamese Martyrs. So to express the global character of the Cross, I wanted to find either a Vietnamese icon of Christ the King or some Vietnamese cantillation of a relevant text. The following was the best I could find:

Đọc Kinh or Vietnamese cantillation is an independent tradition of liturgical chant, distinct from Western chant traditions, and based on the fact that Vietnamese is a tonal language. Vietnamese vowels come in six basic varieties, known as tones. In Vietnamese cantillation, each tone is assigned a note (which tones are assigned which notes vary). Thus chanting is quite easy -- if you can pronounce the word correctly, you know how to chant it. So most things are chanted in a Vietnamese liturgy.

It makes them rather intimidating; I live literally around the corner from a Vietnamese parish, and have yet to screw up my courage to attend. But someday.